carl sagan

Review – The Demon Haunted World

This is a repost.

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Darkby Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.

CARL SAGAN FOR REDNECKS

This came via infiniteregress on twitter who I concur with when he says…

“I’m not the biggest Family Guy fan, but this was inspired”

(There is something below the video as well)

This is not as frivolous as it might seem. There have been many allegations that certain nature documentaries have been altered to remove references to evolution and so on. A few years ago Martin Wisse pointed out that that Dutch Evangelical TV had been editing Attenborough programmes to remove all references to evolution. The links for 3 videos [in English] demonstrating the editing were HERE, HERE and HEREbut have since been removed.

THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.

WHICH WOULD YOU PREFER THEY SPEND IT ON?

Normally I tweet in relation to blog posts. This is my first blog post in relation to a tweet.

I put a tweet up earlier about which of these 3 proposals for the next big European space mission you would like to see followed through.

I  know that what with everything happening in Haiti it may seem insensitive to talk about this at the moment but there have always been natural disasters and the argument still holds.

I have had a real change of opinion about this kind of thing over the years. For a long time I couldn’t see how this kind of expenditure could be justified when there are natural disasters, people starving and all the other social problems we know about.

However there were 2 people, saying roughly the same thing, that changed my mind about it all.

The first was Bill Hicks in a little speech that he used countless times.I have just reproduced the end of it here but this link is for the full thing…

A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourselves off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what you can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defence each year, and instead spend it feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, for ever, in peace.

This is beautifully put and eminently sensible from Hicks but I also found Carl Sagan’s argument, which was basically the same, to be put in such a way as to make it almost impossible to disagree with.

In one section of his wonderful program Cosmos he points out that the Voyager missions, which gave us the majority of knowledge we have about our solar system and plenty other things besides, cost less than a penny/cent per person for everyone on the planet.

I think that it becomes almost ridiculous to suggest that this is money wasted when you consider how much we get in return for this money…namely the best information we have about who we are and where we came from (at least for some places – the Cassini-Huygens mission and others have updated our knowledge about other places). All of this is doubly important when we consider that there is a huge movement backed by huge amounts of money attempting to convince us all again that the earth is in fact 6000 years old etc etc. If these people get full control (again) we will be back to burning witches before we can say “dark ages”.

When you consider that the amount of money wasted on weapons and armies every year is probably more than a thousand times more than is spent on exploration, observation and conservation of the natural  world (and universe)  “In which of these things should we be cutting budgets?” , “Which of these things should we be attacking?” are the simple questions that should present themselves to thinking people.

Here is a short video of Carl Sagan explaining only some of the things that we got for that one penny or cent each.

THIS IS DELIBERATE [REPOST]

Reposting this because I like it. Go to the link at the bottom to find out what it all means.

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For a translation of this article COPY THE BINARY then CLICK HERE and translate.

THIS IS DELIBERATE

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For a translation of this article COPY THE BINARY then CLICK HERE and translate.

EXTRAORDINARY

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan

One oft repeated idea at the moment is that despite the environmental crisis we will find ways to maintain [or find replacement substances for]  our current addictions to oil and oil based products, energy consumption and a host of other things.

We are told not to worry because some sort of morphine is on the way [biofuels, hydrogen cars etc etc] and that ‘our’ way of life is not going to change in the face of the environmental crisis. Strangely we are told this at the very same time that we are being told it must change because of the financial crisis.

However, a quick look at history will tell you that the idea that this mode of operating is not going to change is a completely bizarre one. Society changes often and repeatedly.

That said, the relationship of the people in general to those who control them is slower to change. So how different are our lives as part of the oil bubble from those just a few generations before?

There is a thought experiment that Douglas Adams once talked about that should illustrate just how different lives are now from just a short time ago. ..

Imagine two detectives investigating a murder in London. One of the detectives is from the late 20th century and the other is from the late 19th century. Now tell them that the main suspect was spotted in London on the day of the murder and Buenos Aires the next day. The 20th century detective might not know exactly what flight or plane the suspect took but there is no fundamental mystery as to what happened. The 19th century detective however would be completely flummoxed and might believe that this was impossible or that there must be some form of magic involved.

This little illustration shows how much ‘ways of life’ and [even more so] perspectives can change in a short time.

The idea that this kind of society is forever and not up for negotiation etc has its roots in fear and arrogance. As Orwell said in his newspaper column…

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come — since it has never come before — is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings.

In fact, there are new ideas. The idea that an advanced civilization need not rest on slavery is a relatively new idea, for instance; it is a good deal younger than the Christian religion… Ideas may not change, but emphasis shifts constantly.

Simply asserting that things are going to stay this way regardless of the state of the planet is a completely insane way to think – only suitable for an era in which people are  for the most part insane.

Furthermore, I remember people used to talk about how much better things would be 100 years in the future. I haven’t heard anyone discussing that for years. The idea now seems to be that this is as good as it gets and we just have to try to maintain this mode of operation in spite of all the evidence that it can’t continue.

The Mayan society collapsed because they used up their energy source. The same thing happened on Easter island. How did these groups respond to the looming environmental disasters?  They built more pyramids and more statues, used more resources unnecessarily and simply sped up their own demise.

At the very least, those societies left some remarkable monuments to their folly.

I think it is time for me to go out and celebrate the richness of the culture of now. I think I will go christmas shopping. What to buy? Hmmm, maybe some heated towel rails, some liposuction for the dog [he is getting fat] and maybe a plastic fish that sings Al Green songs  [badly].

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CARL SAGAN

I have mentioned a couple of times that astronomy [or at least learning about it – I can’t afford a telescope] is a hobby of mine.

I think the reason I got into it can be traced back to a few beautiful nights in the Scottish countryside when I was young and the book of the TV series Cosmos that was always lying around somewhere in the house.

He died in 1996 but in the video below he exhorts us a species not to lose things of value to our culture and our lives. So in that spirit I have put some quotes from the man below the video…

Enjoy.

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.

The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.

The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.

Widespread intellectual and moral docility may be convenient for leaders in the short term, but it is suicidal for nations in the long term. One of the criteria for national leadership should therefore be a talent for understanding, encouraging, and making constructive use of vigorous criticism.

…that kind of skeptical questioning, don’t accept what authority tells you -attitude of science- is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?