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’

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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.

The current rebellion has found political as well as philosophical expression, Holton points out. He quotes a widely circulated attack on science by the Czech poet, playwright and anti-Communist hero Vaclav Havel, who sees the troubles of the 20th century as caused by the rise of "depersonalized objectivity." According to Havel, "Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend. . . . The fall of Communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought -- based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalized -- has come to a final crisis."

And in the United States, Holton notes, one of the strongest Congressional advocates of support for science, Rep. George Brown, was influenced by Havel's essay. In a dramatic reversal of his politics, Brown wrote: "Global leadership in science and technology has not translated into leadership in infant health, life expectancy, rates of literacy, equality of opportunity, productivity of workers, or efficiency of resource consumption. Neither has it overcome failing education systems, decaying cities, environmental degradation, unaffordable health care, and the largest debt in history." Not long after, Congress, seeming to follow a trend articulated by Brown, began cutting science budgets.

Holton's book combines essays on the crisis in science with sketches of Albert Einstein as an exemplar of scientific thought. He is trying to show that a life in science is not what its critics contend, but something more imaginative and profoundly human. But Einstein's humanity is not an answer to George Brown's list of complaints; it seems that Holton shares with Sagan a myopia that blurs their vision when they try to look beyond the world of science.

Holton simply casts Havel, Brown and other critics into the camp of irrationality and asserts that those who do not understand science do not understand the world. He writes of "the chilling realization that our intellectuals, for the first time in history, are losing their hold on an adequate understanding of the world. . . . All too many find themselves abandoned in a universe which seems a puzzle on either the factual or the philosophical level. Of all the effects of the separation of culture and scientific knowledge, this feeling of bewilderment and basic homelessness is the most terrifying." Reading this, I thought randomly of Picasso, Baryshnikov, Rostropovich, Lévi-Strauss, William Styron, Thomas Merton, Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama . . . and I could not think of them as bewildered and homeless, or as lacking an adequate understanding of the world. Neither Holton nor Sagan can see the poverty of his own view of the world; it is as if they are blinded by the splendors of what science can accomplish.

John Horgan, as a well-placed science writer, has compiled a remarkable set of interviews with many leading scientists in fields as varied as particle physics and cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, chaos and artificial intelligence, anthropology and the philosophy of science. Horgan thinks that science has discovered all the basic facts about life and the Universe. He cites Niels Bohr's quip that "science's job is to reduce all mysteries to trivialities" and argues that the job is essentially done; there are no more mysteries. "There will be no great revelations in the future," he writes, "comparable to those bestowed upon us by Darwin or Einstein or Watson and Crick." The surprising thing is that many of the scientists Horgan has interviewed seem to agree. It is for this reason, he suggests, that support and funding for science is falling off; it is simply the law of diminishing returns.

In advancing this idea, Horgan quotes physicist Sheldon Glashow who thinks that debates over superstring theory may one day be conducted "at schools of divinity by future equivalents of medieval theologians." Similarly, ex-physicist David Lindley argues that because new theories can't be validated by experiments, but only by subjective criteria such as elegance and beauty, particle physics is in danger of becoming a branch of esthetics.

We also hear from biologist Bentley Glass, who asserts that biology ends at the molecular level, and from the guru of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky. He contends that neurobiologists need no longer worry about the nature of consciousness: consciousness is a trivial issue, he tells Horgan: "I've solved it, and I don't understand why people don't listen." Consciousness, he declares flatly, is simply "a low-grade system for keeping records."

There's an air of unreality about all this. As Horgan shares his interviews and lets us eavesdrop on meetings at scientific think tanks, a reader may feel like an Alice who has wandered into a Wonderland of quarks and nucleotides and bytes, where conversations have no need for common sense. Unfortunately, the unreality stems not from an excess of imagination but from a failure of it. As Horgan buries biology, for example, that discipline is just beginning to explore the uncharted terrain of messenger molecules, replacing our concepts of the nervous, immune and endocrine systems with an as yet undeciphered language of peptides.

As with Sagan and Holton, the questions Horgan raises are more profound than his answers. The idea that science has run out of mysteries only trivializes both nature and the human mind. Darwin, Einstein, and Watson and Crick may embody the genius of science, but it is well to remember the anthropologist Gregory Bateson's definition: a genius is someone who is wrong, but no one knows it for a few hundred years.

Paul Trachtman is a reviewer living in rural New Mexico.


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