Thursday, December 31, 2009

Demon-Haunted World, The (Sagan, Carl)

Rating: 5/5
Year: 1995
Genre: Nonfiction / Science
Read again? Yes.

It took 3-1/2 weeks to get through this one; it's not a quick read, but it's a damn good one. After four crappy B-grade sci-fi books masquerading as readable fiction, I needed something solid. I didn't roll my eyes once or wonder _why_ Sagan would write _this_ this way. His writing is friendly, approachable, every bit like his presentation in "Cosmos."

"World" is an indictment of the state of scientific literacy and critical thinking in the United States and (to a lesser extent) the rest of the world. It should be required reading for any teacher or administrator--but for that to happen we'd have to clear the anti-science kooks out of the system.

His prose is eminently quotable:
If we teach only the findings and products of science...without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?

Given that a hefty percentage of people in this country believe we were magicked into being just a few thousand years ago; given that a hefty percentage of people in this country claim that the moon landings were faked; given that medical quackery such as accupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy are taken seriously...alien abduction...demonic possession...psychic phenomena...ghosts...crop circles...even when the science is THERE and showing these things to be wrong...even then, people buy into it whole-hog.


It has to start with education. Sagan voices concern that this country will become an information economy, with its industries moved offshore--the things we need if we are to prosper, let alone survive, as a scientific power, whilst the navel-gazers sit and watch Oprah, letting their critical faculties wither and die.

[I think we've long since been headed in that direction. Our politicians and their corporate pals have been selling off chunks of our industrial base for decades: home electronics in the 1970's and '80s, the clothing industry in the '90s. Did you know the VCR was developed by an American company? Did you know that they didn't see how to make a quick profit, so they sold it to Japanese interest? Did you notice that no American company ever manufactured a VCR? How much of the clothing you buy is even made in America?

For all their talk about buying American, conservatives never did anything to bring that industry back home, did they? No, they waved their flags and proclaimed their devotion to them--without checking to see whether those flags were Made in Taiwan.

He delves into the similarities between today's "alien abductions" and tales of demonic interference in human lives from centuries past:
...sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments on the human species."

He discusses education and how the simple act of reading led a slave named Frederick Bailey into freedom. He changed his name, then: Frederick Douglass became one of the greatest political leaders, writers and speakers in American history. He was an advisor to President Lincoln. How cool is that?

Sagan details the _need_ for critical thought--and then he takes us to a principal cause for the lack of it: the schools. He reprints letters, some barely literate, in which he is criticized for "bashing" America. There's no problem! We need gawd in the schools! The ACLU is the problem! Socialism!

Sagan wonders why excelling in science is "elitist"...yet varsity sports--the "best of the best"--is not.

And there's more, so much more to "The Demon-Haunted World." Hypnosis, religious whack-jobs, crop-circle kooks, psychics, ghosts, witch-hunts.

As I said before, this is not a fast read; there's a density to his narrative that makes me want to read "Contact" (also by Sagan) to see how his fiction works. Sagan doesn't swamp the reader with science and equations, nor does he hold your hand and condescend.


Anonymous said...

I definitely recommend Contact. It's an excellent story that's well told. The opening paragraphs of chapter sixteen are particular favorites of mine:

At a few hundred kilometers altitude, the Earth fills half your sky, and the band of blue that stretches from Mindanao to Bombay, which your eye encompasses in a single glance, can break your heart with its beauty. Home, you think. Home. This is my world. This is where I come from. Everyone I know, everyone I ever heard of, grew up down there, under that relentless and exquisite blue....

You get to thinking of the Earth as an organism, a living thing. You get to worry about it, care for it, wish it well. National boundaries are as invisible as meridians of longitude, or the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The boundaries are arbitrary. The planet is real.

Spaceflight, therefore, is subversive....The nations that had instituted spaceflight had done so for largely nationalistic reasons; it was a small irony that almost everyone who entered space received a startling glimpse of a transnational perspective, of the Earth as one world.

JW said...


Sagan was a damn good writer--and (to tweak his quote about science) he delivered the goods.