A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan

(New York: Random House, 1995)



The Demon-Haunted World is a collection of twenty-five essays, several written with Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan. The essays range in scope from eloquent paeans to science to impassioned denunciations of bigotry, from humorous accounts of a variety of pseudoscientific endeavors to serious attempts to understand the nature of alien abduction delusions. With intelligence and wit, and the rational calmness that is his trademark, Sagan takes on a wide variety of topics, among them: alien abductions, astrology, Atlantis, the Bell Curve, channeling, crop circles, demons, electromagnetism, ESP, the face on Mars, fairies, faith healing, magic, miracles, prayer, religion, Roswell, satanic rituals, therapy, and, of course, one of his favorite topics, UFOs and extraterrestrials. Only Velikovsky gets ignored this time around. Through each of his essays he extols the virtues of skepticism, empirical evidence and control studies, while uncovering a multitude of errors and weaknesses in the positions of occultists, paranormalists, supernaturalists and pseudoscientists. And he does so with extreme grace, gentility and civility.

In fact, if there is anything I disagree with in Sagan's book it is probably his encouragement of skeptics to be as civil as he is in dealing with what skeptics see as the dark that extinguishes the candle. He writes

...the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement 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 these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, you're beyond redemption. This is unconstructive....whereas a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.

If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes....such compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest also works to make science and the scientific method less off-putting, especially to the young.

Many pseudoscientific and New Age belief systems emerge out of dissatisfaction with conventional values and perspectives--and are therefore themselves a kind of skepticism.

I can't deny that there is a strong appeal in this call for compassion, for seeing the occultists of the world as after the same thing skeptics are after, and for recognizing the skepticism in those who adhere to pseudoscientific or New Age spiritual notions. If the goal were to try to get the true believer to give up his or her beliefs, then I would agree that an aggressive campaign which arrogantly maintains that it is better to live according to evidence than according to wishes might not be the best tactic. But, the aggressive, blunt, seemingly arrogant approach might be best if the goal is not to convert true believers to skepticism but to provide ideas which will counterbalance the plethora of occult, pseudoscientific, supernatural and paranormal notions which pervade just about any atmosphere in America, or the world, for that matter.

These aggressive methods may be the best ones if the goal is not to help persons who have been encouraged by therapists to think they've been experimented on by aliens, but rather to deter present and future therapists from encouraging patients to accept such beliefs as true and from using hypnosis to recover repressed memories. Such methods can evoke false memories of terrible things which probably never occurred. There is little to be gained, I think, in being compassionate with therapists who have no regard for truth and who encourage their patients to remember childhood abuses regardless of whether the abuses happened or not. Therapists who care for the truth are more likely to get aroused and make some effort to halt the abuses of their colleagues if we make a loud enough noise. And perhaps a future patient of one of these abusive therapists will have heard our angry voices and remember what we've said and question the therapist's methods.

Blunt and direct methods may be called for if the goal is not to persuade someone to give up astrology, crystals or tarot cards, but rather is to try to prevent someone in the future from seriously considering such things as reasonable guides to life.

I agree that it is unconstructive to be dogmatic, to call other people 'morons' or their ideas 'stupid.' I also agree that compassion is the appropriate response for people who have been duped by deluded therapists into believing incredible and harmful things. But I don't think it is the appropriate response to the therapists. We should go after them, and go after them aggressively with the bluntest instruments our language can muster. Likewise for the purveyors of pseudoscientific and New Age rubbish. To the L. Ron Hubbards, Helen Schucmans, Aleister Crowleys, John Macks, Budd Hopkins and Wade Quattlebaums of the world I say show no mercy!

Although some skeptics may take issue with Sagan's genteel style and grandpaternal tone, none of us will find fault with his skilful and recurring emphasis on critical thinking. The more blunt and vulgar among us refer to the need for a crap detector; Sagan provides instruction for building one's "baloney detection kit." He covers several common fallacies and ways to avoid them. He emphasizes the need for skepticism in critical thinking and the necessity for verification and corroboration of claims before accepting them. And he returns again and again to the role of the mass media in forming our characters and opinions. He is especially concerned with the fact that more and more mass media operations are coming into the possession of fewer and fewer individuals or groups. The potential for abuse of power is obvious but, as Orwell said, we have to keep pointing out the obvious. Sagan is hopeful that the internet will be an antidote for this concentration of control over information. So am I.

Another favorite theme of Sagan's is the need for scientists to be communicators, to use the media and the classroom to explain to the masses the truths and beauties of science, instilling in them the sense of wonder which drives people like himself. His criticisms of typical science instruction in America and the paucity of science writers for popular markets are right on target and worth studied perusal by science educators.

It is easy to recommend a book so reflective of one's own views, especially views which are skeptical of belief in God and an afterlife. It is even easier to recommend a book which, even though it covers topics and ideas the reader has gone over a thousand times, does so in a style which makes them seem fresh, is rarely dull, and quite frequently stimulates the reader to want to think about these issues more deeply and wonder if there isn't more he could be doing to make this world a better, saner, more rational place for our children and grandchildren.

July 10, 1996

postscript: Carl Sagan died on December 20, 1996, and it now seems apparent that A Candle in the Dark was meant to be his epitaph. Nothing could be more fitting, for if anyone has been light in these Dark Ages, it was Carl Sagan. But he was more like one of Velikovsky's comets, showering the earth with gifts as he passed through.

08 Nov 1996

I have visited your page several times in the past 6 months, especially the skeptic's dictionary -- it's great! But today I discovered and read your review of Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World, and I just had to write and let you know that I think your review is accurate and very well-written. I am about two-thirds of the way through the book now and I agree with everything you said. I have been the most surprized by the amount of criticism Sagan levels at religion. He is usually careful not to offend the religious too much, but in this book he writes some scathing observations on various aspects of religion through the ages. At this point (I have just finished reading chapter 16), the only criticisms of the book I would make are that I don't like the way Sagan refers to nature as Nature (too New-Agey for me) and I think he is far too kind to those who cling to irrational beliefs in the supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific and to the likes of John Mack and the other so-called therapists who plant false memories in susceptible people. I prefer the Randi approach myself - blunt and direct. In closing, thanks for the outstanding web page - a candle in the dark.

Nancy Todd

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