A.J.'s Reviews > The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
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Mar 19, 2010

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bookshelves: science-skepticism
Read from March 03 to 19, 2010

One of the tragedies of modern fiction is the portrayal of the skeptic. I'm sure most of you know what I'm talking about. Tell me you haven't seen the movie or TV show where the unbeliever, the rationalist who can only see what's in front of his face, is second fiddle to the muscular hero with 'vision.' The line, "I'm a man of science" is responded to with, "I'm a man of faith"––and we're supposed to think highly of the latter.

To which Carl Sagan responds: "To hell with that." Fiction may have an out in that the worlds created by Stephen King, J.J. Abrams, or Frank Herbert are indeed inhabited by supernatural forces. I suppose it's only fair that the credulous take their bows while they can, because as soon as they exit stage right into the real world, you find that things are solid; they operate like a Sherlock Holmes mystery where no matter how much it might look like the paranormal is happening, there's always a completely natural explanation. Nobody said simple. But natural.

The word Skeptic is one that needs reclaiming. Too often it is associated with debunking or doubt for the hell of it. What many fail to grasp is that doubt is a supreme virtue. It drives the scientific method which is responsible for the technological world we see around us. You were partially blind but now you see? Thank doubt and critical reasoning. You are able to talk with your wife in another country using a computer or a telephone? Thank the unbending critical nature of the scientific method. The world is rife with magical thinking, pseudoscience, conspiracy mongering, and superstitious nonsense. Most of it must feed on an environment free of criticism and questioning. It appeals to authorities over evidence. The antidote is skepticism, free inquiry, and bold questioning. In short, the answer is science.

I see that this book has been very well received and is quite popular among freethinkers. Certainly the thesis is spot on, but I didn't get anything out of this that isn't present, say, in Michael Shermer's work. Sagan is a gifted writer, one born to be a popularizer of science and the scientific method, yet for me I didn't resonate with this book as much as I have with similar ones in the past. Maybe it was the limited number of topics covered or the needless length. Or maybe it was that I seemed to be interrupted constantly while reading it, thus never allowing the themes to develop all at once.

The final chapter, however, entitled "Real Patriots Ask Questions" was a stirring interweaving of all the areas covered throughout the book: science, religion, education, and politics. It was so well argued and crafted that no self-styled freethinker should miss out on reading it. Taken as a collective, I stop just shy of awarding The Demon-Haunted World four stars. The best parts alone would have certainly gotten there or higher, but all together I think it lacked the oomph. Still, I would not hesitate in recommending it.
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Reading Progress

03/16/2010 page 320
70.02% "Seems I'm having trouble reading this more than ten pages at a time. Too many interruptions."

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