The blurb on the back cover says; "...Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks...witchcraft, faith healing and UFOs" - this he does but it is not really the main point of the book.
Sagan never sets out to trash some compendium of "new age" beliefs or all the paranormal and paraphyschological bunk that is currently doing the rounds. Instead, he uses examples such as UFOs, alien abductions and faith healing to instruct the reader in how such myths and pseudoscience can become so believable to so many. Helpfully he also equips the reader with the mental tools necessary to examine such claims for themselves in a sceptical and rational manner, his so called "baloney detection kit". This kit includes various tools for sceptical and scientific reasoning as well as how to recognise common fallacies of logic and rhetoric.
If you read this book expecting to be spoon fed arguments against various pseudoscientific, quasi-religious (or just plain-religious) and other paranormal beliefs then you are going to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to be able to critically analyse theories and ideas (scientific or otherwise), if you want to be able to think for yourself and if you want to be able to recognise when you are being fed fallacious and fraudulent arguments then you can't go far wrong with this book.
Please read this book if you get the chance, it is marvellous piece of work, erudite and compassionate without ever being patronising and should be compulsory reading in every school, for pupils, teachers and parents.
on 2 June 1999
Carl Sagan's book makes clear that human ignorance can lead to some pretty weird, and potentially dangerous, belief systems, such as the belief in alien abductions, or the belief in witches. What is actually frightening is that people hold on to some of these beliefs, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. The book contains some sobering examples of human ignorance, plus some of its causes. The book also contains a sample of some remarkable letters Sagan has received in the past few years, and a D.I.Y. baloney detection kit.
I found the book a highly accessible and passionate defence of scientific thinking. Sagan's take home message is that science does not necessarily rid the world of its beauty. On the contrary, a scientific perspective can reveal some truly amazing things that we can not perceive with our senses, such as the structure of the atom. I can recommend the book to everyone; I actually read it twice.
on 11 November 2010
One of the observations I have of reviews of books such as these is to note how many of the negative reviews contain anguished accusations of the author's arrogance or sneering and, with apparently no sense of irony, how 'closed-minded' the author must be.
Sagan however avoids sneering and avoids high handed righteousness too. Instead we get an impassioned and intelligent call for a very human rationality and 'common sense'. He points out the inherent flaws in thinking that people often make, especially in ascribing inconsistent and unnecessary meaning to things that can be explained in much more eloquent and interesting ways. he also highlights the corresponding, baffling, disregard some people have for the beauty and wonder that is available through knowledge obtained with human intelligence and confirmed by scientific rigor.
You can sense Sagan's bewilderment, sadness and fears regarding the surprisingly large mass of people who casually subscribe to ideas that are either demonstrably false or unfalsifiable and yet are suspicious of things that can be demonstrated and are falsifiable and therefore subject to rigorous tests.
In the end the fact that this book was written, the fact that it was a best seller, gives hope.
If you want to read an intelligent book that explores these ideas in a way that is both very insightful and contains a very human wisdom, free of sneering and arrogance, then Sagan is your ideal guide.
on 2 August 2004
This book, more than any other on this theme, subjects many of the popular delusions and superstitions that hold back and threaten the very existence of human society, against the "gold standard" of rational, scientific thought and method.
According to Sagan, our heads are full of confusion and misinformation and there are forces that wish to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the status quo is dangerous.
To wake from a slumber of indoctrination, media propaganda and self-delusion, read this book, in one sitting, as the perfect antidote.
I enjoyed this book so much that I have read and re-read it many times over. I've given copies to my dearest friends. This is an intellectual tour-de-force of a book. With every reading, I muse on how preciuous and rare clear and incisive thinkers with a voice that can reach everyone are. Carl Sagan is sorely missed.
on 9 August 2005
This is a fascinating book, which argues clearly and passionately in favour of critical thinking, not just in science but in every area of our lives.
Sagan persuasively demolishes ideas such as alien abduction, channeling, witchcraft and satanic abuse scares, and then teaches us how to do the same. He attacks the misuse of religion but doesn't simply dismiss religion itself; instead he demands that it be intellectually honest.
This is not a 'science versus religion' book - Sagan was a skeptic in the true sense of the word, more critical and open-minded than someone like Richard Dawkins. There are several things on which he avoids giving his opinion, telling us not to trust people like himself, but instead to put his 'baloney detection kit' into action. I recommend this book to everyone.
I was first introduced to Carl Sagan, along with most of the public, through the series `Cosmos'. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having heard of him prior to that, given I was twelve years old at the time. It became very apparent in that series, and all subsequent writings, that Sagan was a man of science, to his very core. I have known physicists and scientists of other fields who have embraced denominational and religious tenets, and followed other faith structures (albeit usually with modifications to the theological framework, which in fact puts them in company with their non-scientific intellectual companions). Not so for Sagan. It became clear to me, almost from the beginning his series, that science, the religion of rationality, was his religion. He worshipped the Cosmos, his dogma was the principle of rationality, experimentation and verification, and his heresies included the various irrational parts of the world, which comprise a good deal of popular culture (in every society) and, ultimately, much of what is commonly called religion.
Sagan's book, `The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark', is therefore, by an large, Sagan's Book of Heresies. Unlike many books of heresies throughout history, however, this is no simple text of dogmatic pronouncements, a list of things to avoid or distrust. This book has reasoning, research, and history. Sagan points out that even religious structures, who rely heavily on irrational aspects (revelation and inspiration) have certain guidelines of rationality by which to test these aspects.
`A 1517 papal bull distinguishes between apparitions that appear "in dreams or divinely". Clearly, the secular and ecclesiatical authorities, even in times of extreme credulity, were alert to the possibilities of hoax and delusion.'
Sagan explores issues of UFO abduction stories, ghosts and 'saintly' appearances (how does one determine if it is truly the image of the Virgin Mary in the glass, or just a coincidental pattern in the sunlight and oily coating of the glass?). Sagan discounts the veracity of most (if not all) such happenings, not only due to the lack of rationality, emotional issues and delusions of the 'experiencers', but also due to the assistance of those in established positions of power who promote such things.
For Sagan, science is a 'golden road' that can raise people out of poverty and backwardness into a greater awareness of the world and universe in which they live. Material progress is dependent upon scientific knowledge; likewise, proper use and direction of this progress requires scientific and environmental awareness. Science for Sagan touches the deepest yearnings of human thought. Sagan also postulates a positive link between scientific advance and democratic values (the political theology Sagan believes).
There are a few problems with this reasoning--Sagan does not give religion its due in the course of helping to develop philosophical and cultural development in the course of history. While it is true that religion and science have been at odds in the West in past millennium a number of times, this may have more to do with political realities than true rationality. Astronomy, Sagan's own particular field, began in aid of astrology; technology, physics, and chemistry most likely also began to be developed in earnest in suport of religious programmes. Sagan does not mention the fact that both the Carolingian and Italian Renaissance periods showed great flowering in scientific knowledge without a democracy in sight.
These caveats having been said, Sagan's reasoning throughout is elegantly crafted, and well written, with a strong historical underpinning to his reasoning, and an eye toward future developments. Ultimately, Sagan cautions against science becoming the domain of an elite few. `In all uses of science, it is insufficient--indeed it is dangerous--to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals. Instead, some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.'
Perhaps we are entering a period for science similar to that of when printing presses revolutionised the interactions of people with religion by making scriptures readily accessible; are we about to enter a reformation of science, in which it is reclaimed by the people? No longer will there be a single 'catholic' faith of science (and science relies as heavily on faith principles as any religion), but a multiplicity of scientific denominations which we can only speculate about today.
Sagan's book provokes questions and provides answers, as any good scientific text, popular or technical, should do. 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark' is full of Sagan's rational-oriented philosophy, in concert with so much of the underpinnings of Western culture (even its religious frameworks of theology, though Sagan does not like to admit this), and yet, somehow culture loses its way occasionally, and it is up to the professionals, be they scientists or priests, to help education and illuminate the world anew, to provide the candle in the dark. May all such professionals find a common ground upon with to stand, so to better steady the foundation of all.
on 14 February 2008
Do you like to question things? Well you should like this book.
There are two keys aspects to this book:
1. A detailed analysis of unsubstantiated beliefs
2. An exploration of critical thinking
Sagan describes all sorts of unusual beliefs such as demons and witches which were once held with absolute certitude by the masses. He details outrageous claims of alien abductions and all sorts of unusual apparitions. This is all sprinkled with all sorts of interesting facts and anecdotes. Whether it's the story of innocent people being found guilty for child abuse by using confession under hypnosis as evidence or the fact that there have been over a million UFO sightings since 1947, the reader is kept in engaged along the way.
Inevitably Religion gets a mention. Sagan points out how scripture was used to justify some inhuman activities such slavery and racism
However Sagan is fair here. He points out that mainstream Religions accepts mainstream Science, such as Darwinian evolution and it is really only the fundamentalists who cannot deal with Scientific findings.
He also describes the story of the Jesuit priest, Friedrich von Spee, who turned whistle blower, detailing the abject fallacy and idiocy of witchcraft trials.
Of course no book on critical thinking would be complete without a discussion on what constitutes critical thinking. Sagan is is succinct in his explanations. He details scientific and evidence based methodologies. He explains various logical fallacies which consistently make humans think something is true when it is actually not.
Sagan is not also to afraid to point out the imperfections of Science. He discusses the tentative nature of Science and he questions of some of bad aspects that have manifested from a usage of it. Atomic and Hydrogen bombs, two obvious examples.
Sagan explores the inescapable reality that Science has failed to capture the masses. Why is it only 75% of American don't know antibiotics kill bacteria not viruses? He explores some of the reasons for this as well as different ways of teaching Science and critical thinking.
He is only too gracious and bashful to recommend everyone should read this book, but I would have no problem doing that!