The Demon-Haunted World should be, in my opinion, required reading for any literate human being with a modicum of intelligence and the responsibility...moreThe Demon-Haunted World should be, in my opinion, required reading for any literate human being with a modicum of intelligence and the responsibility of being a contributing member of society, especially a society as awash in fantastic claims, pseudoscience, misinformation, and an overwhelming tendency toward credulity as ours.
Thus spake Dr. Sagan. Accordingly, he applies this and other tools of critical thinking at the heart of the scientific process as he examines such phenomena as UFO sightings, alien abductions, crop circles, faith healing, and "channelling", among other various religious and so-called New Age notions. More important, however, than his arguments against the veracity of these claims--some of which may seem outdated to readers after more than a decade since the book's original publication--is that Sagan, drawing on many recognizable influences on the public consciousness, as well as personal experiences with colleagues and acquaintances, draws our attention to the startling variety of ways in which we allow ourselves to be "bamboozled," as he liked to say, by pretty or flashy claims that prey on our hopes, our fears, our desires, and even our deep-seated neuroses.
By demonstrating just how often and how easily so many of us--even those who should really know better--can be led astray from the path of reason, as well as reminding us of the very real dangers (as evidenced by our relatively recent history) of allowing ourselves to slip back into superstition and belief in baseless claims, Dr. Sagan illuminates the reader to the dire necessity for all of us to hone a healthy sense of skepticism. But the aim of The Demon-Haunted World is not only to inform the reader, but also to instruct; in what I believe to be the most important part of the book, the "Baloney Detection Kit", Sagan clearly and carefully delineates the methods of critical analysis, which equips us with the tools to judge the credibility of various claims and phenomena for ourselves.
As someone who was already familiar with these methods, however, my favorite part of Demon-Haunted World was not the Baloney Detection Kit, but the correlations Dr. Sagan drew between the current alien abduction phenomenon and historical accounts of visitation by demons. I literally grew up hearing stories about UFO sightings and alien encounters; as a member of Gen-Y, they're as much a part of my consciousness (whether I like it or not) as McDonald's, AIDS, and the internet. Thus, I've spent rather more time than I would prefer contemplating the idea and drawing my own conclusions about whether or not a bunch of sexually deviant extraterrestrials are really beaming people up and poking around their no-no spots for some nefarious purpose. Yet somehow it never occurred to me that there might be a connection between reports of spacefaring rapists and the incubi/succubi of old, and I'm eager to explore these correlations further, as well as the possible psychological reasons hinted at by Dr. Sagan. I can only hope that he expounded on this idea further in one of his books I've yet to read.
Despite these positive points, though, I must admit that I wasn't all that fond of Demon-Haunted World. At the time, I had recently finished The Varieties of Scientific Experience and Cosmos, both of which instantly achieved status as two of my favorites, so I ventured into reading yet another of the late, great Dr. Sagan's tomes with high expectations. Perhaps for that reason more than any other, I found myself rather disappointed. For me, this book lacked a lot of the awe and majesty of science present throughout Cosmos; instead of his characteristic and inimitable way of presenting science that makes it not only accessible, but also seem like a hell of a lot of fun actually, his tone in Demon-Haunted World conveyed to me a feeling of science being an absolute imperative. And while I agree that science is vitally important, and I share the wish that more people would take an active interest in it, not everyone wants to be a scientist. The world needs historians and writers and musicians and teachers and librarians (etc., etc., etc.) too, Carl. (But I still love you. RIP.)
Furthermore, I was a bit disappointed with his overall tone regarding things like television shows, such as X-Files. First of all, I would like to think that most people are intelligent enough to realize these shows are fiction--nobody is taking X-Files as gospel, okay? Secondly:
"Imagination will often take us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere."
For a man who has previously put so much importance on imagination, Dr. Sagan seems in Demon-Haunted World to have little patience for people actually using theirs. Perhaps, though, I'm overreacting; I do tend to get a little tetchy when people treat, or appear to be treating, fiction as if it has no value. (It does, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but I won't expound upon my arguments here.) So I'll give Sagan the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was not actually attacking fiction and, more specifically, fictional television, as such, but merely focusing heavily (and perhaps even exaggerating) on their more negative aspects in order to make a point about the quality and presentation of science on television at the time.
All in all, though, the intrinsic value of The Demon-Haunted World far outweighs its negative points. I think it's a great book that teaches an important lesson, and I recommend it to anyone who's interested in refreshing or sharpening their critical thinking skills in defense against the outrageous phenomena, corporate consumer propaganda, deliberate dissemination of misinformation, pseudoscience, and general superstition rampant in our society. Actually, come to that, I also recommend it to all the gullible twits who buy that crap wholesale; they're the ones who really need to hone a healthy sense of skepticism.(less)
Vonnegut summarized this book far better than I ever could when he said:
"Find here a major fraction of this stunningly valuable legacy left to all of...moreVonnegut summarized this book far better than I ever could when he said:
"Find here a major fraction of this stunningly valuable legacy left to all of us by a great human being. I miss him so."
As do I.
The Varieties of Scientific Experience is largely a transcription of Professor Sagan's (and he truly deserves that title) 1985 Gifford Lectures, which may sound, to the uninitiated, rather dry and uninteresting. However, as I read this book I found myself wholly engrossed, as if he was speaking directly to me. Not only are his arguments, theories and points for consideration as relevant and evocative today as twenty-five years ago, but Sagan also, in his inimitable way, once again succeeds in relating higher scientific and theological concepts in a way that is both eloquent and accessible to the common person.
Intelligent, insightful and poignant, Varieties is both an entertaining and thought-provoking read. I would recommend it to anyone who, in our increasingly enlightened age, struggles with how to reconcile prevailing religious beliefs, or the desire for spirituality, with what we know to be logical or true through science.(less)
I'm not sure what I could possibly say about Cosmos that hasn't already been said by countless others in the 28 years since its publication, and likel...moreI'm not sure what I could possibly say about Cosmos that hasn't already been said by countless others in the 28 years since its publication, and likely in a far more intelligent and eloquent way than I ever could. But upon recently reading this book for the first time (which may seem a bit belated, but I am, after all, only 23) it instantly became one of my favorites, a status not easily attained by any book, and so I feel compelled to say something, to expound upon its many virtues and why it has endeared itself to me so completely.
"One glance at [a book:] and you hear the voice of another person--perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time."
Perhaps prophetically, this is exactly the effect the late great Dr. Sagan acheived with this book. Through the power and fluid elegance of his prose, while reading Cosmos I could almost hear that familiar and somehow majestic voice (which in large part, I believe, made the PBS miniseries of the same name so wholly entrancing), as if the two of us were old friends having a leisurely, albeit profoundly intellectual, chat over coffee. Not exactly what one might expect from a book largely concerned with science, but this is just one of many qualities that makes it not only endearing to the reader, but also--and perhaps more importantly--accessible, making even the smattering of complex equations seem casual and undaunting.
Aside from the beauty of its prose, which is at times poetic in its depth and its eloquence, Cosmos is also wholly engaging and fascinating in the depth and scope of its subects. Sagan succinctly and expertly covers everything from the birth of stars to the birth of science, the origins of life on Earth to the possibility of life on other planets, and our far distant and recent (in the grand cosmic scheme of things) past to the possibilities for our distant future. And yes, because science is constantly evolving and, as Dr. Sagan states, self-correcting, some of the information and theories covered may now be outdated, but I still believe that Cosmos is well worth reading. Not only can it serve as a friendly, accessible, and engrossing jumping-off point for we common folk who are interested in delving deeper into science but may feel a bit intimidated, it is also, if nothing else, worth reading for the beautifully poignant and evocative insights and the oft-philosophical tidbits contained therein.
"We are the local embodiment of the Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars...."
My only complaints about Cosmos are these: the last two or three chapters lag just a bit, incorporating several topics that seem extraneous and unnecessary, and somewhat lose the smooth, easy flow present throughout the rest of the book; and though I feel that, in the current world political climate, the section discussing nuclear arms is still as relevant today as then, I can't help but think that anybody above the age of 12 and possessing a fully-functioning cerebral cortex is already aware of the potential consequences of nuclear war (gamma burst, radiation poisoning, junk in the atmosphere, nuclear winter, death, doom, destruction, we get it already). However, I can concede on this last point that, at the time of publication, the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear war was perhaps still a pretty hot topic. And in the grand scheme, these negative points make up only a negligible fraction of this otherwise fantastic book, and do not in anyway detract from its intrinsic value or from its overall enjoyability.
All in all, Cosmos is a thoroughly enthralling read that takes you on a breath-taking journey from the inception of the Universe to futures that may never be, and allows us to ponder--when considering our own epic journey from starstuff to "assemblages of a billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of atoms"--what it truly means to be human and what our place, our purpose, is in the vast expanse of "this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky".(less)