Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Sagan on Science Vs. Pseudoscience

I'm rereading Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, because I remember it as the most cogent and readable defense of reason in the face of irrationality I've come across. Within the first chapter Sagan identifies the difference between science and pseudoscience, which includes dogmatic religious beliefs:
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.

Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypothesis are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated (i.e. the existence of God, the resurrection, that Muhammed met the angel Gabriel who gave him the Koran -- my interjection) Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrunity is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
Science isn't a panacea; it's a tool that has made our world much richer than our ancestors could have ever imagined. Sure, its inventions can be harnessed for evil, nevertheless, only through its framework will we ever be able to find the solutions to problems as varied as disease, famine, and the host of other problems that plague our world. Sagan tirelessly argued this. Will we listen?