The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

A long time ago my Grandfather presented me with a hardback copy of Cosmos (1980, by Carl Sagan (, the great American popularizer of science and cosmology. With over 250 full-colour illustrations, many of them never before published, it was based on the author’s thirteen-part television series. I was mesmerised and spent many hours and weeks being amazed by facts about our Universe.

Years later I came across The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark which Sagan published in 1996. It was a very different time from now. Cellphones were used only for phone calls and most people didn’t have one; the circulations of newspapers were counted in millions and sceptics said the World Wide Web was a passing craze. The dumbing down of America was most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second soundbites (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. And that was before Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox News channel. The whole sorry tale is wonderfully documented in Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason (2008) (

Sagan spent most of his life taking other people seriously: he considered their fears, anxieties and obsessions; he understood the appeal of easy explanations and glib answers; and he made it his business to present the reality of the cosmos to readers and listeners in language that they could enjoy. He did not expect people to really understand the facts of science – and he was conscious of science’s own occasional complacencies – but he did want people to understand the substance of science: the notion that startling claims should be supported by evidence that can be tested and challenged. He enjoyed writing for the magazine Parade, which was syndicated to more than half of all US newspapers, because through it he had access to 80 million readers. He also enjoyed addressing the marvels of the world and the things ordinary Americans wanted to marvel at: these were not necessarily identical.

Many of the chapters in this book were originally written for Parade. When the book first appeared, aliens were still reportedly creating crop circles in England and committing improper acts on mysteriously unmarked adults in America. A few years later, Ming the Merciless and his minions had boarded their flying saucers and fled: vampires and werewolves and other grisly phenomena had begun to displace aliens, joined by the psychokinetic athletes, crystal therapists, faith healers and spiritualists who feed on fascination with the unknown.

This book shows that scepticism is a warm, positive thing: a tool with which to expose the real wonder of the world around us, as well as to dismiss fallacy and delusion. In the course of enjoyable dissections of human folly, he tells some lovely anecdotes. He is confident enough to tease the Dalai Lama; he is aware enough to speak knowledgeably about Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers and the Gospels; and he takes aim at embedded attitudes in American and other cultures that dismiss education and reject systematic curiosity. His range of reference is phenomenal. In one essay he illuminates US constitutional history at the time of Thomas Jefferson; witchcraft trials of Wurzburg, Germany, in 1631; the manipulation of historic memory in Russia under Stalin (he confesses to smuggling Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution into the USSR); the monopoly of media ownership; Linus Pauling and the test ban treaty of 1963; and Edward Teller’s enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb. Nor is he afraid of going back to the things that matter, arguing in the next essay that Thomas Jefferson “believed that the habit of scepticism is an essential prerequisite for responsible citizenship. He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared to the cost of ignorance, of leaving government to the wolves.”

This is a beautiful one volume exercise in intellectual hygiene. Written with humour and candour, this comes highly recommended. Check if this brilliant book is in stock at your local library.

Or consult for full bibliographic details.

480 pages in Ballantine paperback edition

First published 1996

ISBN 978-0747277453

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Carl Sagan

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