Reviewed 1/07/1997

The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Carl Sagan
New York: Random House, 1996




ISBN 0-394-53512-X 457pp. HC $25.95

This is Dr. Carl Sagan's manifesto. It is also his last book; he died just before Christmas, on 20 December 1996. That fact will color my review; but not, I think, unduly so.

Sagan begins the book with a preface which remembers his parents in 1939 (when he was 5 or 6), a visit to the World's Fair of that year, which made a tremendous impression on him, and some inspiring teachers from his college days. (He also mentions learning to fight.) But there is little of biography here; that will have to await some other author.

I've called this book a manifesto; but that may be somewhat misleading. You will not find here the outraged recitation of wrongs suffered, alternating with ringing exhortations to a noble cause, all couched in language designed to push the reader's emotional buttons — not here, and not in any of Sagan's work. He has remained true to his "Prime Directive", which demands an unwavering dedication to that body of knowledge consisting of testable ideas and proven facts, and a rejection of that which claims to be fact but is neither testable nor provable.

What you will find here is truly impressive scholarship. Even I, somewhat familiar with Sagan's earlier books, was amazed by the depth and breadth of knowledge he demonstrates in this one; quotations from sources as various as the historians and playwrights of classical Greece and Rome, doctrines of medieval Catholicism, the founding fathers of America, and many of his own contemporaries. This is not mere window-dressing; it supports the themes of the book.

Those are themes everyone should consider. I cannot claim to do them justice in this review, not if it were ten times longer. But consider just one: Human nature being what it is, most people are easily led into error. Sagan presents many examples of such errors, and the damage that has resulted, from the earliest days of the Christian era to the present day. An excellent example is a cab driver (identified only by the pseudonym "William F. Buckley"). This man — intelligent, curious, and (in a way) widely read, inquired if Sagan would answer some questions about science. The scientist readily agreed. But, throughout the long drive from the airport, there were no questions about science. Instead, they concerned such topics as: the bodies of UFO occupants being kept secretly at an Air Force base near San Antonio; the prophecies of Nostradamus; astrology; and the Shroud of Turin.

"As we drove through the rain," Sagan says, "I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life."

Some may wonder what all the fuss is about. It can be (and will be) argued that the beliefs of a single cab driver, however mistaken, are no occasion for concern. It will also be argued — widely and strongly — that such beliefs are not mistaken. So now we come to the crux of the matter. How widespread are these erroneous beliefs, and how strongly are they held?

The Demon-Haunted World provides some answers. It takes a long, hard look at contemporary society as well as historical events such as the trials of "witches" in the past. I refer here not to the well-known Salem witch trials, but to The Inquisition. This travesty of justice continued over hundreds of years. Its duration — indeed, its very existence — was made possible only by the acquiescence of the majority in unfounded beliefs.

Studies are regularly done to assess the effectiveness of education in the U.S., and the performance of its students relative to those of other countries. Study after study concludes that American students, by and large, don't perform as well as those of the same age from many other industrialized countries. Sagan cites a few of these studies. He also reports on the opinion polls that measure the percentage of the American public who believe, for example, that the Sun goes 'round the Earth, or that dinosaurs were alive after Mankind existed.

Is this important? After all, some will say, America is still prosperous, our students are getting by in school, and are reasonably happy there. Well, we know and can demonstrate that American business spends a lot of money on teaching employees the basic skills they should have learned in school. We know, and can prove, that better-educated people earn more and live more comfortably than others. There are other aspects. But I won't belabor the point — at least, not in what is supposed to be a book review.

Sagan makes his case very well, using history, today's headline stories, and his own experiences in dealing with some of the many people who hold on to beliefs that can be proven incorrect. He gives us a "baloney detection kit", useful in confrontations with such people. And he warns us of the dire consequences of widespread, willful ignorance. True, this is not the only book that advocates better education and wider general understanding of science. But it is certainly one of the best.

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