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Mr. Science Puts Us All on Notice

Books: Carl Sagan offers billions and billions of ideas about pseudo-science versus real science in 'The Demon-Haunted World.' (Well, maybe not billions, but you knew that was coming.)

May 09, 1996|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What is a star?

If you can't answer that one, try, why is the sky blue?

If nothing comes to mind, then you're like 95% of Americans, Carl Sagan says. You have no replies to the simplest science questions your children ask. And you won't try to help them find any.

Such lack of interest on the part of so many, the eminent scientist says, could signal the beginning of the end for our country. Or perhaps even our planet.

But not to worry. Sagan may be one of the world's most optimistic individuals, a man who has spent his life exploring mysteries of the universe, who knows that even "the slightest alteration of course" may avert a catastrophe.

The course change he proposes in his new book, "The Demon-Haunted World" (Random House), could be fun for those who don't know that, in Sagan's words, "The stars are suns, very far away."

Knowing the right answers is not essential to science, Sagan explains. The crucial element is respect for the questions.

Sagan's book, his 22nd, is a rumination on America's false perception that science is a subject too difficult for ordinary people to understand.

And it is an indictment of the pseudo-science we have embraced instead.

From crop circles and alien abductions to astrologers, channelers and psychics, the astronomer / biologist / physicist says we support whole industries based on crackpot notions that pretend to be science.

Have you seen the giant eggplant that looks exactly like Richard Nixon?

Sagan has, and points out that thousands of people would probably be willing to believe that some Force From Beyond was trying to tell us something by creating the ski-nosed purple veggie.

"We believe just about anything that caters to our longing for superhuman powers," he says.

The astronomy professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author says the consequence of not learning the scientific method--which includes healthy skepticism that leads to tough, pertinent questions and a demand for evidence before we commit to belief--leads us "into serious danger" as a nation and makes us gullible for "the next political or religious charlatans who saunter along."

Things have obviously slid downhill since 1980, when Sagan told the New York Times, "The public is a lot brighter and more interested in science than they're given credit for."

What has happened in the interim?

"We have become a nation of scientific illiterates," Sagan, 61, complains in a phone conversation from Seattle, where he is being treated for what he calls "a setback" in his fight against myelodysplasia, a rare bone marrow disease that left him with a "grave deficiency of red cells, white cells and platelets--all of which one needs to stay alive."

Luckily, his only sibling, a sister, was a perfect match and Sagan had a bone marrow transplant about a year ago.

He is too weak to travel on the usual book promotion tour. He sounds almost too weak to talk. But the world-famous Sagan style--a blend of erudition, irony and wonder--is still evident over the phone.

*

His book, an overview of pseudo-science versus real science through the ages, argues that real science is far more fascinating, scary and hopeful than anything the most farfetched con artist or fiction writer might conjure.

Sagan says, for example, that the odds seem to be "roughly one chance in a thousand" that in the next century Earth will be destroyed by an asteroid. It was just such an accident, millions of years ago, that killed the dinosaurs and 75% of all species on Earth, he reminds his caller.

If just a piece of the asteroid, about one mile across, hits Earth, it "would put in peril the global civilization," Sagan says.

Should we be concerned?

Of course, he says. There is much we can do to predict the disaster by studying all objects in the vicinity of Earth that can do us damage. And then by taking steps to deflect that object, or to make alternative arrangements for life elsewhere. That work should be going on now.

But, as Sagan acerbically notes, we are living in such an anti-science era "that the Republican government just eliminated its own office of technology assessment, the office that gives bipartisan advice on crucial issues of science that legislators must know about in order to make important decisions. The [government] decided, in essence, that it doesn't need to know about science and technology in order to make decisions about it."

The asteroid scenario is the most frightening of dozens of consequences the author predicts might occur if we don't pursue science as individuals and as nations.

There is global thermonuclear war: "When we understand the consequences of nuclear war, we are much more restrained in our willingness to consider it," Sagan says. "It is by no means clear that the leaders of nuclear armed states have a keen appreciation of the realities of nuclear war."

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