on July 18, 2004
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.
on February 2, 2004
Simon, the slight, fair-haired skeptic in "Lord of the Flies," told his peers "I don't believe in the beast." These peers, both friend and foe, did believe, or thought they might, or thought they should, or at least wondered what would happen if they didn't. In the story Simon, alone, confirms beyond doubt there is no beast. He runs to tell the others but is killed for his trouble, for the others want a beast, or think there should be a beast, or at least wonder if life on their island prison would be so stupidly fun if there were no beast.
Carl Sagan was a real-life Simon in many ventures, and never more so than in "The Demon-Haunted World." (The good news is Sagan was not murdered. The bad news is, with much left to do, he was done in by pathogens.) This book should be read by every teacher, every policy maker, and every member of a legislative body.
Throughout the pages Sagan methodically works the reader through the pseudosciences of our day - UFOs, alien abduction, recovered memories, channeling, etc. - and the witch hunts and demonic possessions of centuries past. He doesn't discount categorically, but instead insists that extraordinary claims require an equal level of evidence at any time in history. He illustrates that extraordinary claims in this pseudo realm rarely, if ever, have non-anecdotal evidence that can be corroborated by a third party.
It's not that Sagan wasn't interested in, and even desirous of, the fantastic - note his lifelong search for extraterrestrial life. But the last outcome he would have wanted was to be convinced of a far away intelligence that wasn't really there. He understood that to know what you don't know is just as important as knowing what is, in fact, true.
It was Sagan's lifelong work, since boyhood, to promote the power of real, reproducible knowledge. It was his hope, I think, to begin withdrawing us from our ancient addiction to unwarranted authority. This book was sorely needed when first published in 1995. We need it even more desperately today.
on April 20, 2004
I picked this one up after reading Sagan's "Billions & Billions..". I liked the main thrust of this book - scientic (skeptical) thinking. Sagan takes numerous 'case studies' to prove his point. But I think he came up short in describing cases where the ower of mind has been demonstrated time and again in spite of lack of scientific evidence. Cases like Greg Louganis winning Olympics show that not everything is within the realm of 'scientific thinking'. Sagan himself says that there are three things that are worth investigating (I'd be interested to know how far he was successful)..I can't find it now but I remember reading them in the book. I vaguely recall one being telepathy (?). The others sounded interesting too.
Also at one place(Ch 17 Page 303 in my edition) he says "Objections to pseudoscience on the grounds of unavailable mechanism can be mistaken..". I don't want to make the same mistake of Sagan's detractors namely, quoting out of context but what he intends is to not ignore ideas for want of proof. This to me seemed contradictory to what he proposes elsewhere (namely strong reliance on proofs).
In a different place(Ch 22 Page 373 in my edition) he seems to suggest that "many of our problems..only have solutions that involve a deep understanding of science and technology". While this may be true of "many" (though it's hard to quantify this) not "all" are solvable by Sci/Tech. What about emotional problems ? Problems involving mind have not yet been proven to be solved by Sci/Tech (medicines etc..)
In spite of minor deficiencies in explanation this is a powerful book if you want to hone your logical thinking (and so I set the subject of my reivew "Widening your horizon.." implying you need to have some basic scientific thinking to see points in Sagan's angle).
Worth reading definitely.
on January 21, 2004
As I finished this book this morning over breakfast, I was struck by twin emotions: deep sadness at the loss of Carl Sagan (I remember his passing, it saddened me then); and a profound sense of gratitude that this amazing man put pen to paper, thus leaving us with a small piece of himself.
This book is a "de-bunker" as well as a warning. Sagan calmly leads the reader through a multitude of beliefs that, when examined closely, can not defend themselves at all. Even more important that evidence (in my opinion), he points out that, unlike science, those who believe in these ideas get ANGRY when questioned. Science, he points out, rewards the skeptic. And that is, I think, the crux of this book. Skepticism.
Another well laid-out point Sagan makes is that the US is really shooting itself in the foot by allowing children to become more fluent in consumerism than science and/or literary arts. This comes back to skepticism; are we teaching it? Not in my high school we weren't.
Overall this book is full of facts and examples to back up whatever point Sagan is making. The examples pull from Sagan's decades of experience and wealth of knowledge, and give the reader a feeling of what it is like to glimpse the mind of a real life genius who took the time to explain things to us dummies in a way that respected our intelligence like advertisers have never done. Not once did I catch Sagan trying to trick me to push this or that agenda, and I truly appreciate the intellectual honesty and respect.
I have no children, but if I ever do, I will point to Universities as we pass them and tell the little one that what happens in *those* buildings, with all of their problems, their hustle and bustle, their mistakes...that is the only bulwark we as society have against a second Dark Age. And that comment will be based, to a large degree, on this book.
on January 1, 2004
As a science student at university I bought this book expecting it to confirm and perhaps broaden my understanding of sceptical thinking, and how too many people do not employ it. Something that I have found frustrating on many an occasion. I was delighted to find that this book was gave me a terrific insight into why sceptical thinking and science should be employed in every possible way. And how failing to do so can result in the direst consequences.
Sagan devotes much of the first part of the book to the current fad of alien abduction. This is something that becomes a bit drawn out and boring and in my opinion the only flaw of this book. He does so comparing the many similarities to the role of demons in centuries past. He describes one example of how when scepticism is not used people will devise the most wild and unjust thinking which leads such ordeals as witch hunts.
He makes the case that in today's increasingly scientifically dependant western society, people, especially Americans, are abandoning scepticism. Few politicians understand science, and the applicability of it's philosophies. Furthermore the general public is becoming increasingly scientifically illiterate. If this trend continues we could easily slip into another 'dark age' of witch hunts.
This book is one of those rare books that I would insist that everyone reads. Far too few people understand that to abandon scepticism, relying upon blind faith and assertions, is to close ones eyes, and abandon all hope of understanding the truth. Demon haunted world is truly a masterpiece. I found it completely engaging, and full of most valuable insights. Demon Haunted world will light the darkness for anyone that reads it.
on November 10, 2003
Carl Sagan has written some of the best modern works considering the inherent differences in method of people who view the world logically and scientifically and those who view the world in terms of faith (or as he would likely put it, in terms of superstition). His overall logical method of intelligent skepticism is good--in as much as it applies to considerations of the physical world and provable phenomena. And his call for skepticism is refreshing and well concieved--in as far as it goes. The problems I find inherent in his work are the same that have plagued all materialistic writers since the enlightenment who have attempted to discount metaphysics completely as a result of its flaws (which are admittedly many). He is, however, right that the only method that should be applied to the physical world is that of logic and rationalism. It's important to recognize that the two may exist--but just in different spheres. If this work interests you I would suggest Francis Bacon's "Novum Organum" and any of the philosophical writings of Descartes.
on August 20, 2003
The late popualist of darwainian evolution and physics was a great communicator of scientific ideas, theories, and laws. In this book, Carl Sagan addresses the validity of ideas such as aliens, ghosts, faith healers, and pyschics - just to name a few.The first half of the book is outstanding, and though I may disagree on some minor detials, all in all, it is a much needed work for a generation lost in the fine art of critical thinking.
Sagan then goes on to discuss critical thinking in "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection." This chapter is a strength and it is here that he quickly, but very intelligently tells teh reader how to develop a 'baloney detctor kit.' He discusses everything from 'Occam's Razor', ad hominem, and argument from authority (unfornuately, Sagan often himself has failed in this area himself, but one cannot be to hard on him, he tells teh reader how to spot it). Though this chapter is not completely exhaustive, it is probablity all someone just introduced to the subject could handel at once.
Further, Sagan, who was always quick to critize others, also takes a stab at showing the reader his own mistakes as a sciencetist and how sometimes his baise would get in the way of clear thinking. I have read some of Sagan's other books and have always been impressed with his skill at conveying information in fiction and non-fiction. I have most ofetn disagreed with him and in this book, I sometimes think he goes beyond logic and science himself. However, this is still an excellent book.
on August 13, 2003
Dr. Carl Sagan, scientific populists and evangelists for forensic science and the scientific model of expierment, has written and entertianing, needed, smart, yet, at times flawed book. Regardless of my concerns with some of Sagan's assertions, this book, all in all, is a much needed counter balance to all the "demon-haunted" nonsense that is still prevelant, if not more so now than ever, in the Western world.
As one reviewer noted has already noted, the strenth in this book is the first half of the book. Here Sagan is at his best as he demonstrates many of teh false and utterly lack of critical thinking that takes place in the modern world in regards to UFO's, ghost, divination, faith-healers, etc. Of course, Sagan is always waiting to pounce on some religious beliefs, but surprisingly he also does point out some of the falws of scientist when they make assumptions based on strongly held views without using the sientific model (he even allows us, the reader, to view some of his 'goofs'.)
His chapter on "Baloney Detection", which is basically a crash course on critical thinking is very good and written at a 'lay persons' level. Though at times, Sagan (especially in his assumption that Darwanian evolution is scientific, it is not, but is a philosophy based on naturalism)seems to forget some of these rules, the points are well written and should be followed. Also, it is too hard to get mad at him, after all, he freely gives the information one needs to see through his errors.
Carl Sagan is one of those people, though I stronly disagree with his interpretation on biological maro-evolution and his assertions in theology, I have always admired his ability to write and make scientific jargon easy for all to understand. Though I take issue with some things such as his use of quotes taht set=up a straw man, something he mentions not to do, I found the overall content needed for all people.
on July 27, 2003
This is not, in the conventional sense, a "science book." When most people think of a book on science, they envision tedious tomes full of dry, lifeless facts and figures: "And events x and y happened on day z. Mix chemicals a and b and they change to color c." If you went to a public high school in the United States, you probably understand precisely what I mean.
Instead, this is a vibrant, wonder-filled work written by one of the twentieth century's very best science writers. Dr. Sagan's joy and awe are contagious; you find yourself caught up in his enthusiasm. His writing is always accessible, but never insults the intelligence of its reader-- you will find neither arcane technical jargon nor conspicuous "dumbing down."
Furthermore, this is not a book of individual science facts, but rather the mechanism of how science works, an elegantly simple illustration of the scientific method. More importantly, examples are given of how critical thinking skills can and should be applied to a number of other realms, helping us to determine what is factual, what is possible, what is dubious, and what is false.
I recommend this book to anybody with an interest in science, but particularly to laypeople interested in learning more about the methods of science itself. It's also a great choice for gifted children and young adults.
I was first introduced to Carl Sagan, along with most of the public, through the series 'Cosmos'. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having heard of him prior to that, given I was twelve years old at the time. It became very apparent in that series, and all subsequent writings, that Sagan was a man of science, to his very core. I have known physicists and scientists of other fields who have embraced denominational and religious tenets, and followed other faith structures (albeit usually with modifications to the theological framework, which in fact puts them in company with their non-scientific intellectual companions). Not so for Sagan. It became clear to me, almost from the beginning his series, that science, the religion of rationality, was his religion. He worshipped the Cosmos, his dogma was the principle of rationality, experimentation and verification, and his heresies included the various irrational parts of the world, which comprise a good deal of popular culture (in every society) and, ultimately, much of what is commonly called religion.
Sagan's book, 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark', is therefore, by an large, Sagan's Book of Heresies. Unlike many books of heresies throughout history, however, this is no simple text of dogmatic pronouncements, a list of things to avoid or distrust. This book has reasoning, research, and history. Sagan points out that even religious structures, who rely heavily on irrational aspects (revelation and inspiration) have certain guidelines of rationality by which to test these aspects.
'A 1517 papal bull distinguishes between apparitions that appear "in dreams or divinely". Clearly, the secular and ecclesiatical authorities, even in times of extreme credulity, were alert to the possibilities of hoax and delusion.'
Sagan explores issues of UFO abduction stories, ghosts and 'saintly' appearances (how does one determine if it is truly the image of the Virgin Mary in the glass, or just a coincidental pattern in the sunlight and oily coating of the glass?). Sagan discounts the veracity of most (if not all) such happenings, not only due to the lack of rationality, emotional issues and delusions of the 'experiencers', but also due to the assistance of those in established positions of power who promote such things.
For Sagan, science is a 'golden road' that can raise people out of poverty and backwardness into a greater awareness of the world and universe in which they live. Material progress is dependent upon scientific knowledge; likewise, proper use and direction of this progress requires scientific and environmental awareness. Science for Sagan touches the deepest yearnings of human thought. Sagan also postulates a positive link between scientific advance and democratic values (the political theology Sagan believes).
There are a few problems with this reasoning--Sagan does not give religion its due in the course of helping to develop philosophical and cultural development in the course of history. While it is true that religion and science have been at odds in the West in past millennium a number of times, this may have more to do with political realities than true rationality. Astronomy, Sagan's own particular field, began in aid of astrology; technology, physics, and chemistry most likely also began to be developed in earnest in suport of religious programmes. Sagan does not mention the fact that both the Carolingian and Italian Renaissance periods showed great flowering in scientific knowledge without a democracy in sight.
These caveats having been said, Sagan's reasoning throughout is elegantly crafted, and well written, with a strong historical underpinning to his reasoning, and an eye toward future developments. Ultimately, Sagan cautions against science becoming the domain of an elite few. 'In all uses of science, it is insufficient--indeed it is dangerous--to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals. Instead, some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.'
Perhaps we are entering a period for science similar to that of when printing presses revolutionised the interactions of people with religion by making scriptures readily accessible; are we about to enter a reformation of science, in which it is reclaimed by the people? No longer will there be a single 'catholic' faith of science (and science relies as heavily on faith principles as any religion), but a multiplicity of scientific denominations which we can only speculate about today.
Sagan's book provokes questions and provides answers, as any good scientific text, popular or technical, should do. 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark' is full of Sagan's rational-oriented philosophy, in concert with so much of the underpinnings of Western culture (even its religious frameworks of theology, though Sagan does not like to admit this), and yet, somehow culture loses its way occasionally, and it is up to the professionals, be they scientists or priests, to help education and illuminate the world anew, to provide the candle in the dark. May all such professionals find a common ground upon with to stand, so to better steady the foundation of all.