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The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark If Richard Dawkins The God Delusion is a nuclear bomb in the atheist arsenal, Carl Sagan s The Demon haunted World is an anti personnel mine.Where Dawkins goes for maximum destruction, piling the misery and mockery on those he s battling, Sagan doesn t even acknowledge his enemy The Demon haunted World poses, instead and very effectively , as a book in defense of skepticism, a book persuading the unskeptical to embrace reason in the form of open mindedness, the pursuit of evidence, and a thirst for asking questions of everything.To this end, Sagan takes on some of his favourite topics witch burning, demonic possession, science illiteracy, repressed memories, psychology, parapsychology, superstitions, UFOs and alien encounters and pokes at them with his skeptical stick to show us how a good skeptic or good scientist gets to the heart of an issue He offers lessons in detecting fallacy or baloney, to use Sagan s technical term and how to avoid it in our own arguments He make a case for the importance of being skeptical of ourselves, our leaders, and our most cherished beliefs And underneath it all is a carefully mounted attack on theism Sagan avoids detonating his explosives himself He piles the dirt and camouflage on his landmine, hiding it with the skill of an old campaigner He offers supposedly clear paths through the field, hoping that than one will unwittingly trip the explosives and blow their belief systems to pieces I wonder, though, if Sagan s plan is too subtle to really make a difference I wonder if Dawkins preference for arguments of mass destruction is effective I felt like a sapper in Sagan s minefield Aware or the landmines, appreciating their design, loving the patterns in which they were laid, but certain that most of Sagan s targeted personnel would simply wander through the field, unscathed, beneficiaries of their own dumb luck Whether Sagan s weapons have taken any theist casualities or not, it is a wonderful book about skepticism A wonderful reminder to be ever vigilant A book I can t wait to pass on to my children But it also made me just a little sad I wish he d been around when the Patriot Act was drafted His voice would have been an important voice of dissent, and perhaps the USA wouldn t be as deep in the shit as they are. This is a marvelous book about the consequences of a population being scientifically illiterate There are numerous consequences, all of them bad Most notably, the growth of superstitious beliefs can lead to terrifying witch hunts that grow and grow, leaving a broad trail of torture, execution, mass hysteria and paranoia Interestingly, Carl Sagan holds up science and democracy as mutually supporting concepts He cites Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as examples of literacy, and science literacy in particular, for supporting democracy This concept is developed further by Timothy Ferris excellent book, The Science of Liberty Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature.Sagan spends a lot of time explaining the reported sightings of UFO s and aliens I particularly enjoyed this passageOccasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in contact with extraterrestrials I am invited to ask them anytheng And so over the years I ve prepared a little list of questions The extraterrestrials are very advanced, remember So I ask things like, Please provide a short proof of Fermat s Last Theorem I never get an answer On the other hand, if I ask something like Should we be good I almost always get an answer Sagan also quotes many of the letters that he received, some hilarious, and others quite sad For example, a tenth grader wrote,Our society is doing just fine with what discoveries we are making It s going slowly, but the cure for cancer is coming right alongA parent wrote,The problem in science education is that God isn t sufficently honoredConcerning UFO s,I m going to lobby my Representative to try to cancel funds for this program of listening for alien signals from space, because it would be a waste of money They re already among us Sagan has some interesting approaches for making science interesting He claims that since many kids are interested in sports, there is a wealth of science concepts to teach related to sports Probability, winning streaks, ballistics, angular momentum, and center of mass are all useful concepts Even though this book was published eighteen years ago, it is just as relevant today, as when it was written In fact, the growth of pseudo science is still rampant, and scary thinking about anti vaccine campaigns, climate change deniers, exorcism, astrology, ESP, and anti environmentalism Sagan is famous for popularizing science, but he writes that it isn t an easy task For example, a deep understanding of quantum mechanics really does require about 15 years of study of mathematics and physics, and quantum theory is so resolutely counterintuitive But an esoteric religion may require a similar degree of study before acquiring a deep understanding So, how are religions any different from quantum mechanics, when they are both equally mysterious The first difference, Sagan explains, is that quantum theory works it makes extremely accurate predictions that can be observed and measured The second difference, is that religions are infallible and rely on faith, while science advances and relies on experience it never stands still. How Can We Make Intelligent Decisions About Our Increasingly Technology Driven Lives If We Don T Understand The Difference Between The Myths Of Pseudoscience And The Testable Hypotheses Of Science Pulitzer Prize Winning Author And Distinguished Astronomer Carl Sagan Argues That Scientific Thinking Is Critical Not Only To The Pursuit Of Truth But To The Very Well Being Of Our Democratic Institutions.Casting A Wide Net Through History And Culture, Sagan Examines And Authoritatively Debunks Such Celebrated Fallacies Of The Past As Witchcraft, Faith Healing, Demons, And UFOs And Yet, Disturbingly, In Today S So Called Information Age, Pseudoscience Is Burgeoning With Stories Of Alien Abduction, Channeling Past Lives, And Communal Hallucinations Commanding Growing Attention And Respect As Sagan Demonstrates With Lucid Eloquence, The Siren Song Of Unreason Is Not Just A Cultural Wrong Turn But A Dangerous Plunge Into Darkness That Threatens Our Most Basic Freedoms. I miss Carl Sagan.Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was He d be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he d just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you And he did, except that it wasn t his secret Hell, it wasn t a secret at all it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him You d listen to him and think, Y know, maybe we humans aren t too bad after all Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we ve gained Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons not literally, of course the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren t so.This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.I can certainly understand why.It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.Sagan s premise in this book is simple knowledge is better than ignorance Full stop Whether it s witches, intelligent design, UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they re still illusions Still lies.He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry This is because UFO abductees and the legions of enablers who encourage them psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish an unwillingness or inability to consider other options Yes, the UFO explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn t make it so There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.Whether you re talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory The evidence just isn t there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they re just not so.Wouldn t it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and efficient cars I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program BullshitBut I reckon Sagan would want.This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there d be no X Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones Science fiction would all be something like Contact nothing that isn t reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science No evil robots or planet busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.This is an attitude I ve noticed a lot of in modern skeptics a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven t signed on to the skeptical view of the world I am a regular listener of the Skeptic s Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, UFOs and the like I can understand the attitude towards scammers they deserve nothing but contempt but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be Sagan addresses this as well in his book All of us cherish our beliefs They are, to a degree, self defining When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well based or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven t thought of, or demonstrates that we ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug it becomes much than a search for knowledge It feels like a personal assault He goes on later to say In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be Their motives are in many ways consonant with science If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness None of us comes fully equipped So in other words, even if you know a lot, don t be a know it all.Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you re reading this on to the fact that you didn t die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world And that is the key message of this book knowledge makes the world better Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.A well educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can if we act out of clarity and reason be repaired Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them For an educated person is a free one And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well. Sagan has been a hero of mine since I saw Cosmos years and years ago Now that was one of the truly great science documentaries and one that, on the subject of physics, has rarely been bettered.This is a supurb book Many people say things like, I ve no idea how people without a belief in the supernatural can bare to live in this world Well, Sagan gives a powerful answer here Sagan understood the infinite joy that comes from understanding something about the world something that is real He feared for our future, particularly in a modern world brimming with nuclear weapons when so many people know nothing at all about science In this sense Sagan turns the standard argument on its head, rather than faith based beliefs offering comfort, they actually present a series of demons and therefore make your life a much frightening place than it would have been if you had just confronted reality in the first place.In a world overflowing with pseudo science and new age madness Sagan offers a candle in the dark and one that doesn t require you to dance around naked while chanting to the moon goddess Well, unless you really want to. Hey, so, guess what People who read the Weekly World News are stupid, but scientists are awesome Did you know that I just put this book down, 175 pages in It s not that I disagree with the thesis, because I actually don t at all Sagan uses the widespread belief in alien abductions to talk about the need for critical thinking in this world And I m totally there yes, for the love of God, teach people to distinguish between fact and what they want to be fact But Sagan goes on and on and on about the evils of unexamined credulity, and how so much of what we believe is contextually determined and not logically deduced, and then he turns around and says therefore empiricism is the only truth And then completely fails to deal with the indeterminacy problem all the ways empiricism is also an ordinal choice, not some universal baseline against which to measure all intellectual thought I mean, I m as much a fan of the scientific method as the next well educated dabbler, but I m rendered irretrievably cranky by a guy touting the holy purity of his truth mechanisms when his argument basically boils down to, the scientific method works I ve tested it With the scientific method And never stops to wonder about his contextual determinants.Actually, that would be okay if I could discern a point Sagan waxes on and on and on about why people come to believe they were abducted, why other people believe them, where such mass dilusions historically might come from And it s written in this snotty, now you see the error of your ways, tone when, you know, I sort of suspect the Weekly World News readership is not also snapping up this book That, and Sagan was a much better astrochemist than a psychologist or historian.Meh. This is a wonderful, important and scary book that has not aged much at all I was made aware of its existence in a rather unconventional way through a video game called The Witness In The Witness, you explore an unreal and mysterious island, solving maze puzzles that gets and complex as you go along Scattered around the island you ll find audio logs containing quotes on science and religions from around the world and across time, and these sometimes gives you abstract hints on how to solve the puzzles If you dig deep enough into this game you might discover an area containing audio logs were the creators of the island talk about the purpose of the island and discuss the choice of content for the other, easier to find, audio logs And this is where I first heard about Demon Haunted World and SaganSo next I want to present this problem Which is that I don t think we have enough smart representation of materialist atheists, physicalists, anything in that neighborhood of ideas And I ve been trying to do something about that, but it s hard The problem is that most coherent atheist screeds are focused on defeating some specific idea of God or are angry about the historical activities of organized religions rather than say, from first principles making a good case for the impossibility of any concept of God, which would be like what we are afterthere is a large contingent for present day real scientists who believe in some form of atheist materialism and whose beliefs have been carefully considered So we need to ensure that we respect that viewpoint. Carl Sagan has a good piece in, umm, Demon Haunted World , where he talks about science as a profound source of spirituality But he doesn t mean mystical spirituality, he means this pure dedication to truth, and the development of a wise perspective on our place in the world It s nice And it s a picture of atheism that isn t hostile or contemptuous.The quotes above describes Sagan s project very well He tries very hard not to just make fun of weird things people believe in, but to discuss them properly That includes looking into how the human mind works, and he underlines the importance of understanding that our perception of the world around us is highly subjective, that evolution has shaped us to be afraid of the dark and of the unknown, and how our brains are hardwired to see faces and meaningful patters everywhere whether they are there or not Astrology is just one example No stuffy dismissal by a gaggle of scientists makes contact with the social needs that astrology no matter how invalid it is addresses, and science does not It s completely understandable that most of us wants our lives and our place in the world to be important somehow that our existence is not mere chance, that is has meaning In addition to that, religion promises an afterlife which obliterates the consequences of death We want to believe in something, not only because many of us are raised religious, but also because facing the world as an atheist is difficult Many of us passionately prefer to be the personal handicraft of God than to arise by blind physical and chemical forces over aeons from slime. But we can t believe in something just because it makes us feel good, safe, comfortable or entitled In this context, science is a system that can help us navigate the world, and understand when we are probably right and when we are probably wrong As I ve tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense One of the reasons for its success is that science has built in, error correcting machinery at its very heart With this mindset, Sagan approaches and dissects some of the myths of our time, with a main focus on alien abduction stories, crop circles, and astrology, and he does it very convincingly By drawing lines back to the Inquisition witch hunts, and other stories from the past that turns out to have a lot in common with alien abduction stories, he shows us the fallacies of both the book also contains a baloney detection kit, by the way Sagan also scrutinizes several examples of how therapists and the legal system sometimes fail because they don t apply a scientific mindset or understand the research available to them I really enjoyed all the psychology and anthropology in Demon Haunted World, these are fields of study I find utterly fascinating Sagan shows us how, and under what circumstances, science and technology can be developed and what has historically prevented or hindered this from happening not all societies are equally suited And in doing so, he also enters into the political sphere This, than anything else, ensures that this book is still relevant today Sagan investigates moral issues within science, how it can be both dangerous and arrogant, as well as the shortcomings of the U.S educational system and the dangers this pose This constitutes the scary part of the book A well educated public and a free press that wants than just to make money on entertainment, is paramount to preventing a democracy from degenerating into totalitarianism If power corrupts and it does we need other forces to keep our leaders in check The poorer quality of education people have, the less they can contribute to maintaining free democracies Demon Haunted World left me with the feeling that science is a very fragile field, at the mercy of much bigger forces in society that might topple or corrupt it The book is extremely informative, but most of all it works as a warning We consider ourselves to be enlightened, civilized people, safe in our modern world Sagan shows us that that s not necessarily true, and that the world moving forward is not something automatic or matter of course.What I loved the most about this book was the broad strokes Sagan shown us the place of science and critical thinking in history, what shapes it, was hinders it on a very large scale This gives us a much deeper insight than if he had focused on a narrower field. Full disclosure here, I did not finish this book I made the decision to stop reading it after around 100 pages I kept expecting the science to start at any page, but I got tired of reading accusations that the Weekly World News and Beavis and Butt Head are sources of ignorance and misunderstanding I won t argue that either of these are intellectual, but at best these are forms of entertainment and that is largely a product of taste, not intellect I couldn t risk wasting my time reading another 100 pages of of the same.The last time I thought that WWN might be reporting real news I was maybe 11 although I did buy their Saddam and Bin Laden wedding spectacular issue, but only for the pictures If an adult thinks that stories in the paper are real, their problems will not be solved by not having access to WWN If he had instead criticized the Discovery Channel for their UFO coverage he d have a point They are at least giving a pretense of showing knowledge based programming As it stands it s like citing The Colbert Report as a source of vile right wing hate It completely misses the point.As for Beavis and Butt Head, sure it is stupid humor, but just because it is not Sagan s brand of humor doesn t mean that watching it causes stupidity and merely accusing it of causing stupidity is a pretty unscientific method of demonstration Not only does Sagan admit that he has never even watched the show, but he does so proudly This strikes me as an arrogant attempt at justifying his own taste as a sign of mental superiority while cutting down other tastes Mike Judge s subsequent works have even been quite clever Sagan might have even enjoyed Idiocracy and considered it a poignant criticism of the very dumbing down of society that his book is supposed to be about.Sagan was a big marijuana advocate and as such marijuana is absent from his list of criticisms I am not saying that it causes dumbing down, there certainly are smart people who use it responsibly, but there is also a common stereotype associated with it I think most of us know of the stereotype pothead than the intellectual type I am surprised Sagan was not able to look at his own experiences with this past time and how they differ from the stereotypes and apply that to other issues.If this book had dived right into scientific examinations of ghosts and UFOs I would have absolutely finished it 100 pages may not have been the whole book, but it was far too many pages dedicated to something that was not Science as a candle in the demon haunted world for my taste. Cosmos 1980 500 60 1996 1828 , 1848 1671 , 2% 5 20 , , 95% , 43% 38% , 99% 10% 1950 , The Demon Haunted World 1980 , 1993 8 1790 1939 9 59 Always insightful, it seems that Sagan just wanted to watch the world learn I should ve read this at 14 Honestly, this should probably be required high school reading for everyone It illustrates clearly the many and varied personal and societal benefits gained from applying the methods of science to every corner of our thinking The methods are the important part, the findings are just icing on the cake It covers the dangers of unchecked ideologies and the requirement for both objectivity and wonder Almost no topic is left unexamined I really can t recommend this book enough.


About the Author: Carl Sagan

Ann Druyan, he was co producer of the popular motion picture, Contact, which featured a feminist, atheist protagonist played by


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