Author Carl Sagan
Things You Might Like
- Very little math
- Clear, logical arguments
- Subdued, yet exciting, discussions
- Sagan’s respect for mainstream religion
- Sagan actually suggests solutions for the country’s problems
Things You Might Not Like
- Sagan largely discounts what education there actually is in mainstream media
- May come across as attacking your strongly-held beliefs
- No easy solutions
Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is an inspiring treatise on skepticism and how to keep America sliding back into the Dark Ages.
5 out of 5 Debunked Pseudosciences
Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stephen Hawking took part in a discussion about topics as varied as what happens when an object gets sucked into a black hole, the nature of the universe, and whether or not there is life elsewhere in the galaxy—and whether or not Man will ever run into it.
That last question brought up a good debate amongst the three panelists. Clarke, the sci-fi writer, was exuberant about the possibility to meet a space-faring civilization. Hawking, though, was much more reserved. He drew a parallel between such an occurrence and what happened when Columbus landed in North America—namely: slavery, disease, and murder.
Sagan, though, prefaced his reserved enthusiasm with,
I’m an optimist. And it’s that tone that permeates The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in The Dark. Optimism is tempered by skepticism. You won’t find any of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s effervescent enthusiasm—or his rants about Hollywood or “common sense.” What you will find, instead, is caution.
While the book was written in 1995, Sagan’s concerns of anti-science bias are still as appropriate as they ever were. The Demon-Haunted World discusses the need for solid skepticism and scientific literacy in a world dominated by talk of the healing properties of crystals, anti-evolution biases, and disturbing polls that show a significant portion of the American populace believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
Sagan opens the book by talking about how he was introduced to the world of science: through both school and his parents—who weren’t highly educated, but encouraged his curiosity. From there, he describes what makes up the scientific mind as colored by his experiences in astrophysics and the search for extraterrestrial life—ranging from the Voyager missions to SETI. (Those big radar dishes in The Arrival.)
From there, Sagan moves to skepticism in action, describing the rash of reported alien abductions from the 1950s to the present, linking the trend to crop circles and witch hunts and demon sightings from the middle ages on. He spends time deconstructing all of those things—in very detailed language, and using studies from the fields of history and psychology as much as pure logic—to the point of reducing them to religious and political power struggles, and from there, draws significant connections to the contemporary state of American thinking.
This, it may not surprise you, is the bulk of the book. Sagan uses his rhetorical and public [writing] skills to their best here, citing studies, polls, and breaking everything down logically and easily enough for people with no scientific training to both handle and, well, dig.
It may seem at times that Sagan’s goal is to take the magic out of the world, but that’s not the case. As Douglas Adams—sci-fi writer, science and tech enthusiast, and Richard Dawkins’s nomination for an atheist saint—put it:
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
The third portion of the book deals with the current state of scientific education and literacy in America. Throughout this section, you can almost hear Sagan give deep, rattling sighs throughout. Superstition, Sagan theorizes, is the reason America is falling behind the rest of the world. His evidence is solid, and as any scientifically-minded individual who grew up in the South can tell you, there is still a strong, anti-science mentality in the United States.
Now, Sagan prefaces this section by saying that it’s very political, and will probably offend people. But the thing is: There’s no need to warn people. The talk needs to be had. Yes, there are people in the public eye who discuss it, but one or two people on the Science Channel is not enough.
Now, the most important thing about this book goes back to Sagan’s optimism. The difference between he and pundits is that a) people pay more attention to pundits than they do scientists, and b) pundits rarely give solutions. Sagan’s writing is as much an analysis of what’s wrong as a discussion of how to fix it.
While Sagan’s mantle has been very much taken up by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the man’s going to be hosting a new Cosmos, for God’s sake!), the discussion of how to fix the education, critical thinking, and America’s fading significance is something that cannot be had enough. And this book is an excellent catalyst for that debate.
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