Tag Archive for 'carl sagan'

[Book Review] The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan

Demon-Haunted_WorldSummary: If everyone read and understood this book, the world would be a much more sensible place. It should be required reading for everyone, whether they’re interested in science or not.

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!

Still alive

Well, I’m still here. So, apparently, is everyone else. Earthquakes, tidal waves, Great Beast Dagon rising, people ascending to heaven, etc etc didn’t happen. I particularly appreciated the inspired elegance of Eternal Earthbound Pets, an atheist-run company set up to look after the pets of people who have been “taken to heaven” in the Rapture (no refunds of course! And being atheists, they’d definitely be left behind so you know they’ll be there to take care of your beloved animal companions! Genius! ;)).

On a more serious note, science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson raised an interesting point on Twitter today – “If Jesus actually arrives May 21, it’ll be easy to convince skeptics. If he doesn’t show up, do the faithful become atheists?

It’d be nice to think that they would… but I suspect that people who genuinely believed that they’d be “taken to heaven” are already so far gone from rational thought that they’d just come up with excuses like how their faith has been “tested”, or that human error in calculating the date was to blame and that the Rapture would still happen at a later date, and just keep on believing (in some cases, because their faith is literally all they have now). I’ve even seen people ‘correcting’ the Rapture-believers by saying that the bible says that “no man will know the date”, but that doesn’t get around the fundamental problem that they’re believing a work of fiction that has no basis in reality to start with! Irrationality is funny like that.

EDIT: Yep. The “believers” interviewed in this article from The Independent are all making excuses rather than abandoning their faith. Typical.

I guess the next scheduled “end of the world as we know it” will be the Mayan Apocalypse in December 2012, so we have about 18 months to prepare for the next bout of insanity to sweep the world (and IMO that one’s even crazier than the Rapture). And I wonder why I sometimes feel I’m fighting a losing battle to educate people about science… I think I’ll go hug my copy of “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan now (which I would say is required reading for everyone).

Happy Sagan Day!

Today would be Carl Sagan’s birthday if he was still alive, so Kepler and SETI have declared today as “Sagan Day” and invited people to send in essays about science and our place in the universe, inspired by his “Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”.

I watched Cosmos again a few months ago and it’s still a great series and well worth watching – Prof. Sagan was a darn fine educator, and really put across the wonder of the universe and how deeply he was affected by it all. I think that’s why I like Brian Cox and his Wonders of the Solar System series, because he did pretty much the same thing (unsurprisingly, Prof. Sagan was one of his big influences too).

Cosmos didn’t get me into astronomy – I was already into it by the time I saw it (being a Brit, Sir Patrick Moore and Heather Couper were probably a bigger influence on me) – but Cosmos did leave several indellible impressions on me, and it certanly reinforced my fascination with science and astronomy:

– The biggest impression, oddly enough, was a fascination with the Periodic Table, as explained by the man himself in The Lives of Stars episode, from Cosmos – ever since then I’ve had a bizarre fascination with Praseodymium :). I love reading about the elements and their properties and their uses (webelements.com is one of my favourite sites 😉 ), and I would kill to have a “real” periodic table that had samples of all the elements like the one shown in the clip!

– Another big impression was the “Ship of the Imagination” (seen in some of the other videos below) that Sagan used to travel around the universe in the show. More than anything else I would have love to be able to go on such a trip, unconstrained by time or physical limits, and see the wonders of the universe first-hand. I guess that’s why I’m so into scifi :).

– There’s the Encyclopaedia Galactica, which I’m about 100% certain is what got me into Worldbuilding. Who knows what worlds are out there, waiting to be found? We’ve only just started to discover them. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to imagine what they could be like. 🙂

– And the Cosmic Calendar, where Sagan compresses all of time since the Big Bang into one calendar year, and shows us how completely insignificant all of human achievement is in time.

– And finally, a sobering reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of our planet, made vivid by the telling of a chilling dream that Sagan had. I guess he was one of the first people that I was aware of who was an environmentalist, who told us that we should be taking care of our planet and ourselves. It’s a pity that 30 years later we’re still making a mess of it all.

The other big thing was the music – the soundtrack of the series is varied and eclectic, ranging from classical pieces, to Vangelis electronica, to Bulgarian folk music. But it’s all memorable, and quite timeless.

It’s impossible to watch Cosmos without being inspired by it – Sagan’s explanations are spell-binding and enrapturing, and it’s still one of the best science shows ever made. He explains things clearly and succinctly, isn’t afraid to go into detail where necessary, puts his obvious passion across, and doesn’t patronise the audience. You couldn’t ask for a better teacher, and he’s inspirational for me in that regard as I try to get into science education myself.

So, thanks for everything, Professor Sagan (and Happy Birthday!) 🙂