The Demon Haunted World

The Demon Haunted World / Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan 1996. 408 pages. This was the internationally famous scientist Carl Sagan's 29th book, and—tragically for us—it was one of his last. He died relatively young when Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University. The book itself helped to earn Sagan the recognition of NASA fo r exceptional scientific achievement and, for the second time, awards for distinguished public service.

Not only is it easy to read, the book carries a clear message which is summed up in the two titles. Carl Sagan considered that we who are about to enter the 21st century C.E. are fortunate in that we will reap a harvest of rapid technological progress. At the same time, Sagan almost despairs of a world where people, in their millions, seem increasingly inclined to give themselves over to various pseudo-sciences and superstitions.

In chapters with titles such as 'Aliens'; 'Spoofing and Secrecy'; 'Hallucinations', the author paints a dark picture.(p256) "There is a strangely waxing academic opinion", he warns, "that holds all views to be equally arbitrary, and [maintains] 'true' or 'false' to be a delusion". [For comparision read “So You Want To Be A Postmodernist” in Newsletter 28—ed.] Furthermore, the author is concerned by the fact that so many folk, while realizing they have been taken-in b y some new (or old) pseudo-science, still tend to reject the scientific evidence that reinforces their enlightenment. (p.230).

He mentions that when two blokes in UK—with a board, a rope and a taste for whimsy—confessed to making crop circles, believers were unimpressed, holding that there were too many circles all to be hoaxes. Then others confessed and the believers said, 'Well maybe those in Britain are hoaxes but, how do you explain those in Hungary?'. Then the copycat Hungarian teenagers confessed. And to test the credulity of the psychiatrist who believed in alien abduction, a woman posed as an abductee. The therapist enthu sed over the fantasies she spun. But when the patient announced that it was all a fake, the therapist failed to reexamine his methods. First he suggested: 1: 'Even if she isn't aware of it, she was in fact abducted.' Next he offered: 2: 'She's crazy. Afte r all, she did come to a psychiatrist didn't she?' Lastly, 3: 'He was on top of the hoax from the start, he just gave her enough rope to hang herself.'

In face of the human tendency to reject strong evidence rather than admit we've been wrong, Carl Sagan goes as far as to say, "The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than [even] the findings of science" . (p26) A parallel message is: the promotion of science and democracy go hand in hand. With a worldwide decline in democracy, many governments—while still cashing-in on technology—have scaled-down the encouragement and subsidizing of scientific research.

The author contrasts the attitudes of two presidents of the USA. (p355) In 1790 George Washington addressed Congress in these words, "There is nothing that can better serve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature". By contrast, in a campaign speech in 1980, Ronald Reagan took a stance against science. "Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?", he said.

Carl Sagan, still hopeful that governments will realize the dangers and the untenable nature of the present situation, offers science as a candle in the dark. He reminds us of what Albert Einstein (1879—1955) said. "All science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike, yet it is the most precious thing we have.

On page 197, Sagan encourages everyone to employ the tools of baloney detection:

  1. Ask for independent confirmation of the facts.
  2. Encourage debate
  3. Discount arguments based simply on authority.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis.
  5. Try not get overly attached even to your pet hypothesis.
  6. Quantify: measure it if you can.
  7. If there is a chain of argument make sure every link is sound.
  8. When faced with two hypotheses that seem to explain the data, choose the simpler.
  9. Ask if the hypothesis in question can [at least in principle] be falsified.
Sagan applauds the readiness of adults to express scepticism and to ask questions. By contrast, he used to find adolescents sometimes afraid to ask a question, in case their peers saw it as dumb. "But", says Sagan, "there's no such thing as a d umb question".

Carl Sagan goes on to say, "One of the reasons for the success of science is because science has built-in error correcting machinery at its heart. (p 30) And he underlines what the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, said sixty years ago, "Insight untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth"

This book bears out Sagan's twin philosophies: "Science is never finished", and "we make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers".

Irvine Roxburgh