Book Review – Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan

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Carl Sagan will be well known to those who are already in the skeptic movement, and in fact is somewhat of a figurehead, much like Richard Dawkins is to atheism.

I have been a fan for many years, dating back to the fabulous Cosmos book and TV series, which for me really outed Sagan as a polymath.

Of course, he is also well known for his work in planetary astronomy, having been involved in a number of interplanetary probe missions, and most famously devised the gold plaques on the Pioneer 10 & 11 probes back in the early 70’s which were to be our message to the stars (pictured).

He was a fan of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and contributed much to the current technology and philosophy of this venture.

He also wrote sci-fi stories, the most notable of which is Contact, which was made into a great movie starring Jodie Foster.

Demon Haunted World could be described as the skeptic’s ‘starter kit’. This early work of Sagan’s laid the foundations for much of the way of thinking adopted by a generation of skeptics, including the introduction to the ‘baloney detection kit’, which we now more prosaically refer to as the ‘bullshit detector’.

Here is a short guided tour of the book, but please, if you enjoy the subjects raised in my blog, read this book for yourself.

Sagan beautifully sets the tone for this book from his opening dedication to his grandson with “I wish you a world free of demons and full of light“, and throughout the book makes extensive use of the light vs dark analogy.

He begins with a journey through his own childhood, and the wonder of growing up and asking questions, and in particular the influence of his teachers, and moves into a discussion of the philosophy of science. In this section he quotes extensively from philosphers, scientists and poets, and bemoans that over the years we have tended to avoid the truth about the world in favour of feeling good about ourselves. In particular, he cites Nietzsche who mourned the ‘unbroken progress in the self-belittling of man’. Sagan’s response to this is that is is “far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring“, a sentiment with which I wholly agree. He later goes on to quote Benjamin Franklin, who went one step further by saying that in embracing the reality of the universe would “help make a vain Man humble“.

What follows is an extensive discussion of all manner of pseudo-science, from seances to UFOs to faces on the moon and mars, succinctly clarifying the issues and arguments with heavy doses of common sense. The discussion of UFOs, alien abductions, and related phenomena is spread over several chapters, and is probably the most comprehensive you’ll find. And of course there’s ESP, faith healing, miracles, miracle cures, ‘eastern’ medicine, and repressed memories.

Of UFOs and the like, he says:

Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the same functions. Only the extraterrestrial outer trappings are new. All the fear and the psychological dramas for dealing with it seem simply to have found their way home again, where it is business as usual in the legend realm where things go bump in the night.

I particularly liked this quote by Sagan in respect of the age-old ‘man on the moon’ images:

The Man in the Moon is in fact a record of ancient catastrophes, most of which too place before humans, before mammals, before vertebrates, before multicelled organisms, and probably even before life arose on Earth. It is a characteristic conceit of our species to put a human face on random cosmic violence.

Naturally, his main concern is the need for scepticism to be applied in all of areas, but concludes that:

..the tools of scepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They’re hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent practitioner, although scpeticism repeatedly sprouts spontaneously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising and religions are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a sceptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.

Mysticism, religion and other demon-related phenomena are also discussed in a historical context in a grand sweep of the last few hundred years. I found the discussion on witches fascinating.

In Chapter 12 we read of the ‘Fine Art of Baloney Detection’. In this chapter, we see a concise presentation of the tools of the skeptic’s trade – the means to construct and to understand a reasoned argument, and, to recognise a fallacious or fraudulent argument. He argues that “the question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges from a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether the premises are true“. In this chapter we also read about logical fallacies, generating hypotheses, Occam’s razor, falsification of a hypothesis, controlled experiments, the statistics of small numbers, misunderstandings about probability, straw men, weasel words, and much more. If you read only one chapter, then make it Chapter 12.

In subsequent chapters, Sagan traces the development of science, and especially the way in which science has been (and continues to be) viewed with suspicion by sections of society. In the chapter entitled “Anti-Science”, he outlines the anti-intellectualism which pervades society and analyses this in some detail.

Towards the end of the book, Sagan provides a very direct criticism of society and its attitude to science and education in general, and, despite the decades that have passed since the writing of this book, still holds for today’s society. On the responsibilities of citizenship, Sagan says of Thomas Jefferson that:
“He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared to the cost of ignorance, of leaving the government to the wolves. He taught that the country is safe only when the people rule.” He goes on to discuss the pervasiveness of religion in government, despite the general decoupling of the two areas (at least in western governments), and provides insights into the negative consequences which can arise.

There’s more – much more – than I have covered here, but I just wanted to present the flavour. To close off, here are his closing words, which seem to elegantly encapsulate his passionate views on science, education and society:

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness”.


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