Such a simple premise, such a challenging task: to teach the scientific method and encourage critical thinking. The cosmologist Carl Sagan, a titan among scientists, left us a book with precisely that aim. The Demon Haunted World covers a number of themes, weaving back and forth between them throughout its chapters, and it all begins with a pet peeve of his: UFOs and alien abductions.
It seems that the idea of a visitor descending from the sky, hailing from a faraway place, and motivated by a disturbing sex-drive, is a very old one. Parallels can be drawn to mystical demons of the olden days such as the incubus who descended upon and impregnated the virgin Mary. The Christian inquisition executed 50.000 women for being possessed by these sorts of demons, and death by burning is still common in fundamentalist Islamic sects. While immolation at the stake is not an every day sight anymore, what we have left are delusional beliefs in magic crystals, psychics, horoscopes, and more. Even countries which are largely secular have their own spiritualist , superstitious, and supernatural beliefs. This is where we as skeptics reach an impasse. The very word supernatural is a giveaway. What does it even mean for something to be super-natural? Dr. Sagan uses an analogy to discuss this idea. Imagine a dragon that breathes heatless fire, is invisible, and cannot be touched. What is the difference between this incorporeal dragon and no dragon at all? What does it mean to say “it exists”? I’ll tell you what it means. The dragon, the invisible friend, and the naughty succubus exist entirely within your mind.
About halfway through the book, we are offered a weapon to fight off the demon horde. The BDK (Baloney Detection Kit) contains a number of tools for assessing arguments, and provides a solid foundation for skeptical and critical thinking. For example, is a statement falsifiable, even in theory? Are you equating correlation with causation? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? This kit is absolutely fundamental if one wants to understand what the word science truly means.
People want to be associated science because it carries a sense of authority. What is often forgotten though, is that the credibility of science was earned through centuries of hard work and strict adherence to the scientific method. The result of science is technology, but it’s in the method that the power lies, and that is what should be taught in schools. Imagine if a child learns to truly understand what a mathematical integral is meant to measure. One day in the future, when presented with a fixed interest rate and a variable one, that individual will be able to instantly recognize that it is the total surface areas under the lines that should be compared. Understanding the reasoning behind our technology, and understanding the critical thinking process that has lead us to our present day society is a skill that we can not afford to be without. With the potentially cataclysmic power that we possess in the form of nuclear weapons and unsustainable development forces, Dr. Sagan concludes that it is pivotal for us to be educated.
I suspect that the book’s chapters were written quite independently of each other because they really repeated themselves a lot. It was okay though. Even though it could easily have been half its length without omitting anything important at all, I never found it tedious and was left humbled by the epic mind and legacy of Carl Sagan.