Friday, January 8, 2010

Carl Sagan on Science and Skepticism

Carl Sagan’s work is a great reminder of the ethical aspect of skepticism: without the ability to distinguish between prejudice and “postjudice,” or between what is true and what feels good, we may “slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”

I recently learned from a blog entry by D. J. Grothe of the availability of some writings of Carl Sagan (1934–1996) on the site of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Grothe comments:
One thing that stands out in them is how skepticism was for Carl Sagan a deeply ethical enterprise, not just a debunking hobby, or a way to show how smart we are compared to the numbskulls who believe nonsense. For Sagan, as for so many other leaders in skepticism—though it is not often framed like this—his skepticism came out of a kind of deep moral imperative. Because undue credulity causes so much measurable harm, it follows that there is an ethical obligation to work to mitigate it through speaking out and educating our neighbors. Whether you believe that space aliens are coming to Earth to solve all our problems so we don’t have to do any work to fix them ourselves, or you believe that going to a faith healer or New Age huckster rather than relying on medical science to heal you is the right course of medical care, believing in things uncritically can be bad for you and bad for society. Sagan felt that it was the right thing—the morally conscientious thing—to work against those trends.
That ethical concern seems to me well expressed in this passage from Sagan’s essay “The Burden of Skepticism” (1987):
Another writer again agreed with all my generalities, but said that as an inveterate skeptic I have closed my mind to the truth. Most notably I have ignored the evidence for an Earth that is six thousand years old. Well, I haven’t ignored it; I considered the purported evidence and then rejected it. There is a difference, and this is a difference, we might say, between prejudice and postjudice. Prejudice is making a judgment before you have looked at the facts. Postjudice is making a judgment afterwards. Prejudice is terrible, in the sense that you commit injustices and you make serious mistakes. Postjudice is not terrible. You can’t be perfect of course; you may make mistakes also. But it is permissible to make a judgment after you have examined the evidence. In some circles it is even encouraged.
It is salutary to remember such things when one is accused of being “closed-minded” (or “close-minded,” in the cretinous mangling of the phrase that seems to be coming into favor on the Web) for disparaging claims of events that run contrary to common experience and well-founded scientific conclusions. Being “open-minded” or unprejudiced does not mean refusing to draw conclusions. If Charlie Brown is a perfect skeptic, he must acknowledge that it is possible that, if he runs to kick the football this time, Lucy will let him do so. But, given that she has snatched the football away at the last moment on all previous occasions, he has good reason to believe that she will do the same thing to him this time. That is not a prejudice. That is a warranted conclusion from experience.

And here is a notable passage from “Wonder and Skepticism” (1994):
There’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have—maybe ill-placed—of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.
In a previous entry, I raised the question whether there is really any such thing as a “harmless superstition,” and suggested that there is no such thing, but only a distinction between less and more harmful superstitions. Sagan’s reflections seem to me in agreement with this thought.

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