In this large and well-padded book, Carl Sagan promotes a vulgar scientism: the notion that science and its method provide the solutions to virtually all human problems and serve as the ultimate guide for human behavior. Sagan’s scientific method serves as a kind of “baloney detector” by which to detect the fraudulent, the self-serving, the power-mad, the superstitious, and the fictitious. He puts virtually everything except science in these categories, including statements by politicians, UFO abduction stories. New Age enthusiasms, and the idea of reincarnation. However, Sagan himself has demons that escape his scrutiny, including his left-wing political convictions (evident throughout the book), the belief in extraterrestrial intelligence, and the notorious nuclear winter scare of a few years back. Sagan also includes religion—especially Christianity—which he smears rather than attacks by a clever method of guilt-by-association. His discussion of religion is immediately linked to the witch-hunting craze of the 16th century, on which he spends a significant part of his book. He describes the methods of torture and the interrogation process, and quotes from Catholic and Protestant authorities. Sagan’s devotion to the poor witches, some of whom like Joan of Arc were burned at the stake, is remarkable. But are there no examples of cruelty in the 20th century for Sagan to write about at such length and in such detail? Sagan’s attacks on religion, which might have been written by Mark Twain, Tom Paine, or Robert Ingersoll, are pervaded by the musty odor of 18th- and 19th century atheism.
These men, however, wrote far more intelligently and forthrightly than Sagan, who has dramatized his own scientism in a PBS series which dumbed down astronomical science to the point that the only memorable phrase from it is “billions and billions.” Sagan skates on the surface of significant issues, glibly reducing the anxieties of the human heart to hormonal imbalances, mankind’s search for transcendence to a remembrance of childhood fears, and the conflict between faith and reason to a sort of intellectual wrestling match between “science” and “anti-science.” But even on this vulgar level, too much has happened in the 20th century for Sagan’s scientific triumphalism to be credible, so that inconvenient facts are either mentioned only in passing or not mentioned at all. For example, Sagan’s treatment of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity neglects to mention that the chief proponent of the absoluteness of time and space was not some Medieval monk but Isaac Newton, and that it was not Edward Teller (who appears to be one of Sagan’s chief demons) but President Eisenhower who was responsible for removing Robert Oppenheimer as an advisor on atomic policy to the federal government.
In the end, Sagan is promoting a meretricious account of science that is more a schoolboy history of the world than it is a defense and justification of scientific discipline.
[The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan (New York: Random House) 457 pp., $25.95]
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