“A Sunday Morning Reading: Carl Sagan, Science and Witchcraft”
Originally posted on April 18, 2010 on my now-shuttered blog, Blue Lyon. It still holds up.
In The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books, 1996), Carl Sagan stressed over and over again the need for science literacy, critical thinking and skepticism. We need not understand the finer points of each scientific discipline, but we need to understand the scientific method and how to apply it in our daily lives, as well as in our national and international policy-making.
Sagan also argued that ignorance of what-came-before can set us up to commit the same errors in the here-and-now. Understanding the past is key to living in the present and planning for the future. To not know our history and our human propensity for unskeptical thinking is to doom us to continually make the same mistakes, to never move forward, or worse, finish ourselves off as a species.
In Chapter 24, Science and Witchcraft, Sagan revisits the witch hunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries that consumed Europe and America. The parallels in the following passage to today’s political environment are striking: Guantanamo, indefinite detention, military commissions-vs-civilian courts, National Day of Prayer, torture, the run up to the Iraq war, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, even the 2008 Democratic primaries. Sagan appears prescient. He wasn’t. He was just aware of history.
If we do not know what we’re capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves. I discussed the European witch mania in the alien abduction context; I hope the reader will forgive me for returning to it in its political context. It is an aperture to human self-knowledge. If we focus on what was considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and secular authorities in the fifteenth-to-seventeenth century witch hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the eighteenth-century U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: including trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of church and state.
Friedrich von Spee (pronounced “Shpay”) was a Jesuit priest who had the misfortune to hear the confessions of those accused of witchcraft in the German City of Würzburg (see Chapter 7). In 1631, he published Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), which exposed the essence of the Church/State terrorism against the innocent. Before he was punished he died of the plague – as a parish priest serving the afflicted. Here is an except from his whistle-blowing book: Continue reading “31. She can never clear herself.”