Monday 28 July 2014

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan (1996)

Carl Sagan was one of a select group of scientists who could successfully communicate complex scientific notions to laypersons. Sagan was an important cosmologist and astrophysicist, but it is his popular science books and documentary television series Cosmos (1980) that will be remembered by the general population. The Demon Haunted World was his last published work before his untimely death in 1996. I remember that my reaction to his death was one of sadness and but also of appreciation. Sagan achieved a great deal while he was alive and in doing so influenced me greatly in my outlook on life and my understanding of the universe.

In the preface to The Demon Haunted World, entitled ‘My teachers’, Sagan talks about how much his parents taught and encouraged him even though they were laypeople with no knowledge of science. They supported his dream to be an astronomer and inspired him with their down to earth skepticism and sense of wonder. Sagan did a similar thing for me when I watched Cosmos at the impressionable age of ten. Cosmos inspired me and nurtured my fascination with astronomy and the world around me, something that, like Sagan, was supported by my parents. In the latter chapters of The Demon Haunted World Sagan talks about the importance of not only education, but of having books in the home; something that is essential to providing that ‘candle in the dark’, keeping spurious pseudo-science and superstition at bay. As a librarian I greatly appreciate Sagan’s stance. As a society we must never lose sight of the importance of providing egalitarian access to books and information, in particular for the young.

Throughout the main body of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s debunking of pseudoscience is eloquent and, for the most part, compelling. Many of the initial chapters concentrate on UFOs and alien abduction; in particular the typical UFO stories and the so called face of Mars. The publication of The Demon Haunted World coincided with the era of The X-Files and a plethora of pre-millennial conspiracy theories. Once again there is a personal connection here for me, having been a UFO and alien obsessive during my childhood in the 1970‘s. Spurred on by UFO and alien books and classic 1970’s movies such as E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001 A Space Odyssey, like Mulder I wanted to believe. I even had my own strong memory of seeing a large white cigar shaped UFO hovering over my neighbor’s backyard that I’m sure was real, but would have just been a dream (I dreamt about UFO’s constantly). Curiously one of the scientific explanations for alien visitations and abductions that Sagan puts forward is sleep paralysis, something I experienced during my teenage years, although I didn’t see aliens (what I did see is another story).

The Demon Haunted World is a fascinating read, but can also be a sobering one. Sagan’s passionate argument for a better educated population is profound  and important. Sagan reminds us that it is essential to know something of logic and science (amongst other subjects) in order to make sound decisions. Unfortunately the statistics Sagan quotes regarding knowledge, beliefs and education in his home country of America is truly appalling. Only 9% of Americans accept that humans evolved; half of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun in a year and 63 % of American adults think that humans lived alongside dinosaurs. These statistics are from the 1990’s; would they have improved in the last twenty years or so? Unfortunately I doubt it.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of The Demon Haunted World Sagan’s argument against blind belief and pseudo-science is more important than ever. When it comes to the pressing issue of climate change humanity is at the crossroads and climate change deniers around the world, including the Abbott led conservative government here in Australia (perhaps the worst offenders of all), could benefit from reading this book. Science is under attack more than ever by non-scientists with dubious agendas and flawed belief systems who portray science and scientists as untrustworthy. The great irony, as Sagan shows, is that scientists go to extreme lengths to make sure that their findings are as accurate as they can possibly be and therefore, by extension, their conclusions too. When it comes to climate change it seems that we still do live in a demon haunted world. 

Finally, perhaps the best thing about reading The Demon Haunted World was discovering that Sagan and I shared a very similar outlook toward science. Sagan states early on that: “In its encounter with nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos.” Science and a sense of wonder, even a sense of mysticism, are not mutually exclusive. Science is not merely cold reductionism, but provides a deep understanding of the magnificence of the cosmos and therefore of human existence itself.

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