Friday, December 23, 2016

Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World

This month marks 20 years since the death of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who became a household name and unofficial spokesman for science thanks to his Cosmos TV miniseries. While Sagan is best known for Cosmos, he also was a prolific writer of science books targeted toward the general public, the last of which was titled The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, published in 1995.

Throughout his life as a scientist and later celebrity scientist, Sagan was a strong proponent of the scientific method and critical thought while railing against pseudoscience and superstition and ignorance they bring forth. However, going into the mid 1990s, Sagan had never written a book on such topics, though he commonly sprinkled these themes throughout his other works. This changed with Demon Haunted World which, as it would come to pass, became, in a way, Sagan's final testament to the world.

In the Demon Haunted World, Sagan puts 400+ pages broken down into 25 chapters to work in both espousing the scientific method and critical thought while systematically picking apart pseudoscience and superstition in both historical and current lights while also setting down ideas as to how humanity can avoid reverting to ignorance. The book is easily broken down into thirds, with the first being largely devoted to exposing pseudosciences for what they truly are, the middle focusing on how individuals can better their thinking skills, and t he final being devoted to creating a scientifically-literate, critical thinking citizenry.

While there are many superstitions and pseudosciences addressed in Demon Haunted World, if there is any single one of particular focus, it is aliens. This is probably for a couple of reasons. First, the publicity for aliens exploded in the 1990s in various forms of media. In the 1990s, aliens were to be found in movies, on TV, on the radio, and in all forms of print. By the mid 1990s, aliens were popular. Secondly, more so than any other pseudoscience, aliens are, by many in the general public, viewed as being under the umbrella of science. As anyone who understands what science is really about realizes, this is not the case for aliens for the simple reason that science is based on the idea of testability by way of physical and/or measurable evidence, none of which exists for aliens.

Other topics addressed by Sagan include hallucinations, witness fallibility, therapy's failings, witchcraft, demons, structures on Mars, and cyptids.

Sagan takes a novel approach to explaining why many pseudosciences are, in fact, pseudosciences. In the chapter The Dragon in My Garage, Sagan examines the train of thought that many believers in various pseudosciences follow. The premise, pseudosciences rely on the notion that the inability to prove something false makes it true. Illustrated, Sagan tells a story about a dragon in his garage wherein the reader takes the role of investigator. Upon looking in the garage and seeing no dragon, the reader asks where it is. Answer: it's invisible. The reader then proposes spreading flour on the floor to see the invisible dragon's footprints, which do not appear. The reason: the dragon floats in the air. How about a thermal test to detect the dragon's fiery breath? No abnormal readings present themselves. Reason: the invisible fire is heatless. At a loss, the reader proposes spraying paint in the garage to make the invisible dragon visible. When the paint fails to stick to anything, there's a reason for this too: the dragon is incorporeal. Sagan's question to the reader: what's the difference between an invisible, floating, incorporeal dragon that spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? At best, judgment must be postponed until some sort of physical evidence for the dragon's existence presents itself. Until then, belief in the dragon in the garage is purely a matter of faith because there's no evidence that can be tested, only a sincerely told story. The same is true for aliens, cryptids, and likewise. Bottom line: pseudosciences rely on faith, not evidence, as cornerstones of belief.

Another standout chapter is The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, in which Sagan presents a toolkit for thinking through any topic that must be approached critically. What is this toolkit? A list of questions to ask oneself when examining any question. The kit includes, but is not limited to looking for independent confirmation of “facts,” looking for underlying motives, Occam's Razor, and the need to quantify if possible. Sagan then presents a long list of logical fallacies with examples. Why should non-scientists care about the baloney detection kit? Simple: it can help anyone be a better consumer in a market-driven world. After all, advertisements wouldn't bend the truth, would they?

After dismantling pseudoscientific claims and teaching how to think critically/scientifically, the third major theme in the book is the need for scientific literacy. Sagan notes the modern world is dependent on science and technology but that very few people even understand science and technology, which is a recipe for disaster. Providing evidence for his claims of scientific illiteracy, Sagan cites the National Science Foundation and some of its alarming findings, namely that, among others : 63% of adults are unaware that dinosaurs died out before humans arose, 75% do not know that antibiotics can only kill bacteria, 57% do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and roughly half do not know that the Earth goes around the Sun and that it takes a year to do so.

Sagan then takes society and the American educational system to task. His chief complaint: adults complaining about “dumb questions” from kids and thus, through put-downs, instilling the idea in kids that asking questions is a bad thing. In his personal experience with students in the K-12 system, Sagan notes that first graders ask a lot more fundamental questions (Why is the sky blue? Why do we have seasons, Why are plants green?) than do 12th graders. On the American educational system, Sagan also has criticism, namely a lack of inspiring science courses in the K-12 curriculum and an over-reliance on teaching technical reading and memorization because such courses are easier for the educators to teach. Sagan noted that the same was true of his primary education and that there were no real stimulating science courses in his education until he reached the university level. Result: by the time they become seniors in high school, many students who were interested in science at an earlier age have no intention of pursuing a career in science thanks to a lack of mental stimulation. A final criticism against American society is the media available to the public. Sagan notes all of the pseudoscience/paranormal-themed entertainment in media but the woeful lack of science-themed entertainment (this was 1996, well before the profusion of cable TV specialty channels like the Science Channel). Example: virtually all newspapers have a daily astrology section, but how many papers have even a weekly science column? Not many. Another citation is wall-to-wall coverage of the OJ Simpson trial on TV but a virtual absence of science programming (though the PBS series Nova is cited as being a notable exception). For all of the criticisms, though, Sagan is not hopeless, laying out blueprints for how we as a nation can fix our problems that contribute to a lack of scientific literacy.

Of the 25 chapters in the book, 4 were co-written by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, including the last two, which Sagan notes are the most political in the book (he even has a disclaimer to this at the start of chapter 24). Quick to illustrate the necessity of this apparent digression, Sagan notes that critical thinking skills and the ability to question authority, both of which are essential to science, are also crucially important to maintaining a healthy, functioning democracy. Without critical thought, Sagan notes, a democracy can be hijacked and people be led astray into blindly following a charismatic leader. Examples in American history cited by Sagan include the Alien & Sedition Acts, passed during the John Adams administration, which effectively criminalized criticizing the government, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the 'war' on drugs (especially marijuana), and the frenzy whipped up against Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Gulf War (he was our ally in the 1980s). In world history, Sagan notes even more monumental atrocities, including but not limited to the witch hysteria in Europe, the Holocaust, and the atrocities under communist dictatorships in Russia and China. All of these, Sagan notes, were fundamentally allowed to happen because of a lack of skepticism and unwillingness to question authority on the part of citizens and even other leaders. To avoid sliding into totalitarianism, which relies on ignorance and submission on the part of the public and which actively seeks to quash skeptical inquiry, Sagan declares that citizens must be educated in matters of science, skepticism, and democracy, which he views as inextricably intertwined.

The need to be a critical consumer of information is especially true at present with the profusion of information, not all of which is reputable, on the Internet , wherein anyone can publish anything without peer review. With the whole 'fake news' narrative that has spring up following the 2016 presidential election, it is critical for people to know how to think for themselves. Perhaps the only thing of greater disservice to the pursuit of knowledge than false information are the calls by some that the government do something about reining in 'fake news' and other misinformation. By giving government control over media, which I strongly disagree with and have no doubt in my belief that Carl Sagan would feel the same way, we the people would be giving away our freedom to think for ourselves by allowing the government to control the flow of information. If 'fake news' is public enemy #1 on the government media police's most wanted list now, what's next? Political opinions contrary to the controlling party's beliefs? Comedians' material that certain groups find 'offensive?' Anything deemed by government to be 'corrupting' to today's children? Scientific discoveries and ideas that threaten prevailing religious beliefs? The list could go on and on, thus showing the slippery slope government policing 'fake news' could lead us toward. It's better to take false information hook, line, and sinker once and then discover the truth on one's own at a later time than it is to have the government spoon feed us only what it thinks we need to know. There's nothing wrong with being wrong in itself, to err is human, it's how we learn.

In the final chapter, Sagan contrasts the Founding Fathers with today's leaders. The Founding Fathers were all products of the Enlightenment, and two of them, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were actually scientists. The Founding Fathers saw political actions as experiments in that, whenever a policy was implemented, the results must be carefully monitored and any changes made if the policy had its shortcomings. Democracy, like science, can be self correcting if the people and leaders both pay attention to the decisions made and correct the bad ones accordingly. Sagan also contrasts the Founding Fathers' attitudes toward education with those expressed by today's politicians. Quoting Jefferson, Sagan notes that the cost of education is miniscule when compared to the cost of ignorance. In contrast, most of today's politicians do not understand the process of education, science, or critical thought, yet seek to influence such fields, anyway. Sagan rightly notes that this is a recipe for disaster. The Founding Fathers were well-versed in the methods of skeptical thought, had their principles, and acted accordingly. Today's leaders are more often than not told what to do by way of opinion polls. In summation, Sagan concludes that free speech and education in skepticism, science, democracy, the Bill of Rights, and how to use and protect them (and what will happen if we don't) are crucial for a free society because they serve as the tools we can use to prevent ourselves from becoming enveloped in darkness.

In writing The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan was finally coalescing into a single work his thoughts on pseudoscience and skeptical inquiry on both the individual and societal levels. Perhaps (he never did say) this book was inspired by his own health, which was in a precarious state come 1995. The year before, Sagan was diagnosed with myodisplasia, a rare blood disorder that commonly morphs (as it did in Sagan's case) into leukemia. His life already saved by a bone marrow transplant, perhaps being confronted with his own mortality inspired Sagan to put pen to paper and write a book that systematically dismantled various pseudosciences, taught skeptical inquiry, and made a case for why critical thinking skills are vital not only to science, but to democratic society as a whole, all while offering suggestions as to how and achieve the goals of a well-educated, skeptical citizenry.

Perhaps more so than any other of his books, Sagan's Demon Haunted World will stand the test of time. As iconic as Cosmos is and as heavy on science his other books are, science, as Sagan so often acknowledged, is a self-correcting process wherein current knowledge will be updated and old theories discarded in the face of new evidence. It is for this reason that, as the decades pass, Sagan's other works will become dated in the face of new discoveries while The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, will remain forever current as this book does not state scientific facts, but teaches how to think scientifically. Needless to say, this is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in not only science, but in psychology, sociology, history, and politics, among other topics. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Carl Sagan: 20 Years Later

It was 20 years ago that astronomy, or perhaps even science itself, lost the best friend it ever had when Carl Sagan died at age 62 from complications of leukemia. For the better part of 2 decades, Sagan was the face of astronomy and science itself, the first true celebrity scientist since Albert Einstein. Now, 20 years later, the young people who Sagan sought to inspire into careers in science were, for the most part, not even born when Sagan was alive.
So, who was Carl Sagan.
Sagan is best known for his iconic Cosmos mini-series, which hit the airwaves in 1980. While Cosmos propelled Sagan to international fame, made him a household name, and the most recognized scientist in the world, there was a lot more to the man than Cosmos.

Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Sagan was interested in science from an early age. Throughout his life, Sagan would recount two distinct episodes that set him on his life's journey of discovery. The first was a visit with his father to the 1939 World's Fair, which touted the world of tomorrow as envisioned through advances science and technology. The second event was a question (and its subsequent answering by way of a local public library): what are the stars? Though a 5 year-old Sagan did not know what science was, he was fascinated by what he saw at the World's Fair and left with a sense of wonder at the realization that the stars were Suns at a great distance (and that the Sun was a star up close).

For the rest of his life, Sagan would credit his parents, who were not scientists and who actually understood very little science, for his career thanks to their encouraging of his early curiosity as a child. As an adult, Sagan would urge parents and adults across the nation and around the world to do the same for their children, lamenting that many potential scientists are put-off as children by adults' discouragement.

Finishing high school, whose science courses he recounted as being rather dull and made of mindless memorization and experiments wherein the desired solution was already known from the start, Sagan entered college, eventually earning his Ph.D. in 1960.

For Sagan, the timing couldn't have been better. 1960 was the dawning of the space age and Sagan was right in the middle of it. Degree in hand and scientific method in mind, Sagan quickly made a name for himself as a research scientist, playing a key role in t he understanding of the Venusian atmosphere and the planet that it shrouded. Long the subject of wild speculation because of its hidden surface and near-Earth size, Venus was, with a large credit to Sagan, finally understood to be the world it is: a hell-in-space if you will with an acidic atmosphere and a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead.

Following his work on Venus, Sagan also took part in a variety of further missions to Venus and other planets through the1970s, most notably the Viking missions to Mars and the Voyagers to the outer solar system. Additionally, Sagan became a consultant to NASA and briefed many astronauts before their flights. In between, Sagan wrote several well-received books that started to cement his reputation not only as a scientist, but as an educator and a spokesman for popular science itself.

Then came Cosmos, for which Sagan put up a considerable sum of his own money, worked constantly to secure donations for more, worked on publicity, risked his job (Sagan was constantly away filming and not teaching/researching at Ithaca University), and endured ridicule by his peers (some felt Sagan was neglecting his university duties while others considered popularizing science for the general public a waste of time). Through it all, Sagan and his team persevered and Cosmos finally hit the airwaves in August of 1980.

And the rest, they say, is history.

His fame cemented, Sagan would return to a more traditional role as an academic teacher and researcher but would remain in the public eye as the face of astronomy and science for the rest of his life through appearances on TV, in documentaries, and through books. In the 1980s, after his marriage to Ann Druyan (one of his Cosmos co-writers), Sagan became increasingly outspoken on social issues, championing causes including but not limited to: the environment, education, world peace, and the teaching of the scientific method and its applications not only to science, but to being an informed consumer and citizen.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the awards rained down on Sagan for his achievements in a wide variety of areas. The scientist had become a renaissance man.

Sagan's last book about astronomy, Pale Blue Dot, was published in 1994 and was inspired, in part, by a picture. After the 1989 Neptune flyby, the mission was complete for the Voyagers, but then Sagan had a big idea: why not turn the craft around and get a picture of the entire solar system? This was done and all 8 planets were captured in a single image, with Earth being a pale blue dot less than a pixel in size suspended in a sunbeam. In the 1990s, Sagan's activism, especially in the areas of protecting the environment and ensuring world peace, continued. As Sagan noted himself, Earth is tiny against the blackness of space and is, so far, the only place where life is known to exist in the universe. That undisputed, mankind has a duty to protect its only home but this is made more difficult because humans now have the technology to end all life on Earth through both environmental destruction and war, hence the need for global awareness.

At age 60, Sagan was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, myodisplasia, which commonly transforms into leukemia (as it did in Sagan's case). For the remainder of his life, Sagan's health was in a precarious state and was even saved by a bone marrow transplant. As 1996 progressed, Sagan's cancer returned and he once again endured another round of chemotherapy. In his final interview just days before his death, Sagan expressed optimism about not only his recovery but that of the future in general.

Sadly, his immune system depleted by the chemotherapy, Sagan shortly thereafter contracted pneumonia, which took his life 20 years ago today.

Yes, while Carl Sagan has not been with us for 20 years now, his legacy will endure so long as there are people on this Earth who are still inspired by a sense of wonder to ask big questions when confronted with the unknown, thus continuing the scientific journey of discovery that Sagan so passionately encouraged.    

Friday, December 9, 2016

John Glenn (1921-2016)

Yesterday, it was announced that John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and perhaps America's greatest legend of space, died at the age of 95. Two days ago, it was revealed that Glenn had been hospitalized for as-then unannounced reasons. Yesterday, the sad news came that the hero had passed into legend when it was announced that Glenn had died as a result of multiple health problems.
While John Glenn the man may be gone, his legend will remain for as long as there are men to tell his tale.
Glenn was born in Cambridge, Ohio (about a 2 hour drive South of Cleveland) on July 18, 1921. In 1942, he graduated as a Naval aviation cadet and then joined the Marines the following year. In total, Glenn flew 59 combat missions during WWII and 90 more in Korea. During the aeronautical technology boom of the 1950s, Glenn became a test pilot before being selected to join America's inaugural group of astronauts, the Mercury 7, in 1959. Of these 7 men, Glenn became the last-living when Scott Carpenter died in 2013.
In April, 1961, the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit, thus winning the race to launch the first man into orbit. In the following months, America would launch two astronauts, first Alan Shepard and then Gus Grissom, into space, but neither reached orbit. By 1962, America tried again, launching Glenn and his Friendship 7 capsule into space. In total, Glenn would make 3 orbits to Gagarin's one, thus cementing America's status as a viable power in space.
Returning to Earth an American hero, there was immense pressure on NASA not to let Glenn again for risk of losing someone of such immense stature. After leaving NASA in 1964 during the Mercury-Gemini transition, Glenn first went into business and then politics, serving in the senate for a quarter of a century, a position from which he continued to use his considerable influence to support America's space programs.
In 1998, age 77, Glenn again made history by becoming the oldest astronaut when he flew aboard shuttle Discovery on the STS-95 mission. In the mission, while Glenn was not high om the shuttle crew's ranking order, he was the center of much attention as he participated in many experiments that were designed to test the effects of spaceflight on the elderly. Needless to say, flying with Glenn must have been a real thrill for the other astronauts, too.
Retiring from the Senate shortly after his historic second flight, Glenn faded from the limelight, apparently destined to live out a life of quiet retirement. However, in the final years of his life, Glenn reasserted himself as a voice for America's future in space when most men of his age would have been content to sit in the proverbial rocking chair. The impetus for Glenn's reemergence as a public figure: retiring of the shuttle fleet.
After the 2003 Columbia disaster, there was considerable pressure to retire the space shuttles, which were of a 1970s design. While no one could deny that the shuttles were old (Columbia first launched in 1981), the controversy arose in that there was no replacement that could seamlessly take over as the shuttles had done for the Apollo rockets. Without an immediate replacement, America would be Earthbound in the sector of manned spaceflight for the first time since 1961. Glenn obviously saw the sad irony of having to hitchhike a ride with, of all people, the Russians, as the only avenue for Americans to enter space.
However, being out of government, Glenn had no official say in policy and the shuttles were eventually retired in 2011. The shuttle battle over, Glenn, now in his 90s, continued to advocate for space exploration and the development of a new heavy-lift rocket, much akin to the Saturn V of the Apollo years. In 2012, Glenn celebrated the 50th anniversary of his 1962 flight with the then still-living Scott Carpenter, who would live to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Project Mercury flight later in the year.
In their joint Q&A session, both Glenn and Carpenter, 90 and 86 at the time, respectively, reminisced about their flights and the 60s, which are now seen as the glory days of NASA, when bold innovation was the norm. Both men lamented over the current state of NASA, namely the proverbial spinning of the wheels on the front of manned spaceflight. However, both of America's earliest astronauts also expressed optimism that NASA could once again focus on a shared vision as it had done in the 60s and boldly go where no man had ever gone before in a new century.
As a nation, we owe it to John Glenn, the other space heroes of the past, and all the anonymous men and women who made the great space achievements of the past possible to once again right the proverbial ship at NASA and once again to boldly push the frontiers of human space exploration to new frontiers, this time to Mars and beyond.

Godspeed, John Glenn.