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The Demon-Haunted World (Carl Sagan, 1997)

Check for this book.

ISBN 0-3454-0946-9

The Demon-Haunted World is well described by its subtitle: Science as a Candle in the Dark. As well as defining just what science is and, equally important, what it is not, this book is a sustained defence of rational thought, perhaps best conveyed in the author’s own words:

"This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science" – p.28.

"Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death." – p.29.

"We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours. … We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 milligrams a day of chlozapine. The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of time more effective than the alternatives." – p. 13.

Sagan devotes a lot of space – quite frankly, more than it deserves – to the subject of UFOs, and even goes so far as to treat the legions of loonies who swallow this garbage rather sympathetically. (Again, more than they deserve, in my view. For example: "Instances in which the ‘memory’ suddenly surfaces, especially at the ministrations of a psychotherapist or hypnotist, and where the first ‘recollections’ have a ghost- or dreamlike quality, are highly questionable." – p.146. Well, that strikes me as just a bit of an understatement.)

The following is fairly typical of his treatment:

"I had been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life from … long before I ever heard of flying saucers. ... [However,] on so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness’s say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren’t there.

"Essentially all the UFO cases were anecdotes, something asserted. UFOs were described variously as rapidly moving or hovering; disc-shaped, cigar-shaped, or ball-shaped; moving silently or noisily; with a fiery exhaust, or with no exhaust at all; accompanied by flashing lights, or uniformly glowing with a silvery cast, or self-luminous. The diversity of the observations hinted that they had no common origin…." – pp.68-69.

"Some women, so the story goes, are impregnated by aliens or alien sperm; the foetuses are then removed by the aliens. Vast numbers of such cases are alleged. Isn’t it odd that nothing anomalous has ever been seen in routine sonograms of such foetuses, or in amniocentesis, and that there has never been a miscarriage producing an alien hybrid? Or are medical personnel so doltish that they idly glance at a half-human, half-alien foetus and move on to the next patient? An epidemic of missing foetuses is something that would surely cause a stir among gynaecologists, midwives, obstetrical nurses, especially in an age of heightened feminist awareness. But not a single medical record has been produced substantiating such claims." – p.175.

(Not to mention another inconvenient fact:

"The idea that Mr Spock could be a cross between a human being and a life form independently evolved on the planet Vulcan is genetically far less probable than a successful cross of a man and an artichoke." – p.351.)

"Some abductees say that tiny implants, perhaps metallic, were inserted into their bodies, high up their nostrils, for example. These implants, alien abduction therapists tell us, sometimes accidentally fall out, but ‘in all but a few of the cases the artefact has been lost or discarded’. These abductees seem stupefyingly incurious. A strange object, possibly a transmitter sending telemetered data about the state of your body to an alien spaceship somewhere above the Earth, drops out of your nose; you idly examine it and then throw it in the garbage." – p.175.

"Of course we must be willing to change our minds when warranted by new evidence. But the evidence must be strong. Not all claims to knowledge have equal merit. The standard of evidence in most of the alien abduction cases is roughly what is found in cases of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in medieval Spain." – p.177.

Speaking of which, the subject of religion makes a number of cameo appearances throughout the book. I liked what I read although I ended the book still not very sure of Sagan’s own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Here is an interesting passage, quoted in the book from another source (the October 1989 issue of the professional law enforcement journal, The Police Chief):

"Within the personal religious belief system of a law enforcement officer, Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments … The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it." – pp.150-151.

By now you’ve got a good idea of the content and tenor of the book, but I can’t resist a final word. This is beautiful:

"Keeping an open mind is a virtue – but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out." – p.177.

Recommendation: Brilliant. Read it. Buy it for your friends. Five stars.

Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback. Includes a good index.

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