History Science

GregB. Recommends Essential Reading

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GregB. is one of our best-read commenters. He is well-informed and wise.

He writes:

I’ve posted this a few times over the years of commenting here, so I figure this is a good place to do it again. It’s a summation of my opinion of my favorite book on science, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

In this valedictory statement of scientific philosophy, Sagan elevates the idea and relevance of the scientific method in our daily and public lives. It is not something to “believe in,” it is a way of looking at the world with healthy skepticism and pragmatic attention to systematic, verified observation. “Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions.” (We don’t “believe in,” for example, climate change; we make decisions to accept the validity about the prevailing scientific research and interpretation of its findings.) Sagan uses examples in history including UFOs, superstitions, dragons and other mythical monsters, and a variety of other topics to explain how science has demonstrated these things do not exist and why we should not live in fear of them. He tackles those who promote anti-science such as fake approaches to treating and “curing” diseases, how to engage in the “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” and how public figures use these things to distort public dialogues about policy.

But the one thing that makes this book so special to me is Sagan’s connection of science to the civic education and engagement that is required of citizens in the modern world, which are essential if we are to be free. I think it worth quoting the final paragraph of this, the last book he wrote in his life, something he wrote when he knew had, at best, a few short months to live. These are quite literally the last public words of the greatest scientific communicator who has ever lived:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen—or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness. (emphasis added)”

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