The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Carl Sagan, 1995

The Demon-Haunted World is a fine compilation of skepticism for beginners. Structured as a series of related essays, the book explores the need for skeptical and critical thinking, offers some tips, and systematically takes down a few pseudo-sciences. Sagan reaches out to the reader, and in the nicest way imaginable, says: 'You're not a bad person, but here's why you really need to stop just blindly believing in things.'

I personally found the book a little long, and with a bit too much time spent on UFOs. It was an important work when it came out, but only 15 years later it feels quaint to me to consider people who report UFOs as a large population, one needing to be engaged with. He also addresses faith healing, channeling, and other instances of magical thinking, but a sizable chunk of the book is spent debunking UFO sightings and alien abduction stories.

There is a perspective here that I appreciate. A very good case is made for how learning why people report alien abduction, for example, is important and interesting. It says a lot about us as humans: our gullibility, suggestibility, desire for validation, capability for imagination. Furthermore, all the of the counter-evidence is conveyed while maintaining the humanity of the alleged abductees.

It is an incredibly gentle book, up to a point. All the conclusions are presented in a fashion to ask the reader to really consider them, they are hardly ever spelled out directly. Evidence and theories are laid out, and the reader is implicitly asked: 'How do you approach this? Are you used to thinking skeptically? Remember that you can't just dismiss ridiculous claims, you have to actually examine them.'

However, even as the question is posed rhetorically, and the reader is exhorted to be understanding of those who maintain belief in UFOs (or whatever), one thing that is never suggested is that it might be kinder to let them go on believing things that aren't true. On the contrary, a few chapters consist of a historical survey of the importance of skeptical thinking, and a strong case for the importance of teaching science-based methods of critical thinking to everyone.

One chapter is devoted to walking the reader through a set of basic guidelines for considering a question, and very clear explanations of common logical fallacies.

It is a good book, but not for me. There wasn't much in the book that was new to me, I started to get tired of the length, and some chapters needlessly repeat information already given. That's not surprising, since versions of some chapters appeared as independent essays, in magazines, etc., before being collected here. It's a little bit dated already, but I might still recommend it to skeptical newcomers, on a case by case basis.

3 Stars – A Good Book

Buy The Demon-Haunted World at

(FYI, for younger folks who are interested in thinking about skeptical thinking, I recommend Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  Warning, it's highly addictive.)

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