Field of Science

Has Carl Sagan's "Contact" aged well?

I have watched "Contact" several times and was watching it again the other day. Carl Sagan got a lot of things right in it, including the truth that even scientists have "faith" in matters disconnected with science. But one of the key parts of the film hasn't aged well for me.

For those who haven't seen it or read the book, Ellie Arroway, a brilliant astronomer played by Jodie Foster, is on a shortlist of people selected to be passengers on an interstellar machine constructed according to blueprints received by radio transmission from the Vega constellation. As earth's first ambassador to space, she is interviewed by a panel on her views on different topics. What would be the most important question she would ask the alien civilization?
An old flame who is on the panel - and who has a personal vested interest in not having her go since he still has romantic feelings for her - asks her squarely if she believes in God. The other members of the panel think that it would be unwise to pick as earth's first interstellar ambassador, someone who does not believe what 95% of the world's population believes. They think that one of the foremost questions Ellie should ask the aliens, should she meet them, is, "What God do you worship?". Elie being a scientist naturally says that she can't believe anything without demonstrated evidence. Candidate rejected.
It seems to me that Sagan really had an opportunity here, if not in the film then in the book, to showcase the theological and intellectual debates and problems concerning religion. The first question Ellie should have asked the panelists is: "When you ask whether I believe in God, I would ask you, *What* God? Those 95% of people you are referring to worship a zillion different Gods, from Jesus to Brahma. But there's even more, now-extinct Gods that their ancestors believed in, including Odin and Huitzilopochtli. Which God am I supposed to believe in? And do we think the aliens wouldn't ask me which one of these many Gods I believe in? What if I say the wrong name?". That would have driven home the central dilemma with believing in God right there.
But there might have been another, much more important question regarding religion that Arroway could have asked, and it would have been one that is independent of specific Gods. Religion clearly serves an important biological and evolutionary purpose, one explicated by numerous scientists. Instead of asking what God the aliens worship, the scientifically relevant question would be, "What are your deepest beliefs and how do you satisfy them?". This would have been a relevant question that is science, and yet one that would have provided an important answer about religion as, in Daniel Dennett's words, a "natural phenomenon".
As it turns out, the answer Arroway gives regarding the question is one I would have given myself: she says she would have asked the aliens how they did it; how they avoided blowing themselves up while developing such advanced technology. Especially in our present circumstances, asking a technologically advanced civilization that seems to have lasted much longer than us how they prevented self-extinction would be perhaps the most question we can ask.
But I can understand why Sagan had his character ask that question: it sets her up for the climax. After being transported to another world, Arroway sees and has a conversation with her loving father, one who had done everything he could to develop her interest and skills in science before tragically dying of a heart attack when Ellie was ten. When Ellie comes back after having that heartrending conversation, she comes to know that from the point of view of people here on earth, she was gone for only a short time, and her audiovisual equipment recorded nothing but noise. She is kept holding on to her vision of what is effectively an out-of-body experience and conversation with her father by the same slender thread which she had rejected before - faith. Sagan's point is that even scientists can have powerful experiences which they have to take on faith because there's no other way to explain them.
But upon watching that part again I still wasn't convinced of what Sagan was trying to say. If he was trying to propose reconciliation between science and religion, he was picking the wrong argument based on faith here. A scientist's "faith" that the sun will rise tomorrow is very different from faith that Jesus was born of a virgin. The former is predicated on well-understood laws of science that result in a probabilistic model which we can believe with high confidence; if the sun indeed failed to rise tomorrow, not just common sense but much of our understanding of physics, astronomy and planetary science would suddenly be called into question. That means that other phenomena that depend on this understanding would also be called into question. A scientist may take some things on "faith", but this is not really faith so much as it is informed judgement based on confidence limits and well-constructed models of reality.
Ultimately though, as much as I think Sagan could have done a much better job with these matters, I think the most important point he makes is still valid: that point simply is that, as monumentally useful and important science is, holding on to it is very hard and needs a lot of rock-solid conviction. That's a message we can all be on board with

When it comes to science, the practical is the moral and the moral the practical

Ignaz Semmelweis
We seem to live in a time when skepticism of science and its experts runs deep and where political mandarins of all persuasions are all too eager to make out science as a villain. It is at times like this that we must remind ourselves that science has not just been the greatest force for practical good that we have discovered but the most moral one as well.

It's easy to make the mistake of thinking of this statement as controversial, especially in a time when science is knocked for its perceived evils. But think about it in simple terms, and in fact in terms of a sphere where the practical and moral improvements are not just obvious but coincident. This sphere is the conquest of disease. I have been reading a fantastic book recently - Frank von Hippel's "The Chemical Age". The title betrays the content. The book is actually an amazing journey through various diseases that literally ended civilizations and destroyed the lives of millions, the lifesaving drugs and other public health measures science devised to end them and the heroic efforts of dogged individuals ranging from Louis Pasteur to Ronald Ross who defeated these implacable foes through blood, sweat and tears, sometimes quite literally so; Ross, during his efforts to prove that the malarial parasite was spread through the mosquito, worked so hard day and night at his microscope that the hinges rusted because of his sweat, the eyepiece cracked and he almost lost his eyesight. Another brave and almost otherworldly soul, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student named Stubbins Ffirth, injected blood, urine and saliva from yellow fever patients into his body to rule out direct patient to patient transmission. These were the heroic deeds of heroic men.

But look at what they accomplished. Diseases like yellow fever, malaria and typhus, killers whose death toll easily exceeds the lives taken by all the wars of the world combined, which were endemic and a fact of life in ever city and village, which were literal destroyers of armies and even civilizations and scourges of families whose children they took away, were tamed, drastically reduced in intensity and fatal reach and finally contained. They haven't disappeared from our planet, but we, at least those of us who live in most developing and developed countries, hardly even think of any of these maladies any more, let alone know someone who has died of them.

This is not just a practical triumph of science but a profoundly moral one. Think of all the men, women and children numbering in the millions whose lives were saved, extended and enriched because of the innovations of chemistry and medicine, who could love and help and be there for each other and enjoy the blessings of precious life which in earlier ages was cruelly snatched away from them on a regular basis. In all these cases the "practical" and "moral" impact of science is indistinguishable.

This same overlap between the practical and the moral exists in other spheres. The discovery of cheap distillation methods for hydrocarbons not only enabled electricity and transportation but kept people warm in cold climates and cool in hot ones. Better chemical treatment of textiles led to similar, insulating material that protected the vulnerable and the young. And of course, far and away, the methods of artificial selection and genetic engineering have literally led to the feeding and saving of millions in parts of the world like India and China. If this existential improvement to humanity's basic predicaments by science isn't moral, I don't know what is.

The same book, von Hippel's, raises a counterargument when it talks about chemical weapons which disfigured and maimed millions. And yet the numbers don't compare. As hideous as thalidomide, sarin, phosgene and DDT are, the lives they claimed pale in significance and numbers compared to the lives saved by antibiotics, pesticides, disinfectants and the Haber-Bosch process; antibiotics for instance brought down the death toll due to infection on the battlefield from 200% (Civil War) to less than 10% in World War 2. Simpler measures like hand-washing and better sanitation were also the fruits of scientific discovery, and heretics like Ignaz Semmelweis who contributed to these measures were often hounded and ostracized; Semmelweis met a terribly tragic end when he died from beatings and possibly a self-inflicted wound in a mental asylum.

For me the conclusion is obvious. Science can indeed be used for good and evil, but the good outweighs the evil by an infinite amount. This is a timely reminder that the greatest force for practical improvement discovered by humanity is also the most moral one.