Friday, 20 February 2009

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

Recently I've been watching the series Cosmos, a show in the style of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man but speaking to a far wider audience. While the two shows are similar, the way that Bronowski and Sagan go about selling science to a wider audience is vastly different. Bronowski sold science through enthusiasm while Sagan pushed the mystique of the universe almost in the Einsteinian sense. In this book, The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan takes that same mystique and writes in great passion of science itself.

Conveying scepticism is not easy, it almost all cases there remains the strong possibility of offending someone who has an emotional investment in a concept. From that sceptics are seen as cynics, stepping over the heart-felt beliefs of others - something that couldn't be further from the truth. Sagan tries admirably throughout the book to sell just that, it was certainly empathetic as opposed to the usually cold logical proses that go hand in hand with modern-day scepticism.

The essays that are the chapters are a wild ride at times, mid-chapter he would so often go on a tangent only to come back and round it all off very eloquently. This results in one refreshing aspect, that the point made in one chapter can be shown to apply to many topics. While there was frequent reference to alien abduction cases, he spread out the same criticisms and applied the same critical thought to similar phenomena such as satanic cults. There was even a look back in time at similar cultural phenomena like which burning in centuries past. The case for human error transcending any one phenomenon made for a more compelling argument.

On a practical note, chapters dedicated to the tools of critical thinking will be a useful addition to anyone's mental arsenal. Knowing logical fallacies is one thing, applying them on an everyday level is another. His criticisms of those who abuse the scientific method or act without thinking of the wider social consequences was refreshing to see in print.

There's something to be said for Sagan's way of going about things, though I personally have my doubts that it will win many converts. Surely it's more effective than calling someone deluded or deceived, though like many of these books that have something to say it's little more than preaching at the converted. And that seems to be the problem with all these great books on scepticism, no matter how accomodating the author is towards the beliefs of others, ultimately books like this are sold to an existing audience.

Next book: Ben Goldacre - Bad Science

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