What book(s) are you reading right now? | Mechanics' Institute

You are here

What book(s) are you reading right now?

A few months ago, I read a quote from Carl Sagan's book, The Demon-haunted World, that the writer Paul Ratner claimed predicted, back in 1995, our present-day social, technological and political conditions. 

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

(From p. 25 in A Demon-Haunted World, quoted in A disturbing 1995 prediction by Carl Sagan accurately describes America today)

This led me to check out the book from our collection. As of this writing, I have read about three quarters and find Sagan's prescience quite inspiring. He also shares insights into human behavior I never encountered before. He starts out tracing superstition in Western culture as far back as Europe of the Middle Ages to the present - one could probably go back further, but Sagan limits the beginning of his overview to that place and point in time. Among the fascinating insights he shares along the way comes when he neatly "connects the dots" from medieval sightings of saints, angels and the Virgin Mary to contemporary UFO abductees. He also quoted, of all people, Leon Trotsky, "Not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the 20th century the 13th." (p.16). 

In the middle of the book, various forms of pseudoscience come under his scrutiny. He recounts corresponding with people claiming they are in contact with extraterrestrials. The people making such claims invite Sagan to "ask them anything, they'll relay the answer back to him." Sagan always asked for the proof for Fermat's last theorem. No one ever relayed E.T.'s answer.  (Fermat's last theorem is a mathematical challenge solved while Sagan was writing this book. He described it as a question we have not yet answered but would recognize a correct answer should we see one). 

By far my favorite chapter I have read so far is "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection." This chapter has proven so popular that many blogs and web publications have excerpted the list of "tools" in his baloney detection kit. (The one in The Marginalian gives the best rendering of this that I can find outside of the book itself). 

Sagan stands as one of the most impressive thinkers and writers of the 20th century.  I also find myself impressed by the clarity and honesty of his writing. He readily admits to having believed in the supernatural and falling for pseudoscientific claims during his pre-college youth. He explains how he out-grew believing nonsense. He developed a keen and perceptive mind, and most importantly, the key attribute of science and scientific thought is verification; and prediction stands as the most powerful form of verification. Reading the passage quoted above, we can see his prediction, made the year before his death in 1996, and judge for ourselves the truth of what he saw coming.  


Posted on May. 19, 2023 by Steven Dunlap