The Demon Haunted World:

Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan
March 1997

The Demon-Haunted World is Carl Sagan railing against the stupidity inherent in the system. Every world-class physics teacher seems to put out a book like this—an attempt to convey the sheer joy and wonder they get from the world by learning about its workings; an attempt to express to everyone truths that they have learned that they think everyone else would benefit by learning; one final attempt to show people the beauty behind science. They try to explain how knowing of photosynthesis, genetics, protein folding, and quantum electrodynamics does not lessen the beauty of a flower, but rather elevates that flower from being merely pretty to the status of a miracle. This book is meant to be accessible to everyone and riddled with (well demarked) social overtones. Carl Sagan is careful, though -- he never confuses his science and his opinions. He does try to convince you of things, but you get the feeling he, as a true scientist, gives all of the evidence he can find both pro and con.

Richard P. Feynman had The Joy of Finding Things Out, Albert Einstein had one of his own with a title I forget (any help would be appreciated), Stephen Hawking tried once with A Brief History of Time and has tried again with a more recent book, and Roger Penrose has tried something a little different with The Emperor's New Mind. Well, now that the quantum physicists, cosmologists, and the Einsteins have said their piece, it becomes the turn of the world's foremost astronomer and researcher into the extraterrestrial.

A well-written book, The Demon-Haunted World tries to explain how our culture is set up so that "bad science drives out good science". He then tries to explain that, rather than a fixed set of axioms: "F=ma", "e=mc2", "P=mgh", "K=1/2mv2", science is instead a method coupled with a belief in honesty, repeatability, and testability. No moral relativist, Sagan is a good secular humanist, and at certain points does point out that it is possible to be good and ethical without God. He is very respectful of religion, and continuously points out that science and religion need not be at odds. Science deals only in what can be proven and repeated. Religion, being a matter of faith, generally doesn't. He even asks the Dalai Lama what Buddhism would do if proven false. The Dalai Lama states that Buddhism would have to change, but then "he added with a twinkle -- it's going to be hard to disprove reincarnation."

The most relevant part of the book, to me, was the following passage from the chapter on psychics and frauds:

Most of these figures are only after your money. That's the good news. But what worries me is that a [charlatan] will come along with bigger fish to fry—attractive, commanding, patriotic, exuding leadership. All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to feel good. Most reporters, editors, and producers—swept up with the rest of us—will shy away from real skeptical scrutiny. He won't be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he'll be selling you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing bundle of beliefs ... Whatever it is, it will be accompanied by warnings about the dangers of skepticism.

The lessons of the book are basically, keep your mind open, but not so open your brains fall out, and be sure to retain your sense of wonder and beauty. You should try to synthesize the fact that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and what Michael Faraday is claimed to have said: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true".

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