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Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World

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Carl Sagan was simply the world’s best science teacher, a legacy continued after his death by projects like the Childrens’ Hospital at Montefiore. His 1997 book The Demon-Haunted World demonstrates yet again why Sagan deserved that title.

The sub-title of this book is “Science as a Candle in the Dark,” itself a worthy reminder in an age where gullible mysticism grows ever stronger. Sagan states his position in a very human way. He leaves his mind open to possibilities, but quietly insists that popular “paranormal” beliefs meet the tests of evidence. Amusingly, he also tackles pseudoscience along the way – for instance, those famous tobacco company studies showing cigarettes to be safe.

This is not a dogmatic or inflexible man. His writing is clear, and alive with the wonder that we’ve come to associate with him via Cosmos and other works. Science, too, has its shortcomings, and Sagan acknowledges them. Nevertheless, his reminders concerning the shortcomings of superstition and unexamined beliefs are both compelling and timely.

Carl Sagan’s message will not be congenial to many in today’s society. An ethic of superstition and refusal to consider evidence as relevant is growing. Some profit from this state of affairs, and seek to foster it. Many others have absorbed part of that ethic. All the more reason to pick up Sagan’s readable, enjoyable, compellingly-argued, and very human book.

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About Joe Katzman

  • Sarah Gossett

    I found this book in a used bookstore when I was seventeen, and the impact it has had on my life ever since has been immeasurably profound.
    As a little kid, I was deeply interested in science, and read as much as I could about astronomy and archaeology and physics. Somewhere along the line I quite naturally became fascinated by the “weird” elements of those sciences, like UFOs, Atlantis, ghosts, ESP, that were presented so matter-of-factly by adults. After a show about black holes on the Discovery Channel, the next program would be “Haunted New Orleans” or “UFO Files” or something, given the same billing and credibility that shows about solid science recieved. Newspapers and television news ran stories about psychic detectives and Bigfoot, and the library was filled with attractive, photograph-filled books by reputable publishing-houses that set forward convincing cases for aliens having built the pyramids.
    So it happened, when I was seventeen, an Art Bell listener, crop-circle researcher and chupacabra conspiracy enthusiast, that I found a cheap copy of The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, and by the time I had finished the last chapter, I felt as if I had woken from a particularly silly five year dream. Sagan pressed the case for rational, clear-thinking and the need for evidence kindly, and with humour and humility invited his readers to discover how exciting and bizarre and breathtaking real science is. His enthusiasm and curiosity were liberating and inspiring; he was what every science teacher ought to be.
    The truth will set you free.

  • Paul

    The thing I liked most about Sagan was that he tried to break it down for the layman without being condescending or terribly arrogant -two traits in considerable supply these days among scientists who try to explain natural phenomena to the great unwashed. Most people don’t react well to sarcastic, smirky refutations of psuedo-science or religion, as it comes across as being defensive and arrogant.

    I will say that most of this paranormal jazz can be explained away by science, yet there will always be some things beyond the realm of explanation because of the empirical constraints required by the scientific method. If something can’t be observed, measured and duplicated, then the most a scientist can say is that it can’t be explained right now, which is what Sagan did. His sucessors have not been as savvy.

  • Browser

    Despite having found this an enjoyable read, I did, contrary to the comment above, find this a tad patronizing, in parts. The inexplicable can happen, there are aspects of universal knowledge that are beyond the scope of scientific thinking, from what I recall this book fails to acknowledge this. That’s why I found it irritating, and yes, Sagan, seems quite arrogant in his certainty about what’s what. I am an atheist, but I do think science does not, and will never, have all the answers. There are some truths the intellect can not approach.