casting out the demons

Swamijenluc_1"Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion."
    –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

Today is the 10-year anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and many science-minded sorts in the blogosphere are marking the occasion by posting tributes to the late, great host of Cosmos and ardent debunker of pseudoscience. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy and the Washington Post‘s Joel Achenbach (Achenblog) are just two whose tributes are worth perusing. (Achenbach, author of Captured by Aliens, among his many other tomes, was one of the last people to interview Sagan while he was still alive.) No doubt there will be hundreds of others throughout the day. I never had the honor of meeting Sagan, and never saw a single episode of Cosmos. Nonetheless, he touched my life in a profound way.

I’ve mentioned my fundamentalist Christian upbringing before. Forget Cosmos, we listened to The 700 Club every morning over breakfast;
my childhood is filled with memories of Pat Robertson’s smugly
confident doomsday pronouncements. It doomed me to being chronically uncool: for instance, I didn’t discover the bulk of secular rock music until I got to
college, having been limited to contemporary Christian fare all through
high school. (One of my more embarrassing utterances, at the ripe old age of 22: "I just discovered this great band — they’re called The Who!") And it put me at a decided disadvatage when it came to skeptical thought. Let’s just say that while my parents were strong proponents of a good education as a means of advancement in the world — my father was the first member of his family to earn a college degree (in civil engineering), attending Tufts courtesy of the GI bill — this often conflicted with their religious beliefs and practices. What was accepted in the context of a science classroom didn’t always fly within the walls of our nice suburban home. There, superstition tended to outweigh scientific fact.

Speaking in tongues (glossalalia), being slain in the spirit, book burnings, bible studies, and the certainty of an unseen world filled with demons and angels, battling it out for the souls of men, were accepted "realities" in my house. When I was 13, my cousin (who was living with us at the time) became convinced there was a demon in her bedroom, prompting a gathering of the church elders one evening to perform an exorcism. Even back then, I had my doubts as to the veracity of her claim. It’s not like her head was spinning around or anything, she just kept seeing things in the dark whenever she tried to go to sleep. Normal people would chalk it up to nightmares and a vivid imagination. My own childish imagination conjured up werewolves lurking in the shadows of my own bedroom. These "visions" were rightly dismissed as nonsense and the product of an over-active imagination after watching a (forbidden) late-night horror movie. Werewolves didn’t exist. But an invisible demon that only my cousin could see? Now that had the ring of truth to it!

Given that context, it’s rather a miracle that I ended up becoming a science writer, isn’t it?  The metamorphosis didn’t happen overnight. My salvation lay in the fact that I was a voracious reader. My reading exposed me to all kinds of dangerous new ideas that contradicted the things I’d been told by church elders, which is probably why I began to question the assumptions of my religious upbringing early on… although I wisely kept my doubts to myself at the time. (Those who would call me a coward have no concept of the kind of pressure brought to bear on doubters and blasphemers in devoutly fundamentalist circles, all in the name of saving your soul. A shy, timid high schooler had little chance of withstanding it.)

Those doubts solidified into outright skepticism in college, leading to an eventual renunciation of my former religious beliefs. But I didn’t have anything meaningful with which to replace that lost faux-faith, something to help me make sense of the world without resorting to invisible demons and angels. By a stroke of luck, I stumbled into science writing and discovered a new way of looking at the world — or rather, rediscovered it, since I’d always done well in science; there had just been a profound disconnect between classroom science and the "real" world because of my bizarre upbringing (and some less than stellar science teachers). Somewhere along the road of my intellectual development, I read The Demon-Haunted World, and suddenly all these disparate threads crystallized into a coherent whole. Sagan entered my consciousness much later than most, but his impact was no less profound.

Sagan has left a bit of a mixed legacy, I think. The good news is that his example inspired countless others to try and follow in his footsteps, so there are that many more voices crying out in the wilderness, vigorously denouncing superstition and pseudoscience. The bad news is, all those voices don’t seem to have made much of a dent in the overall level of willful ignorance. Far too many members of the general public persist in clinging to their unscientific beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming factual evidence to the contrary. You don’t have to look much farther than the  never-ending Creationism/Intelligent design debate to see that. Why is this? Why was Sagan so successful and beloved by the public, when many others seeking to do the same are resented and vilified?

I think it’s because Sagan never lost his sense of wonder; he was much more excited about sharing that aspect than about simply poking holes in pseudoscience. My favorite chapter in The Demon-Haunted World was titled, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder," where Sagan writes about how science needs to maintain an essential balance between a ruthless scrutiny of all ideas (old and new) and an openness to new ideas. Skepticism is the means by which science winnows the wheat from the chaff; "The vast majority of ideas are simply wrong," Sagan admits. But time dilation and length contraction in special relativity, quantum tunneling, and (more recently) the discovery that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating are all bizarre, counter-intuitive notions in science that turned out to be right (based on accumulated evidence to date). His key insight:

"If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderlines of science are rare, experiences will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you’re too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you’re going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way, you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough."

Science has its own internal "demons," you see; its practitioners can be just as narrow-minded and resistant to change as any other human being — and as mean-spirited. I appreciate a good debunking as much as the next person, but too often, people think slapping the headline "Bad Science!" on a piece of snide, condescending finger-pointing is all that’s required. It can be entertaining in the short term, especially if the author is clever, but it’s basically little more than a cheap shot. No wonder it’s not very effective as a communication tool in the longer term. Nobody likes being treated like a recalcitrant canine: "No! Drop it, Caesar! Bad Dog!" People just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and dismiss those cranky, arrogant science types out of hand. And the would-be debunkers find themselves merely preaching to the converted.

Sagan never took cheap shots; he didn’t indulge in public ridicule or name-calling, and was gracious in the face of criticism directed his way — without ever being weak, mind you. His debunking was thoughtful, thorough, carefully worded, and he offered the wonders of real science in place of the silly pseudostuff. People responded accordingly. That’s what made him the best loved (thus far) public face of science, and why even ten years later, he is sorely missed, by both scientists and the general public alike.

14 thoughts on “casting out the demons”

  1. Great post, Jennifer. You nailed it. Sagan always said, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Part of the reason he was so much fun to listen to, and read, is that he was excited — thrilled by the all ideas in play, the possibilities of the universe, the fact that nature has so many surprises and eccentricities (like your time dilation example). I can’t believe he’s been gone 10 years!

  2. “His debunking was thoughtful, thorough, carefully worded, and he offered the wonders of real science in place of the silly pseudostuff. People responded accordingly.”
    There is nothing to stop us skeptics from following Sagan’s approach, of course — nothing except laziness and the addictive drug known as indignation. It just feels so **good** to be part of the Elect, the righteous souls saved by skepticism, while the rest of the world struggles through the mud. Spit upon the preterite, the proletariat. What fools they are, those peasant simians, to sink themselves in superstition. . . .
    It is a disgusting pattern of behavior, and one which we will have to stop. At least we can see this self-righteousness within our psyche; with luck, we can take measures to counteract it.
    My own thoughts on this anniversary day:

  3. Very nice, as usual!
    I give lots of talks at skeptic group meetings, and it’s important to rally the troops. We know we’re preaching to the choir, but the choir needs pep talks too!
    But it’s when the skepticism reaches someone to to whom the idea is totally alien… that’s when I rejoice. I just love it when the scales fall from their eyes.

  4. You know, I was afraid folks would think I was referring to Phil and Bad Astronomy, and almost included a disclaimer to that effect. But it ruined the flow of my prose. 🙂 Seriously, Phil debunks with humor and likeability, and he’s never mean-spirited. I’m a big fan of Bad Astronomy. 🙂

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post! I now marvel at my good fortune at being raised in an agnostic household, and having a professional scientist for a father, who taught me how to think critically. As a result, I learned to try to ask the right questions. I’m still learning.
    I know what you mean about the fundamentalist household- my oldest sister went fundamentalist Christian about 25 years ago. I love her as my sister, but I can’t stand to visit her household. The moment the word “Jesus” enters into the conversation, a new episode of the Twilight Zone unfolds, and I begin to ponder the possibility of us having some of the same DNA.

  6. Carl Sagan gave me the courage to face alien abductions. For you see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.
    Let me elaborate on that:
    Junior year for us physics majors is deliberately designed to be a brutal experience. To use flamboyantly gender-biased language, the professors want a chance “to separate the boys from the men” (you can substitute “sheep from the wolves” if you prefer). Key ingredient in the witches’ brew is Junior Lab, a class which the course catalog says will require eighteen hours of work per week. Well, if you’re a slacker, perhaps: I never knew anybody who did a decent job doing less than twenty. And you’re expected to be taking three other classes at the same time, including your first real encounter with quantum mechanics — a nice, intuitive subject which gives you time to relax and contemplate — and if you believe that, I’ve got a very attractive deal on a bridge in Brooklyn. . . .
    Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation. I was a lightweight, usually tumbling into bed between two and four A.M. when others could go all night long. However, I would wake up around six, when the sun started hitting my bedroom window, and damnably, I would have the hardest time falling asleep again.
    So I would curl up there in bed, not able to be awake, not able to sleep. And then, pretty dependably — when I was truly zonked with exhaustion but somehow unable to doze off — I would feel a wave of numbness, followed by a strange paralysis. With my eyes closed, I would see my room, but with the sizes and proportions all distorted. If the experience lasted long enough, I would sense myself rising into the air and sometimes even flying through abstract tunnels of light.
    “This is so freakin’ cool!” I would exclaim. Curiosity and enthusiasm quickly overcame me, since I recognized the exact phenomenon which Carl Sagan had implicated in alien abductions of today and demonic visitations of yesteryear. After a few such experiences, I discovered I could give myself a good shake and break the sleep-paralysis. Sometimes, after I did that, I could relax into my little hypnogogic trance again.
    I expect lots of people have had similar experiences, half-awake and seeing odd things. (I mean, I tripped out in a dentist’s chair at age eight after inhaling too much nitrous while they fixed my sugar-rotted baby teeth. Weird things can happen to the brain, even in daily life!) Junior year at MIT gave me the chance to explore the phenomenon, to test it with a little repeatability.
    As Carl wrote, “And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and hoaxing, don’t we have before us a matter of supreme importance — touching on our limitations, the ease with which we can be misled and manipulated, the fashioning of our beliefs, and perhaps even the origin of our religions? There is genuine scientific paydirt in UFOs and alien abductions — but it is, I think, of a distinctly homegrown and terrestrial character.”

  7. Still at the edge of forever: for Carl

    Ten years ago today, Carl Sagan died. He had been a hero of mine since childhood, since I first watched Cosmos. I would kick the rest of the family out of the lounge room, close the door, turn off the lights, pull the beanbag up to the TV as close as …

  8. Wow — 10 years — hard to believe it has been that long. As someone who dragged the whole family to watch Cosmos, I can honestly say Carl Sagan had a huge effect on me growing up. His sense of wonder, of sheer joy at the glory of the universe, was infectious, and helped instill in me a hunger for knowledge that has served me well all my life. He is, indeed, missed.

  9. Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation.
    Yikes. It’s so sad that those two are often linked. They don’t need to be, and ideally they shouldn’t be. (Cognitive psychologists have shown us that nobody is as productive as they could be when sleep deprived. And, too much sleep deprivation can lead to other quality-of-life-decreasing and productivity-suppressing things like depression.)
    It happens sometimes, but it’d be better if we planned ahead more often and did things like getting proposals done early enough so that we don’t have to lose sleep over them…. It’s too bad when one of the rites of passage in becoming a Physicist require (according to your tale) living with sleep deprivation.

  10. Hi Jennifer,
    science everyday reveals things that were or seemed ‘physically’ impossible to the generation before. Just because skeptics do not believe or cannot ‘see’ something in their ‘closed’ minds – does not mean it is not possible
    Quantum-dot onions
    With a controllable number of confined electrons, quantum dots are similar to artificial atoms. An electron spin (which can point either up or down) isolated in a semiconducting quantum dot is a tantalizing candidate for storing one bit of information, or qubit. But to perform any useful operation, the quantum dot must be coupled to another one, at the very least. Jesse Berezovsky and co-workers bypass the need for wires by growing an onion-like quantum dot structure: the core is separated from a shell layer by a barrier layer. Using optical means, the core and shell states can be individually manipulated, meaning that the localized spin states can be initialized and read out at will. Scaling up the approach will be the next major challenge.
    On the other hand hollywood, tele-vision and the internet are full of things we can see – but are illusions. Obviously films may not have convinced you that werewolves are real. But they exist, they exist in the movies, in the movie scrypts, and in the pages of books. But because they ‘exist’ does not make them real, true or fact.
    Equally we know that because something cannot be seen or as yet measured, does not mean it does not exist
    So here’s wishing you season greetings
    and a merry time through these festive days!

  11. I’m my astronomy club’s librarian. Last year, a club member bought a copy of the updated Cosmos series on DVD, and donated it to the club. It’s been checked out essentially continuously since. That is to say, it’s making the rounds.
    I got to watch it. Apparently, i got to see it the first time, when it was on TV. No VCRs then, so i must have scheduled the time to watch each episode.
    One thing that struck me is that i still structure my view of the Universe within the Cosmos framework. Another thing that struck me is how 25 years later, essentially nothing has been contradicted by new data, and very little has become obsolete. An astounding accomplishment. Cosmos is still a great watch. Go ahead, order a copy. Organize a weekly Cosmos party.

  12. You never saw Cosmos?
    Well, it did have rather a lot of dreck (the “spaceship of the imagination”)but…
    At the end of Episode 3, discussing Johannes Kepler, he says (approximately):
    “He loved the hard truth more than his own cherished notions — and THAT ias the essence of Science!”
    Cold Shivers!

  13. “…one of the last people to interview Sagan while he was still alive.”
    You had me there for a minute. I was waiting for you to tell us someone managed to get an interview after his death. After reading the rest of the post I think maybe some of your early upbringing slipped through.

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