The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

April 24, 2018
By VeroPerez BRONZE, Key Biscayne, Florida
VeroPerez BRONZE, Key Biscayne, Florida
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Love is an all-consuming force. It burns long and deep, making the object of affection seem like the aether that ancient thinkers believed in – the fifth element that fills up the Universe and makes sense of its wondrous nature. It was this feeling that led scientist Carl Sagan to write his book The Demon-Haunted World. As the product of Sagan's love affair with science, this piece serves as a statement of the man’s concerns regarding society’s underestimation of reason and critical thinking. The book also stands as a repudiation of the systematic superstition, credulity, and ignorance that plague society. Yet, Sagan’s critical stances do not disservice his prose. While lucid, the writing is strikingly beautiful – rich in complex thought and overflowing with moving ideas. More than a scientist’s credo, though, The Demon-Haunted World is a testimonial of the importance of science as the driving force of the modern world and the dangerous implications of its growing influence in a credulous society. Sagan’s work, published over two decades ago, still looms ominously over readers today, as the compelling book opens their eyes to the threats that ignorance poses to even their most fundamental freedoms.
Sagan begins his work by presenting science as a ubiquitous driving force in the modern world. He does this in order to aid the reader grasp not only the field’s importance, but the accompanying implications of a highly scientifically illiterate society. Thus, he speaks of science as a double-edged sword – the one thing humanity depends on to keep civilization afoot, but also something no one wholly understands. Showing profound concern, Sagan asserts that while “we might get away with it for a while… sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” (26). The author continues by condemning the current and extensive acceptance of pseudoscience. To battle such gullibility – further fed by the human need to believe in our cosmic centrality – Sagan proclaims that science as a way of thinking has to be permeated. If applied correctly, its methods, which include skepticism, self-criticism, open-mindedness, and continuous experimentation, will obliterate superstition and fallacy. Despite his praise of science, the writer also acknowledges that it is not perfect. Rather, it is an asymptotic process that reaches for an unobtainable certainty. Practitioners know it can only lessen errors in past human conceptions of the universe, not uncover ultimate truths. In this manner, Sagan explains, science is humble. Specialists are exposed to constant criticism from peers, mentors, and the public, hence creating a built-in self-correcting machine that makes it the best tool for understanding nature. It is deeply self-critical where pseudoscience is self-indulgent; unself-serving where superstition is self-important. This ode to science’s unassuming nature is possibly the most humane look into this occupation in any scientific piece to present day, and is undoubtedly amongst the best portions of the whole work. As the book proceeds, Sagan begins authoritatively debunking popular fallacies, including UFOs, alien abductions, and government conspiracies. He does this by presenting evidence clearly and slowly taking the reader to the most logical conclusion. For instance, when debunking alien abductions he explores the notion of hallucinations as a cause for this phenomenon by introducing the case of Betty and Barney Hill, a couple who claimed to be abducted by aliens in 1961. In disproving such purported events, Sagan attempts to inculcate the reader with the skepticism he claims vital to critical thinking. In perhaps one of the most simple yet enlightening portions of the book, the author uses the metaphor of maintaining to have a fire-breathing dragon in his garage to demonstrate the importance of hard evidence when judging the truthfulness of an assertion. Nevertheless, in following chapters he emphasizes that keeping an open mind is also a fundamental aspect to thinking scientifically. Thus, he argues, there needs to be a balance between wonder and skepticism that effectively measures evidence but doesn't condescendingly dismiss it. As the book comes to an end, Sagan focuses on the decline of scientific education in America and ways in which this could be changed – primarily through the popularization of science. He uses statistics to support his views on the urgency of the subject while also venturing into who is to blame for these awful trends. As this all-encompassing piece comes to a close, Sagan talks of science as a synonym for freedom. In what could be the book’s most impacting few pages, the author parallels the ability to think logically to the human right to self-expression and free thought. Education, he claims, is key in a truly democratic society. Without it, civilians hand their futures over to those in power. Yet, an educated population suggests an informed group of people willing to counter authorities, who then become the nation’s servants as the Founders originally intended. This grand piece – which speaks largely of the dangers of ignorance, the need for widespread scientific thinking, and its application as a pathway to freedom – is an exceptional account of Sagan’s genius. It is one that stands as proof of his love not only for science, but also for the cosmos and everything in it. Both his concern and fascination are contagious, making The Demon-Haunted World a nearly perfect proponent of clear thought and a vehement manifesto for all of science.

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