Demon Haunted World

An accessible argument in favour of the scientific method. The book provides tools for discriminating science from pseudoscience and knowledge from speculation.

The late Carl Sagan was a strong proponent of science and the scientific method. The Demon Haunted World (subtitle: Science as a Candle in the Dark) revises a number of his magazine articles into a larger argument.

Sagan’s central thesis is that we should take nothing for granted. We should acknowledge that what we “know” is a collection of theories which have not yet been disproved, but which should continue to be tested in order that, if they fail, they can be replaced by more complete theories. There is no place for ego or privileged beliefs in Sagan’s world.

The highlight of the book is the twelfth chapter, entitled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection”. The earlier chapters cover phenomena ranging from crop circles to demons, faith healing to alien abduction. In each case Sagan highlights the personal and cultural biases which permitted or permit these memes to thrive.

“The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” lays out a series of tools for sceptical thinking. Sagan advises us not to get overly attached to an idea, but to examine why we like it and to ask ourselves if we can find reasons for rejecting it (because if we don’t, others will: in our case, our clients!).

The chapter ends with a list of fallacies of logic and rhetoric for us to avoid. These include arguments from authority (“trust me, I’m a doctor”?) and considering only the two extremes on a continuum of intermediate possibilities (biological or psychological?).

The Demon Haunted World is an interesting read for scientist and lay person. Chapter 12 is highly recommended to both therapists, clients and anyone hoping to make sense of the “evidence base”.

Reference

Sagan C (1997) The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Headline: London.

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