Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: The case for the scientific method.
One doesn't need to look far in order to see the fallacies in the ways this world conducts itself and in the way decisions are made. Check, for example, the comment I have received for my recent review of WALL-E, a film I have disliked: someone who obviously likes the film has attacked me for my review on the basis of (a) me being an idiot and (b) everyone else saying the opposite. Well, me being an idiot does not necessarily guarantee that what I am saying is wrong, and if Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin would have agreed with what everyone else said we would have still been in the dark ages.
There has to be some way for getting to the bottom of things. A way for us to be able to make as objective a judgment on reality as possible, a way that takes all valid evidence into account and strives to constantly re-validate our assumptions based on newly acquired evidence, a way that corrects itself when a mistake is found. And if you read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, you will receive a through and very well written explanation for why Sagan has accepted the scientific method as the best thing humanity has managed to come up with thus far in order to achieve this objective. Because of that, Sagan believes, the scientific method is one of the most important of humanity's achievement, more important than the scientific discoveries findings themselves.
In order to make his point, Sagan does not hesitate to look into all aspects of the scientific method, including social and political ones. Most of the first third to half of this relatively thick book is devoted to demonstrating the inherent fallacies of us humans, the demons that haunt us. By examining the phenomena of aliens in our modern culture and alien abduction in particular, Sagan shows how people are prone to hallucinate and to believe in things for the sake of believing; we're very credulous creatures by nature. While alien abduction might seem a rather eccentric example for demonstrating these problems, and while the discussion there often borders on the tedious, no room is left to doubt the example applies to any other belief that has no evidence supporting it, religion included. However, Sagan is gentle on religion and on popular pseudo sciences (e.g., astrology) in certain respects, claiming their obvious popularity demonstrates just how much of a gap in needs we humans have; according to Sagan, there are very good reasons for why these things filled those gaps up, even if they do so in a very awkward way.
Sagan then proceeds to explain the scientific way. According to him, that way is an enchanting mix of skepticism and wonder; it is the sense of wonder that brings forth new ideas when you least expect them, and the skepticism that filters the crap majority of ideas from those that turn out useful. In order to help the book readers understand the way the scientific method works, The Demon Haunted World contains a "baloney detection kit", with full explanations and examples for what makes bad arguments bad and what qualities make a good argument good.
We then move on to explanations through examples for why it is so important for the scientific method to be utilized by as many people as possible and as often as possible. Sagan demonstrates how knowledge is power and how the lack of it can kill you, as in his example for how gullibility to the cigarette companies' propaganda suggesting smokers are real men literally kills. The ethics of science are discussed to, with Sagan fully recognizing that most of this world's scientific powers are dedicated to creating machines of war; he calls on scientists not to forget their ethics and morals.
Towards the book's end Sagan does not hesitate to delve into contemporary politics, showing how not much has changed throughout the years and how the powers that be are afraid of the utilization of the scientific method because that will make people ask too many questions. Sagan mourns the loss of freedom of press in today's world to a limited number of huge companies and the inability of those responsible for educating us to deliver the important traits of critical thinking and analysis while not subduing the natural sense of wonder all kids start their life with. Yet Sagan doesn't stop at criticizing alone: he suggests ways in which science could be made popular, in culture as well as on our TV screens.
Crisply written in a way that never fails to capture the reader, The Demon Haunted World is a non fiction book that reads like a thriller.
A truly inspiring book.
The Demon Haunted World is one of these rare cases where I can literally feel the difference it has made since I have read; and I feel that on a daily basis.
As usual, I agree with Sagan - the scientific way is one of our most important resources, worth fighting for, and definitely worthy of being used all the time and any time. My score of 4.5 out of 5 stars is a bit misleading, because this book belongs to a very distinguished pantheon of non fiction books that are just too awesome to miss out on. Books that can really illuminate their readers.
By my reckoning, The Demon Haunted World, Sagan's penultimate book released shortly before his death in 1996, is also his best ever book.

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