From The Demon Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, the chapter called The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder (admission – I was looking over the chapter called House on Fire, late last night, in preparation for a talk I’m going to be giving in the future. I don’t sleep very well during the summer and doing something productive passes the time):
In every such society, there is a cherished world of myth and metaphor, which co-exists with the workday world. Efforts to reconcile the two are made, and any rough edges at the joints tend to be off-limits and ignored. We comparmentalize. Some scientists do this too, effortlessly stepping between the skeptical world of science and the credulous world of religious belief without skipping a beat. Of course, the greater the mismatch between these two worlds, the more difficult it is to be comfortable, with untroubled conscience, with both.
In a life short and uncertain, it seems heartless to do anything that might deprive people of the consolation of faith when science cannot remedy their anguish. Those who cannot bear the burden of science are free to ignore its precepts. But we cannot have science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and ignoring it where we feel threatened – again, because we are not wise enough to do so. Except by sealing the brain off into separate airtight compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittariuses are gregarious and affable?
Have I ever heard a skeptic wax superior and contemptuous? Certainly. I’ve even sometimes heard to my retrospective dismay, that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfections on both sides of this issue. Even when it’s applied sensitively,scientific skepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, heartless and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of others. And it must be said, some scientists and dedicated skeptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. Sometimes it looks as if the skeptical conclusion came first, that contentions were dismissed before, not after, the evidence was examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes alone who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or, who like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.
The scientist who first proposed to consecrate doubt as a prime virtue of the inquiring mind made it clear that it was a tool and not an end in itself. Rene Descartes wrote:
I did not imitate the skeptics who doubt only for doubting’s sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay beneath.
In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them the all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.
Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our misgivings to ourselves?
Pages 297-8, The Demon Haunted World, Sagan.