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

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
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it was amazing

Sagan’s most magnificent

The peak of Sagan’s clarity and writing talent merge with only a smattering of his politics. “The dumbing down of America,” writes Sagan, “is most evident in the slow decay of content in an enormously influential media.” Pseudoscience, superstition and a “celebration of ignorance” is our “prescription for disaster.” “Sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces,” he writes. “When governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking the results can be catastrophic however sympathetic we may be to those who bought the baloney.” A book even more meaningful today (2014) with America’s rejection of reason for easier dogma.

Sagan begins by relaying his interaction with an average American – 95% of which, he notes, are scientifically illiterate. Sagan finds the fellow curious, interested in man and his universe but full of media distributed pseudoscience with exciting news of “excessively genial” aliens flying about earth in their UFOs, poltergeists, crystal powers and astrology – i.e. sexy flash that sells. With common man so full of crop circles and mental telepathy, Sagan is sad to discover the more amazing facts of science entirely absent, or so twisted out of shape that their sound bite representations are something else all together. We want so much to be roused from our “humdrum lives, to rekindle that sense of wonder we remember from childhood,” he says. We crave hard evidence, scientific proof and its “seal of approval but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal.”

The values of science, he claims, and that of democracy are nearly indistinguishable in that both require free exchange of ideas, debate and reason with standards of evidence and honesty. Which should be no great wonder, given America’s Founders and their antecedents like Locke (a chemist) were scientists, including Jefferson. Sagan asks how a nation can maintain democracy when the source of that kind of thinking is lost with the loss of critical sagacity among its population?

Sagan does not spare the opposite end of our educated spectrum, targeting postmodern philosophers who dismiss science as mythical and irrational; a Western bias with no relation to truth about nature. What these people seem never able to grasp is that science is both refutable (unlike religious claims) and testable against nature itself as the final judge. The predictions of quantum mechanics, Relativity theory or Newtonian gravitation can be verified by how semiconductors work, lasers, masers, orbiting galaxies, exploding stars and gravity waves. Because Newton, Einstein, Descartes or any other scientist held biases, bigotry, racist, sexist or unsavory political views is irrelevant to the accuracy of their scientific theories. We may not like them as people, but we successfully use their theories every day. Postmodern practice of dismissing their science because we don’t like the scientist’s politics is a recent and backward view incapable of separating politics from anything else. Atoms behave as atoms, and can be observed to do so whether one is Liberal or Conservative and 1 + 1 is still 2 whether one is religious or not. Saying it isn’t because one doesn’t like Bertrand Russell’s proof of it as he was an atheist, or the racism of those who discovered how atoms behave does little more than expand ignorance and confirm membership of postmoderns to 95% of those scientifically illiterate.

Though frightening, Sagan is honest and wonderful. Realization is the first step. Thank you, Carl.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 9, 2014 – Shelved

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