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The Demon-Haunted World

by Carl Sagan, 1996

Review is copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2017.09.04



Copyright 2017 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark
Author: Carl Sagan
Year: 1996 (mine was a reprint of 1997 trade paperback)
Genre: Science, skepticism
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN 0-345-40946-9
View It On Amazon
Wikipedia Page
Author’s Wikipedia Page


Summary


“The Demon-Haunted World” is one of several best-sellers by scientist and science popularizer Carl Sagan. The theme, which is never stated clearly in the book, is that science needs to be more present in our society. Sagan bemoans the reality that pseudoscience is as popular as it’s ever been, that schoolchildren aren’t given the critical thinking toolbox from which we all can benefit, and that society at large is woefully ignorant of science — not only of the available knowledge but of the methods used to derive that knowledge.


What I Liked Least About It


I found several things to dislike about this book, the cumulative effect of which left me with overall disappointment.

The first thing I noticed was Sagan’s apparent lack of subject organization and difficulty with transitions. From a reader’s standpoint (I am not a published author), the entire book seemed like a randomly ordered collection of well-written passages. Entire paragraphs — sometimes strings of paragraphs — were masterfully constructed, the best words packed into just the right places, and easily quotable, but then these passages seem to be haphazardly stacked or spliced in with other well-written passages. Increasingly, I began to picture each well-written passage on a separate piece of paper, and I imagined the author (or editors) sliding these pieces of paper around into different orders, shuffling them. I eventually settled on the conclusion that there must have been the intention, originally, to work up transitional phrases between the passages, but that this plan was abandoned at some point, for unknown reasons.

I began to picture each well-written passage on a separate piece of paper, and I imagined the author (or editors) sliding these pieces of paper around into different orders, shuffling them.
The second thing I began to notice was the unusual amount of space given to claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions. It bugged me because in my memory, the whole “alien abduction” frenzy peaked in the late 1980s and by the 1990s was long discredited. As I read, I kept wondering why an eminent scientist like Sagan was spending so much effort debunking these claims that were already becoming less popular by the time he wrote this book. My memory turned out to be faulty here; as it turns out, the phenomenon was peaking in the 1990s, and I simply didn’t know about it because of how little I watched TV or kept up with pop culture during that decade. Still, even after I’ve corrected my memory, it seems as if Sagan devoted far more space to this single topic than he could have, relative to other pseudoscience topics like astrology, “creation science”, much of chiropractric claims, “paranormal” claims (which were very popular during that decade and includes a large range of subjects), folk remedies, homeopathy, magnetic therapy, the Bermuda Triangle theories, dianetics, ghost sightings, near-death experiences, Nostradamus “prophecies”, cryptozoology, and so on. Sagan does touch on many of these topics — not all of them — but spends far more time on UFO sightings and abduction stories than most of the other topics combined. About halfway through the book, I began to wonder if I had mistakenly picked up a book meant only to debunk that one set of claims.

A third thing that didn’t show up near the end was that this book was actually co-authored with Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan. This wasn’t listed anywhere on the cover, the title page, or the copyright page. It’s not mentioned on the sales pages of websites that sell the book. The only notifications are a footnote at the end of the table of contents (with an asterisk denoting which four chapters were partially or wholly written by Druyan), and then four tiny footnotes later in the book, on the first page of each of those four chapters. I missed these tiny footnotes until very near the end of the book as I read the third of these latter chapters and noticed a marked change in style and the way the topic was treated. Those four chapters were — in my opinion — better written than the others, but were not in the same style as the rest of the book, so it was disconcerting as a reader to come across it unaware.

I was also put off a little by the complete lack of citations throughout the book. Sagan often refers to “a study” or “finding” or “poll” without naming the study or paper or survey in question, without naming the organization or scientist(s) responsible for conducting the research, and with no reference point. Yes, there is a list of references at the back of the book, but none are linked directly to the claims in the text. While I recognize that he was writing for laity rather than academics, and I know that many average readers are put off by footnotes or inline references, I still think it would have been more responsible (especially as a self-identified scientist) to include superscript references in the text, directly referring readers to specific sources in case they want to further research the claims.


What I Liked Most About It


Despite the preceding few paragraphs, there is a lot to like about “The Demon-Haunted World”. As already noted, many passages are well-crafted — poignant, clearly and concisely articulated, and even powerful at points.

One of the best parts of the book is hidden away in the exact middle — on pages 210-216 of a 434-page book, in the 12th of 25 chapters, and about midway through that chapter. Sagan calls it a “baloney detection kit”, tools for skeptical thinking. This kit includes independent confirmation, encourage debate by experts in the field, generate multiple hypotheses and multiple ways to test them, avoid attachment to your hypothesis, find a way to quantify/measure, be certain every chain in an argument (including the premise) is solid, use Occam’s Razor frequently, and make sure hypotheses are falsifiable. He reiterates that carefully designed and controlled experiments are key, variables must be separated, and double-blind conditions should be used whenever possible. Immediately afterward, he lists a set of common logical fallacies with short descriptions of each.

One of Sagan’s subthemes in the book is the question “Whose interest does ignorance serve?” (page 12). He doesn’t list this with his baloney detection kit, but perhaps he should have — it’s an excellent question to ask on almost any topic. In political discussions over environmental regulations, for example, it is helpful to first ask the question: who profits the most from ignorance on the topic? A very related question is who profits from rolling back regulations (giant corporations and their shareholders) and who profits from enacting stricter ones (almost everyone)? Keeping the populace at large in the dark about highly contentious topics serves the interests of the bad guys — every single time.

Sagan also urges treating anti-science advocates with kindness, noting that “none of us comes fully equipped”. He points out that “supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings” and that many of them have pure motives, even if they lack the skeptic’s ability to see through baloney. He advises finding a place of moderation when it comes to speaking directly against such nonsense. On one hand, if you remain silent in the face of baloney, then the baloney continues unabated. But if you attack too stringently, too condescendingly, then you end up severing the human tie between you that was so necessary to convince them and their followers.


Notable Quotations


I think the following is my favorite quotation from the book. Though the context is about alien abduction claims, the sentiment can be applied to any claim without hard evidence, and especially to claims of great importance, such as personal experiences with deities.
“No anecdotal claim — no matter how sincere, no matter how deeply felt, no matter how exemplary the lives of the attesting citizens — carries much weight on so important a question... This is not a personal criticism... It is not tantamount to contempt for purported witnesses. It is not — or should not be — arrogant dismissal of sincere and affecting testimony. It is merely a reluctant response to human fallibility.”

— pg. 180-1

On the topic of religion:
“It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics that may have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different world we inhabit today... Science is forever whispering in our ears, ‘Remember, you’re very new at this. You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.’ Despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion... The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its divine inspiration.”

— pg. 34-5



Conclusion


It pains me to say it, but I won’t recommend this book to just anyone, for the reasons listed above. Others have said this book was eye-opening for them, that it inspired them, that it helped them climb out of the darkness that is religion. Perhaps that is still true today, for some. Perhaps if I”d read this book 30 years ago, it would have helped me leave religion sooner and solidified my critical thinking skills. But as I read it today, in 2017, it is too poorly constructed overall for my use.

If you’re a fast reader and you have some interest in science, critical thinking, or alien abductions, you might find this book more worthwhile than I did.








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