Friday, June 11, 2010

The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World is a book of individualized chapters containing pseudoscience or paranormal events, sometimes Sagan’s own experience, wherein he uses of “scientific thought” to debunk its existence. He wants the reader to think for themselves and be skeptical of pseudoscience and the paranormal.

Sagan’s methodology uses testing ideas and beliefs in order to determine if events can withstand the validity of science and skepticism. If it doesn’t pass the test, it must not be real. Sagan even questions the validity of the 1976 Viking orbiter spacecraft and religious apparitions are only superstitions.

I have decided to discuss Sagan’s chapter on Science and Witchcraft. But first thought it was important to establish how humans are enticed into pseudoscience and paranormal behaviors. In section 10.2 of Scientific Perspective on Pseudoscience and the Paranormal How to Sell a Pseudoscience, Anthony Pratkanis explains nine techniques used to take one for a ride.

It begins with a clever person creates a phantom “unavailable goal” but presents it as obtainable in order to gain the follower’s commitment through loyalty, limited time and other incentives. Although I have attached the video, I am providing the link in the event it cannot be opened.

The next step is called “manufacturer source credibility and sincerity;” the ability to gain the trust of others. David Koresh was unfortunately successful in gaining credibility and sincerity of hundreds of people to the extent 54 adults and 21 children followed him to their deaths (Koresh 1).

But there needs to be a product to sell you and it can be in the form of tangible like a purse or intangible like religion. Granfalloon is the use of rituals, symbols, common goals and/or feelings, to name a few to entice the buyer or follower. Sometimes while promoting their product, “self-generated persuasion” is used. Tom Cruise takes a lot of heat from his “customer-turned-salesperson” beliefs in Scientology.

Another way to get across one’s message is constructive “vivid appeals,” which are events that make strong impressions. Due to its graphic nature and out of respectful for those who lost their lives, I will not include any imagines from the destruction caused by the September 11th. It has been almost ten years and it remains a very sensitive subject.

Sometimes we are subject to the use of “pre-persuasion” through “nature of the issue/differentiation, expectations, and specific decision criteria.” Voodoo dolls are an example and still used today not only in movies, but in alternative religions. Kevin Smith’s Dogma is a great encompassment of these principles, especially in a scene where Loki confronts board members of their sins and seals his message through use of a voodoo doll constructed of an onion.

Heuristics and Commonplace are most commonly used in marketing. Is a Coach purse better than a Walmart special just because it costs more? Does the grapefruit diet really work? And lastly, innuendos and character assassinations – is one religion really better than another? Is one politician better than the other?

From the 1500 through 1700’s witch hunts were prevalent in Europe as well as the United States. Alternative religious practices, such as Wicca and Druid, were deemed witches because it was believed they worshiped the Devil.

Sagan singles out the works of a Jesuit priest named Friedrich von Spee who was assigned to hear the confessions of those being prosecuted for practicing witchcraft in 1600’s Wurzburg, Germany. He believed the Church was unfairly torturing and executing innocent people accused of witchcraft and denounced these activities in his “whistle-blowing book” Cautio Criminals (translates to Precautions for Prosecutors).

Sagan lists only 39 points taken from Cautio Criminals. I was intrigued by von Spee because Jesuit priests, referred to as “God’s marines (Society 2), are very dedicated to the Catholic Church and he risk it all by questioning the Church’s persecution of innocents in the name of God. Those raised in the Catholics faith are condition, as stated the Richard Dawkins, to believe we are not supposed to commit murder, bear false witness against one’s neighbor, or have no other gods before God (Ten Commandments 3) to name a few.

Unfortunately reality is different from religious teachings. Your neighbor is a Quaker and follows the book of “Faith and Practice” instead of the Bible. Some demented person with strong religious beliefs may execute his neighbor because they didn’t follow his beliefs in “you shall have no other gods before me (God).” This just puts a hole in the pseudoscientific belief “thou shall not murder?” It is the 1600’s and you have a disagreement with your Wiccan neighbor, you have an unsuccessful day at store, and human nature is to blame others when something goes wrong so you accuse your neighbor that his/her use of witchcraft caused your misfortunate. You really didn’t believe in “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” did you?

In 1631, von Spee made some very valid observations the God fearing community. Here are only a few:

First point:
Incredibly among us Germans, and especially…among Catholics, are
popular superstitions, envy, calumnies, backbiting, insinuations, and
the like, which, being neither punished nor refuted, stir up suspicion
of witchcraft. No longer God or nature, but witches are responsible
for everything.
Fourth point:
Judges hardly know where to start, since they have no evidence or proof.
Ninth point:
If a madman’s ravings or some malicious and idle rumor (for no proof of the
scandal is ever needed) points to some helpless old woman, she is the first to

Sagan states “if we do not know what we’re capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves (Sagan 4, pg 406).”

Across the pond in America those accused of witchcraft were prosecuted under spectral evidence. Spectral evidence, according to Wikipedia, is testimony from a witness originating from dreams or visions and would be used as evidence against defendants. These “visions” could be a simple as Jane Doe dreaming that John Doe strangled her. Once reported to authorities, they would use these visions against the accused although the event may not have actually taken place. Spectral evidence was permitted by Chief Justice William Stoughton during the Salem Witch Trials. Rev. Cotton Mather argued that spectral evidence should be used with caution and not be the sole evidence for convictions “as it was possible for the Devil to take the shape of an innocent person” (Spectral 5).

Back in the 1600’s not much was know about dreams or visions really meant. The evil of spectral evidence is one being condemned based solely on testimony of a dream or visions with no evidence to substantiate the accusation. I was reading Earthway by Mary Summer Rain, which includes a section called The Mind. This section is her recommendation of what certain items in a dream represent. So if I had a dream that my husband was taking off a necktie, according to this book applying spectral evidence, my husband would have a “coking personality that smother concepts and thoughts” which in the times of the Salem Witch trials may have been misconstrued as my husband was trying to strangle me (Earthway 6).

Spectral evidence can be skewed by the elapsing of time. The longer time has passed and the more times a person tells the story, the more distorted the event becomes. Today the courts use a form of spectral evidence called character evidence. Webster’s Dictionary defines character evidence as “evidence of a particular human trait (as honesty or peacefulness) of a party or witness (Webster 7).” Character evidence is used mostly in criminal proceedings. The defense or prosecution may use character evidence if “a criminal defendant offers it about himself or herself or about the victim, or if the prosecution offers evidence to rebut the defendant's evidence in either of those circumstances. The prosecution may also rebut a claim of self-defense by presenting evidence of the peaceful character of the victim. Additionally, the character of a witness with regard to truthfulness may be attacked or supported by opinion or by evidence of reputation (Webster’s 7).

Another evil of spectral evidence is the courts must rely upon the truthfulness and honesty of the witness. If the witness is also your accuser, how truthful can the testimony be which will ultimately be used as evidence for conviction? Today a growing number of police detectives are using psychics to aid in investigative work. A defense attorney in today’s proceedings can object to the use of psychics investigations because of unreliable information nor are prosecutors permitted to psychic testimony is admissible evidence in court (Psychic Criminology 8).

Because many were afraid of themselves being condemned as witches, spectral evidence could have been fabricated by accusers to avoid prosecution themselves. Unfortunately our legal system was still evolving during this phase of history which included the Salem Trials, and as a result defendants had no mandated rights to legal representation. It wasn’t until 1791 when the fifth and sixth amendments were adopted into the Bill of Rights given defendants rights to avoid self-incrimination and rights to a fair trial.

Organized religions in the United States are considered business, non-profit, but a business none-the-less. This would substantiate the principles in How to Sell a Pseudoscience principles: creating a goal, obtaining followers, gain their trust, build a facility that is pleasing to the masses, throw in a few known and admired people in the community, build the religion on shared fears and beliefs, denounce those who don’t share your beliefs. Since the same people who may attending organized religions may also be the representatives in you local, state or federal government, we tend to vote with our hearts instead of our heads because we want a representative who serves our interest. As we have seen from historical events, sometimes our best interests are driven by pseudoscience and the paranormal.


1. Koresh, author unknown, June 10 2010,

2. Society of Jesus, Author unknown, June 9 2010,

3. Ten Commandments, Author unknown, June 8 2010,

4. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books, New York, 1996

5. Spectral Evidence,, author unknown, date March 22, 2010

6. Earthway, Mary Summer Rain, Pocket Books 1990, page 361

7. Law Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law ©1996,

8. Psychic Criminology - The Art of Using Psychics as Detectives and in the Courts, Jill Stefko, May 1, 2007,

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