Why do people go mad in crowds? Good question. Despite the subtitle, this book does not provide a succinct answer, although it does present several historical accounts of when people did succumb to irrational economic and religious beliefs. Underlying them all is the premise that humans are not rational creatures. Not predominantly, anyway. Sure, given sufficient time to examine a situation, they may make rational choices, from time to time, but for the most part, nope. Most human behavior is based on instinct, learned heuristics, cultural narratives, beliefs, habits, and emotions. That’s not news. Any casual observer of human behavior will notice the same.
About half of this book (a rough, personal estimate) is devoted to apocalyptic doomsday type cults, from Anabaptist to Islamic State, and how the believers in these narratives react when their fiction hits fact like a bug on a windshield. It’s a scary, even depressing topic because of the harm a small, devoted, and utterly insane group of people can cause before it ultimately fails or evolves into something a bit less extreme (like Millerites becoming Adventists). And if this kind of pathological behavior is indeed based on our evolutionary heritage, one has to wonder if we are, ironically, doomed. Will all future generations be plagued by this kind of madness? Will our species be destroyed by it?
Well, maybe, and this brings up another omission I thought existed with this book. A few possible ways to mitigate such insanity are mentioned at one point. It seems that affluence has some effect on the formation of apocalyptic cults. Scientific and historical education might help. I would assume that greater equality of income, wealth, and opportunity would also tend to suppress the formation of irrational narratives, but the question is never pursued and no summation is provided.
This isn’t a bad treatment of this important subject, but I felt it could be better.
This book is mostly a boastful autobiography, but a small portion of it is dedicated to the hypothesis that Oumuamua, the strange, interstellar whatever-it-was that zipped through our solar system in late 2017 is an alien lightsail vehicle, possibly a defunct probe from an unknown extraterrestrial civilization. The evidence the author presents basically comes down to Oumuamua being abnormally shiny, probably disc shaped, and exhibiting non-gravitational acceleration. These are traits comets and asteroids don’t have, at least not often or all at the same time. It’s quite intriguing, but it’s hardly conclusive. It’s no wonder the scientific community didn’t hop onboard and proclaim it an alien artifact, and yet the author is quite critical of his colleagues for not doing so. At one point he challenges the often quoted adage, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” stating that he doesn’t know why this should hold true. This caused me to pause in my reading for a brief moment of WTF? Of course extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! It’s what distinguishes science from tabloid journalism! It’s why scientists don’t accept a couple fuzzy photos, an odd ripple in the water, and an indistinct impression in the mud as proof of the existence of the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. Yeah, perhaps there is too much resistance to serious consideration of the alien tech hypothesis in the case of Oumuamua, and perhaps humanity should be putting more effort into a search for signs of extraterrestrial life, but it’s not like this points to a systemic flaw in the scientific process. It’s more the fault of our screwed up priorities, which leaves too few resources available for pure scientific inquiry. But that’s another argument, entirely.
We recognize and celebrate the cycles of our lives -night and day, the passing of seasons, birth and death- through rituals, many of which have religious trappings. Until relatively recently, religious speculations were the only stories humans had for making sense of such things. Now, as we learn more about how the universe works, people are becoming more secular, but our desire for ritual and tradition to mark the events of our lives remains. What’s a modern secular person to do? In this book, Sasha Sagan, daughter of the late Carl Sagan, shares some of the things she and her family have come up with. As such, the book can be seen as suggestions for secular ways to mark meaningful events, but in large part, it’s a tribute to her dad, a truly great and inspirational human being. I can only imagine the sense of loss Sasha felt when he died. I know I did, and I only knew him through his writings and public appearances. To me, Carl Sagan epitomized humanity at its best. He is missed. I found him both enlightening and inspirational. He left the world far too soon, but he made a positive difference. That’s as much as any of us can hope for.