The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey kids, want some of the good stuff? Take a hit of this Science & Critical Thinking. It’ll blow your mind!!

Carl Sagan takes us on a journey through the history of science and our fleshy meat-sack attempts to understand the universe. He tries to illustrate the difference between knowledge and nonsense. And he tries to instill a sense of interest and wonder in the universe around us, something that he believes is a cornerstone of a functional society into the future.

I first read Demon-Haunted World in undergrad *cough-cough* years ago. I read it again about a decade ago, although have little memory of doing so. So it was interesting to revisit Sagan’s case for following knowledge (through science) in the post-alternative facts world.

Possibly the most obvious aspects of this book are the often-quoted sections about the risks of not valuing education and knowledge. What was more interesting this time around was digging into the offhand remarks and bias of the book. The introduction had a great remark about a teacher being a bully to female students that was barely explored, despite being a great anecdote about how certain groups are held out of STEM fields. Another was the US-centric bias (obviously the book was written by an American for an American audience) which was at odds with the theme of science and education helping everyone.

There were also more disappointments this time around. Sure, I still love the Baloney Detection Kit. And being reminded of how so many curious people don’t get exposed to good information because we don’t value actual knowledge. But I’ve got less time for the scientism that leads to dismissals of philosophy or other knowledge methods. While Sagan’s was a mild scientism, it does feed into something many pro-science communicators can fall into the trap of and comes off as a little arrogant.

I guess I’ll revisit this in another decade. Looking forward to it.

Comments while reading:
Sagan talks about his humble origins and passion for science. It’s good to see someone acknowledge how the “inspiring teacher” trope is often not present, both for those who develop a passion and for those who don’t for whatever subject.

There was also an incidental point made about bullying and sexism that was almost glossed over. He mentioned one of his teachers being very good but also a bully. Someone who delighted in being mean to the female students. This sort of overt sexism (or racism, or bigotry in general) undoubtedly has held back generations of people from STEM. The more subtle versions persist and do similar levels of damage.

The oblique references to post-modernism are a bit disappointing. I understand that Sagan has the common misunderstanding of the philosophy, but I’d like to think someone like him would have taken the time to read and understand it. Although, it would help if the po-mo writers weren’t so verbose and abstract (and being translated from French).

Sagan covers a bit about a Randi hoax done on the Australian media. It was interesting to hear about how credulous our Aussie media were back then. Sorry, what am I saying? They are still credulous fools publishing anything for outrage and eyeballs. The comedy team, The Chaser, just recently pranked the media with a fake Fairy Bread petition with exactly the foaming outrage from conservative media you’d expect.

It’s interesting to come out the other side of organised skepticism and re-read Sagan. He and some of the other more reasonable voices (e.g. Phil Plait) still come across well. But you can also see the scientism. Sagan’s isn’t as pronounced as some others, but you can’t help thinking that Sagan might have slid down the same road into grumpy old man shouting at people on Twitter road that so many of his contemporaries have (cough Dawkins cough). I’d like to think not.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

  1. Dear Tyson Adams,

    What an excellent post you have composed here in mid-May of 2021! Thank you for demonstrating so amicably and commendably the quality of Carl Sagan’s book entitled “The Demon-Haunted World” in your post.

    Like you, I read the book a long time ago, and thus feel delighted and also very nostalgic that you quoted Carl Sagan’s words near the end. Thank you for sharing and reminding us of these wonderful quotations with the contents of your post. What a lovely way to prompt us to do something about being good earthlings and cultivating critical thinking!

    What an inspirational life Sagan had! The series “Cosmos” is such a watershed for its breadth and depth, not to mention Vangelis’ music. As you probably already know, Neil deGrasse Tyson, a scientist who greatly admires the late Carl Sagan, has presented the new series of “Cosmos”.

    I also own the book entitled “Carl Sagan: A Life” by Keay Davidson. Given that you like to learn so much about Sagan, I wonder whether you have come across or read the book.

    Now that you have fed me some of your choicest quotes from Sagan’s book, I would like to reciprocate and resonate with the tenor and spirit of your post with two dozen quotations from my expansive multimedia post about Earth Day at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/soundeagle-in-earth-day/

    The final quotation in my said post is of course from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”.

    The said post is best viewed on a large screen of a desktop or laptop computer, since it could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately. Please enjoy! I am definitely very keen and curious to know what you think or make of my mixed media offerings and presentations there. Please let me know what you think by submitting a comment to my said post.

    May you find the rest of 2021 very much to your liking and highly conducive to your writing, reading, thinking and blogging!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I’ve not read any bios on Sagan. Might take a look at that one.

      I can’t remember if I’ve read Pale Blue Dot, but I do own it. I plan on reading it soonish. Also want to read Contact, which I haven’t ever gotten to despite owning it for at least a decade.

      All the best to you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Tyson Adams,

    Regarding perusing Carl Sagan’s books, I have also read Sagan’s Project Blue Book many years ago. There is now a TV series of that name.

    Regarding alien civilizations, I even mention how extra-terrestrial contacts may challenge our ongoing speciesism in my multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary post entitled “SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality” at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/07/13/soundeagle-in-debating-animal-artistry-and-musicality/

    Happy mid-May to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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