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DOES TRUTH MATTER?
SCIENCE, PSEUDOSCIENCE, AND CIVILIZATION.CARL SAGAN
Science has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheapening the experience.
Do we care what’s true? Does it matter?
. . . where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise
wrote the poet Thomas Gray. But is it? Edmund Way Teale in his 1950 book Circle of the Seasons understood the dilemma better:
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.
It’s disheartening to discover government corruption and incompetence, for example; but is it better not to know about it? Whose interest does ignorance serve? If we humans bear, say, hereditary propensities toward the hatred of strangers, isn’t self- knowledge the only antidote? If we long to believe that the stars’ rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?
In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, as so many before and after, decries the “unbroken progress in the self- belittling of man” brought about by the scientific revolution. Nietzsche mourns the loss of “man’s belief in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceability in the scheme of existence.” For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character- building experience?
To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion and not 6 to 12 thousand years old(1) improves our appreciation of its sweep and grandeur; to entertain the notion that we are a particularly complex arrangement of atoms, and not some breath of divinity, at the very least enhances our respect for atoms; to discover, as now seems probable, that our planet is one of billions of other worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy and that our galaxy is one of billions more, majestically expands the arena of what is possible; to find that our ancestors were also the ancestors of apes ties us to the rest of life and makes possible important – if occasionally rueful – reflections on human nature.
Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its
power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.
But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity. Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and write us messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them, or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, accurately foretell the future.
These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature – often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation (and often the cynical connivance) of newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, movie producers, and the like, such ideas are easily and widely available. Far more difficult to come upon are the alternative, more challenging, and even more dazzling findings of science.
Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science because distracting confrontations with reality – where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison – are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science. But this isn’t enough to explain its popularity.
Naturally people try various belief systems on for size, to see if they help. And if we’re desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden
of skepticism. Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods). In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe.(2) Sometimes it’s a kind of halfway house between old religion and new science, mistrusted by both.
At the heart of some pseudoscience (and some religion also, New Age and Old) is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes. The enchanted fish or the genie from the lamp will grant us three wishes – anything we want except more wishes. Who has not pondered – just to be on the safe side, just in case we ever come upon and accidentally rub an old, squat brass oil lamp – what to ask for?
I remember, from childhood comic strips and books, a top- hatted, mustachioed magician who brandished an ebony walking stick. His name was Zatara. He could make anything happen, anything at all. How did he do it? Easy. He uttered his commands backwards. So if he wanted a million dollars, he would say “srallod noillim a em evig.” That’s all there was to it. It was something like prayer, but much surer of results.
I spent a lot of time at age eight experimenting in this vein, commanding stones to levitate: “esir, enots.” It never worked. I blamed my pronunciation.
Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood – except that the language breaks down here. If you’ve never heard of science (to say nothing of how it works), you can hardly be aware you’re
embracing pseudoscience. You’re simply thinking in one of the ways that humans always have. Religions are often the state- protected nurseries of pseudoscience, although there’s no reason why religions have to play that role. In a way, it’s an artifact from times long gone. In some countries nearly everyone believes in astrology and precognition, including government leaders. But this is not simply drummed into them by religion; it is drawn out of the enveloping culture in which everyone is comfortable with these practices, and affirming testimonials are everywhere.
Most of the case histories I will relate are American – because these are the cases I know best, not because pseudoscience and mysticism are more prominent in the United States than elsewhere. But the psychic spoonbender and extraterrestrial channeler Uri Geller hails from Israel. As tensions rise between Algerian secularists and Moslem fundamentalists, more and more people are discreetly consulting the country’s 10,000 soothsayers and clairvoyants (about half of whom operate with a license from the government). High French officials, including a former president of France, arranged for millions of dollars to be invested in a scam (the Elf-Aquitaine scandal) to find new petroleum reserves from the air. In Germany, there is concern about carcinogenic “Earth rays” undetectable by science; they can be sensed only by experienced dowsers brandishing forked sticks. “Psychic surgery” flourishes in the Philippines. Ghosts are something of a national obsession in Britain. Since World War II, Japan has spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the supernatural. An estimated 100,000 fortune-tellers flourish in Japan; the clientele are mainly young women. Aum Shinrikyo, a sect thought to be involved in the release of the nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, features levitation, faith healing, and ESP among its main tenets. Followers, at a high price, drank the “miracle pond” water – from the bath of Asaraha, their leader. In Thailand, diseases are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized
sacred Scripture. “Witches” are today being burned in South Africa. Australian peace-keeping forces in Haiti rescue a woman tied to a tree; she is accused of flying from rooftop to rooftop, and sucking the blood of children. Astrology is rife in India, geomancy widespread in China.
Perhaps the most successful recent global pseudoscience – by many criteria, already a religion – is the Hindu doctrine of transcendental meditation (TM). The soporific homilies of its founder and spiritual leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, can be seen on television. Seated in the yogi position, his white hair here and there flecked with black, surrounded by garlands and floral offerings, he has a look. One day while channel surfing we came upon this visage. “You know who that is?” asked our four-year-old son. “God.” The worldwide TM organization has an estimated valuation of $3 billion. For a fee they promise through meditation to be able to walk you through walls, to make you invisible, to enable you to fly. By thinking in unison they have, they say, diminished the crime rate in Washington, D.C., and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other secular miracles. Not one smattering of real evidence has been offered for any such claims. TM sells folk medicine, runs trading companies, medical clinics and “research” universities, and has unsuccessfully entered politics. In its oddly charismatic leader, its promise of community, and the offer of magical powers in exchange for money and fervent belief, it is typical of many pseudosciences marketed for sacerdotal export.
At each relinquishing of civil controls and scientific education another little spurt in pseudoscience occurs. Leon Trotsky described it for Germany on the eve of the Hitler takeover (but in a description that might equally have applied to the Soviet Union of 1933):
Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives along side the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic
powers of signs and exorcisms. . . . Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!
Russia is an instructive case. Under the tsars, religious superstition was encouraged, but scientific and skeptical thinking – except by a few tame scientists – was ruthlessly expunged. Under Communism, both religion and pseudoscience were systematically suppressed – except for the superstition of the state ideological religion. It was advertised as scientific, but fell as far short of this ideal as the most unself- critical mystery cult. Critical thinking – except by scientists in hermetically sealed compartments of knowledge – was recognized as dangerous, was not taught in the schools, and was punished where expressed. As a result, post-Communism, many Russians view science with suspicion. When the lid was lifted, as was also true of virulent ethnic hatreds, what had all along been bubbling subsurface was exposed to view. The region is now awash in UFOs, poltergeists, faith healers, quack medicines, magic waters, and old-time superstition. A stunning decline in life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant epidemic disease, subminimal medical standards, and ignorance of preventative medicine all work to raise the threshold at which skepticism is triggered in an increasingly desperate population. As I write, the electorally most popular member of the Duma, a leading supporter of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy, is one Anatoly Kashpirovsky – a faith healer who remotely cures diseases ranging from hernias to AIDS by glaring at you out of your television set. His face starts stopped clocks.
A somewhat analogous situation exists in China. After the death of Mao Zedong and the gradual emergence of a market economy, UFOs, channeling, and other examples of Western pseudoscience emerged, along with such ancient Chinese practices as ancestor worship, astrology, and fortune telling –
especially that version that involves throwing yarrow sticks and working through the hoary tetragrams of the I Ching. The government newspaper lamented that “the superstition of feudal ideology is reviving in our countryside.” It was (and remains) a rural, not primarily an urban, affliction.
Individuals with “special powers” gained enormous followings. They could, they said, project Qi, the “energy field of the Universe,” out of their bodies to change the molecular structure of a chemical 2000 kilometers away, to communicate with aliens, to cure diseases. Some patients died under the ministrations of one of these “masters of Qi Gong” who was arrested and convicted in 1993. Wang Hongcheng, an amateur chemist, claimed to have synthesized a liquid, small amounts of which, when added to water, would convert it to gasoline or the equivalent. For a time he was funded by the army and the secret police, but when his invention was found to be a scam he was arrested and imprisoned. Naturally the story spread that his misfortune resulted not from fraud, but from his unwillingness to reveal his “secret formula” to the government. (Similar stories have circulated in America for decades, usually with the government role replaced by a major oil or auto company.) Asian rhinos are being driven to extinction because their horns, when pulverized, are said to prevent impotence; the market encompasses all of East Asia.
The government of China and the Chinese Communist Party were alarmed by certain of these developments. On December 5, 1994, they issued a joint proclamation that read in part:
[P]ublic education in science has been withering in recent years. At the same time, activities of superstition and ignorance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have become frequent. Therefore, effective measures must be applied as soon as possible to strengthen public education in science. The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance
in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society. We must be attentive and implement such public education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty.
So pseudoscience in America is part of a global trend. Its causes, dangers, diagnosis, and treatment are likely to be similar everywhere. Here, psychics ply their wares on extended television commercials, personally endorsed by entertainers. They have their own channel, the “Psychic Friends Network”; a million people a year sign on and use such guidance in their everyday lives. For the CEOs of major corporations, for financial analysts, for lawyers and bankers there is a species of astrologer/soothsayer/psychic ready to advise on any matter. “If people knew how many people, especially the very rich and powerful ones, went to psychics, their jaws would drop through the floor,” says a psychic from Cleveland, Ohio. Royalty has traditionally been vulnerable to psychic frauds. In ancient China and Rome astrology was the exclusive property of the emperor; any private use of this potent art was considered a capital offense. Emerging from a particularly credulous Southern California culture, Nancy and Ronald Reagan relied on an astrologer in private and public matters – unknown to the voting public. Some portion of the decision-making that influences the future of our civilization is plainly in the hands of charlatans. If anything, the practice is comparatively muted in America; its venue is worldwide.
As amusing as some of pseudoscience may seem, as confident as we may be that we would never be so gullible as to be swept up by such a doctrine, we know it’s happening all around us. Transcendental Meditation and Aum Shinrikyo seem to have attracted a large number of accomplished people, some with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. These are not doctrines for nitwits. Something else is going on.
What’s more, no one interested in what religions are and how they begin can ignore them. While vast barriers may seem to stretch between a local, single-focus contention of pseudoscience and something like a world religion, the partitions are very thin. The world presents us with nearly insurmountable problems. A wide variety of solutions are offered, some of very limited worldview, some of portentous sweep. In the usual Darwinian natural selection of doctrines, some thrive for a time, while most quickly vanish. But a few – sometimes, as history has shown, the most scruffy and least prepossessing among them – may have the power to profoundly change the history of the world.
The continuum stretching from ill-practiced science, pseudoscience, and superstition (New Age or Old), all the way to respectable mystery religion, based on revelation, is indistinct. I try not to use the word “cult” in its usual meaning of a religion the speaker dislikes, but try to reach for the headstone of knowledge – do they really know what they claim to know? Everyone, it turns out, has relevant expertise.
I am critical of the excesses of theology, because at the extremes it is difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from rigid, doctrinaire religion. Nevertheless, I want to acknowledge at the outset the prodigious diversity and complexity of religious thought and practice over the millennia; the growth of liberal religion and ecumenical fellowship during the last century; and the fact that – as in the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Reform Judaism, Vatican II, and the so-called higher criticism of the Bible – religion has fought (with varying degrees of success) its own excesses. But in parallel to the many scientists who seem reluctant to debate or even publicly discuss pseudoscience, many proponents of mainstream religions are reluctant to take on extreme conservatives and fundamentalists. If the trend continues, eventually the field is theirs; they can win the debate by default.
One religious leader writes to me of his longing for “disciplined integrity” in religion:
We have grown far too sentimental. . . . Devotionalism and cheap psychology on one side, and arrogance and dogmatic intolerance on the other distort authentic religious life almost beyond recognition. Sometimes I come close to despair, but then I live tenaciously and always with hope. . . . Honest religion, more familiar than its critics with the distortions and absurdities perpetrated in its name, has an active interest in encouraging a healthy skepticism for its own purposes. . . . There is the possibility for religion and science to forge a potent partnership against pseudo-science. Strangely, I think it would soon be engaged also in opposing pseudo-religion.
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
Motor ability in healthy people is almost perfect. We rarely stumble and fall, except in young and old age. We can learn tasks such as riding a bicycle or skating or skipping, jumping rope or driving a car, and retain that mastery for the rest of our lives. Even if we’ve gone a decade without doing it, it comes back to us effortlessly. The precision and retention of our motor
skills may, however, give us a false sense of confidence in our other talents. Our perceptions are fallible. We sometimes see what isn’t there. We are prey to optical illusions. Occasionally we hallucinate. We are error-prone. A most illuminating book called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich, shows how people systematically err in understanding numbers, in rejecting unpleasant evidence, in being influenced by the opinions of others. We’re good in some things, but not in everything. Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations. “For Man is a giddy thing,” teaches William Shakespeare. That’s where the stuffy skeptical rigor of science comes in.
Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudoscience is that science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfections and fallibility than does pseudoscience (or “inerrant” revelation). If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error – even serious error, profound mistakes – will be our companion forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.
If we teach only the findings and products of science – no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be – without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion. In Russia and China, it used to be easy. Authoritative science was what the authorities taught. The distinction between science and pseudoscience was made for you. No perplexities needed to be muddled through. But when profound political changes occurred and strictures on free thought were loosened, a host of confident or charismatic claims – specially those that told us what we wanted to hear – gained a vast following. Every notion, however improbable, became authoritative.
It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practitioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of patient and collective interrogation of Nature than to detail the messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.
1. “No thinking religious person believes this. Old hat,” writes one of the referees of this book. But many “scientific creationists” not only believe it, but are making increasingly aggressive and successful efforts to have it taught in the schools, museums, zoos, and textbooks. Why? Because adding up the “begats,” the ages of patriarchs and others in the Bible, gives such a figure, and the Bible is “inerrant.”
2. Although it’s hard for me to see a more profound cosmic connection, than the astonishing findings of modern nuclear astrophysics: Except for hydrogen, all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant stars thousands of light-years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff.