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Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, is Carl Sagan’s lucid, impassioned, and entertaining plea for people to think more clearly and free themselves from the ranks of the overly credulous.

That’s not meant to sound condescending toward the religious or people that insist they have been abducted by aliens. Sagan understands that sneering condescension is rarely going to be the best way to get through to someone and change their mind’s about something, although he admits that he’s not immune to occasionally rolling his eyes at certain claims.

He is relatively gentle when discussing things that many people hold sacred.

It’s fascinating to hear him talk about how much he loved his parents, and how dreadfully he misses them. He wants to believe that he will see them again…and yet, the evidence, according to his framework, does not support that possibility.

He wants to believe in extraterrestrial life more than anyone he knows, but cannot be convinced by the “evidence” of Area 51 and anecdotal reports of alien abductees.

If you are religious you might pity his lack of belief in the afterlife.

If you have been abducted by an alien you probably already wrote to him to tell him how wrong he is. The sections of this book where Sagan prints reader responses are extremely entertaining and illuminating.

This book is not an attack on any belief system. It merely provides a way for thinking about evidence. It simply suggests that perhaps we do not ask enough questions, and then he explains why he believes his approach could benefit anyone willing to try it.

If that sounds like heavy stuff, it’s not. Sagan was as smart as they come, but this is an accessible book for people who feel that science is only for the super-smart, and that they couldn’t possibly get to the bottom of things on their own.

In my favorite chapter, he outlines his method of questioning while examining the evidence of the famous “face on Mars.”

face on mars

The famous Mars face

Take a look. Just accept for a moment that this is in fact a face looking back at us from the surface of Mars. It is part of a buried statue. It is ancient. It’s hard for me not to get goosebumps. My mind starts whirling and suddenly I’m that kid who wanted so badly for there to be alien life.

This answer would be a lot more fun. And this is one of the reasons why I love Carl Sagan. He thinks science is fun and it is infectious. There are many passages where he reminds me of Ray Bradbury.

He can’t imagine why people would not want to investigate and explore and get to the bottom of things.

My favorite chapter

Sadly, as in the case of the face on Mars, the answers supported by evidence and probability are seldom as fun.

He spends some time talking about the surface area of Mars, the speed of the winds, and how old the planet’s matter is. He posits that, given the area of  the one small square containing the statue–estimated as being approximately 1 kilometer across–it is more probable it is a natural geologic formation than a leftover from an ancient, extinct civilization.

Well, saying “the wind and the shifting ground did it” isn’t nearly as fun.

That’s the question at the bottom of Demon-Haunted World. Why do we believe things we do? Do we believe them because they are true, or because they make us feel better? Is there a way to know the difference.

I want to believe that I’ll see my family after I die. Part of me is still that boy who pored over books about the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t know if anything would excite me more than learning that we had actually received a signal from an alien intelligence. I have read hollow earth theories and felt a tingle of anxiety as I thought “What if we really live on the inside of a sphere, not on the outside of one?”

I want to have it both ways. I’m not sure if it’s possible.

But enough of that:

If you’ve got any questions about crystal healing, faith healing, UFOs, the state of the search for ETs as of 1994, hypnotism, hallucinations, therapy, or the possible causes of why America is behind in science, I think you’ll find a lot to like in The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan.






Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeanette May 5, 2011, 11:43 am


    Thanks for the review! I remember the “Wow” factor these topics had on me at twelve, and now my twelve-year-old son and I have great conversations on this subject. I’ll definitely be checking this one out.

  • DC5 May 5, 2011, 5:19 pm

    The Demon-Haunted World is one of the best books I’ve ever read on science and critical thinking. Sagan didn’t posture. He didn’t say that he knew everything. He admitted that he could be wrong. What he offered in TDHW was an alternate way for us to look at things we believe to be true, a way to ask ourselves if we’ve considered other explanations, a way to find truths based on evidence instead of emotion. Great stuff indeed.

  • Mike May 6, 2011, 6:24 pm

    Scientific inquiry and proof is ultimately more interesting and satisfying than anything anyone ever made up. But science does not stroke the ego or the emotions and requires a lot of effort/study. So there will never be a shortage of simple feel good “explainations” and belief systems. We tend to believe what we want independent of mountains of contrary evidence.