The impossible conundrum: science as a (perennial?) candle in the dark

1(left: Carl Sagan; right: Richard Lewontin)

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer. One of my role models was Carl Sagan, the charming original host of the television series Cosmos and author of countless books on astronomy and the nature of science. Later on I decided that biology was really my calling, and my entire career was the result of reading a single, incredibly powerful paper: The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes, by Richard Lewontin. I never had the pleasure of meeting Sagan, but I did have an hour long chat with Lewontin when I was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and he was visiting our lab. It was one of the highlights of my life.

Both Sagan and Lewontin had far more impact on me than just their science. Sagan made me sensitive to the importance of communicating with a broader public, to share the wonders of the scientific worldview, as well as to fight the irrationality of pseudoscience. Lewontin made me sensitive to the ideological underpinnings of science and even science popularizing, and therefore, ironically, somewhat skeptical of Sagan’s own approach.

Recently, one of my readers suggested that I take a fresh look at a classic within this context: Lewontin’s review of one of Sagan’s best known books, and one that has influenced me for two decades: The Demon-Haunted World, subtitled Science as a Candle in the Dark. The review, entitled Billions and Billions of Demons (a playful, perhaps somewhat sarcastic, take on Sagan’s famous tagline about a universe with billions and billions of stars) is well worth pondering again today.

Lewontin opens with a recounting of when he met Sagan for the first time, on the occasion of a public debate about creationism vs evolution in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1964. The experience was formative for both, but they came away from it with radically different messages:

“Sagan and I drew different conclusions from our experience. For me the confrontation between creationism and the science of evolution was an example of historical, regional, and class differences in culture that could only be understood in the context of American social history. For Carl it was a struggle between ignorance and knowledge.”

I can sympathize. When, in 1997, I first debated a creationist, Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research (no kidding), I was squarely looking at things through Sagan’s filter: obviously creation “science” is no such thing; obviously evolutionary theory is solid science; and obviously anyone disagreeing with these two propositions is a hillbilly ignoramus. More than two decades after that debate I think that position was incredibly naive, and I find myself far closer to Lewontin’s, though not entirely on board just yet.

As Lewontin aptly puts it:

“The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of, for that vast project is, in its entirety, hopeless. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth. The reason that people do not have a correct view of nature is not that they are ignorant of this or that fact about the material world, but that they look to the wrong sources in their attempt to understand.”

In other words, and contra Sagan, it isn’t a question of educating people about facts, it’s a question of convincing them to trust the better authority. Think of it this way. You probably “know” that atomic nuclei are made of quarks, right? But do you? Really? Unless you are a physicist, or at any rate someone whose grasp of physics is far better than average, you don’t actually know how science arrived at this basic fact about the structure of the world. Instead, you are simply repeating a statement that you read in a book or heard from a prominent physicist, or your college physics professor. You don’t know. You trust.

That’s why rejection of evolution in favor of creationism — while wrong (I actually know this, I’m a biologist) — is not irrational. It simply means that many people in the United States would rather trust their preachers, who they think speak on behalf of God, than Profs. Sagan, Lewontin, or Pigliucci. That’s why Lewontin, correctly, says that the only way to understand why creationism is such an issue in the US of A but not in pretty much any other Western country (and, again, is very much an issue in a lot of Islamic countries) we don’t need to look at the quality of science education. We need to look at the specific cultural history of the United States vs that of European countries.

Sagan did not get it. Here is Lewontin again:

“The only explanation that [Sagan] offers for the dogged resistance of the masses to the obvious virtues of the scientific way of knowing is that ‘through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science.’ He does not tell us how he used the scientific method to discover the ‘embedded’ human proclivity for science, or the cause of its frustration. Perhaps we ought to add to the menu of Saganic demonology, just after spoon-bending, ten-second seat-of-the-pants explanations of social realities.”

You hear similar ex cathedra pronouncements from the contemporary heirs of Sagan’s approach, for instance Neil deGrasse Tyson (who has taken over the helm of the new Cosmos series). Their analysis of the hows and whys of widespread beliefs in parapsychology, UFOs, astrology and so forth is just as unempirical and “seat-of-the-pants” as Sagan’s. One would expect better from people who loudly insist on the absolute necessity of systematic empirical data before making any pronouncement.

Lewontin then proceeds with chastising another common Sagan-Tyson-et-al argument in defense of science: that it “delivers the goods.” Well, yes, sometimes. At times, though, those “goods” are anything but (atomic weapons, biological weapons, Facebook), and in other cases there is no delivery at all (the “war on cancer,” or the over-hyped promises of the human genome project). Meanwhile billions and billions — of dollars — are spent at taxpayers’ expense. Referring to the repeated promises of scientists to deliver cures for diseases if they were only given money to sequence the genes associated with them, followed by inevitable failure since a DNA sequence by itself doesn’t provide a cure for anything, Lewontin writes:

“Scientists apparently do not realize that the repeated promises of benefits yet to come, with no likelihood that those promises will be fulfilled, can only produce a widespread cynicism about the claims for the scientific method. Sagan, trying to explain the success of Carlos, a telepathic charlatan, muses on ‘how little it takes to tamper with our beliefs, how readily we are led, how easy it is to fool the public when people are lonely and starved for something to believe in.’
Not to mention when they are sick and dying.”

Ouch, but on the mark. And there is more where that came from:

“Sagan’s suggestion that only demonologists engage in ‘special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble,’ is certainly not one that accords with my reading of the scientific literature. … As to assertions without adequate evidence, the literature of science is filled with them, especially the literature of popular science writing.”

I must say that my own experience as a scientist first, and now as a philosopher of science, is far more in synch with Lewontin’s cynicism than with Sagan’s optimism.

And here is another gem from the review:

“When, at the time of the moon landing, a woman in rural Texas was interviewed about the event, she very sensibly refused to believe that the television pictures she had seen had come all the way from the moon, on the grounds that with her antenna she couldn’t even get Dallas. What seems absurd depends on one’s prejudice. Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity ‘in deep trouble.’ Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.”

Just in case your blood is boiling and you begin to think Lewontin to be a postmodern deconstructionist, think again (and try to breathe deeply). He is an atheist, and he certainly does believe that we landed on the moon. His point is about cautioning scientists and science popularizers against dismissing others on the ground that their views are “obviously” irrational. Rationality is a great tool, but its deployment depends on one’s axioms or, as Lewontin’s puts it, one’s prejudices.

Here is where I partially, but only partially, part company with Lewontin:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”

Well, yes, sort of. I would say that materialism itself is a philosophical position that many have arrived at because it is the one that makes the most sense of the world as we understand it. But wait, isn’t our understanding of the world based on the assumption of materialism? In a sense, but I think it is a mistake to see one as definitely preceding the other. Materialism and science co-evolved for centuries, and there was plenty of time when many prominent scientists were definitely not materialists, or at least not thoroughgoing materialists — from Newton to Alfred Wallace (the co-discoverer of natural selection). But the more the metaphysical leanings of natural philosophers (as scientists were once called) approached full fledged materialism, the more their science became successful at explaining and manipulating the world. This is, in a sense, a beautiful, centuries-long example of why one’s metaphysics should never be far from one’s epistemology (as it is, by contrast, with religion). The problem is that it’s really hard to imagine how to trigger that same sort of shift in a general public that hardly thinks either philosophically or scientifically. And no, more courses along the lines of Biology or Physics 101 ain’t gonna do it.

Lewontin, again, is far more perceptive than Sagan:

“The struggle for possession of public consciousness between material and mystical explanations of the world is one aspect of the history of the confrontation between elite culture and popular culture. … Evolution, for example, was not part of the regular biology curriculum when I was a student in 1946 in the New York City high schools, nor was it discussed in school textbooks. In consequence there was no organized creationist movement. Then, in the late 1950s, a national project was begun to bring school science curricula up to date. … The elite culture was now extending its domination by attacking the control that families had maintained over the ideological formation of their children. The result was a fundamentalist revolt, the invention of ‘Creation Science,’ and successful popular pressure on local school boards and state textbook purchasing agencies to revise subversive curricula and boycott blasphemous textbooks.”

Lewontin is absolutely right here. But the problem is, and he would be the first one to admit it, that there is no solution in sight. Are we supposed not to teach one of the most important scientific theories of all time because teaching it is going to be taken as yet another affront perpetrated on the working class by the moneyed elite? I doubt it. But the only other path I can see just ain’t gonna happen: establish a society where there is no such thing as the moneyed elite, where everyone has access to free education, and where consequently a lot of the cultural and economic factors that Lewontin correctly pinpoints will be erased or at least greatly diminished. I’ not holding my breath, are you?

The review concludes with a quote from the Gorgias, one of Plato’s dialogues (which Sagan would have appreciated, though I’m pretty confident that a lot of contemporary science popularizers have no idea why anyone would quote a philosopher who’s been dead more than two millennia. After all, isn’t philosophy useless?). Gorgias, a sophist, and Socrates are debating the relative virtues of rhetoric and technical expertise in public life. We are meant, of course, to sympathize with Socrates, but see if you can appreciate Gorgias’ point, in light of the preceding discussion:

Gorgias: “I mean [by the art of rhetoric] the ability to convince by means of speech a jury in a court of justice, members of the Council in their Chamber, voters at a meeting of the Assembly, and any other gathering of citizens, whatever it may be.”

Socrates: “When the citizens hold a meeting to appoint medical officers or shipbuilders or any other professional class of person, surely it won’t be the orator who advises them then. Obviously in every such election the choice ought to fall on the most expert.”

Obviously it ought, but equally obviously it doesn’t. And that, two and a half millennia later, is still the problem, and the reason why we are in the mess we are in.