Covering, among many other things, aliens, psychics, witch burning, religion, astronomy, UFOs and military secrecy, with the thread of Carl Sagan’s love of science and the powers of rational, sceptical thinking running through it, The Demon-Haunted World is a bona fide classic in popular science writing. I thought chunks of were so good that it was worth reproducing them as a blog post but it’s only two weeks after having finished the book that I have time to write a full review.
Anti-vaccine campaigns and the proliferation of alternative medicines seem have replaced alien conspiracy theories as the dominant pseudoscience of our times, and the book predates the widespread use of the internet and all the power and utility (for both scientists and perveyors of pseudoscience) that it entails, but on the whole
The Demon-Haunted World feels like it has dated very little. In fact, it repeatedly struck me as I read the book that, 16 years after publication, that it feels like little has changed. Sagan calls out Dumb and Dumber and Beavis and Butthead as signifiers in his time that popular culture was heading the wrong direction – these days we rally against Jersey Shore, the Kardashians and Prometheus getting all the science wrong.
Sagan starts the second chapter “The dumbing down of America [read everywhere; whilst the book is very USA-centric, his writing, like science, applies everywhere] is most evident in the slow decay of the substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
What I enjoyed most about Demon-Haunted World is that it is a very humane book; Sagan recognised the frailties of the human mind and the deep emotional need that people have that is filled by religion and psychics. It’s a compassionate book that tries to understand why pseudoscience persists, rather than looking down on people. “
The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.
” I liked that at one point, Sagan rails against another skeptical hero-figure, James Randi, and takes him to task for being occasionally intolerant, condescending and lacking empathy for human frailties - something frequently levelled at skeptics and scientists in general.
My favourite chapter was No Such Thing As a Dumb Question, which concentrates on science education in school, Sagan’s main point being, aside from despairing at the performance of the United States in comparison to Japan, Germany and Britain, that we need to move away from memorization of authoritative facts, to teaching and learning how we know; let the scientific method and the sceptical, rational thinking that it entails be the centre of the show, not just the (often astounding) scientific facts. I wholly recommend this book to everyone and everyone, but for this chapter alone, this is a book that all science teachers and science communicators should read.
He lists a set of questions that are framed in such a way that there is no immediately obvious answer (at least to me, anyway) but that can be figured out through research and critical thinking. (For example: ‘You mix violet, green, yellow orange and red paints and you make murky brown. Then you mix light of the same colours and you get white. What’s going on?’). I’m going to answer some of these questions on my blog as and when I get the time. My worry is that it’s just a matter of plugging the question into Google, in which case I have the answer and learned some new facts, but will little of the critical thinking that Sagan was aiming for. This I guess is a genuine worry faced by teachers today.
In the final chapter Sagan urges scientists and skeptics to be more political and we’re starting to see that happening more and more. Two recent examples of this in action (in my native UK) are Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto and Ben Goldacre co-writing a Cabinet Office paper calling for randomised trials of government policies.
It seems a little nit-picky given that I liked the book so much but I did find the pacing of the chapters slightly curious, in that there is no real flow between them; each chapter works well as a mini essay, but things like almost verbatim repeated references to how much Sagan misses his deceased parents means it doesn’t quite all hang together. There’s also always going to be an element of preaching to the choir with this kind of book but, in this book more than most, it can be forgiven because Sagan does such a good job of making you feel like you should take your love of science and talk to people about it (and not look down on them for being stupider than you).
I once said, in reference to Jenny McCarthy talking about how vaccines caused her son’s autism, that there’s so much dangerous misunderstanding of science around at the moment that it sometimes feels like were going backwards, to which a friend replied ‘it’s actually the friction that comes with moving forward’, which I thought was lovely and optimistic. Whilst there is a lot of optimism in Demon-Haunted World, Sagan’s worries about the state of science education and science literacy (whatever that means) gives the book a slight melancholic air; it won’t, but you can’t help but worry that the friction caused by the people misunderstanding and misusing science might just bring us to a standstill. A little while back David Colquhoun wrote of the ‘Endarkenment’, that the past 30 years has 'been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable'. In response to which PZ Myers issued an eloquent rallying cry:
"A few years ago Carl Sagan could write about lighting candles in the dark, and we all focused on that hopeful metaphor of the candle --we need to keep that flickering light alive. Maybe it's past time that we recognized the encroaching darkness as the enemy, and that we need to stop looking inwards at our own individual antique light sources, and think about organizing a more powerful and more incandescent means of illumination to directly fight that wretched ignorance. Use those candles to light a fire. We need to blaze; we need to lase."
It looks like I finished The Demon-Haunted World at just the right time, as Tim Radford will be reviewing it on the Guardian later this month. I’ve already submitted this review to the Guardian blog and look forward to reading what other people think.