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Controversies in Science and Fringe Science: From Animals and SETI to Quackery and SHC

News & Comment

Lys Ann Shore

Volume 12.1, Fall 1987

We asked Lys Ann Shore, who writes frequently for our News and Comment section, to cover the 1987 conference of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Pasadena. She contributed this report.

Keynoter Carl Sagan Takes Up ‘Burden of Skepticism’

Every area of life, from buying a used car to evaluating Star Wars defense schemes, calls for “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses . . . and openness to new ideas,” said astronomer Carl Sagan in his keynote address.

Speaking to an attentive and appreciative crowd in the elaborately decorated Auditorium Theater of the Pasadena Center, Sagan ranged from TV commercials to trance-channeling, extraterrestrial intelligence, and Star Wars to show the need for skepticism in daily life. Just as many television commercials betray “a real contempt for the intelligence of the listening audience,” so do U.S. arguments for nuclear-weapons testing. There are people in government “who think Americans will buy any English sentence as long as it parses.” Sagan said.

Sagan views skepticism and openness to new concepts as complementary attitudes. “If you're only skeptical, no new ideas make it through to you,” he pointed out. But if you're altogether open and have no skeptical sense you won't be able to evaluate them. Sagan praised the scientific ethic of rigorous criticism of new ideas.

Why isn't the American public more skeptical of claims by corporations and government officials—not to mention trance-channelers and other proponents of the paranormal? Part of the answer lies in the cruelty of truth, Sagan believes. “We may find delusion more consoling,” for example, when we're offered the opportunity to communicate with loved ones who have died. But when we recognize we're vulnerable because of our own desires, we must be more on guard than ever, Sagan maintained.

But the attraction of illusion isn't solely responsible for people's credulity. “Skepticism is dangerous,” Sagan said. “That's exactly its function in my view.” Children taught to be skeptical might not stop with TV commercials: instead, they might start challenging accepted ideas and institutions.

Recalling that afternoon's sessions on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and animal language. Sagan pointed out the predispositions that lie as undercurrents to these debates. For example, both issues involve the belief of humans in their own uniqueness—the “anti-Copernican conceit.” As soon as we find extraterrestrial intelligence, “the last remnant of that conceit is gone.” In evaluating claims made in these controversial areas, it helps to keep in mind how science operates: Science demands independent confirmation of results and the willingness to wait until the evidence is in before drawing a conclusion. “It's okay not to know,” Sagan said.