Friday, April 28, 2017

The Demon-Haunted World

I just finished The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan a few days ago. It's amazing - and it's shameful that it took me this long to finally read it.

In addition to destroying the "logic" of anti-science movements and new age movements, he also explores the glory and hope that science studies can give us. I watch Nova on PBS almost every week, and walk away from most every show full of wonder and hope and inspiration. Sagan's book begs network television to do that in its presentations of science - as well as to give equal time to science as it does charlatans: psychics, naturopaths, homeopaths, alien abductees, vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, etc.

But I was stunned at so many of the history lessons of the book, like Sagan's recounting of the mass murders associated with the European witch trials. I had no idea so many thousands and thousands of people, mostly women and children, were murdered by Christian authorities all across Europe for centuries. Chapter 7, which shares the same title as the book, was eye-opening and heart-breaking regarding the witch hunts in Europe in the 1400s through the 1700s. Authorities found every way possible to bankrupt the victim and her family before murdering her: all costs of investigations, trial and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives, down to the travel expenses for private detectives to spy on her, expenses for her guards, travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city, all the equipment to torture and kill the accused, etc., was all borne by the accused and her family. The misogynistic elements of the hunts and murders, I was aware of, but not the erotic obsessions of the male-dominated Christian society that couldn’t stop investigating things like the quality and quantity of orgasms in the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil.

And then there is the chronicle of those murdered by fire - burned alive - just in the single German city of W├╝rzburg in the single year 1598. Here is the list excerpted in Sagan’s book:

The steward of the senate named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor's fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest citizen in Wiirtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforemen­tioned girls; Liebler's daughter; Goebel's child, the most beautiful girl in Wiirtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper's little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr. Schultz; a little girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach... The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and burnt."

This is in ONE year, in ONE town. These murders by Christian authorities were happening all over Europe, not just in 1598. And the belief in pseudoscience, coupled with greed, drove it.

It’s not in the book, but it's worth noting that Anna Goeldi, a maid in the small alpine region of Glarus, was the last person in Europe murdered by Christian authorities for witchcraft; she was beheaded in 1782. Goeldi was employed by the family of a rich married politician, who after having an affair with her denounced her for witchcraft claiming she made his daughter spit pins and suffer convulsions. She insisted on her innocence but confessed after being strung up by her thumbs with stones tied to her feet.

Representing Carl Sagan at the March for ScienceSome of my favorite quotes from the book:

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Abandoning science is the road back into poverty and backwardness.

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy began - in their civilized incarnations - in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. . . . Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty.

The tenets of skepticism do not require an advanced degree to master, as most successful used car buyers demonstrate. The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. All science asks is to employ the same levels of skepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their television commercials.

The book talks about the origins of the Book of Deuteronomy - I had no idea it was magically "found" by Josiah, at the exact time he was wanting those exact same reforms in Judaism! How convenient...

I was also thrilled to learn of Robert Allen Baker. He's cited in the book as being a professor at the University of Kentucky and, of course, I had to look him up. He was a psychologist, professor of psychology emeritus of the University of Kentucky, skeptic, author, and investigator and debunker of ghosts, UFO abductions, lake monsters and other paranormal phenomena. He was born in 1921 in Blackford, in Webster County, Kentucky. He graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 1939. I'm always so thrilled to learn of a great Kentucky scientist or artist.

The book also gives a shout out to James Randi, whose legendary debunking stunts have never been matched - and that's a shame, because we need someone to undertake those very high-profile stunts now.

Carl Sagan died in 1996. I can only imagine what he would have made of the proliferation of anti-vaccine movements among well-off white people in the USA - and the harm these movements have caused to children. Thank goodness we still have Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

If you haven't read it, please do, at least the first seven chapters. Sagan talks way more than alien abductions than you might think necessary, but those myths were super widespread at the time he wrote this book, and the way he debunks them could be used for a whole host of other pseudoscience crap.

In addition, if you aren't following BionerdNess on Facebook, you need to be. It's a page by a friend of mine, a biologist and professor, and she focuses BionerNess on debunking a lot of science myths middle and upper class white people believe and promote. A perfect page for getting material to share on your own social networks - to continue the work of Sagan!

Also see this hilarious pro-vaccine video from Bill Nye (unfortunately, only available on Facebook).

Finally: I haven't written since February. I haven't written more because, quite frankly, I've been busy attending public meetings with elected officials and what not, trying to be more involved in our democracy, trying to stand against the growing nonsense and dangerous practices of the current presidential administration and state legislators across the USA. I hope you are just as busy.