Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark is in my opinon one of the Carl Sagan’s most important works. In it, Dr Sagan does nothing less than explain how science works, and provides a clear framework for readers to understand how to view the world rationally and skeptically.
While the internet is potentially a veritable goldmine of information, nowadays it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a great resource for research and learning about the world if you know how to look for relevant material and how to assess it and filter out what you don’t want or need. On the other hand, there’s a lot of noise to wade through, consisting of wacko pseudo-science, crazy conspiracies and New Age ideas like the end of the world in 2012, Nibiru, faked moon landings, “Intelligent Design”, religious raptures, magic healing rocks, crop circles, “energy healing” and other such nonsense. Much of this is presented “authoratively” and if a reader doesn’t know better – or doesn’t know how to question these ideas – then it’s not surprising that people can be taken in by them.
While many of these ideas gained popularity after the book was first published in 1996, The Demon-Haunted World is aimed at addressing this problem. Thematically, the book is divided into three parts – the first few chapters present some of the pseudoscience ideas (those prevalent during the 1990s, at least) and debunks them by discussing them skeptically and presenting reasoned scientific arguments against them. The second part – the meat of the book – presents the “Baloney Detection Kit”, which describes how science works and how to think logically and skeptically about what you’re presented with in order to determine an idea’s validity. Can the idea be tested? Can the facts be confirmed independently? What happens if the idea is extrapolated beyond its initial statement, etc? This is an invaluable manual for honing one’s critical thinking skills – something that sadly doesn’t seem to be taught much as a specific subject at schools and universities, and seems to be very much lacking in the world today. The final part of the book is more a collection of essays related to the theme of science communication, the standard of science education in the US, and freedom of expression (with a bit of politics thrown in) – not directly relevant to the rest of the book perhaps, but still an interesting read.
Science is presented as a “light” that shines against this oncoming “darkness” – dramatically put perhaps, but I do genuinely think that there is a real danger that scientific ideas are slowly being cast aside in favour of superstitious nonsense. Already we have had politicians with “faith-based policies”, “alternative medicine” touted as being superior to real medicine without clinical trials or peer-reviewed studies, and pseudoscientific garbage against evolution presented as a valid alternative in school science classes. Is this really where we want to be in the 21st Century? I don’t think so, and I fully believe that these ideas should be actively fought against wherever they may arise.
The Demon-Haunted World most likely won’t convince people who are already hardcore believers in pseudoscience of the fallacy of their ideas – they’re probably too far gone for that – but it can at least be used to immunise others against their ideas. It provides a very useful mental toolkit, not only when it comes to understanding science but also for constructing a rational view of the world in general. As such, I think everyone needs to read this book!