BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A very worthwhile read ...

I frequently wonder why some books (which are not, on their surface, "popular" types) end up being held by so many folks. Of course, my data from this largely comes from LibraryThing, so is from a self-selecting subset of book readers, but I notice (as it effects my collection's "obscurity rating") when a book is listed by a lot of other users there ... in this case 864 (whereas a substantial chunk of my recently-read books are shared by 0-10 others!). My usual supposition, in cases where this would be plausible, is that said book has been used as a textbook, and found its way into a lot of people's libraries due to being assigned rather than sought out.

I would like to think that a large number of people ran out to buy Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for its content, but I'm not that hopeful about the intellect of humanity. Sagan's book is, at its core, a long lament about how our culture has lost its grounding in science and has slid into a rather dire illiteracy on the subject. However, it is not structured this way, rather being a series of broadsides at a wide variety of non-scientific "belief systems".

Frankly, as I read The Demon-Haunted World, I was quite enthusiastic about the book and kept thinking of various friends to whom I would very much recommend this; however, there was at least something in here which would prove to be extremely offensive to nearly every person that popped up on my mental list, some trashing of a particular "sacred cow" that was enough that I was not willing to be "the messenger" who was likely to be the focus of the ire of a wounded paradigm.

After a couple of introductory chapters framing the importance of science, Sagan starts (unsurprisingly) with looking at "The Face on Mars" and similar things, and how they are promoted by the likes of Hoagland (pointedly not mentioned by name) to the Weekly World News. From there he looks at Alien abductions, UFOs, hallucinations, religious visions, "ritual abuse", ghosts, and various questionable therapies such as "repressed memory" and "past life regression", spinning an interesting matrix in which these all seem to be manifestations of a single underlying psychological and/or mental dysfunction. He then looks at how most delusions are propagated (his postulate that there is an invisible fire-breathing dragon in his garage, and how he can generate excuses why any test to actually prove or disprove the existence of said dragon can be parried in exactly the same way that most paranormal claimants brush off any attempts to test the realities of their pet postulates) and something of the mind-set of those devoted to the unprovable.

The last third or so of the book goes into more societal issues, looking at ways that the lack of scientific knowledge (or the impact of "anti-scientific" thinking) has decayed the base of our civilization, from how we know things to how we govern. Again, nearly everybody has a sacred cow gored here ... it's not just the tens of thousands of fluff-bunny newagers who are certain they were Cleopatra in a previous life, but right-wingers who would gladly budget for "one more Blackhawk helicopter" but bluster about the "waste" of spending the same dollars on a "pure science" project. He has a particularly chilling look at Christianity, especially as it relates to the abuses of the "Witch trials" of the 15th through 18th centuries, and how "insular" belief systems can spawn the most inhuman abuses, and how similar sorts of patterns crop up whenever there isn't a "rational counterpoint" to balance faith, nationalism, etc.. My own buttons got pushed a bit in his analysis of how poorly our current "conservative" politicians (who are certainly more sane than their leftist counterparts) compare to America's "Founding Fathers", who were very strongly supportive of the "scientific paradigm" as seen by the philosophers of The Enlightenment (many of whom, like Jefferson, were both).

While I don't think there are many people who would not be made uncomfortable reading one section or another of Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, I do highly recommend it to all and sundry. I suppose that it would be too much to ask that it be included in the basic High School curriculum (after all, this is written at something higher than a fifth-grade comprehension level), it should definitely be one of those books strongly suggested. I, myself, walked away from this with some practical realizations of what to steer clear of in doing hypnosis, and there are many "points of clarity" that would benefit anybody reading it. This is (thankfully) still in print, and Amazon has the paperback new for just over ten bucks, with used copies going for as little as three bucks. Go get a copy!

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