Book review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

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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Intelligent life

You may all think that I’m primarily a crime thriller kinda guy, a lot of the book reviews I post here are for crime, crime thrillers and thrillers. My current work in progress is also a crime thriller. So I clearly fit into a very neat little box created out of stacks of James Patterson releases for the month. But I like a lot of genres, I think most readers do, in fact I’d go as far as to say that all readers read more than one genre unless they are still battling with Where’s Waldo.

Needless to say, despite my current work – and several others in the pipeline – being crime thrillers, I have several outlines for stories in other genres. One of my first big ideas – quite literally, as I have a 50 page synopsis and several instalments plotted – was for a sci-fi story. Think Jack Reacher crossed with Jet Li (Did you know Jet Li is a real life hero?) inspired by Heinlein. Anyway, the main character, Caleb, is the last of his kind and is trying to save humans from themselves, whether that be leading a civil war, or deposing dictators at the various human colonies. Of course there have to be aliens in space.

The problem I’ve always had with aliens in books and movies is that they are too much like us. On Star Trek they could even pass for us, as long as they wore a headband.
But it isn’t just that they look so much like us, why would aliens even think of us as awesome? Would humans be actually interesting to aliens? If aliens are watching our broadcasts you could just about guarantee that they don’t consider any of the life on this planet intelligent.

Alien: So you consider your race intelligent?
Human: Why yes.
Alien: Explain Glenn Beck.
Human: Okay, some of us aren’t as…
Alien: And you dig up stored gases to change your atmosphere so that it wrecks your climate.
Human: But we needed fuel for power. We’ve got solutions to that now.
Alien: One word: Politicians.
Human: Please don’t wipe out our planet!

So in my alien research for my novel/s I finally found inspiration. Who better to inspire me than Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins?*

See the rest of the discussion between Dawkins and DeGrasse here.

*Yes Carl Sagan would be inspirational too, but he isn’t in the video.