Carl Sagan’s 1996 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark has gained popularity in recent years as Sagan has been crowned a sort of prophet of science. I learned this while watching this video where Drew McCoy explains Sagan’s most famous “prediction” and raves that his viewers ought to read this book. I had been having difficulty choosing which Carl Sagan book to read next, so the video convinced me that it ought to be The Demon-Haunted World.
In his rave review, Drew says, “I’ve found no other piece of literature more comprehensive or more moving in teaching the tools of scientific skepticism. . . Read this book in some form if you haven’t already. . . Just read this freaking book. There’s a reason Carl Sagan has a place in all of my videos.” I feel that I refer to various videos from Drew’s channel in a lot of my posts, so you know that I hold him in high esteem and that I trusted his fervent recommendation. That said, for better or worse, this book wasn’t exactly what I expected.
I guess I should first say that I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. I once thought that The Demon-Haunted World would go through various paranormal phenomena like ghosts and demons and debunk them using science. After Drew’s video, I saw it as more of a societal analysis and advocacy for using science and skeptical thinking. I wasn’t entirely wrong: both of these themes were salient throughout the book, but if I had to choose one thing that it was about, that thing is… aliens?
I wasn’t surprised that accounts of alien abduction were on Sagan’s list of things to debunk, but I didn’t realize that the first 200 pages, while covering dozens of subjects, would always circle back to why these alien spaceship sightings weren’t true. If I’m being honest, I found it a bit lagging during this first half due to being so in-depth. This is mostly because of all the different flavors of pseudoscience, UFOlogy, as it’s sometimes called, isn’t one that I’ve really encountered face-to-face.
Between people I’ve known in real life and people I’ve watched on YouTube, I’ve known believers in astrology, young-earth creationism, crystal healing, ghosts, and psychic powers, but not many anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, or big proponents of alien visitation or faith healing, which is also prominent in the book. Because of this, I don’t feel that I will soon need to whip out the fact that, for example, the folks that made crop circles have themselves come forward and confessed, even demonstrating how they did it.
Looking at it from a perspective other than my own personal experience, I can see why focusing on UFOs for half the book was a brilliant idea. Sagan’s biggest passion and hope, as evident throughout my reading and watching of Cosmos, is discovering other intelligent life in the universe, perhaps even making contact and eventually becoming one small planet in a universe-wide community of worlds. If one didn’t know better, one might think that Sagan would have a special interest in perpetuating these stories of alleged alien contact. But Sagan is no fool. It was these claims of alien abduction, not arguments for the existence of God, that gave rise to a variation of his “Sagan standard”: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
You see, if the general public knew a little more about science, we might be slower to deem any unidentified flying object as being extraterrestrial intelligence; for example, what one might assume to be a spacecraft flying through the air is often a meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. After Sagan puts the section on UFOs to rest, this advocacy that the general public really ought to become more scientifically literate is the focus of the remainder of the book.
He acknowledges why some people might be turned off to science for various reasons, responding to these ideas in the magnificent chapter “The Marriage of Science and Wonder”, before proposing ideas for better funding public education and teaching in a more engaging way in and out of school. This includes the suggestions to fund more educational television to encourage skepticism, make more museums, and even teach physics using an already-popular pastime, the game of basketball. If you’re having a hard time making it through the first half of The Demon-Haunted World, I recommend skipping to Chapter 12: “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” and seeing if the second half is more to your liking.
Finally, I want to talk about some of Sagan’s seeming predictions of the modern-day world, particularly the United States. I think the irony is heavy that it’s now popular to deem Sagan a bit of a psychic, since he was so adamantly against the fraudulence of self-professed psychics. If he was still alive, I’m sure he would be denying this claim with a more reasonable explanation, so I’ve taken it upon myself to help him out.
As Drew said in his video, this is the famous quote from The Demon-Haunted World that has been circulating in recent years:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 25
At first glance it does seem eerily accurate. But something that comes into play here is that Sagan is brilliant far past his career as an astronomer. (I personally think that he could have been famous only for writing, even if he had never been a scientist.) The Demon-Haunted World shows that we can add “being hyper-aware of the role that science and its denial play in the success of democracy” to the list of his unequaled talents. The Soviet Union was in power throughout Sagan’s entire life, falling only five years before his death in 1996, the same year as this book’s publication. He knew how the 1984-style brainwashing of citizens contributed to the rise of dictators, and he was watching as the people of his own country, once famous for its democracy and critical thinking skills, were slipping away into a willing acceptance of pseudoscience. He knew what danger it could lead to.
After finishing the book, I was very surprised to see other quotes in which that same eerie foreboding was equally present. Surely these quotes should be circulating as well, if not more than the last. I’ll end this post by sharing them below.
Most of these [faith-healing charlatans] are only after your money. That’s the good news. But what worries me is that a [con-man] will come along with bigger fish to fry—attractive, commanding, patriotic, exuding leadership. All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to feel good. Most reporters, editors, and producers—swept up with the rest of us—will shy away from real skeptical scrutiny. He won’t be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he’ll be selling you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing bundle of beliefs. . . . Whatever it is, it will be accompanied by warnings about the dangers of skepticism.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 241
One of the saddest lessons in history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never give it back. So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new ones rise.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 241
Skeptical scrutiny is not only the toolkit for rooting out bunkum and cruelty that prey on those least able to protect themselves and most in need of our compassion, people offered little other hope. It is also a timely reminder that mass rallies, radio and television, the print media, electronic marketing, and mail-order technology permit other kinds of lies to be injected into the body politic—to take advantage of the frustrated, the unwary, and the defenseless in a society riddled with political ills that are being treated ineffectively if at all. / Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam, and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlor magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious, and economic issues in every nation.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 244
The witch mania is shameful. How could we do it? How could we be so ignorant about ourselves and our weaknesses? How could it have happened in the most ‘advanced,’ the most ‘civilized’ nations then on Earth? Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists, and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers, and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey—then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man. . . . improved public understanding of superstition might have helped to short-circuit the whole train of causality. If we fail to understand how it worked in the last round, we will not recognize it as it emerges in the next.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 413
It is possible—given absolute control over the media and the police—to rewrite the memories of hundreds of millions of people, if you have a generation to accomplish it in. Almost always, this is done to improve the hold that the powerful have on power, or to serve the narcissism or megalomania or paranoia of national leaders. It throws a monkey wrench into the error-correcting machinery. It works to erase public memory of profound political mistakes, and thus to guarantee their eventual repetition.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 414
End the cycle.