Back when I was at university, a friend mentioned to me that he wanted to read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. I had been a fan of Sagan since my teenage years, but had put off reading that book. Asking him if he’d read any of Sagan’s works, he said “No, but this book is often present in skeptic reading lists.”

Many years later, I finally read the book. I’m surprised with it being recommended by skeptics, as it has a lengthy criticism of skeptics. [1]

I have often found (online) skeptics to be very off-putting. My complaints are a few.

  • Their rhetoric: It often belittles those they debunk.
  • A significantly heavier emphasis on debunking as opposed to gaining knowledge
  • A very rigid approach to science

First, let me quote Descartes [2]

I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.

– Rene Descartes

While I’m sure no self identifying skeptic would claim they aim to always be undecided, I do find the rest of the quote fairly apt. Most skeptics I come across are more interested in debunking theories than performing the (often difficult) work of gaining knowledge.

I distinctly recall when I first read about the chilling Dyatlov Pass incident. For those unfamiliar, it is about an event in the Ural mountains in 1959 that resulted in the mysterious and bizarre deaths of 9 trekkers.

An event like this invites a lot of conspiracy theories, including those involving the supernatural.

Wanting to learn more about the incident, an Internet search quickly led me to a skeptic’s page that put in effort to debunk the wilder theories, and at the end proposed a plausible alternative explanation.

I recall thinking “Great alternative!”

Followed by “I’m none the wiser after reading this article.”

I still did not have anything close to a concrete answer to what happened. The explanation in the article was certainly plausible, but I don’t doubt that there are a number of other plausible explanations.

Which one (if any) was the truth? What is the evidence supporting this hypothesis?

A hard lesson I learned in graduate school: Being logical is not sufficient, and emphasizing logic over data/evidence is going to impede the seeking of knowledge.

I don’t want to fault the author of that particular piece, but it mirrors the trend I often witness: Debunk a theory, propose an alternative, and provide no evidence of the alternative.

I think many who engage in this pattern have a romanticized view of their work - that by eliminating false theories, we are getting closer and closer to the truth. Most sincere people seeking the truth, however, are not entertaining supernatural phenomena to begin with. More likely is that the (skeptics) are being lazy. It is easier to come up with arguments than it is to run experiments and gather data in support of it. I liken them to the armchair physicist, economist or philosopher.

Think “I’ll be the idea man” mindset.

They do it because it is easy, not because they are trying to get to the truth. And they’ve deluded themselves into thinking otherwise.

In the middle 1970s an astronomer I admire put together a modest manifesto called “Objections to Astrology” and asked me to endorse it. I struggled with his wording, and in the end found myself unable to sign—not because I thought astrology has any validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for religion, chemistry, medicine, and astronomy, to mention only four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge astrology came from, but what is its present validity. Then there was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who believe in astrology. These motivations—for example, the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world—might explain why astrology is not generally given the skeptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it works.

The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but by itself it’s unconvincing. No mechanism was known for continental drift (now subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and paleontology. (Ore-bearing veins of rocks and fossils seemed to run continuously from Eastern South America to West Africa; were the two continents once touching and the Atlantic Ocean new to our planet?) The notion was roundly dismissed by all the great geophysicists, who were certain that continents were fixed, not floating on anything, and therefore unable to “drift.” Instead, the key twentieth-century idea in geophysics turns out to be plate tectonics; we now understand that continental plates do indeed float and “drift” (or better, are carried by a kind of conveyor belt driven by the great heat engine of the Earth’s interior), and all those great geophysicists were simply wrong. Objections to pseudoscience on the grounds of unavailable mechanism can be mistaken—although if the contentions violate well-established laws of physics, such objections of course carry great weight.

– Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World

The other criticism is the very rigid approach to truth seeking. Had most seekers of knowledge been this relentless in their methodology, would much of the knowledge we have be known to us? The history of scientific knowledge is highly nonlinear and meanders significantly. Much phenomena was discovered by doing experiments in what is often called pseudoscience.

Looking at mathematics, calculus was used for about 150 years before it was put on firm ground with rigor.. Prior to that there was a significant amount of hand waving. Should we have lost most of Euler’s contributions because his use of calculus was not formally justified?

Even today, most physicists are not particularly concerned with the mathematical validity of their calculations. If it provides a useful model, especially if experiments support the results, they don’t care if their mathematical methods are questionable.

And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.

– Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World

Sagan quotes David Hess:

… [T]he skeptic might take a clue from cultural anthropology and develop a more sophisticated skepticism by understanding alternative belief systems from the perspective of the people who hold them and by situating these beliefs in their historical, social, and cultural contexts. As a result, the world of the paranormal may appear less as a silly turn toward irrationalism and more as an idiom through which segments of society express their conflicts, dilemmas, and identities …

And then there is the belittling attitude I often encounter amongst them, often masquerading behind “We’re not ridiculing the person, but the idea!” Most instances I’ve seen of this behavior demonstrate a total lack of understanding on the forces that shape why people believe what they do, and the role factors other than logic play - even to the most logical of folks.

As a concrete example: Not a single argument against homeopathy that focuses on dilution will convince anyone I know who believes in homeopathic medicine - and I know a bunch. It’s because none of the homeopathic advocates I know are married to the concept of homeopathic dilution. They didn’t encounter homeopathic dilution and say “That’s why I’m switching to homeopathy!”

I’ve met several self described skeptics who either speak or write against homeopathy who spend a lot of their effort debunking dilution. Not one of them had a modicum of an idea as to why people take homeopathic medicine. [3]

When someone who consumes homeopathic medicine encounters this - someone who is already suffering some real ailment - it serves only to cause them to dig their heels deeper.

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

– Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World

In books on negotiations, a common advice is to phrase the other party’s position in their own voice such that they could believe they themselves said it. [4] This signals to them that you understand where they are coming from and lowers their defenses to the point where they are willing to listen to you. The advice is to hold off on convincing the other party until you achieve this.

And it seems that Sagan was an advocate:

It has been my great pleasure over many years to teach a Senior Seminar on Critical Thinking at Cornell University. I’ve been able to select students from all over the University on the basis both of ability, and of cultural and disciplinary diversity. We stress written assignments and oral argumentation. Towards the end of the course, students select a range of wildly controversial social issues in which they have major emotional investments. Paired two-by-two they prepare for a succession of end-of-semester oral debates. A few weeks before the debates, however, they are informed that it is the task of each to present the point of view of the opponent in a way that’s satisfactory to the opponent—so the opponent will say, “Yes, that’s a fair presentation of my views.” In the joint written debate they explore their differences, but also how the debate process has helped them to better understand the opposing point of view.

– Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World

Sagan had some parting advice to the skeptic:

If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderlines of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you’re too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you’re going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough.

– Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World

Incidentally, if you’ve not read any of Sagan’s works, I would recommend other books such as Cosmos or Broca’s Brain. The Demon Haunted World is certainly a good book, but it is not particularly representative of his work.

[1]Or at least, visible and vocal skeptics I run across on the Internet. An argument could be made that these are the minority and not really representative of the majority of people who ascribe to skepticism.
[2]This quote is also present in The Demon Haunted World.
[3]The reasons are varied: Distrust of conventional medicine, distrust of pharmaceutical companies, not realizing that most chronic pain tends to go away on its own, coupled with only trying alternative medicine after anti-inflammatory drugs failed to work, gaps in conventional medicine (of which there are many), etc. The point is: When discussing homeopathy with someone, dig first to find why it appeals to them. Equally importantly, dig into what the term “homeopathic medicine” even means to such people. Not one of the ones I know use it in the manner that skeptics use it. Why put in effort to debunk a concept when the other party defines that concept differently from you?
[4]The book Never Split The Difference refers to it as getting them to say “That’s right!” It’s a poor book, but it does have some gems.