The metaphor of science as ‘a candle in the dark’ originated with Carl Sagan, as the subtitle to his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World (Amazon US). Since then, skeptics and atheists have adopted the line in force, from simply quoting Sagan through to naming conferences after it. In Chapter 2 of his book, Sagan outlines how he came to adopt the subtitle:
A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam ‘to delude the people’. Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the ‘witchmongers’ as arguing, ‘else how should these things be, or come to pass?’ For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
Ady also warned of the danger that ‘the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge’. Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
Given the wide usage of this (rather hyperbolic) metaphor by the skeptical community, I was rather amused to read the following passage in Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (page 149), published in 1968, which (pre-emptively) presents a rather different, almost contradictory, usage:
Myers once said that the most important question one could ask was ‘Is the Universe Friendly?’ and with this view several of his colleagues would in one way or another have concurred. There had lately been much to suggest to them that the Universe was neither friendly to mankind nor yet unfriendly; it was just blankly indifferent. Psychical research seemed to offer a touch of warmth and hope in face of this chilling prospect. It was at least a candle in the darkness which was beginning to loom on every side.
So is science a candle in the dark, or is it the encroaching darkness?