Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1998-1999

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan

reviewed by Stephen Moreton

Science has given us the modern world but superstition and ignorance persist, indeed thrive. A space station is being built and a trip to Mars planned yet around half of Americans are unaware that the earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do so. Millions of Americans believe in UFOs, astrology, spoon-bending, indeed all manner of nonsense. The situation is little different in other countries.

This is serious. Consider some of the issues facing the world: climate change, nuclear waste, AIDS, abortion, cloning, animal rights. Every day major issues that affect lives, economies, the environment, are debated. Vociferous proponents of opposing sides air their views, ask for our support, seek our votes, request our money. How can people make right decisions on such matters if they don’t know what a greenhouse gas is, what “half-life” means, believe in homeopathy and so on?

In his lucid and eloquent style, Carl Sagan spells out the dangers of ignorance and superstition, from the witch-burning of the past to the satanic abuse craze of the present. The book is filled with examples of foolishness, ignorance and credulity fed by a media hungry for ratings but indifferent to truth.

At times it is disturbing. Thousands of accusations of satanic abuse, based on bogus “recovered memories”, have left a trail of destroyed families, ruined careers and wrongful convictions. At other times it is difficult not to laugh at the wilful gullibility of media and public alike. Sagan relates the story of “Carlos”, an ancient spirit channelled through a young artist, José Luis Alvarez. In 1988, Alvarez popped up in Australia proclaiming his spirit companion. After a few publicity stunts he was being fêted by the media, his nonsense about Atlantis crystals and healing water lapped up and his new-found followers “moved and delighted” by his public performance.

It was a hoax. Magician James Randi had coached the young man and, with a little preparation, managed to totally hoodwink the Australian media. It was not difficult. Predictably, when Randi revealed the deception, there were indignant howls of rage as the suckers realised they’d been duped. What they missed was the whole point of the exercise. With just a minimal amount of fact checking and a little scepticism they could have easily exposed the whole charade right at the start. Instead gullibility ruled throughout.

There is nothing special about the Australian media. It could happen in any country.

Sagan discusses some of the causes. He laments the state of science education – rote memorisation rather than method – the portrayal of scientists as mad, or nerds, and, of course, the media. Psychology also matters. Hallucinations and paralysis when waking up or falling asleep are common, indeed normal (even I’ve had the experience). They are not evidence of alien visitations. False memories can easily be implanted by careless “therapists” and coincidences are not as significant as they seem. Sagan offers a “baloney detection kit”, a collection of logical tools and precautions for testing hypotheses and evaluating evidence, as an antidote to the epidemic of unreason around us. Sadly, those most in need of it are probably also the least likely to try it out.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :