Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan


    In The Demon-Haunted World, famed astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan argues the importance of science and critical thinking in the success of the world and everything we do. Sagan elaborates on how scientific illiteracy and lack of critical thinking has led to millions of people falling susceptible to pseudoscience and related beliefs, such as UFOs, aliens, witchcraft, and how this could lead to devastating consequences. He explains the history and emergence of such pseudoscientific beliefs and uses science and critical thinking to debunk these alleged truths. For instance, he details how hoaxes, human fallacies, psychological aberration (e.g., hallucinations), or even a simple misunderstanding of the world may attribute to people falling susceptible to such beliefs. Sagan even provides excerpts from books, newspapers/tabloids, and personal statements from fellow scientists and “witnesses” to bolster his notions/examples. Sagan explains how science is a way of thinking that is both imaginative and disciplined, emphasizing how this balance of creative and critical thinking can improve science, and ultimately the world, as people are open-minded to new ideas and criticize old beliefs/doctrines, thus leading to more scientific explorations that help us better understand the world/universe. 


Favorite Part & Relation to Class:  

    Chapter 8 “On the Distinction Between True and False Visions” was one of my favorite chapters in which Sagan examines the fallibility of human memory, discussing how memory can be contaminated in several ways including hypnosis and false memory implantation.  In this chapter, Sagan explains a few studies regarding memory fallibility/suggestibility in which people, under hypnosis, had false memories implanted. For instance, Sagan mentions a study in which eight subjects were hypnotized and informed they had been abducted and studied by aliens. When asked to describe their experience, the subjects recalled the exact story proposed by the experimenter when they were under hypnosis. Sagan also discusses a case performed by psychiatrist George Ganaway in which Ganaway proposed to a patient under hypnosis that five hours of her memory from a particular day were missing. When Ganaway suggests a bright light overhead, the patient responded by telling him about aliens and UFOs. Still under hypnosis, Ganaway insisted she had been abducted and experimented on, and she responded by detailing an elaborate abduction narrate. In addition to these two cases, Sagan mentioned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies showcasing that even unhypnotized subjects can fall victim to false memory implantation. Sagan warns memories are not always accurate and can be contaminated, especially under therapeutic settings through a few cues and questions. He claims the beliefs of the hypnotist/therapist can be communicated to the patient who then misconstrues these beliefs into memories they believe to be accurate and true. According to Sagan, once a key idea is suggested, a patient will more than likely add supporting details. This chapter was one of my favorites as it exemplifies how easily suggestible human memories can be to outside sources and thus, we should be more critical of the veracity of our memories during recall. The chapter also illuminated how such suggestibility can account for why people may fall susceptible to believing in pseudoscientific aspects, adamant that these memories are accurate 

      Reading chapter eight reminded of several class lectures in which the concepts of hypnosis and false memories have been discussed in relation to pseudoscientific beliefs. Lecture seven discusses false memories and how recalled memories are often false; with hypnosis, suggestive interviewing, and leading questions increasing one’s confidence in these false memories and their accuracy. The Florence False Interpretation study details the same findings discussed by Sagan in which clinicians can influence their patients, making patients believe in events that never took place, as people are easily suggestible, especially in therapeutic settings. This specific lecture also included a TED talk by Elizabeth Loftus in which she discusses the fallibility of our memories. Lecture nine connects the aforementioned information to UFO abductions where suggestive interviews and guided imagery (hypnotic or non-hypnotic) can be used to elicit “memories” of being abducted by aliens. Overall, the information discussed in chapter eight and the lectures was quite interesting and an eye opener for me as I learned that our memories can be fallible and so I must be more skeptical in regards to the accuracy of my memories, as well as others, as opposed to taking them for face value. 


Extension to solve a real-world problem or addresses a current issue: 

    The book divulges on how imperative skeptical and critical thinking are in relation the success and evolution of the world for this way of thinking allows us to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. Sagan warned how our lack of such scientific literacy/thinking would be the downfall of not just America, but the entire world, as people are easily fooled into believing alleged truths that have no evidence to support these notions. In today's society, we see how this scientific illiteracy has impacted the world and the people who inhabit it. For instance, we see anti vaxxers, climate change deniers, and people who believe COVID-19 is a hoax. Majority of those who believe COVID-19 to be a hoax refuse to acknowledge the scientific/medical aspects of the deadly virus. As a nation, we need to educate people as much as possible to build more skeptical, critical minds to fight against scientific illiteracy. This can be accomplished by implementing more science programs/classes in schools and giving people easier access to such programs in order to expand their education and scientific literacy.  


Below is a link to an interview in which Carl Sagan discusses The Demon Haunted World. This was the last interview for Sagan before his death in 1996. It is quite an interesting watch.  

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