BOOK REVIEW / NON FICTION : For This Scientist, the Truth Is Out There : THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan; Random House $25, 452 pages
A paean to knowledge and clear thought, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” is a spirited defense of science and the scientific method against all comers.
Sagan argues that science is a way of thinking superior to any other--and not just for finding facts and laws about physics, biology or chemistry. It is a model for a way of knowing.
Sagan scoffs at the notion, much in favor these days, that science is just another belief system, “as arbitrary or irrational as all other claims to knowledge [and] that reason itself is an illusion.”
Science, he says, is “much closer to mathematics than it is to fashion. The claim that its findings are in general arbitrary and biased is not merely tendentious, but specious.”
Sagan, an astronomer by trade and one of the premier science writers of our time, devotes eight chapters to UFOs and visitors from outer space.
“There’s something about this subject unconducive to clear thinking,” he understates. Still, eight chapters does seem a bit excessive.
But that is a minor quibble about a glorious book.
Sagan’s most thought-provoking chapter offers his observation that skeptics--those who demand proof for claims rather than feel-good belief--do not fully appreciate why so many people don’t.
“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement,” he writes, “is in its polarization: Us vs. Them--the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all those stupid doctrines are morons.”
He says that skeptics fail to see and appreciate the social and psychological needs that are met by New Age beliefs. Until they do, skeptics will remain a minority.
But Sagan leaves no doubt which side he’s on, and he recognizes that the forces of ignorance are widespread and powerful. “Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.”
From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought.
Carl Sagan argues that science is a way of thinking superior to any other--and not just for finding facts and laws about physics, biology or chemistry. It is a model for a way of knowing.