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 percent 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, $25.95), could be fun even 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 and 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 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. …