Thursday, 31 July 2014

THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: SCIENCE AS A CANDLE IN THE DARK

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: 4 of 5 stars

BOOK DESCRIPTION: How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don't understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions.


Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today's so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.

MY REVIEW: There is no doubt that Carl Sagan knew what he was talking about (sadly, he is no longer with us). And what he shares with us about the gullibility of humanity is pretty depressing. This catalog of nonsense that humans have believed (and still believe, in many cases) makes one wonder why we trust our capacity to think well. And, of course, because we know that we tend to think poorly, we have developed principles of critical thinking to compensate for that tendency. And science, which is firmly grounded in principles of careful, critical thinking. Sagan ruthlessly debunks all of these bizarre beliefs, repeatedly illustrating in clear, eloquent language what it means to think carefully about these and other issues in everyday life and society. He also surveys various tools for evaluating the legitimacy of ideas and beliefs.

I do have a couple of minor criticism of the book. I did get a bit tired, after about 3/4 of the book of the constant rehearsal of some issues. I understand that the chapters of the book are actually essays Sagan wrote (some with his wife). It may be possible to enjoy this book by dipping into chapters at random rather than reading straight through from cover to cover. Am I was really irritated by his capitalisation of the word Nature - as if it was being constructed as an intelligent entity worth worshiping in some new-agey way. I'm not saying that is what Sagan intended. But it didn't come across as consistent with his generally rational approach.

THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD is a good read. The biggest problem, of course, is that those who most need to read it probably won't. But at least the rest of us can arm ourselves with good thinking skills to protect ourselves from the nonsense so often foisted upon us - and to help us scrutinise our own beliefs before we base our decisions about life on them.

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