I recently read a book titled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by renowned physicist and science writer Carl Sagan. It’s about aliens and witches, science and society – and it’s probably one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently.
Sagan starts off by exploring why people hold unorthodox beliefs. Unusually for a book on science, The Demon-Haunted World does not treat investigations into things like alien abductions as unworthy of skeptical investigation, or beneath the notice of a “serious” scientist. Instead, Sagan devotes a great deal of effort to examining evidence of aliens, as well as other possible explanations for supposed alien sightings and abduction experiences. He then draws a comparison between modern belief in aliens and medieval European belief in witches and demons. They share certain external features (tales of terror and abductions in the night), but also, both are phenomena that exploded in the public consciousness, despite being rooted in evidence that crumbles upon closer inspection. Sagan does eventually conclude that stories of alien abductions – like demons – are better explained by more mundane causes, but he comes to this conclusion through careful, reasoned investigation. In other words, he uses scientific thinking.
The Demon-Haunted World is a more than a book on witch hunts and aliens; Sagan merely uses these as jumping-off points for exploring the role of science in society. Touching on topics ranging from the ethics of the hydrogen bomb to the importance of education, Sagan discusses what science and skeptical thinking truly are. What do they mean to people? How should we use them? And how do they affect our lives?
[S]cience – or rather its delicate mix of openness and skepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate – is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in an industrial and highly technological society. -pg. 431
Scientific thinking, Sagan argues, is essential to democracy. Unquestioning acceptance of a simple explanation, coupled with lack of critical thinking, can lead to false beliefs and irrational decisions, whether they be medieval witch hunts, modern beliefs in alien abductions, or bad public policy choices. We live in a political system where the people control their own governance; therefore, Sagan argues, we have a responsibility to understand the world we operate within, and to think critically about our actions, our policies, and our decisions. As he says in the final chapter, “real patriots ask questions.”
The subject matter can be serious at times, but the book keeps a lively tone. Sagan’s sense of wonder at science is infectious. The Demon-Haunted World is suffused with a feeling of awe at the world, passion for our own powers of discovery, and hope for the role science can play in our society.
Go read this book, if you haven’t already. It’s a good one.
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1995.