Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
© 1995 Carl Sagan
457 pages

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Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is a classic of the modern skeptical movement. I initially began to phrase that "will be considered", but quickly changed it: if a skeptical website or blog has a list of reccommended books, chances are good that Demon-Haunted World will be on the list along with Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. Sagan is perhaps best known for his work with Cosmos: while a scientist himself with experience in the Voyager and Mariner projects, Sagan made a career out of popularizing science. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes on the importance of science education and more importantly -- the mindset behind science. "Science is not just a body of knowledge," he writes here and commented in an interview, "It is a way of thinking. It is a way of of skeptically interrogating the universe with an eye for human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those of authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan -- political or religious -- who comes ambling along."

The importance of science education and a scientific/skeptical worldview are two themes here, but another that underlies them is the wonder of science. While he applies skepticism to UFO sightings, crop circles, and faith-healers in the book, Sagan writes that perhaps these things stem from an appetite for wonder that people do not realize can be found in the world of science. Part of one chapter seems to come from his lecture "Wonder and Skepticism", which you can listen to here following an interview with his co-author, colleague, and wife Ann Druyan. Sagan does not only advocate a scientific worldview on the basis that it increases our well-being or is simply useful: as he cautions in an introductory chapter, "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." Like Erich Fromm in The Sane Society, he cautions that change is not only useful here, but necessary.

It was lovely to revist Carl Sagan: his joy at the natural world and being able to think about it intelligently are compelling and contagious, as I found when I first read him in 2006.

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1 comment:

  1. Please note that Celebrating Sagan has moved to http://www.celebratingsagan.com.

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete