“The Demon-Haunted Word: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (Ballantine Books; 1996) would be Carl Sagan’s swan song. Sadly, he died from myelodysplasia soon after this book was published. Sagan, best known for his ground-breaking “Cosmos” series on PBS in 1980, wonders why most modern Americans ignore science. In one sense, it was perhaps a small mercy that Sagan never saw the depths of ignorance that America was to plummet under the administration of George W. Bush.
This book is aimed at Americans. Readers from other countries may feel a little put-out or ignored, but Sagan wrote about the country he knew best – his own. The basic principles of the book, however, can apply to any country.
After the success of “Cosmos,” Sagan became a celebrity and received many letters and was approached by many strangers. Sagan also did numerous lectures and public speaking at universities, schools and even kindergarten classes. He had plenty of interactions with the American public and was disturbed by what he saw.
The final straw for Sagan was a taxi driver that wanted to know all about science. Unfortunately, the only topics the taxi driver wanted to talk about were UFO conspiracy theories, alien abductions, the Shroud of Turin, channeling, astrology and crystals. Sagan had to be the bearer of bad news that none of these were sciences and that they were baloney. The cab driver was bright and articulate and able to learn but all he had gotten from the media and his teachers was pseudoscience.
The book’s subtitle is from “A Candle in the Dark”, a book written in 1656 by Thomas Ady condemning the then-current practices of hunting for witches. These witch hunts were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Europe and America. Witch hunts still go on today, even though there is no evidence that witchcraft works. In many ways, witch hunts go on today needlessly because people do not understand the basics of science or the scientific method.
Prescription For Change
The good doctor writes a lively, absorbing and science-filled prescription for needed change in the intellectual development of America. Applying the scientific method to just about anything (television commercials, political speeches or psychic hot-lines) can help make for a far more informed electorate and make more roads out of poverty.
Sagan does not make science or the scientific method out to be just another alternative for religion. He lists his own scientific mistakes as well as the mistakes scientists made in the past. He particularly highlights the rather execrable career of physicist Edward Teller, the “father” of the hydrogen bomb.
But the saving grace for the scientific method is that nothing is sacred. If enough data or experiments can prove that X is really Y, then scientists conclude that Y is Y and not X. But the human race seems to prefer the comfort of fairy tales and being told what to believe rather than trying to figure things out for itself. Sagan shows that if children are encouraged to think for themselves, they will eventually grow up into adults and voters that will think.