Presents an interview with Carl Sagan the author. His book 'The
Demon-Haunted World'; Contents of book.
By PT Staff published January 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
PT: You've been most associated with issues of outer space. But you haveturned very much to a world of inner space, the human mind.
CS: Well, the boundary between space and the earth is purely arbitrary. And I'll probably always be interested in this plan-et--it's my favorite. I've written a number of books that have to do with the evolution of humans, human intelligence, human emotions. So it isn't a new departure for me to be concentrating on humans. Most of the people that I deal with are human. So I've had a lot of experience with that.
PT: Some of your best friends are humans. Your new book, The Demon-Haunted World, seems at times a litany of how the mind is fooled: by its own memory, by its senses, by shoddy reasoning. Is there intelligent life on Earth?
CS: Well, sure. But our intelligence is limited, and who would have expected otherwise? We're imperfect, and wisdom and prudence lie in understanding our imperfections. If we ignore our imperfections on the grounds that it's too depressing to concentrate on them, then we greatly limit our future options. On the other hand, if we know where our limitations are, not just in thinking but in emotional things, if we know about any hereditary predispositions we have towards ethnocentrism, xenophobia, dominance hierarchies, then we have a chance to moderate those tendencies. If we ignore any genetic predispositions in those directions, then we don't make any serious effort to ameliorate them and we're in much worse shape. This is one of those issues that every generation has to learn anew, because every generation has the same hereditary predispositions.
PT: But some of the issues you address in the book seem especially endemic to present times: UFOs, repressed memory. Are these kinds of things cropping up now more than before, as we approach the millennium?
CS: No. If you concentrate on the first few centuries of the Christian era, let's say, or the time of Mesmer in France, or almost any time in human history, you find just as many examples as from our present time. This is an endemic human characteristic--to be credulous, to believe what others tell us, to prefer what feels good to what's true.
PT: But until now, we've never been able to blow ourselves up . . .
CS: Quite right. The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It's not that there's something new in our way of thinking, it's that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it was never before.
PT: You point to the statistical likelihood of people in power periodically showing up in the guise of a Stalin or a Hitler. Given this probability, and given nuclear proliferation, what are your feelings about the future?
CS: Well, it's a very serious issue. We are, fortunately, in a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union are divesting their nuclear arsenals. According to the present treaties, agreed to if not ratified, each side will go down to something like 3,000 strategic weapons and delivery systems by the first decade of the 21st century, from 10 times that number. So that's very good news. On the other hand, there are only about 2,300 cities on the planet, so if each side gets 3,000 weapons, that means that each side retains the ability to annihilate every city on earth. That is certainly not comfortable news, because if you wait long enough you are bound to have a madman at the helm in one of these countries.
PT: Are you saying it's inevitable?
CS: If you look at the history of the world, such people regularly come to power. We may comfort ourselves in the United States that it hasn't happened to us, but even here I would say that a number of times in our recent history we've come dose to having somebody dangerously incompetent or drunk or crazy in power in a time of crisis. Hitler and Stalin are reminders that the most advanced countries on earth can have such leaders.
PT: You spend a good deal of The Demon-Haunted World talking about, to use your term, scientific illiteracy. What do you think we should do? Clearly everything is going in the wrong direction.
CS: Well, the first thing I would say is that every generation has bemoaned the supposed lack of education of the next generation, and that goes back to some of the earliest Sumerian tablets that we have, from about 5000 years ago.
PT: With elders complaining about the youngsters of the time?
CS: Right: "They're not nearly as sharp as they were in my generation. They're not motivated. They don't do homework." So, there's always a danger of crotchety, elderly people comparing their generation with youngsters and concluding their generation was much harder working, more serious, had better values, better music, and so on.
Nevertheless, it's dear that there's a rampant dumbing down in progress in which not knowing things is considered a virtue and in which knowing things is considered a cause for embarrassment. I don't throw up my hands in despair. But I do try to indicate that it's a very serious problem that has no single point to face.
It isn't that if you were merely to increase the salaries of schoolteachers, you would solve the problem. The problem is endemic. It works at every level. It works in the culture of children themselves. It works in the federal, state, and local government. It works in the media. It works in the school boards and taxpayers with school bond issues. There's not just one point of attack. And it's very hard to imagine a serious change unless there's a change of behavior at many levels by many different people. That involves rethinking, it involves changes in values, it involves money--not out of cynicism, but out of understanding how the real world works. It's going to be very difficult to make this change unless, as happened with Sputnik, there's an apparent threat to national security that requires us to learn more science.
PT: We need a Sputnik-like explosion in public awareness to make us think, wake up.
CS: We do have the example of the late '50s and the early '60s. I don't know if that's the only thing that can make us do it. A sudden outbreak of wisdom maybe would be such a shock.
PT: I don't think we should count on that. Sputnik worked in part, I think, because people then had faith that science was going to cure our medical ills and solve the world's problems. People today don't have the same view of science as a panacea.
CS: As someone whose life was saved in the last six months by medical science, I certainly don't share the skepticism. The lives of almost everybody on earth depend in the most intimate way on science and technology--to be unenthusiastic about science and technology is not just foolish, it's suicidal.
Without agricultural technology, for example, the earth could support only tens of millions of people, instead of billions. That means that almost everyone on earth, 99 percent of us, owe the very fact that we're alive and haven't starved to death to the existence of technology.
PT: You just referred to your own intimations of mortality. Has that changed your outlook at all? You've recovered from something that could have been very serious.
CS: It was very serious. It's a bone marrow disease called myelodysplasia, which is invariably fatal if not treated. I had a bone marrow transplant at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. I was lucky that my only sibling, my sister, was a perfect match. It was lucky, but also I was the beneficiary of decades of experience that that institution, and medical science in general, has had in bone marrow transplants. The age at which you can get a transplant is increasing every year. I think I'm the oldest person to get a transplant.
PT: Science saved your life.
CS: This is not the first time I almost died. This is my third time having to deal with intimations of mortality. And every time it's a character-building experience. You get a much clearer perspective on what's important and what isn't, the preciousness and beauty of life, and the importance of family and of trying to safeguard a future worthy of our children. I would recommend almost dying to everybody. I think it's really a good experience.
PT: Probably once is enough for most people. In part because science has done such a wonderful job of saving lives, we have a population crisis, at least in some people's eyes. Does that worry you?
CS: Oh yes, absolutely. But it's also clear how to resolve the problem. It involves complex social issues, and there are religious and nationalistic objections to dealing with the crisis. As with all crises, it will, if untreated, blow up in our face. The way to treat it is very threatening, since it is the billion poorest people who reproduce fastest, for simple reasons of survival. If you have children and no Social Security, there's a chance that some of your children might survive into your old age and take care of you. It's a simple calculation that the poorest people make, to have lots of children. So the first thing to do is to improve the self-sufficiency of the billion poorest people on the planet, which will lessen the charity of the major religions, It's not just good ethics, it's good in the most practical sense.
There also has to be a ready supply of safe, easy-to-use contraceptives. And the third key item is the political empowerment of women. There are societies in which the per capita income is high, but women are so oppressed that they cannot have a say in whether or not they have children. There are good reasons for helping the poorest people, and good reasons for empowering women, apart from the population crisis. But the population crisis makes it very dear that those should be prime goals.
PT: You're not just a scientist, you are also a celebrity. Because of that visibility you can be a salesman for certain issues if you care to.
CS: Since childhood, the most pleasurable occupation I could imagine was being a scientist. It had a romance to it that nothing else I know of even approached. And I've never lost that. My goal always was to be just a working scientist. It's true I studied some very exotic areas of science. I was interested in exploring other planets at a time when man had not even gotten outside the earth's atmosphere. So I actually have spent much of the last 35 years exploring the solar system my childhood dream.
But, at the same time, I'm a citizen, a parent, a grandparent. I'm concerned about the future for all sorts of readily understandable mammalian reasons, and I would much rather work hard to make a better future, even if I fail, than to make no attempt.
PT: Do you spend half your time doing research and the other half doing soldier's duty as one of the world's most famous scientists?
CS: I don't try to budget my time from one to the other. They sort of naturally flow into one another. For example, I did my doctoral thesis on the Venus greenhouse effect, never imagining that the greenhouse effect would be a major global policy issue 30 years later.
There are several other cases--nuclear winter is one--in which the science and the public policy effortlessly flowed into each other. And the most natural thing in the world, if you find a science that you're to some degree expert in, is speaking out about a danger to the global civilization of the human species. If you won't, who's going to speak out? I just don't see it as two hermetically sealed compartments that you hop from one to the other. It often just flows in the most natural way.
I do have an opportunity that, unfortunately, others who are equally or more capable sometimes don't have, of communicating to the general public. And it's an opportunity that ought to be used carefully, not squandered. And used responsibly. But if I have opportunities to speak to the public, then certainly I'm not going to say no if I have something to speak for.
PT: Do you still have the same sense of wonder over science as you did 25 years ago?
CS: Last week, a planet seems to have been discovered around a nearby star called 51 Pegasus. And it's a planet very close to the star, much closer than Mercury is to our Sun. But it's not a little rocky world like Mercury or Venus or the earth. It's a giant world, presumably like Jupiter.
What is such a massive planet doing so dose to that star? Does it have other terrestrial-type planets further out? Is that planet a gas giant the way Jupiter is, or is it a monster Earthlike planet? And what does it say about the abundance of planetary systems elsewhere? Maybe they're all like that, and ours is anomalous. If that's true, what implications does that have for the origins of solar systems? I don't know. My wonder button got pushed hard when that discovery was announced. And it happens regularly. It certainly happens in my own research, such as in the laboratory work that we do on organic chemistry and the outer solar system, the origin of life on earth. My wonder button is being pushed all the time.
PT: When you look at fellow scientists who are not, say, 25 or 30 anymore, do they still have the ability to wonder?
CS: Some do, some don't. Some lose it.
PT: What makes it go?
CS: One thing is a kind of Peter Principle. Good scientists are eventually offered opportunities to be administrators. That takes them away from science. To be the department chairman, the president of a professional society, or a presidential science advisor, or whatever--those are all responsible and important positions, even ones that can aid the advancement of science. But not by you doing the science yourself. It's very hard to continue doing the science in some of those positions. They are very time consuming. So that's one danger. Another thing is, the wonder is almost instinctive--you can see it in children--but the skepticism has to be learned. And you learn it sometimes by painful experience. You have experience with baloney, so your baloney-detection ability improves. If you never encounter baloney, then there you are, with all wonder and no skepticism.
So as time goes on there's a tendency to become more and more skeptical and to mistrust wonder. Very dangerous, because it's the balance between the two that's needed. So in a lot of scientists, the ratio of wonder to skepticism declines in time. That may be connected with the fact that in some fields--mathematics, physics, some others-the great discoveries are almost entirely made by youngsters.
PT: Was Einstein at the end of his life a man who had the capacity to wonder?
CS: No question about it, absolutely full of wonder.
PT: You've said that when you were growing up you didn't realize somebody could do science for a living. You envisioned being a salesman or something and doing science on weekends and evenings. It's all too rare that someone as young as you were at the time becomes so enthralled with science. Are we essentially killing off the wonder in children?
CS: Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact. PT: Why did yours stay intact?
CS: The main thing was that my parents, who knew nothing about science, encouraged it. They never said, "All in all, wouldn't it be better to be a lawyer or a doctor?" I never once heard that from my parents. They said, "If you're passionate about that, we'll back you to the best of our ability." In school, while there were very few teachers who excited me about science, there was no systematic effort to discourage me.
So it wasn't that hard to maintain my interest. Science fiction sustained me in my earliest years. I got a keen sense of the excitement of science from science fiction.
PT: What is the dumbest thing you've ever done? I mean that affectionately.
CS: Oh, there are so many competing candidates. In fact, in this book I list some of the times where I've been dead wrong; in past books I've tended to stress the cases where I've been right, like the greenhouse effect. I suppose that's a natural humaning, but I've tried to make up for it a bit. Mistakes, wrong guesses, invalid conclusions are not disasters in science. In many cases they spur others to disprove or to check you out. And so it advances the field. The greatest scientists have made mistakes.
But one of the beauties of science is that it has built-in error-correcting machinery. Science, unlike many other human endeavors, reserves its highest rewards for those who disprove the contentions of its most revered leaders. Think, for example, of religion. How foreign that scientific point of view is from the religious idea, which so often is to uncritically accept whatever the founder of the religion said. It's not a tragedy that scientists make mistakes, and I certainly have made some in my time.
PT: Coming as you do from a hard-science background, how do you think psychology is doing as a field? A lot of the issues in your book are big areas in psychology.
CS: I'm not a psychologist. I don't have a comprehensive surveillance of the whole field, so all I can do is give you an offhand impression.
The thing I've been most appalled by is the sense of so many psychotherapists . . . that their job is to confirm their patients' delusions rather than help them find out what really has happened. It took a long time to convince myself that's what's happening, but it certainly is happening. I don't know whether it's more likely among social workers than Ph.D.s in psychology, or more likely among the Ph.D.s than the psychiatrists, who have medical training. But I do find it astonishing that anybody in psychology should be ignorant of the most elementary precepts of skeptical scientific scrutiny.
As someone who spent a lot of time reading Freud and his followers, I also am distressed by the absence of a systematic effort to demonstrate that psychoanalysis is more useful than going to your priest or rabbi. Or whether there is such a thing as repression. It's always very dangerous when the error-correcting machinery is not working and there aren't systematic attempts to disprove what the revered founder of your field maintains.
On the other hand, I see spectacular potential in imaging analysis of brain function. That is an amazing development, and you can see really major understandings of brain function coming out of that. Also tremendous]y exciting is the work on neurotransmitters, work on endorphins, and on the small brain proteins. Those are all tremendously exciting, and all of them, by the way, tend to support the idea that the mind is merely what the brain does. There's nothing else, there's no soul or psyche that's not made out of matter, that isn't a function of 10 to the 14th synapses in the brain.
PT: As someone who has argued so eloquently about the role of evidence in making decisions, what is your reaction as a citizen and scientist to the O.J. trial?
CS: There are a lot of studies of juries that suggest that people make up their minds in the opening arguments, selectively remember the evidence that supports their initial judgment, then simply reject the contrary evidence, put it out of their heads. I suspect that did happen here.
The fault lies with prosecutors for relying on complex scientific and mathematical arguments without explaining it in a way the average person can understand. It was a failure to understand what is necessary in talking to the public about science. When we hear that the chance of this blood being someone other than O.J. Simpson's is one in 100 billion, and there are only 5.5 billion people on the planet, and that is intended as a knock-out punch . . . . If somebody has no knowledge of elementary probability theory, the prosecution has an obligation to explain it step by step, from there being one chance in two when flipping coins, to highly improbable events.
Likewise, I think many jurors, many Americans anywhere, have little sense of what DNA is. They need some background on what DNA is, what are its unique characteristics, why it is different from person to person, the role it plays in determining heredity. There was none of that.
PT: Can that be accomplished in a trial?
CS: Sure. You do it in a very effective, humorous way with excellent visuals. It's pointless to bring to the public scientific and mathematical evidence if no one going to understand what you're saying.
PT: You've done that as well as anyone.
CS: I'm often asked by colleagues what's the secret. Many scientists who are superb practitioners of their field claim that they're no good at explaining science, but I just don't believe that. I think there's only one secret. And that is, Don't talk jargon. Don't talk as you would to colleagues. Instead, talk as you did to yourself at the time when you yourself didn't understand. You have to explain to people what's true in ordinary language, not technical terms. You have to respect the intelligence of your audience, but remember that they haven't had the advantage of the same technical education that you have.
PT: In looking for intelligence and originality in people, what earmarks do you use?
CS: I look for enthusiasm and wonder, but there's such a thing as too much. I look for someone who knows what he or she is talking about, because there's a tendency to repeat anything you've read without skeptical scrutiny of it. But in meeting people, it's rare that what I'm impressed by is their intelligence. There's much more likelihood that what I'm impressed by is their compassion, their optimism, their sense of humor-things of that sort I find much more compelling. There are very few people who don't have an impressive degree of intelligence, especially children. Society does very dangerous things in squashing that intelligence. It's a tragedy. You can see a kind of Darwinian competition of nations, and the ones that squash the intelligence of the citizenry in the long run are not going to do very well. The ones that learn to encourage curiosity and wonder and hard work are the ones tt}at are going to make it.
PT: Are there insights to be gained from nonrational thought, religious thought?
CS: Certainly the insight that we're capable of nonrational thought is to be gained from nonrational thought. That is something very important. Every society--there are no exceptions--has some kind of religion. That tells us something important about human nature. It doesn't say that what the religion says is true. It says that there is a common need, that must be genetically based, that religions make an effort, successful or not, to deal with.
PT: A drive to find meaning or purpose?
CS: It's partly that, and also the need to have a code of ethics, because otherwise society is impossible. A sense of community, communion with nature, communion with your fellow human beings. A sense of ritual, music, art, poetry. Religion appeals on many different levels and serves many different needs. It would have to, to be so widespread.
PT: You have a young son. What are your biggest fears for the world he's inheriting?
CS: There are so many. I'm certainly worried about local and global environment. About overpopulation and violence. I'm worried about stupidity. I'm worried about consumerism, the focus on buying things that by any survival standard you don't need, but which American advertising culture promotes like mad.
PT: What gets you most excited for him?
CS: The inexhaustible benefits that emerge from science. I don't just mean agriculture and medicine, which have a large variety of practical benefits. The thing I like most about science is its room for managing the future. It's a tool for baloney detection. It's absolutely essential, not just for the technological products of science, but as a way of thinking. If that were more widely understood, we'd be a lot more secure in the future than we are now.
PT: Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932. Have you thought of writing a book about the future, say, a century later?
CS: Prophesy is a lost art.
PT: He didn't write a prophesy, he just took information--
CS: Well, more than that. He was trying to give us a glimpse of a future society we should avoid. It was a cautionary tale. That was one, but there are so many. There are already possible dire futures; you could spend the rest of your life writing cautionary tales. Anyway, I have no plans to do so.
PT: You did write a novel a few years ago. What inspired you to write it?
CS: It's called Contact. It's being made into a motion picture starring Jodie Foster. It's the story of the receipt of a first bona fide radio message from another civilization in space, and of the response here on Earth, which is very complex and diverse. I wrote it because it was an opportunity to get across scientific ideas to an audience different from that of Scientific American.
Also, it seemed fun to try to write fiction. And many people have asked me what I think the consequences of receiving such a message would be. I never could give in a few sentences what seemed to me an adequate answer.
PT: Are you hopeful that there is intelligent life elsewhere?
CS: My mind is certainly moot. Monitoring extraterrestrial radio waves is a chance, at relatively small cost, to try to answer one of the deepest questions ever posed. It's the importance of the quest, and the fact that we don't know enough to say in advance that it's fruitless, that motivates me. But I don't pretend to know that there are beings out there.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A Slayer of Demons
Turning from outer space to inner sapce, Carl Sagan wants to know one thing: Why is it that we prefer what feels good to what's true? He stands tall for our natural sense of wonder-- balanced by baloney-detection skills. Sagan sees our national inability to translate science coming back to haunt us in, say the O.J. verdict.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Carl Sagan