Book Review: Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Book Review: Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The School of Advanced Studies staff continues its monthly internal book club with "The Demon-Haunted World" by astrophysicist Carl Sagan

About the Book

This 1995 book attempts to explain and encourage critical thinking and scientific inquiry to people for whom these concepts are unfamiliar. It discusses pseudo-science and the impact a lack of skeptical thinking can have on scientific advancement and society. It is considered a useful book for dissertation students and others  entering the world of research for the first time.

Book Review

Before there was Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Neil deGrasse Tyson popularizing science in the media, there was Carl Sagan. Much like Nye and Tyson, Sagan’s focus for his public discussions of science and the scientific method was to help people understand that science is like a candle in the dark illuminating a path for human innovation and development. Sagan challenged people to learn about science, skeptical thinking, and critical examination of their beliefs to counter the claims of junk science and pseudoscience that occur around them.

Is there a connection between pseudoscience and threats to humans’ basic freedoms in life? For Carl Sagan, the point is clear: We cannot make intelligent decisions about living in an advanced society if we cannot distinguish between pseudoscience and real science. Sagan’s book, Demon Haunted World, offers an explanation of the scientific method in such a way that people with little exposure to the scientific process can understand and apply the model to their critical thinking processes. Sagan writes in an engaging style, using dry wit and humor, to get his point across regarding the need for everyone to practice aspects of scientific thinking in their daily lives.

Readers should be aware that Sagan touches on sensitive areas in the cultural sphere, such as religion and where it stands in science, but handles the topics in such a way as to not offend, but to ask his readers to think critically. Sagan’s point in this book is not to dissuade people from their beliefs, but to give readers the tools to look at their beliefs and to apply the critical thinking process found in the scientific method to those beliefs, especially in areas of research and discovery. For Sagan, science is not perfect, but it is the best instrument for obtaining knowledge that we currently have.

A particularly useful chapter in Sagan’s book is “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” where he outlines a toolkit for breaking down fallacious arguments. Similarly, the chapter on “Antiscience” offers readers a historical account of what happens in societies where scientific reasoning has been replaced by pseudoscience. Throughout the book, numerous chapters work through a range of topics, from encouraging individuals to question their worlds to foster democracy to a discussion of science and witchcraft. Reading Sagan’s text is as if we had access to a conversation with him on the major scientific topics of his day.

Demon Haunted World was selected for its suitability for teaching doctoral students to think critically as they enter the research and dissertation phases of their studies. While some of the points in the 1996 book are out of date, and there is a certain repetitiveness in the points Sagan makes, there is definitely something to be gained by reading this book. If only to remind us that we all have assumptions and beliefs that must be questioned if we are to engage in serious research and inquiry. 

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