Friday, July 13, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World

Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" is an extensive exploration into the realities and falsehoods of mankind's greatest paranormal mysteries. Sagan, a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, is well versed in many fields of science, history, and the paranormal, which leaves him well equipped to tackle such a diverse challenge as debunking some of the biggest wonders of the modern (and ancient) world. While the book itself is considerably dense at 480 pages and does drag at points where the lines between science and Sagan's personal opinion become blurred, Sagan for the most part remains a credible and well-versed source on the book's countless array of topics, which range from aliens, to witches, to psychic healers, to ancient biblical demons, to modern technology, to dragons, ghosts and much more.

Sagan succeeds in making each topic as thought-provoking and enticing as the one before it, always adding in little known facts which serve to shed light on the much bigger picture. For example, while discussing aliens (one of the main areas of focus throughout the book), Sagan notes that the first account of a "flying saucer" being seen was in fact a misinterpretation by the news when interviewing the first apparent witness of a saucer; a civilian pilot who claimed the UFO "flew in a saucer-like fashion," not that it was saucer-like itself. When discussing the concept of demons in older cultures (which Sagan makes a strong case comparing many of the superstitions surrounding ancient demons to how we view and fear aliens today), Sagan retells an insightful story of one of the first Priests in the Catholic church claiming that demons are not a real, physical threat, rather "our own wills become the demons and it is that which attack us." When discussing modern science, he plays an interesting card in claiming that modern science has debunked itself, leaving room for acceptance of pseudoscience, due to the science's underlying political agenda; backing certain politicians, making unbiased claims for the hazards of marijuana, and denying the dangers of Agent Orange. And while looking at society as a whole in regards to their belief of the paranormal, Sagan makes the keen observation that people still fear and have trouble understanding people of different races, therefore it is inevitable we would get lost in the unknown.

 My favorite part of the book stems down to a single quote, located in a particularly interesting chapter which exploring the psychology of such myths, a colleague of Sagan reflects, "the power or intensity with which something is felt is a guide to whether it's true." This I believe is something that stands at the root of all paranormal experience; the high level of emotion displayed in those claiming to have been abducted by aliens or to have been contacted by the dead. In the same chapter, Sagan also discusses something we covered in class; the power therapist's have over their patients in terms of suggestion and inference to make them believe something which hasn't happened to something has. Sagan muses that in the same manner a therapist can inadvertently make a patient believe that said patient was sexually abused when they were not can be used to make someone believe they were abducted by aliens when they actually weren't, a thought which I could write a whole paper on alone.

"The Demon-Haunted World" is not just an evaluation of pseudoscience and the paranormal, but of contemporary culture as well. Sagan brings this point together well in the final chapter of the book, where he notes that there is not a single nation on Earth prepared to deal with the challenges of today, and only through understanding and compassion can our society survive against whatever is out there, even if the greatest threat proves to be ourselves. To extend this thought is the YouTube clip embedded below, where Sagan provides an insightful message to mankind and our aspirations in a time where our greatest challenges are still unknown.

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