Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan

Headline, London, 1997.

The persistence of human fallibility is explored over a huge range of experience in this rich and well-argued book. Sagan presents a formidable collection of very awkward questions, such as those facing believers in UFOs and alien abductions:

He also reveals the origin of the phrase "flying saucer": it is based on a misquotation back in the 1940s.

There is substantial discussion of public (mis-) understanding of science, with constructive suggestions for improvements in media treatment, especially for TV.

Some interesting, yet simple, calculations are performed:

"The spontaneous remission rates of all cancers... is estimated to be something between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 100,000. If no more than 5% of those who come to Lourdes were there to treat their cancers, there should have been something between 50 and 500 'miraculous' cures of cancer alone. Since only 3 of the attested [by the Roman Catholic Church] 65 cures are of cancer, the rate of spontaneous remission at Lourdes seems to be lower than if the victims had just stayed at home." (p.221)

Also recommended are Sagan's considerations of witchcraft and the related subjects of satanic and sexual abuse. We can see how this fraught question is exacerbated by postmodern approaches to reality, when a Californian therapist, according to the Washington Post, opines that,

"I don't care if it's true. What actually happened is irrelevant to me... We all live in a delusion." (p.149)

Sagan quotes a marvellous parable about belief and morality, for which see W. K. Clifford.

To finish, a quote which, in the light of the Aum phenomenon, now seems like a gentle understatement:

"Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlour magic and ambiguous advice of matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation." (p.233)



Paul Taylor 2001