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
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
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. …