Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Demon-Haunted World

Before reading A Sand County Almanac I had read The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. I think this is the only time I've ever been disappointed by any of Carl's works.

Certainly the world needs people like Carl to advocate sensible thinking and an appreciation for why science isn't "just another faith" but qualitatively different in meaningful ways. We don't need to be rid of things like astrology, creationism, and ghosts: they have a place in fiction and art. We just need not to be imagining them to be real and letting them guide decisions that matter. And Carl is perhaps the single strongest voice for the popularization of science in our generation. So the book just seems like a sure winner.

Somehow, though, the book falls flat. Too much of the time, Carl is grinding personal axes. Too often he succumbs to rhetorical methods too similar to those used by the people he's refuting, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to the people who most need this message -- i.e., not me, where he's preaching to the choir, but the people who actually fall for this stuff in the first place. And maybe the book works for them, in which case, more power to Carl for choosing that route. But for me, for every fascinating anecdote or cunning refutation, there was a passage which grated on me.

Foremost amongst the cheap rhetorical tricks was the one where you pose an argument as a question. Or more accurately, the lack of an argument. You see this one all the time in the news, especially neocon news. The trick is, just make someone consider something possible (because they can't be sure it isn't) and then they tend to accept it as true. It's all about shifting the burden of proof. That he's using this to defend things that actually are true does not excuse it or make it stop grating on me.

The book also feels uneven. He jumps from topic to topic a lot, but not consistently; sometimes he ties things together and sometimes they're just left lying around. There's just too much narrative connecting things to consider the sections separate or allow them to stand on their own, but not enough to actually connect everything.

There are certainly good things in the book. The collection of anecdotes about things that have fooled people are worth the price of admission alone. And some of his arguments are not only compelling but a good addition to the toolkit of any sensible skeptic. I suppose it's mostly that my expectations were so high that I felt let down; by another author the book might have felt strong to me, though I would probably have said, "I wish Carl Sagan would have written this instead, then it would have been so much stronger." Even so, it's a worthwhile read.

I'd really love to see whether anyone who wasn't a skeptic before reading it was convinced afterwards, because if so, all my reservations and criticisms go away. I absolutely agree that if this is what it takes to get through to the people who need this lesson, he should completely ignore making the book strong to me. I just wonder if that's the case.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I think nonmaterialist attitudes towards existence are so foreign for Carl Sagan (and to an even greater extent for Richard Dawkins) that they become impatient when trying to argue their very valuable points. The Demon-Haunted World does a more convincing job, but I agree that Sagan's arguments aren't up to his usual standard. I'd love to see a book in favor of a skeptical, rational worldview written by a nonembittered (is that a word?) person from a religious background--someone who understood the appeal of faith.