This weekend I borrowed Beth’s copy of The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Lynnea and I sometimes read to each on car trips, and neither of us have read it in several years. Since Lynnea has been watching “Cosmos” on Netflix, it seemed like a good book to revisit. Also, one of the most common questions we at the Atheist Experience receive is: “As a new atheist, what books should I think about reading?” I always, always recommend Demon Haunted World first. It’s not a book about atheism, it’s a book about critical thinking, and in my opinion that is the first tool that recovering theists need to have no matter what their ultimate philosophical bent will be.
It’s fun to revisit an old favorite. Reading chapter one, I read Carl Sagan’s story about meeting a taxi driver who was full of wonder and enthusiasm in learning about the natural world… but unfortunately it was all misdirected into pseudoscience. Crystals, Atlantis, horoscopes, faith healing…he believed it all. Sagan suggest s that the man’s passion for pseudoscience could have been — should have been — channeled into scientific curiosity from an early age. But unfortunately, his teachers failed to inspire wonder and excitement for science, which ultimately led him to swallow all these nonsensical claims in the thirst to feed his quest for “knowledge.” Sagan waxes poetic about astronomy and biology, and he wonders why the driver hadn’t ever managed to get so turned on by these real scientific subjects
Of course I love Carl Sagan’s work and enjoy hearing his thoughts again, but after so many years of dealing with callers’ misconceptions about science on a one-on-one basis, I was surprised to find the question a little bit naive. Actually, I think that it’s easy to understand why pseudoscience beats real science, if you just think about the two concepts as competing memes.
Like all memes, concepts within both science and pseudoscience are in constant competition for brain space, and “try” (in a metaphorical sense) to infect as many minds as possible, and to stick in those minds in the long term. But the strategies they use are different. Science has one set of rules for survival, and pseudoscience has a different set. To put it another way, their fitness algorithm is different.
On one hand, a scientific meme lives or dies based on how closely it matches reality. If the meme is untestable, or if it directly conflicts with some known principle of reality, then it dies a gradual death. Researchers don’t find it useful; don’t propagate in their work; don’t refer back to it in other peer reviewed papers; don’t insert it as a critical fact in textbooks; and it is eventually forgotten (or else, like Lamarckian inheritance, it is remembered as a contrast to a meme that won).
On the other hand, a pseudoscience meme does not have any such restriction. Since there is no peer review in the world of pseudoscience, the concepts can only survive based on how many people like them. In other words, they survive solely by being compelling and interesting to a lot of people. So in the battle for headspace in the “wow that’s cool” part of the brain, science is not going to win.
Of course I’m not saying that real science can’t be exciting and interesting. Once you have a grounding in scientific inquiry, the process of measuring things against reality and studying all the complex information about the world we’ve accumulated can be very appealing. But I am saying that being exciting cannot be the criterion for judging science. if we threw out all the science it wasn’t sexy then we’d lose a lot of important discoveries. Science is in the business of figuring out what’s true, regardless of whether the facts are fun or not.
By contrast, pseudoscience is free to follow what TV Tropes calls “The Rule of Cool.” If you are writing a novel, a show, or a movie, you create your own reality. In this reality, it doesn’t matter whether something is scientifically accurate or not. All that matters in your own universe is what looks good on screen or in readers’ heads. That’s how you sell more books, tickets, and advertising space. Fake science is the same way.
How does this tendency to obey the Rule of Cool show up to the average follower? One thing that I notice about pseudoscience is that it personalizes concepts which, in science can be very difficult to relate to:
- Astronomy allows you to chart the positions of the stars, painstakingly mapping their locations with mathematical formulas applied over centuries of data collection. Astrology tells you that if you know what month somebody is born in, you can know more about the personal qualities of yourself and your friends!
- Evolution tells us that life, including human life, evolved due to complex but consistent patterns which only emerge after studying thousands of generations. Creationism says that a magic man in the sky created you special, because he wanted to love and care for you for ever and ever!
- Neurologists study the movement of neurons and synapses on a microscopic level. Sylvia Brown says that I can talk to my dead love ones, even though their brain activity stopped decades ago!
- A novel about what life was like in Atlantis? Cool! An investigation of the Mediterranean
OceanSea showing that there was no such place? Not so cool!
I hope you see the point. Science can be cool, and often is cool. But pseudoscience has to be cool, or else it has no other reason to exist.
I’m not just trying to be negative. I think learning should be fun. I admire what Carl Sagan did in bringing real science to amateurs like us, and I think that education is always more effective when it’s entertaining. At the same time, I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what science is up against. People like to feel special. They like to feel connected. And for many people, it’s much easier to believe in an exciting falsehood than in a less exciting well-tested theoretical framework.
Edit: In this post, I may have conveyed the mistaken impression that the ideas brought up were mine alone. This was clearly a case of my runaway ego. In reality, many of the points about the survival qualities of science vs. pseudoscience were brought up originally by Lynnea, without whom this post would not have been possible, as we discussed the book. In writing this, I may have unintentionally pre-empted a similar post that she was planning to put up on her own blog, which undoubtedly would have been excellent.