The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 27 January 2003

The Demon-Haunted World

Science as a Candle in the Dark

by Carl Sagan

Sagan, most famous for his award-winning television series Cosmos, and for the many jibes at his intoning of "billions and billions", was a tireless popularizer of science and advocate for critical education. Since his death in 1996, his popularity may have waned, but the relevance of his advocacy has only increased. In this lively and earnest book, Sagan goes after spreading credulity and laziness of mind that he percieves in society. Personally, this reader would have to agree with him. Sagan takes the view that the ideals of the scientific method can teach us all something about open-mindedness and critical, skeptical, thought. A society that is uncritical in its thinking is easily swayed by those who most benefit from secrecy and lack of protest: corporate power and manipulative "leaders". (And how true that concern feels lately!)

At first, Sagan talks about our various superstitions and spurious beliefs, UFOs, crop circles, ghosts, New Age mysticism, and even some mainstream religions. Here, perhaps, Sagan uses the most extreme examples to illustrate his points, when he fails to address the subtle lines of credulity that run through all sorts of mainstream media. This is a much more insidious threat to critical thinking than merely pooh-poohing the occasional UFO sighting. Nevertheless, Sagan uses these arguments to strongly, and often personally, advocate for the need for better education in open-minded skeptical thinking. He uses science as the escape from so much delusion, but perhaps pushes science a little too much. Yet he also tries hard to be sympathetic to the believers, relating to their human needs and desires. He argues that we must be able to distinguish between views of the world based upon a scientific method. Both Darwinian evolution and Creationism are theories of how we got here, but they don't necessarily have equal footing merely because they're both theories. The former certainly has more solid evidence to support it to the point of certainty. Sagan advocates for subtlety of thought and healthy skepticism. Later, he broadens this argument to the political arena, arguing for better education and that education is the very basis of a healthy democracy. Indeed, in a world where political messages are subtle and manipulative, we desperately need healthy sharpness of mind among the populace. In the end Sagan presents one of his heroes, Thomas Jefferson, perhaps as a model citizen. Jefferson (and some of his contemporaries) shaped a nation on critical thought, opposing vast powers-that-were, and he dreamed of a nation of people free to explore their intellectual potential. One wonders how horrified Jefferson may be to see the state of our public discourse today. Critical, skeptical thinking beats blind flag-waving any day.

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Also by Sagan: [Contact]

See also: [Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson]
[Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone]