The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle In the Dark

Carl Sagan, New York:

Random House, 1996. 460pp

When Carl Sagan began writing this work, he was already becoming disappointed with the direction he saw the world heading in; that is to say a marked decline in scientific literacy. He was disturbed by his son’s belief that the Maharesh Maharishi Yogi was being billed as “God” and when MTV unleashed “Beavis and Butthead” on the world, Dr. Sagan began to truly despair. It is fortunate, then, that he did not live to read an essay in the New York Times magazine by Ron Suskind on the Bush administration where Suskind claims a Bush White House staffer sneered at journalists and their propensity for finding that “solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality” and living in a “reality-based community.”

After reading “The Demon-Haunted World” one wonders whether Dr. Sagan would have laughed or cried.

The book is meant to be a “baloney detector,” a means to help people shift their paradigm and get their heads in the right frame to see through charlatans and chicanery no matter what disguise it might reside in. To enable this process Sagan breaks the book down into easily navigable chapters that seem less like a lecture by a respected academic and scientist, and more like a friendly chat with an old friend over drinks. It is one of the most important books written in the 1990’s because Sagan foresaw a growing trend, a trend that was not only irritating to the educated, but disturbing to the thinking public: science is dying.

We live in a world of instant telecommunications, a world space craft that can stay in orbit for years, of satellite probes that can reach the edges of our solar system…and also a world that believes in the supernatural. A world where the belief in magic, prognostication, and good luck charms exists side by side with supersonic jets, nuclear weapons, and superconductors. If what Suskind wrote was true, then it is even more disturbing than it initially sounds when given the proper thought: America is one of the most technologically advanced civilizations on this planet, it possesses one of the most destructive arsenals in history, and the leadership doesn't believe in the Scientific Method, the universally recognized “error-correcting machinery” that allows any scientist from any nation to challenge any other no matter how rational-seeming or outrageous, the claim may be. There is a reason that the Scientific Method is still used, around the world, regardless of the language spoken or the political system in use: it delivers the goods.

Science, Sagan argues both eloquently and convincingly, works. Why bother going to see a witch doctor and asking him to throw chicken bones on a tabletop if you want to know when the next solar eclipse will be, when you can ask an astronomer and he can tell you down to the minute? An astrologer can make vague predictions about your future after examining the night sky, but so can a physicist and likely with similar results. The real test is whose predictions can be reliably measured, whose methods can be repeatedly checked to see if it was a fluke of chance, or the accuracy that comes with honed skill, accumulated knowledge, and years of peer-reviewed training.

In the 2005 movie “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was released. It was based on the actual case of an exorcism that was performed in the 20th century. The allegedly possessed victim, Emily Rose, died as a result of the exorcism and the priest in charge was arrested and charged with criminal negligence. There is a scene in the courtroom where the defense attorney, played by Laura Linney, actually argues that the facts shouldn't determine the outcome of the case, because they eliminate other possibilities. The prosecutor (Campbell Scott) has his objections (“Silliness!”) overruled. It would be comforting to simply dismiss this as Hollywood up to its old tricks again, until we consider the Intelligent Design “debate” which is really nothing more than arguing that we should allow Creationism to creep back into the classroom and push Darwinian Theory back into the intellectual gutter where some people feel it belongs, a disturbingly large number of people to judge by the success that Intelligent Design has been having across the country.

While the growth of the pseudo religion “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” has been due in large part to the spurious claims of the pseudo- and anti-scientific communities that have seen their numbers if not grow, at least become more vocal, it is doubtful that Sagan would be amused by the Pastafarians as they like to refer to themselves. Sagan also declined to address the Scientology movement although many would argue it fits in perfectly with the rest of the material.

Sagan debunks alien abductions, religious visitations (which he claims have gradually morphed into the aforementioned abductions), psychic surgeons (whom the self-style “Bad Boys of Magic” Penn and Teller already debunked in their comedy “Penn and Teller Get Killed”), the Face on Mars, and psychics like J.Z. Knight of Yelm, Washington who claims to be able to contact the consciousness of a resident of Atlantis named Ramtha. Sagan even makes a special mention of Knight and the questions that he would like to pose to Ramtha, covering such topics as: diet, fashion, science, alphabet, and ordinary facets of daily life in Atlantis 35,000 years ago. None of which, apparently, Ramtha has felt inclined to comment upon, at least not at time of publication.

The book, as I said, does not feel like a lecture, it has the friendly feel of an old chat by the fire as your grandfather tells you how to avoid having your pocket picked by an unscrupulous used car salesman (assuming there is any other type). Only in this case the salesman is alternately trying to sell you a pseudoscience like astrology, crop circles, giant monsters, or repressed memories.

A useful tool to keep your Baloney Detector fully calibrated.

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