Review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995)
Carl Sagan (writer).
Read in 2019.
The scientific method in a social and historical context, explained for the purpose of popular advocacy in favour of science and skepticism.
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. 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 key 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.
Wide-ranging, very well written, well in tune with US popular culture (through feedback on pre-published chapters) and a satisfying second-to-last-book by Sagan, who died in 1996. The only serious mistake here, to my mind, is Sagan’s emphasis on special educational programs (akin to athletic programs) for gifted children, which I suppose is a consequence of his belief in the information deficit model of science illiteracy, but a poor bet even so. He understood the culture of bullying, he provides cogent analyses of mad scientist and nerd tropes, and he rightly emphasizes curiosity and method over formality, goal-orientation and mere memorization, but he didn’t predict how later research in psychology would come to downplay the importance of factual knowledge in explaining phenomena like conspiracy theories and religion.