November 18, 2019
Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1996. The contents reveal Sagan’s passion for critical thinking (scientific thinking) and dislike for popular media misrepresentations of science. He warns and provides examples of the negative impacts associated with pseudoscience. The contents cover a wide range of topics and illustrate his love of finding the truth and fighting superstition with a systematic evaluation of the evidence. The Demon-Haunted World is a main staple for skeptics, providing a clear account of a world in need of critical thinking.
Superstition and Modern Society
Bruce Hood author of The Science of Superstition claims humans have a natural inclination toward superstitious beliefs (Hood 2009). Many highly educated, smart people hold superstitious beliefs; they sense there are forces and energies that cannot possibly be explained as natural phenomena. These phenomena extend beyond the laws, principles, and theories that are the foundations of a natural world. Personal experience often drives superstitious belief; firsthand accounts for many people are enough. Never mind that those holding superstitious beliefs often lack knowledge regarding brain processes, perception, and cognition. Never mind that humans are susceptible to a range of conscious and unconscious biases. They feel they experienced something that can’t possibly be explained in naturalistic terms. These sorts of beliefs occur in both religious and non-religious people. Religious beliefs involve gods, angels, demons, spirits, or ghosts. Non-religious superstition involves belief in paranormal abilities, psychic powers, plain old luck, telepathy, and other related concepts that are at odds with natural laws and principles.
Later in the article, I will briefly address “what’s in a term?” This will be a short discussion on why different terms, even though meaning essentially the same thing, are often used. Religious people generally don’t like their beliefs to be referred to as superstitious.
Superstitious beliefs may offer psychological and social benefits to some people, so it may be that for some people not everything about these sort of irrational beliefs are bad. Of course, these benefits do not influence the truth value of the beliefs, but it may still be beneficial, at least in one aspect for some people. The bigger problem with superstition is when it trespasses into the domain of science, especially when being displayed using public platforms. Another problem occurs when these beliefs are suggested to be equally valid, as those offered by science. This is false and almost everyone agrees it is false—except when one’s own privileged superstition comes into question.
In addition to wishful thinking, mindware problems are a major contributor to superstitious beliefs. Mindware is defined as forms of knowledge that are stored in the brain and can be retrieved to make decisions and solve problems (a term coined by cognitive scientist David Perkins) (Stanovich 2009). Mindware problems involve the presence of contaminated mindware (knowledge structures, thinking processes that prohibit rational actions) and mindware gaps—lack of the appropriate mindware (lack of scientific thinking skills). There is a large body of cognitive science research that investigates these factors and how they influence critical thinking: achieving personal goals and holding evidence based beliefs (Stanovich et al. 2016).
What’s in a Term?
What separates paranormal, superstitious, magical, and supernatural (PSMS) beliefs? Are they different concepts? After a thorough examination of the literature regarding PSMS beliefs, researchers concluded that the terms mean the same thing (Lindeman and Svedholm 2012). No consistent differences were found between conceptual definitions and operational definitions (measures) of PSMS beliefs. However, these terms often have different connotations; they induce different emotions. Different connotations may explain why religious people don’t like it when you refer to their religious belief as a superstitious belief. Superstition is a pejorative term. Supernatural belief on the other hand, involves belief in something grand, bigger than yourself, something that is too complex for the human mind to comprehend. Supernatural belief, often, receives praise; it is to be admired.
Science as a Candle in the Dark
Sagan’s candle was science; this was reflected in the book’s subtitle, Science As A Candle In The Dark. He wrote that “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have” (Sagan 1996, 27). In the first two chapters of the book, Sagan presented a strong case for the values of science. His passion for scientific thinking was evident, and his promotion of critical thinking was ahead of its time. Key points made by Sagan include valuing science as the most successful endeavor we have in explaining the world; being skeptical even when others are not; understanding that evidence overrides authority; avoiding antiscientific attitudes; seeing that science is a way of knowing instead of a specific domain of knowledge; and so on.
Mindware problems are major roadblocks to scientific (critical) thinking. Contaminated mindware is detrimental to critical thinking, and strategies should be adopted to avoid it. These include acquiring mindware dependent on evidence and that welcome evaluation. At the very least scientific thinking requires knowledge in the following areas: research methods, probabilistic reasoning, logic, and philosophy of science (Hale 2018). The right mindware is needed for good thinking; the wrong mindware can directly contribute to bad thinking, antiscientific thinking.
Even though times were different in 1996, the things Sagan discussed are still relevant today, if not more so. Sagan’s candle (scientific thinking) is needed for a focused view of reality. There are facts and opinions, right and wrong answers. There is a reality that extends beyond personal comforts and opinions (Mitchell and Jolley 2010).
Even if there is no objective reality, we must accept the “idea of reality” (some have suggested an approximation of reality); it is necessary for everyday living and understanding the world. A useful model of reality is the model Sagan promoted: a scientific materialistic model. “[M]aterial mechanistic elements underlie the description of reality. The associated physical correlates are essential to any phenomenon in the world. Even if not sufficient to explain everything, they are required” (Randall 2012, 55). Scientific thinking is hard, but it is worth the time investment. As Sagan argued throughout his life, science is the great reality detector; it is the candle in the dark.
Hale, J.P. 2018. Scientific Cognition and Scientific Literacy. Kentucky Academy of Science Fall Newsletter.
Hood, B. 2009. The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs. San Francisco, CA: Harper One.
Lindeman, M., and A. Svedholm. 2012. What’s in a term? Paranormal, superstitious, magical and supernatural beliefs by any other name would mean the same. Review of General Psychology. doi 10.1037/a0027158.
Mitchell, M.L., and J.M. Jolley. 2010. Research Design Explained 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Randall, L. 2012. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. New York, NY: Ecco.
Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Stanovich, K. 2009. What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought. London: Yale University Press.
Stanovich et al. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward A Test Of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.