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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astronomer or Sociologist?
Although Carl Sagan made a prominent name for himself as an Astronomer in the 1970's, his final contribution to the academic world was a piece that was very Sociological in nature. The thesis of the book is that America's obsession with science fiction and popular myth has curtailed the growth of the United States as a scientifically literate society. As such, Sagan's...
Published on July 18 2004 by Valjean

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not the best book for sceptics - preaching to the converted?
This book has become a cult classic in itself... but I feel part of the problem is that most of its readers are already in the "know", and that it won't provide a proper introduction to basic scientific practice.
Here's a few random thoughts on this book -
Subject Matter -
Some of the targets are pathetically soft, instead of going for lame cults and flat...
Published on Nov. 21 2002


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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astronomer or Sociologist?, July 18 2004
By 
Valjean (Salem, Ma United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Although Carl Sagan made a prominent name for himself as an Astronomer in the 1970's, his final contribution to the academic world was a piece that was very Sociological in nature. The thesis of the book is that America's obsession with science fiction and popular myth has curtailed the growth of the United States as a scientifically literate society. As such, Sagan's final work is laudable as one of the most poignant and effective commentaries on the Zeitgeist of American society at the turn of the 21st century.
At the beginning of "Demon-haunted", Sagan comes across as a "killjoy", who is bitter about the seemingly innocuous pleasures that many Americans indulge themselves in (Star Trek, Atlantis, Crystal Power, etc.). He points out that at the time of the book's release, "Dumb and Dumber" was the number one movie in the box office. He also spins a wonderful anecdote about his cab driver who, upon finding out that Sagan is an Astronomer, tries to demonstrate upon Sagan his scientific "fluency" through his knowledge of "Atlantis". It all seems quite funny, until Sagan points out that the cab driver got quite frustrated when Sagan challenged his belief systems about the mythical island continent. With this wonderfully concrete example, Sagan renders the reader aware of how dangerous popular myths about science can be.
As the book progresses, Sagan continually points out that a little diversion can be a dangerous thing. He points out that Americans in the 1990's would rather spend a day watching the X-files than studying real stellar constellations; or reading tripe about Atlantis, as opposed to reading scientific books about continnetal plate shift. Eventually, the "candle in the dark" analogy is revealed as an analogy for science in America, where beliefs in the supernatural often publically usurp real scientific fact.
I think the thing that shocked me the most about this book was the fact that it wakes the reader up to the "dumbing down" of the American educational system, which Sagan implies, is a factor of the general American's willingness to believe just about anything that's entertaining.
Of the more forboding points that Sagan makes, there is one that he is rightfully salient about. This is that "pure science" (that is science in its abstract form) is becoming replaced by "profit-oriented" science. To back his argument, he points out that almost none of the technology that we enjoy today would have been discovered if it were not for the pursuit of pure science. For example, he points out that without abstract study of magnetism and electricity, things such as radio and television would not be here.
Like any good social theorist, Sagan ends this book with a series of solutions that could be enacted to further the pursuit of true science. First, he calls for a return to funding initiative for non-profit oriented scientific study. Second, he comments in passing that several opportunities are being missed by the educational system to teach children the priniples of true science by using the world around them as examples. For instance, at one point, he shows the applicability of basketball to physics. In sum, Sagan proves to be a brilliant Social Theorist.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not the best book for sceptics - preaching to the converted?, Nov. 21 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
This book has become a cult classic in itself... but I feel part of the problem is that most of its readers are already in the "know", and that it won't provide a proper introduction to basic scientific practice.
Here's a few random thoughts on this book -
Subject Matter -
Some of the targets are pathetically soft, instead of going for lame cults and flat earthers, he should be tackling the bigger more dangerous ideas of society. In addition, Sagan only really deals with fundamentalists... he ignores that there are Christians who believe in evolution for example - this makes his thought too dualistic and not impartial, and he doesn't tackle the abuse of science, for example in the arms race. Or in fact latent fundamentalism amongst scientists in the past, such as the furore amongst certain physicists when quantum theory emerged.
Writing style -
The self-righteous tone of the book is ironically reminscent of a preacher who has "seen the light". This will irk both hardened sceptic, and potential "unconverts", who won't be attracted away from their demons. He's a terrible writer! But at least this isn't his fiction. It is just about readable, and will provide a few easy laughs if nothing else.
Practice and Tolerance -
Sagan didn't exactly apply his ideas in real life. For example, he frequently used emotional & mystical arguments to bolster his pet "SETI" program, as well as holding illogical preconceptions of how aliens would be or communicate. Also, and this is something often forgotten, Sagan penned a Von Daniken-esque piece or two about the possibility of ancient Close Contacts! Everyone, whether they admit it to themselves or not, is prey to illogical beliefs.
Some of the ideas he seeks to debunk in this book are indeed bizarre and silly but they're harmless; in a democracy, people have that choice and we have to tolerate it. Intolerance is not positive, as he should have realised when talking about witch burnings.
I recommend Michael Shermer's "Why people believe weird things" instead.
Also for anyone who's interested in the case for and against scientific practices, have a look at these books -
"Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science" by Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt (Contributor)
"Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars"
by Ziauddin Sardar
"The Golem : What Everyone Should Know About Science"
by Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch
You'll get a better view of science and pseudo-science through these than Demon Haunted World.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Wonder of Science, the Courage to Disbelieve, June 11 2004
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Carl Sagan wrote many fine things in his life. Cosmos, filled with his awe for the universe, was one of the first things I read as a child that got me excited about science. I also enjoyed his novel, Contact. As good as those things are, I predict that THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD will live on as a testimony to the wonder of the natural world, combined with the tools--and reasons--to question everything.
Sagan debunks myths regarding UFOs, alien abduction and other supernatural events. The mantra here is to believe nothing; instead, weigh evidence. Ask questions.
Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" should be required reading in logic, philosophy and introductory science courses. People could gain a lot by getting exposure to these thinking tools.
Sagan does an excellent job of combining historical accounts alongside the lessons in skepticism. His passion for science spills out of the page, showing that one does not need superstitions to make the world interesting and exciting.
Towards the last few chapters, politics become an increasing theme within his essays. Unfortunately, I think this distracts from the overall message of the book. Nevertheless, even this can not lessen its overall strength.
THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD is a wonderful, vibrant and hopeful giant of a book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good science book, Jan. 18 2014
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This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
This was the first book of Carl Sagan I read. Very good for a lay person. I recommend it and will read from this author again.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My fav book ... and a response to it's critics, June 5 2004
By 
Toby Funk "Vaatzes" (Sherwood, OR United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Yes, this is my absolute favorite book. But so what -- you'll have to decide for yourself. I would rather address the critics of this book rather than the proponents.
The critical reviews of this book complain that (a) it covers too much ground and therefore (b) only skims the surface when trying to debunk. One person even called it a lazy-skeptics book. Unfortunate.
Dr. Sagan's goal was to convert the believers -- the skeptics that don't need converting. You don't convert the believers by writing in-depth scientifically-dense tomes that take months to wade through. There are places for these books, but this is not what the good doctor was trying to do. Why are polical rallies and talk shows so useless? Because they are attended by and listened to by like minded people. How boring.
Why do you think he wrote for the Sunday paper supplement Parade? To reach as wide an audience as possible. What topics did he cover? The basics of course, and always in a non-threatening manner. The exact approach needed to convert the masses.
This is a fabulous book. Buy it now and treasure it.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Candle in the Dark, July 2 2004
By 
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Demons, UFO's, the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, fairies and the like are all investigated in this incredible non-fiction book by the late Carl Sagan. Pseudoscience, and those who perpetuate it, find their place in today's society among those who want to believe in the impossible. In fact, Sagan too admits that he would love to find life on other planets, among other things (he was, after all, an advocate of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). However, science today has not been able to prove that such things exist. As the book states, "the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms."
This book challenges the reader to critically scrutinize information professed by supposed experts, and be more of a skeptic. Sagan states early on in the book that "some 95 percent of Americans are scientifically illiterate." By using the scientific method combined with a little bit of logic and common sense, one should find that it is much more difficult to be mentally taken advantage of by pseudoscience "experts." Intelligent inquiry and analysis of information presented, and those presenting it, proves to be an invaluable tool.
Nonetheless, stories regarding crop circles, area 51, and other such nonsense still abound. Sagan runs through various examples and places them under the hypothetical microscope. Once examined more closely, most of these theories and fallacious postulations crumble quite easily. What some people don't realize, and what Sagan points out, is that things just as mysterious and awe-inspiring can be found all around us, and they are indeed factual and are being investigated by those in science fields. We need not look elsewhere to find mysticism and intrigue. People are still trying to completely understand viruses and the molecular building blocks in gas in space, and if people were equally as drawn to understand real phenomena as they are fallacious theories, then more people would be working to unravel the true mysteries that are much more worthy of our efforts.
I truly feel that this is a book everyone should read. Not only does Sagan do an excellent job of attempting to popularize science, but he also tries to teach people how to think for themselves rather than to be force-fed information from less-than-trustworthy sources. The demons in this demon haunted world are both those who perpetuate such celebrated fallacies, as well as those who believe them without question. Sagan attempts to teach, in this book, how to distinguish "real science from the cheap imitation." Indeed, he does just that.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Raised some good points but too repetitive, Dec 14 2003
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
this is a book written by a knowledgeable man that has his feet firmly planted on the ground. the basic idea the author tries to deliver is to be logical.
plus: the book lists several myths and debunked them with scientific logic and simple explainations. it is all very logical and entertaining.
minus: the author tends to repeat himself, it may be due to the fact that he doesnt organize his topics well. he also gives some statistics on how easily people are 'fooled', how people believe too readily in myths; and blames it on the fact that scientific illiteracy is low. he would go on to politicise the issue a little in the last few chapters.
this would be a very good book if the author tackles each listed topic individually. however, he tends to cross link and concentrated too much on UFO's. giving only half or a quarter of a chapter to other myths stated in the covers, withcraft, demons and faith healing. it gets tiring at times reading the book. kudo's to the author for being able to make this dry subject entertaining enough, but i'm afraid more effort is needed to make it an easier read.
one point he makes that impacts me a lot though, just apply a little scientific logic and we won't be so easily fooled by hoaxes. we have to be scientifically literate first though!
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review "Science hmm" from June 14, 2004 is really funny!, July 11 2004
By 
"sarg187" (Burlington, Massachusetts) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Firstly my take is that Carl Sagan was a brilliant man and a great author with an exceptional ability to concisely and clearly present rationality at its best.
The book, as many of the reviews have already stated, does a great job debunking many of the highly notorious fallacies in society whose foundations lie on "myths". Sagan does this by offering a skeptical approach based on pure rational and emphirical thinking. He does an even better job in conveying how society, and government specifically should operate based on informed rationality, and the "deamons" which haunt this world result when governments and people specifically (as civilizations / governments are merely a manifestation of its inhabitants) act in irrational and self-seeking ways.
Obviously this is an extremely complex and controversial subject matter; one whose essence no single book could ever truely cover effectively. That is why I think bringing up religion and faith in general detracts from his focus as I find faith is an alltogether different characteristic than irrational behavior. It may cause one to do irrational things, but it is because that person find solace in knowing what they are doing has higher purpose.
Proponents of the Truth, i.e. wisdom and the pursuit of wisdom, such as Plato and Socrates, have always treated religion and God separately, or stated that it was God's divine purpose for Man to be Just, which is an attribute that can only come from knowing the essence of a situation before acting.
And so if that aspect of Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark annoys you, I recommend Plato's Republic (as an exceptional work for morality and the pursuit of truth and wisdom).
Other than that this is a great book that provides rational explanations for of some the most famed subjects of pseudoscience.
As an aside about skeptism (not about this book):
Some people see skeptisim as form of close-mindedness, and the writer of the review from June 14 "Science hmm" exemplifies that type of person. Obviously anyone can tell that person is speaking without any basis, and its a very funny post, but also the reason why this book needs to be read (I'm sure that person, if he even read Sagan's book at all, did it with ingrained preconceived notions of the "evils of science") This guy claims all of science is narrow minded and fascist (haha) but even many who aren't completely off their rocker, think skepticism is bad. The skeptic mindset is to only take facts at face value, and only believe when sufficient evidence is provided. This is the only way to promote a rational mindset. Those who think skeptics are narrow minded truely don't understand its purpose.
Skepticism is the best way to gain knowledge and wisdom, and prevents from deviating from that cause; which leads to fallacies about our reality such as all the myths Sagan debunks.
Going back to the poster of "Science hmm" who said that all science does is bring up "more and more unanswered questions"; although I agree that "science" that is, the pursuit of knowledge and truth, does bring up more unanswered questions, the only hope for us is in finally being able to answer some of the more fundamental ones.
To end this corny (and probably obvious arguement) with a quote:
"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike--and yet is the most precious thing we have." Albert Einstein
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but not that good., May 18 2003
By 
Boganlux (Melbourne, FL) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
First off I'm a liberal atheist, and a fairly cranky one at that. The ability of people to have beliefs that fly in the face of all reason and evidence never ceases to amaze me. So, I basically agreed with much of Sagan's thesis before I picked up the book. The problem is that this book is not terribly well written or planned. Sagan bounes along haphazardly through many subjects, each of them on their own worthy of discussion, but with only the most superficial connection between them. Personally, I would have much prefered a more rigorous, dry approach to the topics he discuss. Such a book would not be very successful with a larger audience, which is a part of the very problem Sagan bemoans in this book. All that said, if this book increases one person's skepticism it accomplished a worthwhile function. I'm sure for the truely inquiring there's a much better book, but I have yet to read it.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More disappointed than amused, Oct. 27 2000
By 
A. Esposito (Allen, Texas USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Paperback)
Carl Sagan's essays on science are usually quite entertaining and revealing but I felt this book was subpar with regard to this author's talents. I found that I wanted to continue reading the book to its completion but often came across quite a few areas that were either misleading or irritating. As an example of the former, I found that there was a political undertone in almost every chapter even though the author doesn't admit to any political content until the last two chapters. He also doesn't seem to address the fact that, during the "witch hunts/burnings/trials", many male witches were also burned or tortured, or that a woman's dream - and subsequent interpretation - may have started some of the "witch hunting" ( for instance in Salem ). Which leads to the latter complaint - irritating areas. Mr. Sagan drums into our skulls the "witch hunts/burnings/trials" analogy so often in the book in order to make a point that it becomes predictable. And the usual villians - e.g., the Catholic Church - are thrown on the carpet and taken to task. It would seem that a man of Mr. Sagan's abilities could have been more diverse in his analogies and analyis - some of the same conclusion are drawn over and over again. I was hoping for more science, must like what he accomplished in his earlier work, "Broca's Brain". And some science is indeed here, with excellent chapters like "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection". He also debunks many pseudosciences, which is of use in this age of irrationalility. Still, I think Carl Sagan could have done better and achieved much more with this book.
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Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Ann Druyan (Paperback - Feb. 25 1997)
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