Thursday, May 3, 2012

The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark by Carl Sagan

This rallying cry on the importance of science and critical thinking may, alas, only be known and read by the converted.
Those with an interest in science will probably already know of Sagan. His name alone made this title appeal to me. On a shelf – be it library or bookshelf – it might leap out at the browser. However, its brilliance will, more likely than not, be missed by those who should read it the most: educators and politicians.
Coincidentally, on the day I finished the book, I heard a news report that scientific education is increasingly important.
Published the year of Sagan’s death, this is worthy of standing as his last word.
Sagan argues persuasively for the importance of teaching science, and the critical thinking – or baloney detecting – that scientific-thinking requires. When pseudoscience proliferates in popular culture – when more money is spent on alternative therapy research than main-stream medical research, for example – it is difficult for those without a sceptical mind / training, to distinguish it from true science.
Why is science so maligned? Ignored? Why don’t scientists share the joys and wonderment – the journeys they take to their discoveries?
I am one of the converted. I find wonderment, joy, and reassurance in the discoveries of science. How much more joyful can a thing be to discover that the very molecules of our beings are made of the same stuff as stars – that the building blocks of everything around us, and inside us – are made of particles ejected in the big bang – from the very beginnings of time. I can also reconcile this joy with a belief in a Creator – but not necessarily a God, from any religion.
I watch pseudoscience programmes regularly – and science ones, when they’re on – and scoff and make comments. And argue with my TV (it doesn’t reply, nor do the commentators on it, which is reassuring). My current favourite is Ancient Aliens which, if Sagan was still alive, I’m sure he’d be taking issue with. It is the heights of ridiculousness. And, it is a true example of Sagan’s contentions – it is made and screened on the History Channel. (Check out this article ‘Where’s the History on History?’ - I know it’s not science, which is what Sagan is talking about, mainly – but he does talk about recreating history, too).
I remember asking ‘why’ in maths class once. And only once. Because the answer was ‘I don’t know. You don’t need to know why. Just learn it so you can pass the exam’.
So, keep inspiring a sense of wondering and questioning in children. Work on developing their critical thinking. Answer those ‘why’ questions (the real ones, not the trying-to-annoy-the-adult ones) – even if the answer is ‘I don’t know’ – but follow up with ‘let’s see if we can find out’. Let them experiment. And, unfortunately, do your best to work against the current educational paradigms that teach rote learning of facts, not thinking and discovery.
PS I’d be interested to see where this book is catalogued elsewhere. Although the first subject heading in our catalogue is Science – Methodology… it’s Dewey Classification number is 001.9, which relates to the fourth subject heading, Superstition. That said, some of our copies are under 501 – which is a much better fit. (Having said that, if people browsing in the 001.9 area happen to take this out, it might expose them to science, rather than pseudoscience.)

Some other thoughtful science-type books you might want to try out are:
  • Any Richard Feyman title!
  • Bad ideas?: an arresting history of our inventions by Robert Winston.
  • Napoleon’s buttons: 17 molecules that changed history by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson.
  • They called me mad : genius, madness, and the scientists who pushed the outer limits of knowledge by John Monahan.
  • Boffinology: the real stories behind our greatest scientific discoveries by Justin Pollard.

Reviewed by Thalia.


  1. Oh this is going straight on my "read soon" list (not to request right now though because no matter how fascinated I am by this science stuff, I do need to dedicate a decent amount of time to it).
    I just finished watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series and LOVED it. It was recommended to me by a patron who always gets out excellent stuff, so I thought why not. Weeks later I'm still regularly thinking about things I learned from it. It would be great if they could play it on tv so more people could be exposed to it. I also partly watched it after hearing about it in the Brian Cox wonders of the universe/solar system docos (which were on sky but not free tv - blah!).

    Oh well. I'll keep recommending it to as many people as I can, and keep looking for similar things.

    (btw, I borrowed the first season of Ancient Aliens and only got about halfway through.. I'm not sure how they expect people to take the theories of a guy with orange fake tan and crazy hair seriously?).

  2. Hi Aimee. That's what I thought when a customer recommended it to me! (ex-library staff, actually)...
    I <3 Brian Cox, too. The joys of having Sky means I can OD on science programmes, and often do.
    That orange guy - Giorgio A. Tsoukalos - is a complete laugh. The way they speak so seriously and earnestly does my head in.