Daniel Solera's Reviews > The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
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Dec 24, 09

bookshelves: science

Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is more than just a passionate pro-science polemic with a clunky title. It is a treatise on the proper acquisition, use, distribution and revision of knowledge. This authoritative attitude permeates the twenty-five chapters of his book, which focus on the nature of scientific inquiry, the identification and impact of pseudosciences and how they affect society.

Put plainly, Sagan’s book is kryptonite for anyone who devoutly believes or wants to believe in the legitimacy of UFO sightings and abductions, cryptozoology, astrology, faith healing and whatever new age fad du jour may be popular at the time. Wielding the swift sword of the scientific method, Sagan cuts down myths and pseudosciences, leaving only faulty information, dubious anecdotes and scientific explanations for the original fraud. For example, he notes that the abduction phenomenon isn’t new, but rather an extension of demon possession from earlier centuries. Citing Thomas Bullard, he notes that “science [has:] evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions” (130).

The themes that receive Sagan’s intense scrutiny range from psychotherapy, the inaccuracy of repressed memories, the dangers of religious doctrines, the decline of scientific curiosity in the United States, healing through prayer, mediums that can communicate with ghosts, magicians – it basically feels like reading an extended episode of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” without the profanity. Instead, we get wonderful sentences like “If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us” (241).

To avoid sounding dry or dull, Sagan debunks the idea that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive. He notes that the miraculous daily occurrences that nature offers us, coupled with the remarkable subtlety with which the universe is governed is more than enough to cause a spiritual epiphany in a scientist. In doing so, he not only continues to revere the discipline, but attempts to desterilize it. The book, however, is about thirteen years old and though the themes are relatively timeless, it feels outdated, especially given the exponential advancement of science (a fine example is how nanotechnology was written as two words and in quotation marks).

The pacing was also a bit curious. Each chapter almost stands alone as its own dissertation, but all of them together don’t seem to have a tangible flow. Secondly, Sagan is at his best when he is dealing with a specific subject. There are entire chapters, however, on the very notion of knowledge, which is as general as one can get when writing about anything. In these cases, the writing slows down considerably and takes a few chapters to speed back up.
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