The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is a popular science book written by Carl Sagan and published in 1996. The book focuses much less on scientific discoveries, and much more on the importance of scientific literacy and healthy skepticism. Sagan writes about the benefits of science as well as the dangers of not educating people on how to properly use science. He also criticizes anti-scientific practices like, pseudoscience, religion, and abuse of science.
I became a fan of Sagan from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, so, when I saw this book for sale at a CFI event, I was eager to buy it. I absolutely loved it. Years later, in 2020, I found an abridged audio book recording with Michael Page as the reader. Then, in June of 2021, I listened to the Cary Elwes and Seth MacFarlane audio book. I find the book to be very inspiring, highly quotable, and a strong cautionary tale. This is my favorite of Sagan's books.
I own a paperback and have read it. I've also listened to the abridged audio book performed by Michael Page, and complete the audiobook primarily performed by Cary Elwes.
- The book is well-written, both because Sagan employs an extensive vocabulary and remains interesting throughout.
- Sagan does an amazing job at pointing out both the wonderful benefits of science as well as how it can be abused by charlatans, and how both are good reasons that everyone should be scientifically literate.
- I like how he says that all folk medicine, being the result of often thousands of years of amateur testing, is worthy of consideration, however, should also be discarded if it doesn't pass clinical trials.
- The dragon in my garage thought experiment is a wonderful illustration.
- No punches are pulled when describing how poorly our nation is at educating our youth and how bad we do at standardized testing, especially in how it compares to other nations.
- Throughout the book, Sagan champions the civil liberties of various minorities.
- Sagan goes a little overboard condemning entertainment. He gives the impression that any form of entertainment which isn't entirely educational is without merit, and those which are watched purely for enjoyment, are bad.
- While Sagan is frequently critical of religion, especially fundamentalists, I still think he pays too much lip service to the religious when he says things like religion and science aren't intrinsically at odds. They are.
- "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."
- "One of the saddest lessons of 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 get it back."
- "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 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..."
- "The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status."
- "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
- "If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness."
- "I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that we don’t know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?"
- "One of the reasons for its success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition."
- "Arguments from authority carry little weight – authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts."
- "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."
- "Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value the may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder."