Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book 61: The Demon-Haunted World

As much as I enjoyed this book, I am not sure if I have much to say about it.  In its simplest form, this book is a plea to focus on science, in education and the media, and to teach the scientific method.  Sagan argues that many people have no idea what the scientific method is, so that they are easily duped when pretenders show up with bogus results.  As a result, he spends a lot of time discussing aliens and UFO sightings, showing how they have no real evidence to back them up.  Unfortunately, not even basic high school classes seem to actually teach what counts as evidence, and this allows too many people to be deceived in this arena, as well as other areas where it matters, such as global warming.
It is very easy to read, and the chapters are all relatively short (less than 20 pages), thus easy to break down into small junks.  For the most part, the chapters build on each other, leading from one thought to the other, though I think many could also be read independently of the rest of the book and still be understood.  In some cases, he provides very specific details, examines hoaxes, and also has a chapter where he discusses certain signs that inevitably signal bad science, such as confusing causation and correlation to name a simple one.  I liked his no nonsense approach, but he also doesn't make fun of those taken in - he provides examples of how easy it is to be fooled, hence the importance of a scientifically literate population. 
Given that this was written almost twenty years ago, I wondered how he would feel about today, since many of the fears he lists about culture in the '90s have only worsened and become more extreme.  He doesn't lay all the blame on the common people either - he mentions that some scientists have made this divide worse as well by explaining things in very complicated terms.  Science is interesting, but it needs to be presented in an engaging way rather than the dry textbooks that seem so prevalent in schools, the exact time when children are having their first interactions with the subject.  It is a wide ranging book, and Sagan discusses the many goods of science while acknowledging its flaws and missteps.  He also points out that many scientific discoveries were the by product of other experiments, and cautions against limits on science research since very focused goals could easily prevent other important breakthroughs.  I'll definitely check out some of Sagan's other work in the future though I'm not sure where to start.

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