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Using Fiction To Teach Critical Thinking: Carl Sagan's "Contact" PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bob Blaskiewicz   

The JREF is proud to announce a new series on featuring articles by skeptical teachers exploring critical thinking in the classroom, using the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason. We welcome feedback, discussion, and further suggestions from educators and parents for related assignments in the comments section. If you would like to be involved in this project, please contact Bob Blaskiewicz.

Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact is a potentially powerful but currently undervalued contribution to both skepticism and education. It is the story of Eleanor Arroway, a radio astronomer of high caliber who has a longstanding professional interest in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When the radio telescope she manages detects a powerful signal from a relatively nearby star, Vega, the discovery electrifies humanity, spurring social change on a global scale. The Message, as it comes to be called, is instructions for building a machine of great complexity and unknown purpose. But it has chairs. An international team of five scientists, which includes Arroway, is selected to sit in those chairs when the Machine is turned on. When it is, the team finds itself hurtling though a transdimensional transit system to the center of the galaxy, where they are told by the intelligences who sent the Message that humanity has a lot of promise.

Contact is a highly readable novel, appropriate, I think, for students at the high school level and above. Sagan is not overly concerned with novelistic elements like character development; he makes it agonizingly clear that Arroway needs a father figure, and the romance is almost physically painful to behold. Sagan’s treatment of characters reminds me a little of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose characters discuss every possible argument for and against slavery, a valuable contemporary catalog of the slavery debate. In Contact, Sagan has assembled a compendium of arguments about the place of science and reason in society.

Throughout Contact one encounters a number of what skeptics will recognize as “extraordinary claims,” claims that, if they prove true, will transform our understanding of and relationship to the world, other people, and ourselves. An example of this type of claim that does not appear in the novel is David Icke’s claim that the world is controlled by a cabal of evil, shape-shifting, interdimensional, mind controlling reptilian aliens who live in the hollow moon (which is also a spaceship) and who feed off of human misery while carrying on in the guise of the British Royal family. If Icke is correct, we will have to fundamentally revise our understanding of history, government, economics, psychology, physics, and every other field of human knowledge. A large number of similarly extraordinary claims appear in the novel, including transcendental meditation, flying saucers and millenarian UFO cults, near death experiences, counterfeit holy relics, young-earth creationism and biblical literalism, conspiracies of scientists/Jews/communists, astrology, psychic claims, doomsday devices, Lysenkoism, and, my favorite, space Nazis.#

A wonderful way to teach this novel is to use it to illustrate the difference between scientific and pseudoscientific approaches to evidence. For instance, when Arroway gets exactly what she wants despite all odds, a radio signal from another civilization, she submits her discovery to a series of tests that could show that the signal is NOT from aliens. She considers whether her equipment is malfunctioning (it’s not), whether it moves with the background stars (it does), whether satellites or other manmade objects could mimic such a signal (it’s hard to see how). Even when the signal passes every test she can think of, she still invites the objections of the others in her lab, and they raise objections as to the age of Vega (too young to have evolved life) and the presence of a debris disk. At all points, Arroway’s team assumes that the most extraordinary explanation is also the least likely.

In contrast to the careful and methodical process of vetting that Arroway’s team invites is the manner in which pseudoscientists focus on only that evidence they believe supports a desired outcome. An example of this appeared in the media in 2006, when Bob Cornuke, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Search and Exploration (BASE) Institute publicized what he suggested was (yet another) successful search for Noah’s Ark. His summary of evidence excludes any possible contradictory evidence:

  • The object consists of dark rock with an uncanny beam-like appearance in several places.#
  • The object fits the approximate dimensions of Noah’s Ark.
  • The object is at 13,120 feet but the nearest tree is at about 8,000 feet (and there are very few trees even at that level).
  • We found sea life at an adjacent summit.
  • We found microscopic sea life in a rock from the object (a foram, which is normally only found at the depths of the sea).
  • All major climates are close by along with all ecosystems.#

At no point does Cornuke ever submit his evidence to professional scrutiny or consider that his observations might be evidence of something else entirely. Nor does he include any comment by a credentialed geologist. The differences between Arroway and Cornuke’s approach to evidence illustrate an important distinction between scientific and pseudoscientific inquiry: whereas science draws its conclusions based on data, pseudoscience often selects its data on the basis of a desired conclusion.#

Another comparison fruitful comparison for students is to note the different ways in which scientists and pseudoscientists use scientific language. When Arroway summarizes the initial findings regarding the Message for her team (and, by proxy, for the reader), she illustrates that scientific terminology, when properly used, is denotative, precise, unambiguous, substantive, and eschews metaphor:

We have an extremely strong, not very monochromatic signal. Immediately outside the bandpass of this signal there are no other frequencies reporting anything besides noise. The signal is linearly polarized, as if it’s being broadcast by a radio telescope. The signal is around nine gigahertz, near the minimum in the galactic noise background. It’s the right kind of frequency for anyone who wants to be heard over a big distance. We’ve confirmed sidereal motion of the source, so it’s moving as if it’s up there. (78)

While the meaning may not be readily apparent to the layman (a problem that Sagan tries to address by having his protagonist deliberately speak “in the simplest language”) it is clear to the scientific audience. The pseudoscientific use of scientific language is largely ornamental and used to convey a sense of scientific authority to the layman without conveying meaningful information to the expert. For instance, take the sciencey, obfuscatory language of an abstract by Desmond P. Allen, who contributed “An Apology and Unification Theory for the Reconciliation of Physical Matter and Metaphysical Cognizance”:

[A] theory is set forth that reconciles inorganic, organic, and animated matter with the metaphysical realities of both the creator and the created. By coupling the metaphysical implications of quantum physics with the biblical understanding of God’s attributes, the thesis is set forth that our immediate physical reality—consisting of empty space, electromagnetic energy, and information—is basically a hologram depiction of God’s intent. God spoke and it was so. Since creation, God’s Spirit has continued to energize and interact with the universe in an entangled nature at the quantum level. Similarly, the individual metaphysical reality (the spirit) of each animated being interacts with its individual corporal body via this same entangled nature at the subatomic level.#

This is science word salad. Even the fancy Latinate word “cognizance” that appears in the title is undefined (more precisely, it is defined in terms of other words without agreed upon referents, “soul or spirit”). All of the “quantum” is claimed to interact with God, whose nature is also undefined. Of course, the problem is that without the benefit of a science education, the layman probably would not be able to critique this misuse of the scientific concepts of entanglement, energy, holograms, and information.

Another way to use Contact to illustrate the difference between scientists and pseudoscientists is to compare how their use of scientific equipment differs. In Contact, Arroway is an expert in the use of the tools of radio astronomy. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which is undertaken “with the concurrence of the faculty,” is “the development of an improvement in the sensitive receivers employed on radio telescopes” (40). She works on the ruby maser. The red color of rubies comes from a slight chromium impurity in the stone, and she explains that “when a strong magnetic field is impressed on the ruby, the chromium atoms increase their energy or, as physicists like to say, are raised to an excited state,” a property that she harnesses for “a good practical cause—amplifying a weak radio signal. […] She found a way to make rubies with lanthanide impurities [that could] detect a much weaker signal than previous masers” (40). Scientists understand their equipment, what it is capable of doing, and the theories that allow it to work.

As an example of the pseudoscientific use of equipment, I would introduce students to ghost hunting, a field in which no piece of detection equipment cannot be misused, including cameras, audio recorders, digital thermometers, EMF detectors, thermal imaging cameras, and even Geiger counters. An excellent illustration of the failure of a ghost hunter to have even a passing understanding with the proper operation of their equipment came in the first season of the SyFy show Ghost Hunters, when the team was exploring the New Bedford Armory. At one point, the tech guy, Brian, boasts about how to use a Geiger counter, but when pressed to give a demonstration, what results is pure pseudoscientific gold.

Other topics addressed at length in Contact that instructors might want to point out to students include the process of publication and the scrutiny of scientific findings by independent and anonymous peers, the replication of results, standards of evidence, the ability to abandon pet theories when they fail to accord with evidence, and logical fallacies. Crucial to all of the important topics explored in the novel is the relationship of the media to science and critical thought. While his biographers note that Sagan took a characteristically dim view of typical television fare in his speeches,# his heroine enjoys one particular type of entertainment. While flipping through television channels, Arroway comes across one of her favorite shows, Yesterday’s News, which reruns old news broadcasts. “The second half of the program,” the narrator explains:

consisted of a point-by-point dissection of the misinformation in the first half, and the obdurate credulity of the news organizations before the claims of any administration, no matter how unsupported and self-serving. It was one of several television series produced by an organization called REALI-TV—including Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at the local, state and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly program debunking what were said to be widespread prejudices, propaganda, and myths. (132-3)

Clearly, this is Sagan’s nod to the importance of critical thinking and fact checking in civic life.

Early in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,# Sagan mentions the importance of critical thinking and science education: “How can we affect national policy,” he wonders, “—or even make intelligent decisions about our own lives—if we don’t grasp the underlying issues?” (Demon 7). Sagan’s advocacy of teaching the fundamental precepts of science, the critical skill set that underpins science is largely the same as that which undergirds responsible citizenship: fact-checking claims as a part of a rigorous skepticism. Unfortunately the extra work entailed by such skepticism “doesn’t sell well” (Demon 5). Often skepticism can’t compete with the sensationalism of extraordinary claims. This is one reason I piggyback lessons about critical thinking on the romantic notions expressed in these claims—they are memorable. Arroway, after she finds that Venus is incapable of supporting the life she thought and hoped might be there, she reflects on the limits of romantic speculation about the nature of the universe:

[Her graduate school mentors] repeatedly stressed that speculation must be confronted with sober physical reality. It was a kind of sieve that separated the rare useful speculation from torrents of nonsense. The extraterrestrials and their technology had to conform strictly to the laws of nature. But what emerged from this sieve, and survived the most skeptical physical and astronomical analysis, might even be true. (Contact 39)

In Arroway’s mind and in Sagan’s, it seems, science is a way of having better romantic notions, plausible notions.


Possible assignments/projects/questions stemming from using Contact:

  • Ask students to identify extraordinary claims in the novel and give reasons why they think those claims are extraordinary.
  • A section of a high school science course might be devoted to exploring the scientific and engineering principles that appear in the novel.
  • Identify and explore communication problems associated with alien contact, including the lack of a common language, shared assumptions between civilizations, and obstacles caused by the vast distances involved. Have students discuss how Sagan seeks to overcome these obstacles in the novel and invite them to speculate about communication with extraterrestrials.
  • Take the evidence amassed by the BASE evidence to support the claim of the discovery of Noah’s Ark and have students generate explanations that are better in line with scientific consensus.
  • Have students produce a script for a segment or episode of Yesterday’s News, Promises, Promises, or Bamboozles and Baloney.

Bob Blaskiewicz is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he teaches writing and research courses that take extraordinary claims as their topic. He is co-editor of the site Skeptical Humanities.

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by LuigiNovi, May 10, 2012
EXCELLENT article, Dr. Blaskiewicz! I'm bookmarking this one and posting it at Nitcentral and Facebook!
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