The Demon-Haunted World
by Carl Sagan
Published the year he died, Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World is a haunted book. I haven’t read his other work (Though now I plan to), but this one seems darker than what I had imagined his work would be like. It’s not hopeless or despairing; it’s a serious warning about a serious problem, and what seemed to me like a fairly frustrated attempt to cut through a thick layer of hogwash on a specific issue that obviously bothered Sagan quite a lot: namely the idea of alien abduction.
The general warning about the serious problem is the overall thrust of the book, and it is about the need for a free people to think skeptically. Sagan being who he was, he came at the idea from a scientist’s perspective; he describes at length the need for scientists to be skeptical, to be willing to question anything, most particularly their own most cherished beliefs. He gives example after example of scientists describing the need to build beautiful, elegant theories that explain great answers to great questions – and then tear them down completely when those theories are contradicted by the evidence. He talks about the shift from Newton to Einstein to quantum mechanics, and he talks about how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was able to contribute as much to the field of astronomy when he was wrong as he was when he was right (and in both cases his contributions were prodigious, Sagan says).
Because Sagan is not only talking about science, and because he practiced what he preached, he makes a concerted effort in this book to talk about the flawed nature of scientists, the scientists who did more harm than good, the ones who told themselves they could ignore the ethical responsibility of considering the potential uses of their discoveries – a deception, Sagan argues, as he states unequivocally that the extraordinary power of modern scientific discoveries and the technology that comes from them imposes a greater responsibility than ever before for scientists to act as ethically as possible in considering what potential harm could be done by their work, and taking action to minimize that harm. He talks about the various ways that science can be manipulated and used to do harm; though he is also clear that none of that harm tells us that science is itself harmful or bad or should be feared or avoided. Knowledge is power, and power can be used to do – well, anything; but ignoring the power doesn’t protect us from it, it simply makes it easier for someone else to use it harmfully.
What else is Sagan talking about other than science itself, than the beauty and power of the scientific mindset, of skeptical thinking and a reliance on repeatable experiment and observable data? He’s talking about everything, really. There isn’t an aspect of life or modern society where a skeptical mindset would be inappropriate. The book covers a lot of aspects of society and culture; the exploration of the alien abduction myth, rather than simply being a screed against a continuing falsehood that Sagan, as an astrophysicist, took personally; he goes back through history and connects the alien abduction myth to past myths, of fairy abductions, of divine intervention in the lives of mortals. In addition to showing how a skeptical mindset quickly takes the alien abduction story apart, he also shows how it could be used to remove a dozen other pernicious ideas in our culture, including racism, sexism, and nationalism.
It’s beautifully done. This is a lovely book, fascinating in its ideas and easily digestible in the presentation of them. And as I said, it isn’t hopeless: Sagan also makes sure to express to the reader his unquenchable curiosity and his enormous capacity for wonder, which he also says must be fostered and encouraged along with the skeptical mindset; because when our cherished ideas are disproven by the evidence, when the flaws in our reasoning are found by our own penetrating, skeptical questions, it is our sense of wonder and our need to feel awe that makes us look again for a new answer to replace the one we just discarded. Wonder makes us get up and try again, after we knock ourselves down; and the combination of those two qualities is what gives this book its hope.
The thing that makes it scary is that Sagan wrote it twenty years ago. And on the first page – the first damn page – he said this:
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
Yeah. This book scared me, all right. I hope it also inspired me. I do intend to use one entire chapter/essay in my classes this coming school year, to try to make that candle burn a little brighter, if I can; and I would like to recommend that everyone read this book when you get the chance, because after Sagan finishes talking about alien abduction, he talks about democracy, and the need for scientific skeptical thinking and also scientific wonder and awe, to save our democracy, to save our country. And I for one think he was right.