AS A CANDLE IN THE DARK
Sagan, Carl. Random House, 1996.
One of the ironies of the last quarter of our century is that there has been a steady revival of the mindless beliefs of ages past. Aside from people who think that days are longer in the summer because heat expands everything, and that heat travels faster than cold because you can catch cold, millions are convinced that winged angels hover over their homes, that the stock market is affected by Jupiter's position in relation to Mars, that names which add up to certain numbers will bring good health and high-paying jobs, and that weird witches are floating around in our society. Dark age world-views are successfully raising their horrible heads.
In this (as usual) beautifully written book, Carl Sagan laments the dismal state in which twentieth century finds itself as regards the general appreciation and understanding on the part of the general public as to what science is all about, and the related intellectual consequences for society at large.
He gives painful portraits of intelligent people harboring the most unscientific beliefs: be it about Atlantis or Nostradamus. He refers to tabloids which spread canards like the discovery of temple ruins on the Martian surface. He mentions the periodic reports on aliens: the illegal ones who come without green cards but with green bodies sometimes. He refers to UFOs, of whose existence, like that of Elvis Presley, so many people do not have the slightest doubt. He analyzes the nature of apparitions and visions. He discusses obstinate assertions about spirits. He talks about popular mystery-mongering like the Bermuda Triangle, the Big Foot, and the Loch Ness monster. And like other scientifically enlightened minds who care for the sanity of our civilization he points to the anti-science forces that becoming more and more assertive in our society. Only the few minds that have been enriched and ennobled by the scientific spirit can see through the dangers that are lurking in this gradual degradation of society into a medieval mind-set.
This momentous century of ours has made major advances in our knowledge of the universe, we have come to know a good deal more about mute matter, throbbing life, and measuring mind. But even as we probe more and more into the mysteries of the universe, our sciences are becoming so specialized and complicated that only a handful of experts in any field know what their fellow-workers are talking about. Large sections of society may hear about a few spectacular discoveries or breakthroughs such as the spotting of a new comet or the finding of a new drug for a disease. But by and large, there is widespread illiteracy as to the nature and goals of science, its framework and methodology. Indeed, it appears from all data and surveys that while science may have imparted its benign impacts through medicine and technology to enhance public health, prolong life-spans, and add to our creature comforts, as also some drastic jolts through environmental disasters and a capacity for over-kill of the human race, its potentials for elevating the human spirit, for endowing us with intellectual joys, and ridding the mind of stifling superstitions have not exactly permeated the masses. This is the theme and message of Sagan's book.
We have charted distant stars and galaxies, penetrated into the remote recesses of space, uncovered fantastic entities in the cold expanses above, measured the very limits of the universe, and surmised how this world of ours came to be. We feel sorry for generations past who had no inkling of how vast our universe is, and how old, and how it all began. Little did they know of quasars and pulsars, or of an expanding universe. They were constrained by mythological lore and insufficient data in their appraisal of the cosmos. But what excuse do moderns have for living in the conceptual frame-work of ages past?
The point is, there is a vast body of pseudo-scientific literature that is appealing, understandable, and cheap; that entertains and deludes. There are, broadly speaking, two classes of people in the world: the educated and the uneducated. In some sense, the latter are the more fortunate, for they mind their modest business, making a living, trying to be happy, and caring little about how the world functions or why. But the educated lot need some intellectual excitement through books and discussions, and the massive output of pseudoscience is out there to satisfy their curiosity. For one thing, it is more intelligible than technical science, even more so than some of best popularizations of modern science by clear and persuasive writers like Carl Sagan, because no matter how watered down, understanding current science requires: (a) some background in serious scientific study; and (b) more than a passing interest in the matter: some serious conceptual thinking is also necessary. The pseudo sciences, on the other hand, not only titillate, but make everything easy and understandable. And they do more: they tend to satisfy our innermost craving to believe in the fantastic and the illogical. Perhaps because for eons our ancestors groped in the dark and dreamed up mythologies rather than rigorous mathematical explanations; tales, rather than theories, our brains resonate more easily with the weird and the way-out, and our hearts experience greater thrill with the obscure and the arcane.
It is important to instill in our young curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world at large, for it expands the mind as nothing else does. Unless students are inspired by a thirst for knowledge, and an urge to know about the why and how of things, their minds will remail in a dormant state. We need to teach the fundamentals of physics, astronomy, and biology from a very early age. We need to explain to the young the framework of science which includes reasoned analysis, respect for meticulously gathered data from careful observations, and a readiness to correct itself in the face of appropriate evidence, rather than dish out lifeless formulas, technical jargon, and bits of information. Unless we do this our civilization will soon slide into the depths of darkness, to a demon-haunted world, as ancient Hindu thinkers described a state of gross ignorance. Unfortunately, only a handful in the ivory towers whose minds have been emancipated by the shackles of dark-age beliefs are able to sense this terrible transformation that is slowly but surely occurring under our very eyes.