I highly recommend this book. I believe that my outlook on life is a scientific one, and Sagan typifies such a world-view. This book is the best argument I have ever read in favor of such a world-view. Sagan also addresses pseudoscience in the most eloquent way. He clearly debunks many pseudoscientific beliefs, such as alien abductions, astrology, and the face on Mars. But, debunking these beliefs is not his point. He delves deeply into why they arose and what their impact is on our psyches and on our society.
I have here collected some extracts from the book that I hope will capture some of the point of the work and a tiny sampling of its insights.
To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion years and not 6 to 12 thousand years old 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 occaisionally 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 all the "Buckleys" among us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually presing 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 intersting place if there were UFOs luking 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 eveidence 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 difficlut to come upon, as I was reminded by my encounter with Mr. "Buckley," are the alternative, more challenging and even more dazzling findings of science.
Some quotes Dr. Sagan collected for the book.
Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probablity by the thing testified.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not comonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding.
Francis Bacon, Novum Organon (1620)
Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects. They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and the most positive bigotry.
Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in socity. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commision of every other crime.
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
The foundation of morality is to . . . give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibliities of knowledge.
T. H. Huxley
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
Charles Darwin The Descent of Man (1871)
I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me . . . I . . . hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypcritical Christianity of this land.
You dispute, you quarrel, you fight for that which is uncertain, that of which you doubt. O men! Is this not folly? . . . We must trace a line of distinction between those that are capable of verification, and those that are not, and separate by an inviolable barrier the world of fantastical beings from the world of realities; that is to say, all civil effect must be taken away from theological and religious opinions.
C. F. Volney Ruins (1791)
Science and its philosophical corollaries, were perhaps the most important intellectual force shaping the destiny of eighteenth-century America . . . Franklin was only one of a number of forward-looking colonists who recognized the kinship of scientific method and democratic procedure. Free inquiry, free exchange of information, optimism, self-criticism, pragmatism, objectivity - all these ingredients of the coming republic were already active in the republic of science that flourished in the eighteenth century.
American historian Clinton Rossiter
From the conclusion of this [Revolutionary] war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, 'til our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion."
Another Demon-haunted World page.