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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

The Darkness Must Not Win

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Here's a quote from a book that resonates with me every single day:

The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10-seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Those are the words of Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, a book published in 1996 that should never be allowed to go out of print. The sub-title is Science As A Candle In The Dark and if Sagan were alive today I think he'd be appalled by how many people in this country are opting for darkness instead of light.

The current controversy involving Oklahoma senatorial candidate Todd Akin shouldn't surprise anyone. His embrace of crackpot medical theories about rape and pregnancy are just one thread in a modern cultural tapestry that weaves together elements of magic, superstition, and folklore.

Look at a list of popular network and cable TV shows during the past decade and you'll find mediums, mentalists, psychics, ghost hunters, and other practitioners of the paranormal. Feature films continue to present hauntings and exorcisms with the promotional tagline "Based on true events!"

Some people reading this will say, "Oh, that stuff is all just entertainment. The viewers aren't taking it seriously." I emphatically disagree. The notion that mysterious forces are at work all around us is believed, in varying degrees, by huge numbers of people at all levels of society. My favorite example: Nancy Reagan often consulted with an astrologer during her years as First Lady.

Ms. Reagan said that her motivation for seeking clairvoyance was a desire to protect her husband after he was shot by John Hinckley in 1981. Situations like this are the territory of fortune tellers and medicine show promoters. Their common refrain is, "Science can't provide the answers you seek but our special powers can."

Science has also has made enemies during the past six hundred years because of it's tendency to contradict traditional beliefs. Asserting that Earth is not the center of the solar system caused a lot of problems for Copernicus, Galileo, and other supporters of the heliocentric model.

No, science doesn't have all the answers and some questions like what happens after we die remain unanswered. But science has a great track record in showing us how the universe operates, and possessing that knowledge helps drive away fear of the unknown.
It also robs charlatans and soothsayers of their leverage to exploit that fear.

The scientific method requires critical thinking. Any hypothesis must be proven with evidence that can be verified by other investigators. The process can take a long time, and it may turn out the theory isn't true. That's another benefit of science; it teaches us to say, "Gee, I was wrong about that."

It's almost impossible to list all the ways science has improved our lives during the past 100 years. Think of advances in medicine, agriculture, energy, aviation, electronics, computers and everything in between.

The U.S. just sent a vehicle to Mars, landed it safely by remote control, and now it's going to probe the Martian landscape. It's an achievement of incredible historic significance. And while the notion of interplanetary exploration may seem almost supernatural, all of our space milestones have been reached without the use of spells, incantations or other appeals to the spirit world.

Perhaps most important, science is a great equalizer. It shows how natural events do not occur based on some occult agenda. There's nothing elitist about proving that illness isn't inflicted by a neighbor's hex, or that hailstones and hurricanes are not punishments from an angry wind god.

Find a copy of The Demon-Haunted World. Read it, reject ignorance, and keep moving away from the darkness.