Book Review: The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan.
Science as a Candle in the Dark
Have you ever wondered how you would write a review of The Encyclopedia Britannica? I have the same sinking feeling right now about Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. It’s a book of rare and deep erudition that I see it as an almost essential guide for treading the INTERNET world where anyone with access to a signal can develop a website and market themselves as a thought leader in whatever topic they choose. The further we go along this trail, the more I miss the gatekeepers.
The book’s topic wouldn’t be as popular today as when it was written in 1996. Today, we see people yell and swear at each other on-line, playing Jerry Springer out loud, with no argument, just a loud voice, a degree, and a stack of books that makes you an expert, setting a force-field around you that protects you from disagreement. But, Sagan doesn’t so much write about what’s right and wrong, but about pseudoscience and how to test it. These are beliefs in ideas that are untestable, unobservable, and don’t lend themselves to prediction, but still paint themselves as scientific endeavors, even without these qualities. For me, as a Christian and an evolutionist, creationism in all its colors comes to the fore here, and I bristle anytime I hear or read someone who asserts that “the world just doesn’t work that way. It’s impossible.” Most of the science that makes our lives easier, safer, and more convenient fell under that heading once.
Lest Sagan is decried as a devotee of scientism, where only science gives meaning and value, he notes from the beginning that:
“Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge.”
And, lest the reader thinks, too, that Sagan gives up when he says that science isn’t perfect, let him finish the line:
“It’s just the best we have.”
To further massage the supposed divide between science and religion, he says that:
“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
Sounds like he’s been dipping his toe into Gould’s pond of Non-overlapping Magisteria. So be it.
The book is heavy and dense. Maybe it’s just me, but it took heavy treadinge to wade through this one. Sagan’s giving nothing away here, but bases the entire book on his Baloney Detection Kit, summarized in an eponymous chapter.
If you’ve heard about the book, you’ve probably heard wrong. If you’ve heard about it at your meeting of the Sasquatch Society, you’ve probably heard how far off Sagan is and how contradictory his advice and pursuits. If you’ve heard about the book from scientists who applaud the book as the final nail in the coffin of the true believers, they’re wrong, too. Like any good teacher, what Sagan never does is tell you what is right and what is wrong. Instead, he gives 400 pages of tools, methods, and examples to use when sifting through questions from epigenetic evolutionary drivers, to Last Thursdayism, to the question of Mr. And Mrs. Sasquatch.
So enjoy. Make a large pot of coffee and sit comfortably on the couch and take notes. It’s all good stuff. But beware. When you’re done, all beliefs are up for grabs. But, just like Manfred Mann said, ”that’s where the fun is.”
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