The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on July 26, 2009

Science As a Candle In The Dark

the-demon-haunted-worldPublished the year before his death in 1996, The Demon-Haunted World can be viewed as Sagan’s most personal book. Here, he’s not trying to explain some discovery of science, as he had done for decades so ably, but instead revealing the beauty, honesty and fundamental humanity of the scientific method itself.

It’s clear the book was written in no small part in reaction to the alarming rise at that time of anti-science political and religious movements in the United States. (Movements that became even more vocal during the second Bush administration.) But those are simply symptoms of the disease of ignorance and fear of change, and it is this disease that Sagan hopes to treat here.

Sure, he takes the opportunity for some well-deserved debunking of faith healing, the “face on Mars” and space alien abductions, but always with a measured and, above all, reasoned argument that never resorts to insults or ad hominen attacks.

On the other hand, Sagan refuses to back down a millimeter on his critical examination of uncritical thinking, and that includes most religions. (There was a myth circulating shortly after his death that Sagan had a deathbed change of heart regarding his atheism. The same story has been told about Darwin. Neither is true.) He points to the inefficacy of prayer, the grossly inaccurate scriptural explanations of natural events and the arbitrary traditions of faith and belief.

Sagan sounds an alarm about the consequences of the “dumbing down” of American schooling, reminding us that the problems we face and are going to face will not be solved with miracles, but through reasoned response and creative development and application of “reality based” ideas such as science and technology.

This is certainly not simply a litany of warning and admonishments. It is instead a love story, about a man whose insatiable curiosity about the workings of the world began as a child and ever increased throughout his life, and how, through the dazzlingly marvelous thought process that is the Scientific Method, he could behold so much more of the beauty of that world.

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