Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is extremely famous in the world of science-communication, mostly for his show Cosmos -- that's why, when I made the goal last August to read 15 pop science books in a year, his Cosmos was one of the first to come to mind. 


I bought Cosmos and tried reading it a few weeks ago but didn't get far in (mostly because of the very annoying font), but Leon bought me The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark for my upcoming birthday so I read it. 

Unfortunately, this reads more like the rantings of a fourteen-year-old militant atheist than the writing of a widely-respected scientist. He spent several long chapters describing and debunking alien abduction myths which (a) don't interest me at all (b) I didn't need debunked. I also don't think they're really much to do with science. In general, the book was mostly about hoaxes and then some ranting about how science isn't prioritised.

It was weird because a lot of his points seemed to line up exactly with my views, the central points about how scientific thinking is important for democracy and we should share it with everyone, but he does it a lot less positively? He just seems to focus on the negative impacts of scientific illiteracy and is angry about a lack of progress, which I suppose is fair if he'd spent his life working on it and not gotten very far, and I definitely acknowledge the risks of scientific illiteracy, but I also believe in sharing science because it's something positive people deserve access to, and I didn't get that vibe off him. He goes on a diatribe about how shows like the Flintstones are not scientifically accurate (in fairness, they're billed as educational) and it's just kind of like...come on, man. 

Yet again, I don't think I was the target audience for this book even though a lot of it should've lined up with my beliefs, because I already study science. He put down Maxwell's equations (which I don't know) and said they were very difficult to understand and involved vectors, then "explained" vectors in an unbelievably vague way that did not at all line up with their definitions as I know them from college, and it sucked because people who haven't studied it wouldn't know that it wasn't actually telling them anything, they'd probably just take him at his word that it's really hard. I'm not denying that the equations are hard or that they're a great achievement, but I feel like he didn't make much of an effort to explain it, content to say "it's hard" and move on. Again, I'm not saying he could explain Maxwell's equations in a perfectly accessible way, but vectors themselves are not that difficult a concept and it's weird that he gave up just because he couldn't explain the full equations accessibly. 

He talked about the witch trials a fair bit and damn, they sound awful, and the book certainly didn't endear me to religion. But yeah, just a very angry atheist vibe all over. It's fine to be angry about the abuses of the Catholic Church, but I much prefer a more constructive approach. 

I think the main issue with the book was it didn't really have any central narrative thread -- it was much more like a series of blog or forum posts than a book. Two chapters, for example, contained just reprintings of letters he'd received, presented without comment. Sure, they were interesting, but added to the blog impression. I think if Sagan had lived later it's quite likely each chapter could've been written as a blog post. Not what I expected. 

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