There are good books and there are great books. In the realm of non-fiction, I’d place Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to be in the latter category.
Sagan, without argument, was one of our great minds. If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, you knew who he was. His television program, Cosmos, was one of the most-watched shows ever. And the thing I always liked about him was that he always came across as a down-to-earth person. Just one who was smarter than everyone else in the room.
The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1995, which was a transitional period in the world of technology and science. The internet was becoming a big deal, Windows 95 was released, the first Sony PlayStation went on sale, the Galileo Probe entered Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the existence of a Top Quark was announced by the scientific community.
I think much of this got Sagan thinking about progress and how it can have both good and bad affects on society. What he ended up doing was writing (along with co-author and life partner Ayn Druyan) a eerily accurate forecast of where we are today.
Sagan, obviously, was a proponent of science. As an astrophysicist, he was able to see things from a wider perspective than the average person, and coupled with his joy of knowledge and learning, he did his best to get people interested in science and its place in our lives.
I think The Demon-Haunted World does a good job of extolling the importance of science education in schools, as well as for the general public. But at the same time, it also serves as a warning about anti-science mentalities and how a lack of basic scientific knowledge can be dangerous and insidious.
Sadly, many of the things he predicted that could happen if science education were to be de-emphasized have come to pass. Roughly one-third of the US population rejects science. We can see it in with how easily people are swayed by unsupported rumors and theories, who reject scientific research in exchange for ‘gut instinct’ and social-media research.
I found myself repeatedly shaking my head while reading this book as I realized how right Sagan was, and how disappointed he’d be if he were alive today.
If nothing else, this book demonstrates the importance of science in our lives, the importance of science education, and the importance of critical thinking skills. These things have taken a back seat in school curriculums, and unfortunately, society is suffering because of it.
The Demon-Haunted World is a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book. It’s a shame that the people who would benefit the most from it aren’t likely to read it.
Regardless, I recommend it for anyone with an interest in science, psychology, sociology, and critical thinking. I learned a lot from reading it. Even decades after his death, Sagan can still teach us something important.