"The Demon-Haunted World,"| Reviewed by William Winkler
Cornell University astrophysicist Carl Sagan was a lifelong advocate for increasing public awareness of science and the scientific method. His 1980 television series “Cosmos” remains one of the most widely watched programs in the history of American public television and the accompanying book of the same name is one of the bestselling science books published in the English language.
Sagan’s 1995 book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” published a year before his death, is a recapitulation of themes he had dealt with in earlier writings.
In an era before the Internet and social media, there was still a plethora of pseudoscience and speculation floating about, alien abduction, UFOs as extraterrestrial visitors, and crop circles to name but a few. Sagan discusses these and others, not in an attempt to discredit them, although he does, but rather to point out how uncritical thinking, based on spurious, faulty or even fictional evidence is used to support unsupportable allegations.
Sagan does not dismiss the theories behind these phenomena out of hand, but rather points out the logical and scientific fallacies that are cited to support their explanations. In his discussion of crop circles, for example, Sagan states that it would be interesting to consider the possibility that they are manifestation of extraterrestrial visitation, but there is a great deal more observable and verifiable evidence that they are the product of human activity.
Sagan returns again and again to the virtue of the scientific method because of its insistence on constant re-evaluation of commonly held theories in the light of new data. After a public presentation on the lack of verifiable evidence to support the theory that UFOs are visitors from other worlds, he was asked, “But what’s your gut feeling?” He answered, “I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.”
In a culture so easily swayed by easily disseminated half-truths and outright falsehoods, Sagan states, “Keeping an open mind is a virtue−but not so open that your brains fall out. Of course we must be willing to change our minds when warranted by new evidence. But the evidence must be strong. Not all claims to knowledge have equal merit.”
Sagan’s book, a quarter century old, is more relevant and germane to today’s world than it was when first published. Each viewing of the evening news or the daily newspaper gives credence to his assertion, “When governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic.”