Book Review: The Demon Haunted World

demon haunted world sagan

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

I think I would have enjoyed knowing Carl Sagan. He is a great storyteller, which is what I think science could use more of. The masses are not scientists, and the masses are exactly who scientists need to convince with their data. I read a great book once called Don’t Be Such A Scientist.

The author of that book–Randy-Olson– was a marine biologist turned filmmaker. During his studies of narrative and why audiences respond the way they do led to some very interesting conclusions about how scientists might better speak to non-scientists to better communicate their ideas.

Now that I’ve read Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, I feel like Olson had him in mind when he wrote Don’t Be Such A Scientist. Sagan is a wonderful communicator, the very definition of what I think of as “lucid.”

The deep end

One of my frustrations as I study the sciences is that I can’t find books that are dunced down enough for me. They assume more knowledge than I have. It has been challenging for me to find books that are sufficiently introductory to encourage me, rather than feeling stupid.

I think Sagan understand this. Demon Haunted World is essentially a toolkit for skeptical thinking. One of the core questions he examines is whether science is “too hard” for the laity. Is it actually the province of geniuses and savants? Nerds? Dweebs and dorks and those who prefer data to the touch of a woman?


The book is essentially what he refers to as a “baloney detection kit.” He starts out by discussing the claims of people who insist they have been abducted by aliens. He is in the business of asking better questions. In this case, does it make more sense to believe their claims, or to believe that__________ (insert alternatives to alien abduction)l.

Using this framework he examines:

  • crop circles
  • crystal healing
  • the face on Mars
  • Area 51
  • hallucinations
  • Visions
  • The efficacy of therapy
  • The slippage of memory
  • Faith Healing
  • Religion, of course
  • And more

He is surprisingly gentle when questioning religion, which I think goes back to his understanding of condescension not being the best mode of true communication.

But this is not a book about investigating specific issues. It is more about asking certain questions–or the reasons why we do not even think to ask certain questions?

I believe the foundational question of this book is : Why remain credulous if you don’t have to ? (and you don’t have to–here’s how to figure things out).

A note on the title. “Demon” could be substituted with the words “superstition” or “tradition” or “credulity.” Basically, anything that leads to dogma or ideology and squashes curiosity.

I’ve started rambling a bit.

I loved the book and I think everyone can benefit from it. Maybe I should have put that version of the review at the beginning. By Sagan’s logic, hauntings are more common than we might think.




4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Demon Haunted World

  1. This all sounds fascinating. I find that I, myself, have moved from asking “what” questions to “why” questions. This sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

    Like you, it sounds like, I am fascinated/intimidated by science. I took a Biology course in college that I enjoyed perhaps more than any other course I have ever taken. But, as we have discussed, I also took an Astronomy course that made me want to step in front of oncoming traffic. I would love some more digestible science.

    • I’ve moved the other way. I think that asking what is way more helpful, simply because I don’t believe that we can ever definitely know “why.”

      A friend of mine–a martial artist named Frankie Faires–told me that when he is trying to figure things out, he asks:

      what happened?
      What happened before that?
      What happened after that?

      Then he draws associations. It makes sense to me.

  2. Well that seems reasonable too. I guess it just depends on what end result you are seeking. “What” is certainly more black-and-white answerable than “why.” But I, personally like the process of “why.” I may never get a definitive answer, but I appreciate the journey.

    And, in a way, aren’t the associations between “what” questions really just “why” inferences, just by a different name?

    • What is more useful. When you hit a snag or prove one of your own hypotheses wrong, you simply change direction because you were looking for associations, not causes.

      If you’re seeking causes and you hit a dead end, progress can mean a lengthy backtracking and unlearning. Causes depend on linear progress. Linear progress is not always certain.

      Asking what instead of why in no way dilutes the process of figuring things out.

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