On Science, Magic, and Clarity of Thought

On Science, Magic, and Clarity of Thought

Let's talk about Science, Magic, and Fiction today.

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World and I have many thoughts to share about the overlap of what is known and what is not right now.

Also on Modern Science in general. I trust y'all will keep me honest.

First, some background on the book itself: This was recommended to me as a good read for a skeptical take on myth, magic, and superstition when I was asking for counter-balancing research and writing on the metaphysical (magic? emergent phenomena?) research I'm doing.

Carl Sagan is largely known to me as "that science guy from the 70s" but I'm aware he's widely revered and accepted as an expert in astronomy and astrophysics, and there was actually a lot in his book I loved and agree with.

Unfortunately, there was also a lot to be desired.

The first half of the book is a critical discussion of all of the things Sagan considers pseudoscience, and the second half is a polemic against the decline of scientific thinking in modern-day America and the dangers of a return to a superstitious understanding of the world.

Throughout the text, Sagan appeals to materialist ideals of rationality, thorough inquisition of what is, based on observable facts, and provides countless examples of ways in which science-fueled technology is preferable to magical thinking as a means to effect results.

I don't disagree with any of this! He's spot on, and I admire his commitment to scientific ideals and his desire to champion clear thought in a world too often lacking clarity as a means to elevate mankind.

What I have to critique, however, is his commitment to his own ideals as he attempts to present a persuasive case for why we shouldn't believe in "magic." I dislike the methods of persuasion employed in this book, which struck me as largely status posturing. Let me explain.

The first half of the book, in which he "debunks" pseudoscience, mostly consists of him listing off things that science commonly considers "silly" with no meaningful evidence or discussion that indicates he'd actually done much primary research into the phenomena discussed.

Fine, well, maybe he did his research off-page, and maybe this was a pop science book intended for a lay audience to persuade with appeals to authority rather than evidence (which is curious considering the topic of the discussion, but whatever).

Even so, I wish he had provided better evidence against the beliefs of his "demon-haunted" world than a conspiracy-believing cabbie he spoke with once, a mother and daughter he tested for psychic powers, and an alleged astral traveler who couldn't read numbers he hid.

I dislike these things because they're presented as sufficient evidence that we should disbelieve these phenomena with none of the rigor that he would apply anywhere in his own discipline and describes at length later in the book.

Rather, he spends the first half of the book basically arguing against strawmen of phenomena he doesn't even bother to say that he investigated scientifically or more thoroughly than one-off cases where he didn't see the claimed results (whether or not he did).

Great--I too love science. But if you're going to claim that you're debunking something like worldwide magical thinking, I feel like you owe your readers a slightly more serious discussion than, "This lady said she was psychic and she TOTALLY WASN'T."

And not to pick on Sagan, but even more so when your whole schtick is scientific inquiry. There are charlatans in every branch of science looking to make a buck, and that doesn't make their (better-understood) fields any less useful. In fact he complains about this.

My next nit to pick is how he spends a large chunk of the the book associating scientific reasoning with the founding fathers of America in a clumsy high-status associative bid and doesn't bother to mention that most of those guys were pretty deep in the mystical woo too.

It's not an either-or situation. As it turns out, TONS of our revered scientific forebears also had a healthy occult interest that we shouldn't just ignore or discard because it's convenient to the narrative we're pushing. This note is brushed under the rug.

The last portion of the book is a discussion of the decline of actual scientific thinking in America and the dire impacts of this on our culture and long-term success as a country. I'm in total agreement with him on this and I'll come back to discuss it shortly.

But first, I want to go a little deeper on why his methods of "debunking" suck. Let's ignore the (blatantly intentional) low-status associations he makes with the topics and the mingling of low confidence not-true and high confidence not-true and just look at the approach.

Of the experiments Sagan describes in the book, only one can even be described to have decent controls. It's a mother-daughter pair that claimed to be able to telepathically communicate, most often about playing cards. He tested them. They failed.

I'm amused that he rails about the lack of double-blind testing situations in pseudoscience a few pages later but won't even subject himself to the same standard when testing this as he's obviously predisposed to disbelieve a psychic outcome.

But he then goes on to imply that this is but one of thousands of examples that so thoroughly disprove the phenomena that we should consider it all nonsense, noise, and distraction.

Parapsychology research actually weakly suggests the opposite. This is not discussed.

Furthermore, this completely fails to account for the fact that phenomena can occur inconsistently and according to rules that we may not understand today.

To not even acknowledge that this might be occurring seems strikingly careless to me.

This feels like people shooting down germ theory because sometimes people get sick whether or not doctors wash their hands. Like, okay, sure. But maybe we should look more closely just in case these germ guys are on to something? Maybe we shouldn't just laugh at them?

My RV has an annoying beeping that comes on whenever my jacks come down a little bit and it shakes loose every 10 minutes or so when I'm driving sometimes. I've tried to show it to the mechanic several times.

I've tried to have the mechanic look at it several times to fix the damn thing but of course I can never get it to happen when they're looking at it even though it happens CONSTANTLY. This isn't a violation of natural law. This is an inconsistent thing that only I experience.

That doesn't mean there isn't an issue with my jacks or my sensors, and if there was a big enough pay-off for either me or the mechanic, we probably could find the problem with the right tools and assistance. In the meantime, it continues to drive me crazy.

The issue, of course, is the pay-off. We like things with predictable results. We like clear, understandable chains of cause and effect. This is because those things are more useful for everyday application in the areas that matter to us at scale.

But also recall that when the military studied remote viewing, their conclusion was not that it didn't work. It was that it didn't work WELL ENOUGH for consistent application of valid military intelligence. There's a difference between "real" and "consistently useful."

I'm not going to go deep on this yet--I'll probably write a book or something eventually with my thoughts on critical approaches to magical theory and I want to draw on more skeptical sources first to see what they've looked at.

But for now I'll leave it at "Sagan is probably insufficiently informed about the phenomena he's discussing to authoritatively make any claims about them." Without evidence that he looked more deeply and scientifically, that's all I've got to go on.

The other thing I want to talk about it, which merits even more critical discussion than his half-hearted inquiries into topics he clearly disbelieved from the start (of which there are more bad examples I could pick at), is his (good) idealist view of science in general.

Sagan speaks in breathy praise of a world based in scientific inquiry and commitment to materialist principles, and he isn't at all wrong that this would (probably) be a better world. He comes down hard on the lack of rigor and knowledge in the American people and leadership.

The book was written in 1995, now 25 years ago, and if anything, it seems like things have gone downhill since then with respect to capital-S Science, particularly in the sphere of public opinion.

People are openly dismissive of experts and distrustful of scientific thought.

As I was listening to Sagan complain about this, I kept thinking about why that anti-Science mindset has been growing. This is my non-scientist, non-STEM perspective as a cultural observer: Our ideals haven't lived up to the reality of human nature and cultural incentives.

That is, Science in its purest form, practiced as intended, is a beautiful thing: a method for exposing truth and paring away noise, and getting ever closer to a solid understanding of how the world works.

But it's rarely practiced or deployed with such idealistic purity.

I got into a fight with my brother about this once, who insisted that only pure materialism divorced from playing with language can tell us anything meaningful about the world.

My position is that nothing can be divorced from playing with language if the goal is to educate.

Without a Vulcan mind-meld level of understanding one another, everything anything tries to say about reality gets muddled through perception, communication, attention, and incentive filters. It doesn't matter how pure your science is if no one pays attention.

Someone just (rightly) pointed out in my comments that the goal of science isn't to educate, but there has to be an element of that for any discovery you make to matter. You have to be able to share it with people effectively.

But even worse is the incentives issue.

When scientific inquisition exposes things that are inconvenient or obstructive for people (and especially for business) the obvious strategic response is to bury, contradict, or "disprove" it. The tobacco industry has scientists too and THEY say cancer links are unclear.

And then there's the issue of funding. I only know what I read, but it seems like most science that gets done only gets done because there's a profit-seeking motive in play leaning on the results. How many people can actually chase pure knowledge with no one nudging them?

This leads to an environment where it seems like otherwise respectable scientists get pressured to fudge results or only present favorable results (which others have written about at length), and both misinformation and disinformation are rampant because of human nature.

I don't know what to do about this and it seems that no one else does either. The question of what to do about misinformation and bad actors looking out for their bottom line rather than truth is bigger than this mini-essay.

Moloch flexes and all we can do is wail.

But as this perception continues to erode public perceptions of scientists (who at times do themselves no favors with dogmatic adherence to questionable findings their own careers or funding are staked on), we DO open ourselves to bad reasoning and silly beliefs.

And the self-reinforcing cycle is pretty grim to watch.

It's hard to see the "I F*cking Love" science crowd also chill any discussion that might present data at odds with their preferred worldview.

No one will touch genetic trait inheritance with a 10-foot pole right now.

Which is stupid, because barring discussion that makes us feel uncomfortable walks all of us backward from truer understanding of the world around us. Everyone is (rightly) afraid of what bad actors might do with an awkward sliver of truth because they DO IT CONSTANTLY.

All this to say that I neither condemn nor support any particular worldview, but I'm in absolute agreement with Sagan that we each have a personal responsibility to seek truth in the world with an open, skeptical mind, and not just listen to what experts tell us uncritically.

And to bring this full circle, it's for precisely this reason that I can't take his critical skepticism of what he deems "pseudoscience" in this book seriously. He hasn't done his own homework while railing against everyone else for the same issue.

Some of the things he laughs off as utterly absurd have been demonstrated to be present in double-blind, rigorously controlled tests by parapsychologists.

Other things he laughs at (UFOs for example) seem less plausible given the lack of concrete evidence.

Oh, wait, oops. Except then this happened.


My point here is that history is AWASH with ideas about things that were thought to be ridiculous at some point and then later confirmed to be true. The truly unscientific stance is a dogmatic adherence to denying new evidence that doesn't square with what we think we know.

Just because we don't understand something or can't reproduce it in a controlled setting doesn't mean it's not real.

I'm still extremely open to skeptical arguments about metaphysics and magic (broad category).

But Sagan's book hasn't done much to convince me that there's not "a there there," as Daniel Ingram would say.