Mark Joseph, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Mark Joseph)
As one who spent the decade escaping--successfully--from fundamentalism, the value of a book is not only in how absorbing of a read it was, but also how it encouraged the freedom to not believe. I read a number of excellent books along these lines during the last ten years, both positive, in their portrayal of the ability of science to understand what is true (this one, Park's "Voodoo Science," books of essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Coyne's "Why Evolution is True") and negative, in their criticism of religion's discredited truth claims and baleful social effects (the ones you all know by Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, as well as Kaminer's "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials" and Mills' "Atheist Universe"). A tough call, but I'd have to choose this book by Sagan for the very best of the group. To call it a book about the scientific method would make it sound dull--which it decidedly was not!--so let me rather characterize the book as providing the epistemological basis for a life of freedom.
To catalogue the book's intellectual riches would be either to reproduce it word for word, or to be annoyingly pedantic, so one example alone will have to suffice. Sagan clarifies the two meanings the word "science" has, namely the method whereby we come to know things with some confidence, and the body of facts known thereby. This one idea distinguishes science from religion (religion has its store of dogma, but no method to determine whether or not any of it is true, relying on faith rather than any objective method), and illuminates the source of science's success in explaining the world (further experiments and theory can result in changes and revisions to what is considered to be true, and even overthrowing it; the final arbiter is nature, not any given human being's opinions). As Sagan himself states: "The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science").
The eclipse of science in America, due to funding issues, poorly-conceived educational practices (translation: science in elementary school is dull), and the efforts of the strange bedfellows of the religious right and the po-mo left, both eager to prevent any true scientific reasoning from overthrowing their subjective beliefs and political opinions, is leading to widespread religiously inspired ignorance, political extremism reactionary to the point of fascism (you think I'm exaggerating, but I hear it every day from my still-fundamentalist friends and family) and, more to the point and if the right can prevent any action from being taken on the climate crisis (the details of which we know by the hard work of those "stodgy and grumpy" scientists), the extinction of the human race within the next 100-150 years. It is silly to think that any one book, even one as wildly exciting as this one, can change this state of affairs--but one can always hope.
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by Los Angeles Times,
"A glorious book....A spirited defense of science....From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought."
by The Washington Post Book World,
"Powerful....A stirring defense of informed rationality....Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing."
by USA Today,
by The Sciences,
"A clear vision of what good science means and why it makes a difference....A testimonial to the power of science and a warning of the dangers of unrestrained credulity."
by San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle,
by Publishers Weekly,
"Eminent Cornell astronomer and bestselling author Sagan debunks the paranormal and the unexplained in a study that will reassure hardcore skeptics but may leave others unsatisfied."
Disturbingly, in our so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning, with alien abduction, "channeling" past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. In this compellingly brilliant new book, Carl Sagan argues that this is not just a cultural wrong turn, but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.
Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks modern pseudoscience, as well as such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. By doing so, he demonstrates that true scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth, but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dragons of Eden and Cosmos shows how scientific thinking can cut through prejudice and hysteria and uncover the truth. Sagan also argues the necessity of safeguarding democratic institutions in a high-tech world.
by Random House,
Are we on the brink of a new Dark Age of irrationality and superstition? In this stirring, brilliantly argued book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dragons of Eden and Cosmos shows how scientific thinking can cut through prejudice and hysteria and uncover the truth, and how it is necessary to safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilization.
"A glorious book . . . A spirited defense of science . . . From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought."
*Los Angeles Times
"POWERFUL . . . A stirring defense of informed rationality. . . Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing."
*The Washington Post Book World
How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don't understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.
Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today's so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.
"A clear vision of what good science means and why it makes a difference. . . . A testimonial to the power of science and a warning of the dangers of unrestrained credulity."
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