Writer’s Wednesday: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan is an exemplary introduction to skeptical thinking through the use of science, while never forgetting how important wonder and awe is, when it comes to appreciating the magnitude of the universe we inhabit.
While never crude or unfairly dismissive, Sagan convincingly makes the point of Edmund Way Teale: “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.” Sagan over and over again shows how dangerous it is to accept pseudoscience and other falsehoods without any scientific, independently verifiable evidence. He tackles such varied topics as UFOs, alien abductions, astrology, witch hunts, faith healings, demons etc., and authoritatively debunks them all.
In the last part of the books he uncovers how dangerously far Americans have falling behind when it comes to understanding even the most elementary science, and what dangers it could hold for the future, specifically in terms of democracy and liberty.
If nothing else, I highly recommend the chapter The Fine Art of Baloney Detection (the link will take you to a free PDF version). In my opinion this essay should be required reading in all high schools. It powerfully and simply sets forward rules and guidelines to help you keep a skeptical mindset, e.g. by using tools such as looking for independent confirmation of the “facts”, encourage debates from all points of view, put little weight on authority arguments, look for more than one explanation, don’t become too attached to your own explanation etc.
Sagan has a real gift for explaining difficult and scientific topics in layman terms, so even if you don’t have a scientific background it is an easy, enlightening and educational read.
“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe”. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the world. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.”
How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.
Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today’s so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.