Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World- Carl Sagan

Last summer I read my first Carl Sagan book, and it was his novel Contact, because I love the movie so much.  That was that is one of the few times I thought the movie was better than the book.  That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book, just that I liked the movie better.
This book also left me wanting.  The subtitle of this book was "Science as a Candle in the Dark".  The introduction inspired and reinvigorated me that "Science is Awesome" and can solve many of our problems.  It emphasized to me that the book might be refreshing and that he might address public engagement and education.  No doubt, Sagan was a great communicator in his time (this book was published the year before his death).  However, he spent most of his time trying to convince the reader that science is the answer to many problems and a lot of the rest of his time debunking false claims, from religion and witch hunts to aliens and other pseduoscience.  Admittedly these ideas seemed rampant in the 1990s, with psychic hotlines and horoscopes, and a rash of alien sightings with shows like The X-Files being popular; however, I believe the target audience for this book is more (or at least ended up being read by) scientifically minded and already convinced of those facts.  He spent a lot of time being the whistle-blower and not a lot of time prescribing solutions to the problem.  I'm reminded of my atheist friend's reaction to Richard Dawkins The GOD Delusion, which I listened to last summer.  He felt that the book spent most of its time arguing against religion instead of starting with the assumption that the target audience would be atheists and want, like what do we do now, and how do we justify morality (I remember quite distinctly my friend saying that he preferred Dawkins to stick to science and where science meets morality and ethics and philosophy, rather than just philosophy and theology and furthermore that he preferred the works of several others, especially Sam Harris who tried to grapple with what now solutions- like how do we justify laws and ethical and moral behavior without religion).  Dawkins' book, like Sagan's, didn't present anything new to the believer [in atheism and science respectively], and probably would not convince the non-believer [the religious and the unscientific respectively].
There were some things I liked about Sagan's book including the chapter on logical thinking and logical fallacies, what he called The Baloney Detection Kit [from Chapter 14]- see post-script for complete list.  I also liked his take on the advancements science could bring and on public education towards the end [around Chapters 19-21 or so].  Although he quickly fell back into describing the problem rather than prescribing a solutions.
Again, it was not a bad book, but it didn't enlighten me much, I doubt it would convince a non-believer in science to believe or question much, and it didn't go far enough in encouraging the use of science and shining light on how to move forward.  I think every generation fears that the current one is less intelligent or more slothful (see xkcd for a humorous take), but I don't think this is generally true.  Interestingly, my friend who was disappointed with Dawkins book seemed to be forgiving of Sagan's book when I noticed the other day that he was reading it currently.  I'm not saying this is my friend's stance, but we have to be willing to be critical when the need arises.  Science is amazing and we can do amazing things with it and yes, we can debunk pseudoscience, but lets find creative solutions to move forward, rather than bemoan our current state.

Post-Script- The Baloney Detection Kit
    The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:
    • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
    • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
    • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities").
    • Spin more than one hypothesis - don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
    • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
    • Quantify, wherever possible.
    • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
    • "Occam's razor" - if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
    • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, is isttestable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
    Additional issues are
    • Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.
    • Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.
    Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric
    • Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument.
    • Argument from "authority".
    • Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavourable" decision).
    • Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
    • Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).
    • Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).
    • Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).
    • Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).
    • Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)
    • Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").
    • Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
    • Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by" - confusion of cause and effect.
    • Meaningless question ("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).
    • Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities (making the "other side" look worse than it really is).
    • Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle ("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").
    • Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).
    • Confusion of correlation and causation.
    • Straw man - caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack..
    • Suppressed evidence or half-truths.
    • Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public"

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