Science versus pseudoscience according to Carl Sagan

| January 11, 2009 | 16 Replies

Provoked by a persistent fellow who has been haunting this site and who constantly downplays the scope, value and accuracy of science in his comments, some of us have been increasingly trying to express what it is, exactly, that makes science valuable and more “truthful” than pseudoscience.  While considering this issue, I decided to reread Carl Sagan’s inspired book: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996). Sagan’s ideas reminded me of the value of Ann Druyan’s suggestion that we eliminate the term “supernatural” from our vocabulary and substitute “sub-natural.” I believe that this approach would quite often put things in better perspective.

I will quote here, at length, various passages from The Demon-Haunted World bearing on the definition and value of bona fide science.  Sagan so often said it so very well:

Superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting [believers in pseudoscience], providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity. Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and writers messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, actually foretell the future. These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature-often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility.  (Page 13)

Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because distracting confrontations with reality–where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison–are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for the same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science.

At the heart of some pseudoscience (and some religion also, new age and old) is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our hearts desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.  (Page 14)

Religions are often the state-protected nurseries of pseudoscience, although there is no reason why religions have to play that role. Anyway, it’s an artifact from times long gone.  (Page 15)

Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise. Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.  (21)

It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science. (Page 22)

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. (Page 25).

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined.  This is central to its success. (Page 27).

One of the reasons for its success is that science has built-in, error correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition. (Page 27)

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science–by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans–teaches that the most we can hope for is the success of improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, and asymptotic approach to the universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always be lewd us. (Page 28).

One of the great Commandments of science is, “mistrust arguments from authority.” (Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment.” (Page 28).

Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying. It may take a little work to restructure our mindsets. (Page 29).

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, only grasp the intricacies, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of the relation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. (Page 29).

[More of Sagan's quotes under the fold]

Not every branch of science can foretell the future–paleontology can’t–but many can and with stunning accuracy. (Page 30).

If you want real accuracy (here, 99% accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science. Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. … There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability–precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics–to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close. Is this worshiping at the altar of science? Is this replacing one faith by another, equally arbitrary?  In my view, not at all. The directly observed success of science is the reason I advocate its use. If something else worked better, I would advocate the something else. (Page 30).

Again, the reason science works so well is partly that built-in error correcting machinery. There were no forbidden questions in science, no matter stay sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the most rigorous, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, since the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend–substantively and in-depth. (Page 31).

Some people consider science arrogant-especially when it purports to contradict beliefs of long-standing or when it introduces bizarre concepts that seem contradictory to common sense. I can earthquake that rattled our faith in the very ground were standing on, challenging our accustomed beliefs, shaking the doctrines we have grown to rely upon can be profoundly disturbing. Nevertheless, I maintain that science is part and parcel humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on nature, but instead humbly interrogate nature and take seriously what they find.We are aware that revered scientists have been wrong. We understand human imperfection. We insist on independent and-to the extent possible-quantitative verification of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs. (Page 33).

Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and established institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies? Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no longer apply? (Page 34).

Science, Anne Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, “Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You been wrong before.” . . . No contemporary religion and no new age belief seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnificence, subtly and intricacy of the universe revealed by science. The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration. But of course I might be wrong. (Page 35).

[Compare the above with this article by Sagan]

Children need hands-on experience with the experimental method rather than just reading about science in a book. We can be told about oxidation of wax as an explanation of the candle flame. But we have a much more vivid sense of what’s going on if we witness the candle burning briefly in a bell jar until the carbon dioxide produced by the burning surrounds the wick, blocks access to oxygen, and the flame flickers and dies. We could be taught about mitochondria in cells, how they mediate the oxidation of food like the flame burning the wax, but it’s another thing altogether to see them under the microscope. (p. 326).


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Category: Education, ignorance, Meaning of Life, nature, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    The anti-spam word was "freedom."

    I seek freedom from endless repetitions of the failings of people of faith.

    I seek freedom from the endless prattling of persons of moral certitude in an universe of infinite possibilities where my cat could be god. I do not believe this to be true but, admit the remotest possibility. I mean, have you ever had a cat? Bossiest aminals ever made! For some cat humor see:

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    The anti-spam word was "calming." My search for the kitty gods have yielded more results:

    Arrrrgh! The gods, they be capricious!

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Back in my teen years, there was an increase in the popularity of "psychic phenomena" and the pseudo science of parapsychology. As a teen, I had a keen interest in psychology, largely the result of an interest in "Soft" science fiction. I developed a simple parlor trick based on the type of stage magic called mentalism. Mentalism is based on statistics, and close observation of body language. James Randi is currently one of the best performers in this field.

    The trick was performed in this manner.

    I would prepare a cardboard disk with an odd number of evenly spaced symbols near the edge on one side.I would hand the disk to someone and turn my back and have them pick a symbol, then rotate the disk several times. I would then turn around take the disk, and within moments point out the symbol they had chosen. I would t hen tell them that I did not read their minds, and that I already knew which symbol they would pick before they did.(this was not true either, but misdirection always helps a good magic trick.)

    The trick was in a "ceremonial" "sensing" of the symbol. I would lay the disk on a table, and circle the disk with my finger. While I was doing this, I would be observing the person, watching for subtle tell-tale changes in the facial expression, that would give away the selection.

  4. Karl says:

    Humor is in the eyes of those who view the world through similar perspectives. Laughter about matters little understood can actually be a form of "Dark humor." Kurt Vonnegut had some great story lines that deal with dark humor and how rather than cry over a matter of misunderstanding we choose to isolate our differences through ridicule and contempt.

    Laughter and ridicule often create barriers that divide without trying.

  5. Tim Hogan says:

    Karl, Waah??

  6. Karl says:

    I appear to have construed that either you like or worship cats (jokingly as a metaphor) to show the craziness that one can find yourself in if you practice pseudoscience, or that if one looks far enough for anything in specific that is not really scientific, one can find it pretty quickly on you-tube or someplace elese on the internet.

    Deciding what's satire or seriousness has become the problem of late. Obviously, Erich takes most of what I submit as serious challenges to be dealt with, but can laugh off what ever he gets from a person that doesn't need to prove their pledge of allegiance to naturalism.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I agree with Karl about Tim's cat comments. Tim, please explain.

  8. Karl,

    Which means we are all left to wonder which parts of your defenses are satire and which are serious. If under analysis, we find the "serious" arguments unsupportable and the "satirical" ones…well, satirical…how then are we to know which is which?

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Karl is reminding me of Rush Limbaugh. Often, when Limbaugh is proven to be a fool, he asserts that he is "only an entertainer," and that he never claimed to be a serious journalist.

  10. Hank says:

    I'm only commenting because the anti-spam word now is "THINKING". Erich, you owe me a new Irony Meter.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    [I'm quietly wondering when everyone will figure out that I have the option of choosing the anti-spam words!]

  12. Tim Hogan says:

    The anti-spam word was "micro." Perhaps a comment on my attempts to plant humor into the mix of the posts and comments.

    It is apparent that some of the folks who don't believe post lots of comments about how they're right and the others are wrong.

    The posts and comments occur to me, as I have stated above. I don't declare any all-knowingness about what's actually so.

    I know that I have great love and affection for friends who do and do not believe, and don't give a rat's patootie about whether they believe..

    Let's us move on, eh?

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: you want to simply "move on," but how do you move on unless you have a method of sifting real knowledge from the silliness. Real science makes the space rockets you love while pseudo-science all too often causes needless pain and suffering.

    If you want to act responsibly in the world, you must consider what counts as useful knowledge.

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