The Demon Haunted World – Book Review

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark was originally published in 1996. That was only eighteen years ago, but we live in a very different world today than when Carl Sagan’s book was originally published. No where is this more evident than in the incredible growth of the internet, then just a tiny blip on most people’s radar. Bearing that in mind, it might be easy to dismiss the book as outdated, but having just finished reading it, I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

Make no mistake: I am an unabashed fan of this book, and especially its message. I think critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills a person can have, and will consider myself as a failure as a father if I can’t impart the importance of this to my children.

Even though we have more access to information now than at any time in the history of civilization, it feels like we’re living in an increasingly credulous world. A lot of people are rejecting science, or at least not trusting it. There’s a huge resurgence in the occult, untested alternative medical practices, and insanely complex conspiracy theories without a shred of supporting evidence. There’s just something alluring about the idea that you’re in the know. You feel special, like you have something that most people don’t. The trouble is that most of these things aren’t believed by people because they are completely untrue.

True or not, people cling to these beliefs, and shrug off any attempts to convince them otherwise, often accusing non-believers of being close minded and being too easily fooled by conventional wisdom. This creates tension between the two camps, and that often leads to resentment and anger. Both sides all too often look at the other as willfully ignorant, making meaningful communication almost impossible.

That is why I love the way Sagan approaches this in The Demon Haunted World. There’s no judgement, and he approaches believers with sympathy and a sense of camaraderie that I rarely see in the skeptical community. Sagan approaches the problem in a way that most skeptics don’t or can’t: by trying to understand how other people think. It’s not insulting or confrontational; he takes his time to make his points and builds up to an overwhelmingly powerful article by the book’s conclusion.

The Demon Haunted World also addresses the concerns that the United States is rapidly falling behind in education compared to the rest of the developed world, citing some truly horrifying statistics. But once again, Sagan addresses a problem not just by pointing it out, as lesser writers might. He also proposes solutions. Yes, they call for large changes to our education system, but given the size of the problem, it stands to reason that the solution would need to be just as massive.

This is one of those books that I think everyone should read. It’s an essential volume on critical thinking, but it takes a different approach to other books on the same subject. Yes, you get sections that outline important logical fallacies, and the importance of scientific literacy. But at the same time, you get very intimate moments where Sagan talks about how alluring some of these thoughts are. Communicating with the dead, for instance, is brought up a number of times as Sagan waxes philosophically about how much he would love for this to be true so that he could talk to his parents one more time.

Grade: 5 zombie heads out of 5