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The Demon Haunted World | Page Crimps
Key Takeaways from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World
Carl Edward Sagan was an American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, poet, and science communicator. — Wikipedia
Recently, I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. Throughout the book, Sagan highlights the pitfalls of an uninformed populace from a skeptic scientist's perspective. He does this both through example and prophetic ideation on this trend carried to it's future results. Now 25 years later, I was struck by how topical his ideas in 1996 were to America's present state.
All pages are for my copy which you can find HERE.
On page 25 and still introducing the narrative, Sagan describes his foreboding of a future America where:
We are a service and information economy.
The bulk of our manufacturing has been outsourced to other countries.
Technological power is in the hands of a centralized few.
Furthermore, that our public officials can't grasp the issues of the time.
The general public isn't knowledgeable enough to question authority.
I was captured by Sagan's description of the dream state compared to the waking state on page 106. He draws an analogy to our local sun and other stars, and goes on to say that dreams like stars, may shine all day but are blotted out by the sun during the day.
Humans are continually engaging in informational processing of what Sagan refers to as our 'Preconscious Stream' which is effected by both conscious and unconscious forces. Maybe at night, when we are not engaging with the stimuli of the woken state, we have a broader but lower fidelity tether to this stream.
On 171, Sagan uses a creative metaphor of an invisible dragon to the broad acceptance of UFO claims. He weaves a careful analogy of a friend who invites him over to see this creature in their garage, and yet he sees no evidence. He asks a number of questions to verify it's existence and for each, his hypothetical acquaintance has a caveat.
"Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?"
What does it mean to say that this dragon exists?
Nearby on page 184, Sagan has another analogy that I appreciated. He explains the value of skepticism on a used car sales lot. If you are skeptical of a vehicle's condition, you may be able to barter for a lower price based on upcoming maintenance, current fluid levels, tire tread, etc.
His important point in this section is that to be skeptical about something, you have to know something.
Clearly I appreciate a good analogy to drive the point home. On 212, Sagan explains the meaning of a 'double-blind experiment' by telling the story of a man who gets sick on a ship voyage. He assumes that it was seasickness, and so elects to never do the same thing again. However, in the hypothetical example, say the man was under ailment for alternative reasons. Now he's prematurely robbed himself the pleasure of a day on the Ocean for as long as he clings to this causal fear.
Correlation ≠ Causation.
Just a quote from 241 —
If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject evidence of the bamboozle.
Cancel Culture has made it's way into the lexicon of most of the English speaking world at this point. Even back in 1996, on page 259, Sagan is on a riff about characters like Charles Darwin and Thomas Jefferson, who have begun to receive bad light from a quick to judge mob when their actions are weighed against the standards of our times. Jefferson for owning slaves and Darwin for referring to South American natives as 'Savages'.
We are all flawed and creatures of our times. Sagan is creative here also I think by going in reverse. He weaves a narrative in how our modern age could be viewed as criminal for no longer sleeping in close proximity with our offspring at night to shield them from the dangers of the world. This may sound ridiculous to us, but not to a parent who sees it as a duty to sleep with their child all throughout their adolescence, but It's important to view history in context.
I appreciated on page 304 how Sagan points out that good science is a balance of 2 contradictory attitudes:
Openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre.
Ruthless scrutiny of all ideas old and new.
I'm a big fan of Greek Mythology. I thought these 6 reasons that Sagan highlights on page 310 for why the Greeks were exceptional in their time and in history were worthy of the crimp:
The formation of the Greek Assembly.
A maritime economy.
A wide-spread Greek speaking world.
An independent merchant class.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, Epitomes of the Greeks' values, mythos and rational thought.
The continuation of the above 5 for 1000 years.
I have a draft for a write up comparing top down and bottom up solutions that was inspired by Sagan's riff on 345 that there is no top down solution for illiteracy in science.
In short, the thought is that we cannot solve issues like illiteracy in education, racism and the like with grand gestures from the top. Culture needs to change from individual to individual, and while these issues may never disappear entirely, they will propagate much faster through mimicry of better peers than from rules passed down from authority.
Another quote from page 406 where context might expose itself amid recent social unrest in the United States.
"Those who seek power at any price detect social weakness and ride it into office."
Sagan takes the opportunity in closing to tie back many of his models for thinking throughout the book to the current state of the the myriad. On page 414, we can look to Sagan's concerns at the time in hindsight and truly appreciate his foresight, for issues that were to come in Society. Sagan again expresses his concerns in the first pages where an increasingly small number of people will control the news, history books among other generally accepted authorities on objective information, and how if polluted, will user in a 1984/Trotsky-an era of misinformation.
Nearing the end on page 430 and describing the importance of the freedom of speech and the broader Bill of Rights, Sagan drops 2 different quotes from John Stuart Mill, an 1850s author and political commentator.
Silencing an opinion is a peculiar evil. If the opinion is right we are robbed the opportunity of exchanging error for truth and if it is wrong we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth and it's collision with error.
A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both and deserve neither.
Okay, one spoiler alert. The below is the final paragraph of the book on page 434 that speaks volumes on the value of Sagan's ideas and commentary throughout the whole of the preceding pages. It deserves not to be paraphrased.
Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don't have them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this maybe all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
I’m going to shoot for keeping up this practice of doing a ‘Page Crimps’ edition once per month, so expect another in 4 weeks, not sure what it’ll be yet, I’ve got a backlog to last a while.
If you’re looking for an incentive to read more, consider finding a book club that suits you. Here’s one I’d recommend. I’ve found it to be a great practice for reading things I wouldn’t usually pick up and building a common language with others.
Next week, I’m going to talk about people pretending to be suns on the internet.