Thursday, December 21, 2006

Carl Sagan (Pseudo) Memorial / Demon Haunted World (Pseudo) Homage / [50th] Skeptics' Circle

As was suggested over at Pharyngula, the 20th of December is the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death, and it is fitting that this great skeptic is given a bit of a tribute here. Though it seems that many bloggers are doing the same. For this circle I decided to re-read one of the most formative books of my intellectual life, Sagan's The Demon Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark. It is fair to say it had a direct influence on the eventuation of Humbug! and Humbugonline.

With these two things in mind, I though it best to classify posts in a similar fashion to some of the chapters of The Demon Haunted World - a semi homage to the book. (Wherever an appropriately related link from another blog wasn't submitted, or I couldn't find something searching for myself, or simply because I could, I've been completely shameless and linked to one of my old posts.) I've called it a pseudo memorial/homage because, well, like a pseudo science at first it might seem like a reasonable alternative to a real memorial/homage, but once you delve a bit deeper you'll discover it's a bit of a sham. Still, the facade will make you feel good for a while and unlike most pseudo sciences, this pseudo memorial/homage won't cost you a penny.

Carl Sagan (Pseudo) Memorial / Demon Haunted World (Pseudo) Homage / [50th] Skeptics' Circle

Preface - My Teachers:
Sagan begins his book with a tribute of his own, to his teachers. Unfortunately, as is not an uncommon experience, many were less than inspiring. No one kills an interest in science better than a science teacher (ahem..). For Sagan, this all changed in college. He learned science from a historical perspective (something that I think is of upmost importance for a well-rounded and interesting science course) and as an integral part of all human knowledge. As he says: "It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist to not know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski and Freud - among many others."

As a science teacher myself, on occasion I attempt to inspire (at the very least I usually get a laugh). Though it's not specifically stated in the syllabus, teaching skepticism is also something I do. My Friday the 13th "experiments" on myself do both.

Chapters 1 & 2 - The Most Precious Thing & Science and Hope:
Sagan begins the book in earnest with his defence of science. In particular the distinction between science and pseudo science (something I've discussed here), how science helps us avoid being fooled into believing something that isn't true and teaches us how to think.

However, don't confuse Sagan's love of science with "Scientism" as D. N Menton has. Carl (rhymes with 'Sagan') Feagans sets Menton straight over at a Hot Cup of Joe.

One of the most memorable passages from chapter one points out the success of science based medicine:

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours… We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 milligrams a day of chlozapine...

On a similar note, at Respectful Insolence Orac points out that: "… there is a growing movement that insists that doctors should ask you about your spiritual life and make religious practices a part of medicine…"

My co-blogger, Jef, just last week found that not all doctors follow such wishy-washy rubbish.

Feeling a bit ill (or not)? Save some money and diagnose yourself with EoR's Woo World Self Treater "...which brings the finest and latest alternative therapies to one location and enables you to deal with your health concerns without the oppressive Big Pharma run Western Medical Establishment trying to kill you."

I tried it and, speaking from anecdote, it's brilliant. To protect my privacy I'll only give you a part of my diagnosis:

Quantum-consciousness analysis of your auric field shows you are suffering the symptoms of toxin overload, which is commonly seen among males born under the sign of Virgo. Swimming with dolphins has been shown to be effective in relieving the symptoms of toxin overload and allowing the body to heal itself. You can also boost your immune levels by remembering to deeply consider where you are, and commence colonic irrigations to remove toxins.

Chapter 3 - The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars:
One of the main themes of The Demon Haunted World is intelligent alien life and the pseudo scientific claims for it. One of the claims Sagan begins with is the "face" on Mars. John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts wrote about new images of the "face" in September.

Chapters 4 & 5 - Aliens & Spoofing and Secrecy:
Sagan continues looking at such claims, moving onto alien abduction and government cover-ups and conspiracies.

This is of particular interest to us here at Humbugonline. Ever since Jef admitted to travelling with aliens in a UFO, I've been defending myself from alien mind control. Further to this, I've conducted an experiment which proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it's not possible to land on the moon, and then Jef found this photo to top it off!

Chapter 10 - The Dragon in My Garage:
Sandy Szwarc at Junk Foodscience points out that some medical professionals simply think homeopathy is harmless fun. However, that's not the case. As the post says, it is costly, misleading and potentially harmful. More than that, it's simply a pseudo science:

Homeopathic followers often assert that these preparations defy modern testing or that there have been few tests on them. Both are false.

“Many providers of complementary and alternative medicine are convinced that their therapy defies the ‘straightjacket’ of reductionist research,” said a recent panel report from the Conference on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Methodology, National Institutes of Health. Supporters argue that alternative modalities are individualized, holistic, intuitive, etc, and call for a ‘paradigm shift’ in research.” However, the Panel concluded that these arguments are based on a series of misunderstandings and concerns can be resolved by properly designing the research, and that “if the aim is to test the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine, randomized controlled trials usually provide the least biased method for finding a reliable answer.”

Sandy's point could be straight out of The Demon Haunted World. Indeed, the late John Mack (a psychiatrist "…considered to be a leading authority on the spiritual or transformational effects of alleged alien encounter experiences"), as quoted by Sagan, could have been mistaken for a homeopath:

There are phenomena important enough to warrant serious research, and the metaphysics of the dominant Western scientific paradigm may be inadequate fully to support this research.

For more on the dragon, head over to Rockstars' Ramblings, where Bronze Dog pays homage to The Dragon in the Garage in the Carl Sagan Edition of the "Doggerel".

Chapter 12 - The Fine Art of Baloney Detection:
I consider this to be the most useful and important chapter of the book. All humans should learn how to detect baloney. Before I knew what a fallacy was I could still smell a bad argument. But knowing the various types of fallacies allows one to classify them. Sagan's baloney detection kit, made up of thinking techniques such as spinning another hypothesis and fallacies, is invaluable. Thankyou Carl.

At Rockstars' Ramblings, Bronze Dog takes a look at a misunderstanding of the ad hominem fallacy and points out that the quality of an argument is independent from the "hatefulness" of the arguer.

As a great example of baloney detection in action, you can't go past Bob Carroll of the Skeptic Dictionary. Bob unpacks his kit and uses it to expose the humbug filled arguments of an op-ed piece which claims that Two Mommies is One Two Many.

Chapter 14 - Antiscience:
Infophile at Rockstars' Ramblings, explains Quantum Mechanics. More importantly, how woos attempt to justify their claims using QM:

The logic the woos use to defend their claims boils down to asking how, if scientists don’t understand Quantum Mechanics, they can claim the woos are wrong about it? It’s simple, really. Scientists are confused about what causes all of this, not what can happen. The possible events in QM are all well-defined, and the calculations of probabilities are done deterministically.

This is the exact same conclusion Sagan reaches:

So how is a shamanistic or theological or New Age doctrine different from quantum mechanics? The answer is that even if we cannot understand it, we can verify that it works... the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to high accuracy, confirmed.

But the shaman tells us that his doctrine is true because it too works - not on arcane matters of mathematical physics but on what really counts: he can cure people. Very well, then, let's accumulate the statistics on shamanistic cures...

Chapter 15 - Newton's Sleep:
Big Heathen Mike at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant has a personal story to tell; how his lack of religion and his understanding of statistical probability allows him to deal with stress. What? Me worry?

This chapter on science and religion helped shape some of my own views. How can the two be reconciled? I've thought about this a great deal since reading The Demon Haunted World.

Chapter 19 - No Such Thing as a Dumb Question:
In this chapter Sagan laments the poor showing of US students in science and mathematics test scores compared to other western nations. He talks about the lack of scientific literacy amongst the general public, and the offence that evolution causes many people. One of the particular oddities of the United States is the Creationism/Evolution "debate". It's an oddity as it doesn't register on the radar here in Australia (or in the UK - where I taught for 1 & 1/2 years). As Sagan pointed out, when Americans were asked merely if they accept evolution, 45% said yes, whereas it was 70% in China. This is in the early 1990s - so things might be better by now? Well, maybe not. Especially if all the kiddies are wasting time playing Left Behind: Eternal Forces. It is simply Creationism in Video Game Form, as pointed out by Lord Runolfr.

OT - on the rare occasion I play a video game I go for Stick Cricket; far more wholesome than end of the world violence. (For the yanks, cricket is like baseball except it [test cricket] goes for 5 days and is more difficult. Australia is the best side in the world by far, and we are currently in the middle of giving the English a pasting. Don't worry though, they're used to it.)

Chapter 23 - Maxwell and the Nerds:
In one of the final chapters of The Demon Haunted World, Sagan looks at the sociology of science and the need for intellectual freedom. He begins the chapter by discussing the flaws of stereotyping, and points out that even if a stereotype is valid on average (say, men are taller than women) it is not going to hold for all individual cases (some women are taller than some men). One of the most detrimental stereotypes to the progress of science is that woman can't do it. I'm in no position to say whether this stereotype holds true for women in the professional arena today, but I can say that this perception is not one held by the many students I teach (and have taught), my colleagues, let alone the brilliant women who I went to university with.

That being said, the most common stereotype I have thrown at me by my students is that I'm a "nerd" because I teach science and mathematics. They usually ask me if I was in the "Chess Club" at school. I'll tell them to stop being silly, I played Bridge at school (jokes). Though these questions are in the form of a good-natured ribbing (they get a detention anyway… I love power!), they are quite revealing. Stereotypes abound and it is up to us to show them for what they are (I make sure to wear really cool sunglasses and a baseball cap; I don't walk, I strut).

Tara, at Aetiology, has dealt with similar stereotypes. She asks a series of rhetorical questions and gives examples of the "hot chick" stereotype. The argument goes something like this. "Hot chicks" don't like science fiction (and/or are no good at science). If you like science fiction (and/or are good at science) you are smart. Therefore, if you are a hot chick, you mustn't be smart.

I agree that it's a ridiculous stereotype, but I can't bring myself to feel too sorry for a smart hot chick... (except for my wife - she has to put up with me).

That's the end of my pseudo homage to The Demon Haunted World. If you haven't read the book, you must. In fact, it is one of my few "must reads". Do so now... Go!

Finally, to end this Circle, Orac has posted Three things about Carl Sagan. A great post to end the tribute to Carl with.

The 51st Skeptics' Circle is to be hosted by See You at Enceladus - January 4, 2007. Have a great Christmas and New Year.