BOOK REVIEW: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
Review by Dean Bedekar, January 2022
In March 1997, police were called to a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe outside San Diego. Inside they found 39 dead men and women, all dressed in black, with their travel bags packed.
It was a mass suicide. A note left by their leader, Marshall Applewhite, said they were ready to board a spaceship travelling behind the comet Hale-Bopp that would take them to the next level of consciousness. What happened? What demon could have possessed 39 well-educated people who designed web pages for corporations?
The Demons Within Us
Carl Sagan does a masterful job of explaining how demons have been with us since we walked on two legs, and how religions and others in authority have exploited these demons for their own advantage.
Demons are an externalization of our hopes and fears. Sometimes they are spirits and sometimes they take human form. They are forever interfering with our lives. Demons start in childhood with the monsters under our bed and continue to grow. As we go through life, we face the demons of the seven vices, among others, until finally we face the fear of death. We hallucinate. We fill in the blanks to make sense of obscure pictures.
We see faces where there are none. We are willing to suspend disbelief so that Superman can fly and Jesus can walk on water. Our perceptions are fallible. We allow myth to coexist with reality. Charlatans know that our beliefs define us and they are constantly on alert to take advantage of us. A telling statistic is that the U.S. has 10 times more astrologers than astronomers.
In the 1980s, stories emerged about children being horribly molested in day care centers and pre-K schools in Manhattan Beach, CA, Edenton, NC and Malden, MA. It had to do with well-meaning therapists extracting repressed memories. The more the children were questioned, the wilder the stories became. Most of the teachers were acquitted but the damage was done.
In the dark ages, anything out of the ordinary was attributed to witches. It was believed that witches were born when incubuses impregnated unsuspecting women. In 1692, 19 witches were hanged in Salem, MA. Most of them were women living on the fringes of society. In 1990, in a short 3 months, the U.S. government turned Saddam Hussein, an obscure Middle Eastern dictator into an evil incarnate.
More than half of Americans believe in angels and demons. Warding off demons is big business. Sagan lists hundreds of ways, from astrology and amulets to channeling and Tarot cards. People will pay good money to ward off evil or bring good fortune.
If there’s one topic humans cannot approach rationally it’s death. Over three-quarters of Americans believe in an afterlife. 25% believe in reincarnation. Native Americans and the Japanese routinely talk to their ancestors.
Superstitions, Supernatural Phenomena and Strange Visitations
The key to superstitions is the number of people who believe in them. Sometimes you hear the argument, if so many people believe it, it must be true. People as a group are perfectly capable of making bad choices the same as individuals. There is nothing inherently good or bad about feng shui, geomancy, the number 13, black cats or chain letters. Belief is the glue that holds superstitions together.
Atlantis, crop circles and flying saucers are some of the phenomena attributed to aliens. Even after the pranksters behind crop circles came clean, many people refused to believe them.
To me, sightings of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster and the Yeti are like Tweety bird saying, “I tot I thaw a puddy tat! I did, I did!” Our brains, like that of Tweety, are very good at filling in the blanks. They are also good at remembering events that never happened.
The media has always given lots of air time to supernatural phenomena. It’s good for business. The only cartoon show that debunks ghosts is Scooby Doo.
Sagan devotes two chapters to UFOs and alien visitation. He is generous in trying to explain why some of the alien abductees may have reported their incidents. All of that reminds me of psychologists probing the mind of Ted Bundy. Honestly, there is nothing beyond opportunity, means and motive that we need to know. The rest were copycats.
Religionists love it when a phenomenon occurs that science cannot explain — for example, a weeping statute. That’s when they invoke their monopoly over the God channel and tell us that it’s a sign from God, usually about repentance and giving alms to the church.
Sagan dismisses the religious view that certain attributes such as free will and consciousness are unique to humans. Brain scans show that all mammals and many other animals think and feel emotions the same as humans.
Pseudoscience has the feel of science without its rigor. Science uses instruments, pseudoscience uses anecdotes and celebrity endorsements. Its theories are not open to controlled experimentation. Scrutiny is opposed vigorously. Snake oil, probiotic yogurt and cold fusion fall in this category. Sagan concedes that astrology and alchemy gave rise to astronomy and chemistry, respectively. But that’s where the connection between pseudoscience and science ends. In the 18th century, bloodletting was an accepted treatment for all sorts of maladies. We know today that it has no therapeutic value.
Transcendental meditation does have therapeutic value in reducing the pulse rate and releasing endorphins. The problem arises when outrageous claims are made for its benefits. In the 1960s Maharshi Mahesh Yogi promised that his followers could levitate, and they could bring world peace by chanting in unison. He had the Beatles as his followers.
It does not help the cause of science to have a science denier in the White House. George Bush banned stem cell research on religious grounds. Donald Trump wanted to nuke hurricanes in mid-Atlantic and proposed bleach as a cure for Covid-19.
Religion has always been on the side of pseudoscience since there is a magical quality to both. Unlike science, which questions a lot, religion and pseudoscience both offer quick answers.
We are all subject to aches, pains and other ills. There is no field more susceptible to pseudoscience than medical cures. Any and all claims are valid with the disclaimer, “Not evaluated by the FDA”. An expanded list of questionable remedies: is in the Appendix.
In the past many medical problems were believed to have a demonic origin. For example one-third of the healing miracles performed by Jesus were exorcisms. Jesus cured epilepsy by exorcism. Today it’s relieved by administering a 100 mg dose of carbamazepine.
Sagan acknowledges that mind over matter does work. He notes that the placebo effect has curative powers when the symptoms are superficial and disease has not progressed beyond medical help.
Foretelling the Future
Humans have an innate need to control their lives, and foretelling the future is part of it. Of the dozens of ways to foretell the future, here are a few. Romans used augury where skilled augurs foretold the future by reading the flight of birds. Some shamans read the future in chicken entrails while others preferred tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.
Palmistry has a rich history. None have a better track record than a coin flip. Ronald and Nancy Reagan relied on astrologers to make decisions. Americans needed to know that decisions affecting them were made on the advice of charlatans.
Science is the only field that can predict the future with any certainty. With meteorology, we can predict when, where and with what intensity a hurricane is going to strike. It does this based on mountains of data culled from past hurricanes.
So what is Science?
Science is evidence-based thinking. It builds on the discoveries and theories of the past. There is a method to science, consisting of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion and peer review but it’s not cast in stone. There is a duality to science. The scientist has to be simultaneously an explorer and a skeptic. You have to have innate curiosity but you can’t fall in love with your own findings. Science moves in fits and starts.
Theories are sometimes scoffed at as was the Big Bang theory, while others are revised over time such as the unification of electricity and magnetism.
Science is neither magical nor perfect. It’s just the best we have. And unlike religion, there are no forbidden questions in science. And science makes no claim to absolute certainty.
The key difference between science and theology and philosophy is experimentation. The latter are contemplative disciplines.
Science today is beyond the grasp of the layman, whether it’s quantum physics, DNA, probability theory or polymers. It’s not surprising then that people simply turn away from science and accept simple explanations from charlatans and power-seekers. Science is hard. (Speaking for myself, the 4 years I spent in engineering school were perhaps the hardest of my life).
The Benefits of Science
Sagan points to a single indicator — longevity – that measures the quality of life. That is the gift of science. Science is the only field of learning that can cure diseases, forecast events and improve well-being. Smallpox and polio are history. The world can feed 10 times as many people since the Declaration of Independence. Religion, on the other hand, continues to depend on prayer, amulets, potions, chants and laying on of hands. Its track record is no better than the toss of a coin.
Most importantly, science has been a ticket out of poverty for individuals and third world nations.
Sagan asked religious leaders what they would do if science disproved a central tenet of their faith. Most dismissed him out of hand. He asked the Dalai Lama the same question about reincarnation. “Then, Buddhism would have to change, “the Dalai Lama replied. And he added, with a twinkle, “But it’s going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.”
And its Dangers
Sagan acknowledges that science is a double-edged sword. It gave us world travel, cell phones, and air conditioning. It also gave us thalidomide, Agent Orange, microplastics, and the Cold War. The mad scientist is a popular theme in movies and cartoons.
Sagan doesn’t have an answer for how science should be used. He sees the problem as one of human nature rather than one of science. There is a suspicion that homo sapiens surged ahead of other species because we were sneaky enough to use science and technology for both good and evil.
Surveys show that 95% of Americans are scientifically illiterate. While it’s true that science has gotten beyond the comprehension of the layman, it’s equally true that people choose not to spend time understanding science. It’s easier to accept quick, prepackaged answers from people who may have their own axe to grind.
Carl Sagan was a regular contributor to Parade magazine. In one article, he bemoaned the state of science teaching and literacy in the U.S. A science teacher in Minnesota sent the article to his 10th grade students and asked them to reply directly to Dr. Sagan. Here’s a sampling of their comments:
• Not a Americans are stupid. We just rank lower in school big deal.
• Maybe that’s good that we are not as smart as the other countries. So then we can just import all of our products and then we don’t have to spend all of our money on the parts for the goods.
• Not one kid in this school likes science. I really don’t understand the point of the article. I thought that it was very boring. I’m just not into anything like that.
• I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point.
Skepticism is not the same as cynicism. It requires critical thinking and, surprisingly, an open mind.. Unfortunately, skepticism does not sell well. People who do not care to research a topic will always find spurious accounts that snare the gullible. I’m sure you’ve met people, as I have, who say, “Spare me your logic, just let me be with my beliefs.” Our brain creates a wall to protect deeply held ideas. Conforming evidence is allowed in but contrary evidence has to meet a very high standard.
Sagan believes intelligence and education are the only antidotes to national gullibility.
Sagan is careful not to declare his atheism or attack religion head-on. He doesn’t go as far as Stephen Hawking who said, “There is nothing in the universe that requires God as an explanation.”
Sagan is dismissive of prayer. An omniscient God would know what you’re praying about and its outcome before you said a word. Also, why would prayer be more effective if millions did it instead of one? To Sagan, the failure of prayer to achieve anything is a significant data point.
A Dismal Future
Dr. Sagan wasn’t at all sanguine about the future. He saw the ratio of science illiterates continuing to rise in the U.S. with other nations forging ahead. In this regard, he draws parallels between the U.S. and other civilizations who minimized science or made it subservient to religion, and eventually came to grief.
About the Author
Carl Sagan (1934-96)was an atheist, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, an adviser to NASA on the Voyager, Mariner and Viking missions and a popularizer of science. He appeared many times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the 1980s. He is best remembered for his hit series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and for his aphorism, ”Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
APPENDIX: A COMPENDIUM OF DEMONS AND CURES
- Monsters under your bed
- Repressed memories
- Bad dreams
- Near-death experience
- Comets, supernovas, eclipses
- Evil eye (malocchio)
Warding off Demons
- Chants, amulets, potions, prayers
- Inquisition, exorcism
- Salem witch trials
- Guardian angels
- Bigfoot, Yeti
- Loch Ness monster
- UFOs (now UAP), flying saucers
- Alien abduction and surgery
- Crop circles
- Paranormal events: ghosts, poltergeists
- Virgin Mary (at Lourdes in 1858)
- The shroud of Turin
- Vampires, werewolves, chupacabra
- Roswell, Area 51
- Bermuda triangle
- Spontaneous combustion
Fortune Telling and other Magical Powers
- Astrology, horoscopes
- Tarot cards
- Ouija board
- Seances, channeling spirits, necromancy
- Dousing sticks to find water
- Messages from God
- Throw spilled salt over your shoulder
- The number 13
- In China door thresholds are 6 inches high to prevent short-legged evil spirits from entering
- Feng shui
Pseudoscience and Medical Cures
- Colon cleansing
- Rhino’s horn for male potency
- Magic potions, snake oil
- Faith healing
- Crystal healing
- Cold fusion
- Fat loss pills
- Ginkgo biloba for memory
- Preachers who cure your ills by touching their face on the TV screen
- Flat earth
- Perpetual motion machines