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Practicing What You Preach

TyL's picture

 Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is constantly exhorting its readers to exert skepticism, considering everything through the lense of scientific enquiry. But he does not, however, turn science under this same exacting microscope. He takes cheap shots at pseudoscience (aliens, witchcraft) that are easy to identify with--of course, says the rational reader, those things are ridiculous (no offense meant to Jackie). Ha ha ha! Silly pseudoscience. He also takes shots at religion, although he doesn't seem to be considering so much the modern iteration as the medieval church (he speaks of demons and darkness and people blindly following crazed demagogues, and while we have these things today, they are far less prevalent. We call them cults). All in all, he makes his arguments rather easily. Rather too easily.  

Sagan should, instead, turn his scrutiny to science itself--even the things that are accepted as fact. Science--capital-s Science--has had a lot of authority for a very long time, UFOs and witches aside, and many people are accustomed to believing what, say, the New York Times science page has to say, just so long as it's on that page and it's written by Dr. So-and-So. After all, it's Science! And yet Sagan tells us to distrust authority. Perhaps, if we applied that to scientific authority, not just state or church (although those may at times be the same thing), we'd find interesting things like: the "science" of second-hand smoking was proven to be largely false, and second-hand smoking nowhere near the dangerous phenomenon that Science had presented it to be. Or, there is still legitimate scholarship on both sides of the global warming debate, and despite what Sagan would like you to believe (he mentions multiple times that people just have to get over their love of pseudoscience so they can see the problems that are really plaguing the world, like global warming--in 1990, already treating it like a given) it is nowhere near accepted consensus. Or, when working on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, researchers actually falsified data, shaking birds' eggs so the chicks inside them wouldn't hatch. Later science proves that, while still bad for you, DDT is nowhere near as bad as Carson and her team would have you believe. In many malaria-infested regions, the benefits far outweigh the costs, and DDT could have a very positive impact on quality of life all over the globe. Or, nuclear power is far less dangerous and far cleaner and more efficient than much of Science would have you believe, and many advances have been made in the past few years to guarantee safety and cleanliness, but thanks to alarmist legislation these will most likely not be put into practice. Or...

I could go on ad nauseum, but I won't. Suffice it to say that far too many people these days give far too much credulity to Science, simply because Dr. So-and-So wrote it and it's in the New York Times and it's Science. What Sagan does not acknowledge is that Science is itself an authority, and if we are to be true to his argument, it too must come under the same extreme scrutiny that he advocates for government and religion.


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