Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bottom Ten Amazon reviews: Carl Sagan.

I've been reviewing books on Amazon, and sometimes other places, for some fourteen years, now.  Since moving to Japan last time, this has been one of my favorite hobbies: reading the best, most important, or provocative books in the world (those three do not, of course, always coincide), and giving not just my "gut reaction," but trying to offer fair, yet punchy and informed (when possible) evaluations.  I've reviewed some four hundred books, and received over 8000 "helpful" votes, not to mention a couple thousand "unhelpful" votes.  If my reviews were grouped together -- they are divided into three groups, since I lost access twice, and had to start over -- I would rank between about #150 and #200 among Amazon's millions of volunteer reviewers.  Since I tend to post hard-hitting reviews of substantive non-fiction, and some classic fiction, I'm grateful at how my remarks have been received, by and large.  (Though I also managed to pick up a stalker or two, along the way.) 

This series will share (and maybe occasionally improve) reviews that have gotten among the best and worst responses from other readers.  Some of the authors whose books are to be highlighted include Karen Armstrong, Michael Behe, Jimmy Carter, GK Chesterton, Richard Dawkins, Elaine Pagels, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Spong, Rodney Stark, NT Wright and Howard Zinn.  The title of the series promises ten of each, but don't try to hold me to that!

(Note on methodology: "Top" reviews are ranked, straightforwardly, by how many "helpful" votes each book has received.  "Bottom" reviews are ranked differently, since you have to get some positive reviews to even draw much attention.  I multiply the number of negative votes, by the ratio of total to positive votes.  For instance, if the book gets 10 positive votes, and 30 negative votes, its total "score" is 30 times 4, or 120.  I won't use a calculator, I'll round.) 

Let's begin with one of the "bottom ten" reviews, by a famous and much beloved astronomer and forerunner of the "New Atheists," then alternate, till we reach the twin summits of grace and disgrace.

#10 Most-Hated Review

Carl Sagan, A Demon-Haunted World  29 + / 34 - (total points: - 70)

"Dr. Sagan's Big-Tent Revival"   ***

This is a book I feel like applauding or booing, depending on whether I'm in the mood to count virtues or vices. As for virtues, Sagan is not only a good writer, he comes across as a likable human being. The book is personal and warm, passionate, thoughtful, and well-written. It is full of interesting anecdotes, the point of which is well-stated. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when reading Sagan's mail from alien abductees. Maybe that's a test of our humanity. (Or humility.)

Sagan's "baloney-detecting kit" is a useful set of principles for separating fact from fiction. As a Christian scholar and skeptic of skepticism, I found myself breaking it out and using it, and related principles, right away.

For example, when Sagan exphasizes how prone memory is to error. "Our memories (like many preachers, Sagan is fond of saying "we" when he really seems to mean "you") are almost never challenged. They can, instead, be frozen into place, no matter how flawed . . . or become a work of continual artistic revision." Some of Sagan's protegies, repeating these arguments, almost had me convinced. (Skeptics, too, can avail themselves of the power of suggestibility.) So I conducted an experiment with my students, and found short-term memory extremely accurate. I also had a chance to test long-term memory on a family trip to my boyhood home, and found no evidence of "artistic revision" at all. So it seems to me Sagan improperly generalizes about memory from fringe cases.

I also find myself skeptical of the priority of skepticism itself. "Look at all the foolish things people fall for!" is the basic argument here, "People are so gullible, so willing to believe!" Sagan gives many examples, the point of which is "Be skeptical!" Seems a bit like stacking the deck, to me. What about the harm that comes from an overly-critical view? What about the admiral who can't believe the Japanese are really attacking, or the parents who refuse to buy their children's story about a trusted uncle? Two human propensities -- foolish credulity and foolish incredulity -- are both common. But they cancel one another, and we're left with a problem -- what's the evidence? Sagan is against one, but hustles us towards the other -- because he buys it himself. Thus, he writes glibly of the "Copernican Insight" and the scientific illiteracy of those who doubt it, even as top-notch astronomers discuss the strong challenge anthropic discoveries seem to pose to that principle.

Most of Sagan's arguments are directed towards the fringe -- alien abductees, satanic abuse -- but he jabs inwards towards "mainstream religion" with frequency. Many of these jabs are directed at Christianity, but with only occasional accuracy. About the witch trials, for example, he overstates the number of victims on the order of 10 to 100, and makes all the old mistakes in linking them closely to The Church that even one fair-minded Wiccan historian has expressed embarrassment about. I don't think Sagan is being malicious, and often he does get his facts straight. But he is a professional scientist, and an amateur historian or political scientist. He simply over-estimates the intellectual magic and breadth of "science," and under-estimates the gullibility of his own and other scientific minds. And he clearly has not read good opposing arguments -- in science, history, or philosophy.

Again, Sagan writes as if Democracy and Science, his favorite values, appeared POOF! Like a puff of smoke during the Enlightenment. This is historically naive. Serious historians have traced the slow growth of free institutions and scientific thought to origins in the Middle Ages and Christian thinking. (Treadgold, Davies, Dawson, Landes, etc.) Sagan points out: "If we only know our side of the argument, we hardly know that." Good advice, but when it comes to religion, it is clear he has not taken it. He seems only to have read very skeptical historians, and not always the best of those.

Sagan encourages scientists to sail out into political waters. He does not seem to see the danger (obvious to me, having met with many examples) that historically and politically naive scientists will play upon the prestige of their fields to muck in matters of which they know less than they think. "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge," said Confucius. But Sagan castigates Americans for flunking an adult science test, holding up Japanese and others as models by comparison, apparently not aware that Japanese adults did far worse on the very same test. He implies the Bible speaks of a flat earth, or the inferiority of blacks. (It does neither.) Nor, on a more complex topic, do I think any fair historian would agree that Christianity subjugated women. I have offered an historical argument (in Jesus and the Religions of Man) that, on the contrary, nothing has liberated women more around the world than the teachings and example of Christ. (Note: see also my series on "How Jesus Liberates Women" on this site -- DM.)  In the spirit of Sagan's call for criticism, I welcome fair-minded rebuttal.

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