Review of ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, ‘Einstein, History, and Other Passions’, ‘The End of Science’

Review of ‘The Demon-Haunted World’, ‘Einstein, History, and Other Passions’, ‘The End of Science’

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The Demon-Haunted World
Carl Sagan
Random House

Einstein, History, and Other Passions
Gerald Holton

The End of Science
John Horgan

Science and progress have seemed like synonyms for more than a century. From Newton to the astronauts, from Darwin to the genetic engineers, from Einstein to artificial intelligence, the search for scientific knowledge has produced stunning intellectual advances and applied technologies that have shaped our culture and our lives. Yet three recent books, from the heart of the scientific establishment, raise serious doubts about the future of science and explore the reasons for its apparent fall from grace.

In The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer Carl Sagan writes in defense of science and reason in a world he sees as darkened by ignorance, superstition, pseudoscience, deceitful advertising and mindless television. Physicist Gerald Holton's Einstein, History, and Other Passions focuses more on the political and academic attacks on science that have led to federal budget cuts in research funding and driven many PhDs from particle physics to careers as stockbrokers. And in The End of Science, John Horgan, a senior writer at Scientific American, interviews many contemporary scientists to show that science is in decline because it has answered all the important questions -- not because of opposition from outside.

All three books deserve attention. The cultural crisis they address is very real, and involves political and economic choices that may reshape society. The decision by Congress to scuttle the superconducting supercollider project in l993, after an investment of $2 billion on a 15-mile tunnel in Texas, is an example to which all these authors point. Similarly, cuts in the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the move to abolish the Office of Technology Assessment, attempts to do away with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and attacks on the research functions of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments all reflect a shifting view of science and its public benefits, a shift from faith to suspicion.

Sagan, who was one of the leaders in the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the Universe, devotes most of his attention here to lamenting the lack of intelligence on earth. Like a modern Don Quixote, he waxes eloquent in defense of science while tilting at the windmills of pseudoscience, with thrusts at everything from Big Foot to Shirley MacLaine, alien abductions, satanic cults, astrology, telepathy and faith healing.

This may be diverting, but it is not because of such beliefs that Congress now approaches the NIH budget with an ax. In fact, billions of dollars spent on years of research in the war on cancer have spawned growing professional bureaucracies and diminishing medical benefits. There are many such examples of real problems that are eroding public faith in science, but they don't seem to exist in Sagan's universe.

As is the case with many scientists, Sagan splits his universe in two, into science and irrationality. "Truth" is only what can be experimentally proved, and "understanding" is only what fits into the logical straitjacket of a syllogism. This may work beautifully within the scope of questions that science can answer, but life is a far richer tapestry than the threads of scientific logic alone can weave. And it is myopic to define "reason" so narrowly that one can't see the other threads. An instance of this is Sagan's view of religion as dangerously close to pseudoscience (because it can't be tested experimentally) or, conversely, of science as a source of spirituality. He reasons that "to entertain the notion that we are a particularly complex arrangement of atoms, and not some breath of divinity, at the very least enhances our respect for atoms." It may not, however, enhance our respect for one another, or teach us much about compassion. There are some truths that science cannot measure.

Gerald Holton sees the roots of disenchantment with science in history, especially in the romantic movement of the 19th century. The contemporary upsurge of romanticism, he argues, has come in the form of postmodern philo-sophers, deconstructionists and others who attack the very idea of "objectivity" in general, and scientific knowledge in particular. Holton points to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education that when the FBI circulated the Unabomber's antiscience and antitechnology manifesto among scholars, the text was judged as "consistent with the critical strain of scholarly thought" being applied by some historians to science.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus