Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

I am pretty sure this book changed my life when I read it the first time, a few years ago. Sagan makes a solid case for applying skepticism and rationality to our lives, and lays out the dangers inherent in relying on dogma, charisma, instinct and complacency.

I read this again for a monthly book club I have been going to, and my perspective has certainly changed. Maybe a better word would be evolved, or improved. Now, while I find the evidence in this book as interesting and compelling, the lessons seem pretty ingrained in my head already. But that's just where I am coming from.

This book goes into the science (or lack thereof) in the so-called alien encounters that pervade our culture. It probably comes as no surprise to the clever and educated readers of my blog that Sagan debunks the hell out of all of that. In an entertaining and engaging way, nonetheless! He takes it further by describing the disturbing parallels between this alien mania and the demon fears that seemed to have helped bring about literal witch hunting in the past.

It's amazing to me (yes, I am quite young) that a book written way back in 1996 can have such uncanny relevance today! Potential threats he mentions in Demon-Haunted World have certainly raised their ugly heads since this book was published. Notably, he warns about derivatives in finance and factors leading to 9/11. We haven't improved as a species or as a culture since 1996, and it remains unclear that we have improved ourselves much since accused witches were burned in America and Europe.

My biggest impression reading Demon-Haunted World was wishing that Carl Sagan was alive today. I know he would have interesting and useful things to say about contemporary issues that are incredibly troubling. What would he have said about the persecution of Julian Assange on contrived charges, and especially the attack against WikiLeaks? I wondered this when I read the following paragraph, on page 90 of my edition of Demon-Haunted World.

"Some information is classified legitimately; as with military hardware, secrecy sometimes really is in the national interest. Further, military, political, and intelligence communities tend to value secrecy for its own sake. It's a way of silencing critics and evading responsibility - for incompetence or worse. It generates an elite, a band of brothers in whom the national confidence can be reliably vested, unlike the great mass of citizenry on whose behalf the information is presumably made secret in the first place. With a few exceptions, secrecy is deeply incompatible with democracy and with science."

Today I heard about an attempt to arrest a man for writing a book. I find this blatant censorship deeply disturbing, and instantly wondered what Sagan would have said about the whole issue.

This picture is from Wear Science Dot Com, which has the best T-shirts EVAR.

I have one fairly insignificant issue with this book, and because I am a nerd I feel the need to go into it extensively. There is an long section on the Manhattan project scientist, Edward Teller. (Incidentally Teller is the basis for the Dr. Stranglove character in the movie of the same name.) Carl Sagan really has it in for this guy. I am unconvinced that Sagan's anti Edward Teller mania is all that grounded in rationality! In college, I was curious about Teller, partially due to reading Demon-Haunted World the first time. I read several books on the guy and did a biographical paper/project (poster FTW) for a physics class. You can maybe build the case that Teller was a factor in the notorious US arms race, but Sagan goes way beyond that. He singles Teller of all the Manhattan Project scientists out, even quoting Jeremy Stone saying that Teller has done "more to imperil life on this planet than any other individual in our species." Wow. From my research, Teller's motivations were pure and good. He wanted to protect America and democracy, and was convinced that superior arms power was the way to do that. He never wanted his bombs used in war, and campaigned accordingly. He wanted them as a deterrent, through mutually assured destruction, or whatever. Granted, I didn't actually know the guy and Sagan apparently met him, but these sections in Demon-Haunted World are a personal attack based on who knows what, and are not a shining example of rationality and skepticism.

So this book. It's great. It basically describes pitfalls associated with a lack of skepticism. And has lot's of yay for science bits, and all that. It's a really fun read. I would especially recommend it for young minds. I think it would make an excellent high school graduation present, for example. I say yay science and YAY CARL SAGAN!

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