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Candle in the Dark – Demon Haunted World

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    Carl Sagan’s book “The Demon-Haunted World” is a book about science, pseudoscience and the difference between the two. It is clear from the beginning that Mr. Sagan is very passionate about science and frustrated with society’s lack of literacy in this subject. Throughout the book he talks about many different situations where pseudoscience has taken grasp on people, culture and society and tries to explain what happened that caused pseudoscience to win.

    There are a few techniques and things to watch out for when evaluating an extraordinary clam including understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience, using skepticism as well as your “baloney detection kit” and understanding there is no such thing as a dumb question. Mr. Sagan begins by making it painfully obvious that most of us want to understand the world around us, and to some degree we think that we do. Most people have some sort of belief or explanation for what they see around them. For some its religion, for others is science, or unfortunately pseudoscience.

    Mr. Sagan refers to it as a cheap imitation of science, one that has a lower standard of proof, if any standard at all. Simply put Mr. Sagan makes the argument that science is repeatable. Science is measurable. The main difference between a cosmic explanation, a pseudoscientific explanation and a scientific one is the fact that science requires adequate evidence before an explanation can be accepted. Also science thrives on accepting error, it actually embraces the fact that there are assumptions, constraints and unknowns in whatever idea is proposed.

    Science encourages fellow scientists to repeat experiments, prove or disprove an idea and move on to the next one. “Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking”, says the author. It is important to view science objectively. For example right before WWII a gentleman named Lysenko was able to convince Stalin that a “philosophically correct” genetic base would yield much more favorable agricultural results. By philosophically correct he basically meant without any evidence other than an ideology.

    In fact Lysenko had no control experiments and nothing but contradictory data. Instead of doing what a real scientist would do, according to Mr. Sagan, Lysenko did not abandon his theory and move on to a better one, he in fact decided to lie and stick to it. Unfortunately Lysenko was a powerful man and was able to keep his science illiterate leaders believing his false claims. The result of which was a nation decades behind in agriculture. This is a classic example of the dangers of both being science illiterate as well as blatantly ignoring the scientific method.

    The author explains it well: Science is different from many another human enterprise – not, of course, in its practitioners being influenced by the culture they grew up in, nor in sometimes being right and sometimes wrong (which are common to every human activity), but in passion for framing testable hypothesis, in its search for definitive experiments that confirm or deny ideas, in the vigor of its substantive debate, and in its willingness to abandon ideas that have been found wanting. One of the greatest skills one must have when evaluating an extraordinary claim is skepticism.

    On the topic of Aliens, the author uses a few examples to show how pseudoscience makes a claim, one that seems logical on the surface, but a little skepticism is enough to realize it doesn’t quite make sense. For example alien beings come to earth and abduct people from their beds. These aliens then perform experiments on humans and kind of erase their memory. The reason for this is explained to be that they want to know how humans reproduce. In other words these aliens, who have the technology for intergalactic travel, almost undetected, have a rudimentary understanding of biology.

    They seem to go through a lot of trouble when they could easily raid a library, or simply collect samples. The above story is a simple one that requires that one asks questions and breaks down what the proposed theory is. There is no evidence to say that these people were or were not abducted. However there is sufficient lack of evidence that they were and other much more plausible explanations that make the theory very weak if not outright unbelievable. There is no data, there is no science, and there is no proof.

    This rationale and technique can be learned and is one that certainly important for the person trying to understand an extraordinary claim. Early in the book the author also mentions how science literacy plays a huge role in how pseudoscience can explain something to the layman. For example many hallucinations that people report seeing happen at night either when falling asleep or waking up, especially those of abductions. A sense of paralysis overtakes the body, images of people, perhaps alien beings are reported.

    The above depiction surely is frightening and hard to explain, if you have no knowledge of psychology and sleep disorders. Sleep paralysis is a relatively common condition whose symptoms are exactly as described. One needs to understand science in order to spot the false conclusions around us. Mr. Sagan goes as far as to show skepticism tools, what he refers to as the baloney detection kit. This is a mixture of rules of thumb, mindsets and typical examples for one to be able to spot a false argument or pseudoscience.

    In fact the entire book is riddled with examples that by applying this toolset would lead to a second look at the very least. Of unique interest include arguments from authority carry little weight. Often we see the government, or some agency giving the public information. They have been wrong before and usually have their agendas. Also whenever there is a chain of arguments, every link in the chain must work, not just some of them. Aside from tools, the author also gives insight on what not to do. Again an expansive list of which “helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric”.

    Interesting ones include the “appeal to ignorance” which is defined as “the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa”. Which from crop circles hoaxes, UFO sightings and more we see in the book that appeal to ignorance is very common. “Begging the question” works on the side of skepticism by “appealing to the answer”. The example given includes stating that the death penalty is needed to reduce crime. There is an implication that the death penalty will have an impact but there is no evidence as such.

    Another important lesson here is finding a harmony in science and curiosity. There must be a balance between being open minded and skeptical. In order for the scientific method to thrive it is critical for one to ask questions and find alternate hypothesis or explanations. Critical for evaluating an extraordinary claim is looking at it with enough skepticism to find the pseudoscience, but at the same time ask is this possible or can it be explained another way? The Demon-Haunted World is full of examples of where science has failed us, or where we have failed science.

    Mr. Sagan makes it clear that understanding science is critical for the continued development of society and of its survival. By using science one can ask the right questions and know what the right answers are at least what they look like. By being understanding the scientific world around us, using the baloney detection kit to aid in our application of skepticism with an open mind we realize there is no dumb question. As long as we keep asking questions and scrutinizing the answer, pseudoscience will never pass itself off as science again.

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    Candle in the Dark – Demon Haunted World. (2016, Sep 16). Retrieved from

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