Two weeks ago, I published my recommendation of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), and a lot of readers requested more. So, I’ve decided to make book reviews a regular feature!
My last review from my own personal library was for an older book that is somehow becoming more relevant every day, so to continue in that tradition, my recommendation for this week is the timeless The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, yet it may as well have been released earlier this year. It is incredibly important to help people all over understand the world we are living in, and how we got here.
One powerful quote from the book comes from Sagan’s description of pseudoscience, as well as his explanation as to why belief in non-religious supernatural nonsense is on the rise. He notes that these beliefs often fulfill an “emotional” need, as opposed to a scientific one.
“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for.”
Sagan’s book also touches on how to have friendly and effective discussions with believers, and I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments.
In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the book’s predictive qualities. It predicted, for instance, the dumbing down of the United States.
“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 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…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
This “celebration of ignorance” is in full-swing in America, and the dumbing down of our media can’t be denied by anyone who’s paying attention. As Sagan pointed out in his last interview, the lack of scientific skepticism among our people leaves us “up for grabs for the next charlatan (political or religious) who comes rambling along.”
Does that last line sound familiar to anyone?
David G. McAfee