I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no-one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
Carl Sagan – The Demon-Haunted World 1995
This book has been on my radar for quite some time, and on my Amazon wishlist for several years and I finally got it as a birthday present. Sagan is a great communicator, and in this he is, I think, a forerunner to the likes of Dawkins et al (although his disgust with superstition didn’t really manifest as railing against religion). The book is an easy and entertaining read although feels more like a loose collection of essays rather than a structured whole (some chapters did indeed start as essays) but Sagan’s prose is breezy and pulls you along.
There are many things to take away from this book, and I’d heartily recommend it to one and all (although for me it was preaching to the choir) such as the Baloney Detector and a plain English explanation of the fundamentals of critical thinking.
I think it’s a fair bet that Sagan would have been horrified with the rise of anti-truth in politics and modern life.
This is really a book extolling the virtues of science, and as with all proselytising there is a hint of one size fits all – science is the best model for understanding the nuts and bolts of the universe for sure, but it is not a universal panacea. However, I’m all for evidence-based ‘beliefs’ and critical thinking skills and if this book was widely read there may be a few less gullible people in the world.
For more critical thinking tools I’d recommend the Great Courses – Your Deceptive Mind
Obviously reading this could be depressing – the great harms done through e.g. the Inquisition or the Witch Hunts, the lack of fact-checking in the media exposed by Randi’s Carlos hoax, the McCarthy era etc. However I ended up feeling hopeful – seeing that in the last few years there has been a retrograde step, that many of the battles of the 20th Century need to be refought, that credulity and cynicism seem to be on the increase – but we’ve been here before, and won most of these battles before and can do so again.
The candle in the dark is still lit even though the darkness feels like it is pressing closer recently.