The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

by Carl Sagan

Other authorsAnn Druyan (Author)
Paperback, 1997


Science. Nonfiction. HTML:A prescient warning of a future we now inhabit, where fake news stories and Internet conspiracy theories play to a disaffected American populace “A glorious book . . . A spirited defense of science . . . From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought.”—Los Angeles Times How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions. Casting a wide net through history and culture, Sagan examines and authoritatively debunks such celebrated fallacies of the past as witchcraft, faith healing, demons, and UFOs. And yet, disturbingly, in today's so-called information age, pseudoscience is burgeoning with stories of alien abduction, channeling past lives, and communal hallucinations commanding growing attention and respect. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms. Praise for The Demon-Haunted World “Powerful . . . A stirring defense of informed rationality. . . Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing.”—The Washington Post Book World “Compelling.”—USA Today “A clear vision of what good science means and why it makes a difference. . . . A testimonial to the power of science and a warning of the dangers of unrestrained credulity.”—The Sciences “Passionate.”—San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle.… (more)



Call number



Ballantine Books (1997), Edition: Reprint, 457 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member gmmoney
I read this book, believe it or not, because it was recommended on the atheist subreddit. I was simultaneously emboldened and depressed by it.Sagan discussed two main thesis in this book, that skepticism and science are integral to an informed electorate and a competitive, modern nation, and that
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much of the superstitions, paranormal activity and even religion are outside the realm of modern post-enlightenment thought and should be treated as such. He also took umbrage with the culture of proud stupidity that seems to permeate our country that even our elected officials can't escape. He wanted very much for us to embrace science literacy and recapture that post-enlightenment curiosity that inspired our founding fathers to ask questions not only of our fledgling government but also of nature.I was really impressed with the way that he discussed religion and people of faith; as I explore atheism I'm often appalled at how quickly people devolve to religion-bashing or criticizing their Christian brothers and sisters as intellectual inferiors. Sagan was very good at offering a convincing yet respectful debate. Based on his advocacy for science in our public system, this should be required reading for every American. Unfortunately, because of it's size, (457 pags) he undoubtedly turned off the very people who should read it.My two favorite quotes: "The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.""Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate--with the best teachers--the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society."
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LibraryThing member melydia
Have you ever read something that filled you with such furvor that you wanted to write your own thoughts along those same lines, but whenever you tried you found you did nothing but repeat the original article?That's been me all over the place with The Demon-Haunted World. I want to ramble about
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the wonder of science, the importance of skepticism, the fact that school all but completely robbed me of any desire to learn, the dangers of pseudoscience, the intrinsic value of basic research even if it doesn't lead to a specific application right away...but Sagan says it all, and he says it better than I ever could. This is one of those amazing books that made me think long and hard about a lot of things. It made me want to know more about the universe, to revisit old assumptions and condescensions, to step back a moment and drink it all in.Sagan speaks as one with a giddy love for the scientific process, one whose healthy skepticism does not make him stodgy or closed to new ideas. Much of the first half of the book is spent more or less on aliens - not only explanations for much of what is attributed to extraterrestrial activity, but why people assume aliens at all. He does grump a little about the dumbing-down of American entertainment and its lack of accurate science, but coming from someone who prizes knowledge so highly, I can understand his disappointment at the popularity of shows like "Beavis & Butthead" and "Dumb & Dumber." Likewise his unhappiness with dwindling popular and government support of science research and education.This book is absolutely astounding. It's one of the few that I recommend to anyone, even (and perhaps especially) if it challenges some of your closely held viewpoints. It did mine.
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LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
I left it a few days after finishing this book before writing this review because I thought there was a danger that I would go a bit over the top. I don't think that the few days grace have done anything other than make me realise this is one of the best books I have ever read.

This is even more
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surprising when I was told by many people that I would think precisely this, bearing mind what sort of an awkward and contrary bugger I am.

This is essentially a collection of essays setting down the authors views on the human condition and in particular our proclivity for self deception. Fascinating stuff from a man opted into official government committees on UFO's, a renowned space scientist at the centre of the Mars landings and an inspiration to millions.

Just as applicable to today's world as it was when published ten years ago.

This book should be on the to read list of anyone who is human and who thinks humans are interesting.

I don't rate things five stars on principle. I hope to live a good few more years yet and reserve the right to re-rate my books on my eightieth birthday. At that point with a lot more reading under my belt the odd five star may sneak in. It is therefore only my hopes for longevity which prevent me giving this book five stars.
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LibraryThing member Hegemellman
I had a few days last week where I felt pretty awesome and when I was talking to my therapist about it, she asked why I think that might have been. After thinking for a moment, I said that I was reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan and that I just felt more rational and optimistic. I
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hadn't realized it before she asked me, but it is true.

I have have had, for the last decade or so, what I'll call panic attack triggers. They're not full blown attacks, but they are, uncontrolled, the start of them. They are the feeling of shock and breathlessness that comes when you decide to jump off the swing-set and knock the air out of your lungs and for a moment wonder if you're ever going to breathe again. Mine are rooted in a feeling of guilt and extreme fear that comes with no longer being a Christian but having had the "fear of God" put into me as a child. I can usually logic myself out of them, reminding myself that my beliefs are much more reasonable than those I learned as a child, that it's ok that I just seem incapable of faith, and that if, on the outside-chance that there is Christian God, that He would not have created me as myself and then punish me for it. It takes a few minutes, but they go away and I forget about them until the next time. I know what thoughts trigger this feeling and, in the past I have avoided those thoughts, but while reading The Demon-Haunted World I realized that some of my trigger-thoughts were being addressed directly and that I was being supplied with tools to shore up my reason. I wasn't feeling triggered. It is an incredibly freeing feeling.

I'm not saying I'm cured or fixed by this book, but I am saying that if you are lost in the sea of religion/philosophy and need primer in navigation, this is a good one, no matter what religious persuasion you are.

This book has more than that, though. The above anecdote was inspired by a few of the chapters, but there a lot more chapters that talk about basic skepticism, how to approach non-skeptical people, and the role that science has played and does play in society. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member Zathras86
Sagan draws together history, psychology, and science in an explanation of why it is so easy for human beings to believe in the supernatural, and why we need to promote scientific thinking as a way to avoid falling into false beliefs. He analyzes our ability (perhaps even our need) to believe in
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the existence of everything from demons and witches to TV mediums and alien abduction, and shows us how rational thought can help us avoid the traps set by our own psychology. He does all this with great compassion and patience, and without descending into the angry or insulting rhetoric that characterizes so much of the debate between science and belief.

As a non-scientist I really enjoyed this book; I read excerpts from it for a class a year or so ago and finally got around to reading the whole thing. Sagan presents scientific thinking as an approachable and practical alternative with something for everyone, rather than some elusive concept achievable only by brainiacs and nerds. His writing style is personable, easy to read, and even funny; his explanations are easy to follow, without sacrificing accuracy.

Highly recommended to scientists and non-scientists alike. Even if you already understand and agree with the arguments presented in this book, Sagan will help you formulate the idea much more clearly.
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
Carl Sagan's death was a great loss, not only to the world of science, but to society as a whole. His popular science books were accessible to the intelligent but untrained mind, yet they did not lack in intellectual rigor. This book discusses the importance of approaching matters of science and
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pseudo-science with that same intellectual rigor.

Sagan addresses here a number of commonly-held, but false, beliefs -- alien abduction stories, crop circles, faith-healing, and the like -- and shows where these fall down in the face of examination. It really is surprising how many people continue to believe in such things, even when fraud is admitted! You can analyze such stories yourself. You don't need Sagan to do it for you, but, in one very valuable section, he provides the tools you'll need, what you need to do, to look for, to develop the ability to think skeptically. They bear repeating, so I will summarize:
1. There should be independent confirmation of the "facts".
2. Substantive debate by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view should be encouraged.
3. Spin more than one hypothesis, and test them.
4. Don't get too enamored of your hypothesis.
5. If what you are explaining as some measure or numerical quality, it's easier to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
6. Every link in the chain of argument, including the premise, must work. If you are going from A to G, and there's a hole between B and C, you can't get there.
7. Remember Occam's Razor (if two explanations fit the data equally well, the simpler is probably the true one).
8. Ask whether the hypothesis can be falsified. You have to be able to check things out., using carefully designed and controlled experiments.

Much of what you need in what Sagan calls your "baloney detection kit" can be learned in any basic logic course. Unfortunately, logic isn't taught in the schools anymore.

Sagan also addresses the disturbing trend in the U.S. (one that hasn't changed since the book was published nearly fifteen years ago) of attacking science, of making policy decisions relating to science based on political considerations rather than the facts. He points out that our founding fathers had a strong belief in science, that Thomas Jefferson, in fact, described himself as a scientist, not as a planter or a politician. These men read, they studied, they argued, they delved into the world of science. That has not been the case in recent decades (there may be some hope, though, in the appointment of a Nobel laureate in physics as President Obama's Secretary of Energy!).

It is, however, in discussing politics that this book is weakest. Sagan's attacks on Edward Teller, while perhaps warranted, seem a bit over the top, and so one naturally questions the objectivity of some of his other political statements. This is, however, a minor part of an otherwise excellent book.

The pity is that the people who ought to read it, won't.
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LibraryThing member moonimal
Sagan's writing makes this worth the read, which is more and more difficult to say about our science books. He weaves a thread of logic that pulls together religious, ESP, alien-invasion and other common myths to a single set of conclusions about the nature of being a human.

Similar, though much
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better than, 'Why People Believe Weird Things"
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
A re-read, I remember being struck by it when first published. I am afraid it did not hold up - this feels like the last book published prior to the age of the internet. So many of the controversies explored here are just defunct. I was hoping for a more definitive 'how to be a reasoning human'
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that I could pass on to my coming of age sons, but I don't think that would be their take away.

It is a shame, because in our age of youtube pundits and Q cults a handbook for critical thinking is more necessary than ever.
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LibraryThing member cleverusername2
Sagan was one of the rare, special thinkers that come along every now and then and if we’re lucky they leave a body of work behind for the rest of us to ponder over. I don’t know if this is his best work, but I think it is one of his most important. In a world full of pseudoscience and con
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artists it is important to ground your thinking and belief in the realm of reason; and I love the fact that Sagan emphasizes that you must not crush your sense of wonder at the world to do this. Imagination is important, but so is critical thinking and with help we may carry the candle in the dark for another generation.
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LibraryThing member heradas
Always insightful, it seems that Sagan just wanted to watch the world learn. I should've read this at 14. Honestly, this should probably be required high school reading for everyone. It illustrates clearly the many and varied personal and societal benefits gained from applying the methods of
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science to every corner of our thinking. The methods are the important part, the findings are just icing on the cake. It covers the dangers of unchecked ideologies and the requirement for both objectivity and wonder. Almost no topic is left unexamined. I really can't recommend this book enough.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
Science lost one of its most eloquent and persuasive spokesmen with the death last month of Carl Sagan. While he was best known as an astronomer and planetary scientist, The Demon-Haunted World should remind us that his interests were far broader than that. Here, he addresses at greater length some
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questions of pseudoscience that he briefly discussed in Sunday Parade magazine articles. But he also writes about many others, including aliens and UFO's, witchcraft, spoofing and the cold war, hallucinations, and the nature of scientific evidence and proof. I think that teachers will especially find Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" to be a handbook for dealing with irrational student beliefs in pseudoscience. Chapters 19 and 20, "No Such Thing as a Dumb Question" and "House on Fire" deal specifically with the state of science education in the U. S. Every teacher of science should read them.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Carl Sagan takes on pseudoscience. This book extolls the value of skepticism, critical thinking, and the scientific method. It should be required reading in my opinion. Unfortunately, those that could benefit most from applying more rigor in deciding what to believe will likely never read it.
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Originally published in 1995, he has proven to be prescient, as pseudoscience is even more prevalent than ever in recent years. Witness the rise in the number of shows about ancient aliens and paranormal activity, not to mention fake news. Outrageous claims are made and spread from person to person, and people believe these claims without questioning or proof. Why does this happen and what can we do to prevent it? Sagan attempts to answer these important questions.

This book is very readable. It does not require a deep understanding of science. Sagan writes in a way that is easily understood, while not becoming overly simplistic. He does not use jargon and, not surprisingly, presents evidence in a logical manner. He provides helpful analogies and treats his audience as bright and capable of understanding. He shows how scientific advances are fueled not only by hypothesizing, rigorous testing, and analysis of results, but also by curiosity and imagination.

I was surprised by how many areas outside the specifics of scientific inquiry are covered in this book, including literature, history, politics, religion, communications, education, economics, ethics, social norms, culture, and more. Science touches on almost every aspect of our lives but is largely ignored by many. Sagan’s subject matter includes debunking of such issues as crop circles, alien abductions, ancient astronauts, ESP, UFO’s, astrology, New Age mysticism, and the like. He reminds us of the importance of not confusing cause and effect, questioning claims that cannot be tested, requiring evidence to support assertions, and remaining skeptical about authoritative statements, especially if monetary gain is involved.

We are bombarded daily with outrageous claims (click bait, anyone?) urging us to simply believe without scrutiny, so healthy skepticism is becoming increasingly more important in our inter-connected world. Carl Sagan died in 1996, when the world wide web was in its infancy. One can only wish he were around today to help refute today’s absurdities, which are so obviously spurious in origin. I know I am “preaching to the choir,” since avid readers regularly engage in evaluative thinking. Even though some of the references are dated, this book contains an important and still relevant message on the value of critical thinking skills. I found it fascinating. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member elwyne
I love Carl Sagan. I love his passion for science, his humor, his accessibility, his love of wonder. But I am over the politics, the "shoulds", the endless pages of examples of how people are stupid. That's not fun to read. For me anyway; others may enjoy it more.
LibraryThing member mritchie56
Sagan takes on pseudo-science, faith healing, witchcraft and religion, calling for rigorous application of the scientific method to stop us from being sucked in by the "enveloping darkness." Not a terribly well-constructed book, probably because it's made up of essays that were previously published
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elsewhere, but a must-read, perhaps even more now (2017) than I first read it (1997).
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LibraryThing member Beej415
This is Sagan's impassioned plea for greater science education and an increased skepticism among the public to protect freedom and democracy. Much of the book is spent discussing the historic roots of pseudoscience and the possible bases for mass belief in things like UFOs, telepathy, crystals,
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astrology, and other "magic". The last quarter of the book is a bit boring and could have been edited down, but as always, Sagan's writing is clear, coherent, and enlightening.
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LibraryThing member dgoo
One of the original rationalist scientists of the 20th century, brilliant in his ideas, delivery, and logic.
LibraryThing member Kronomlo
Sagan discussed this book in the last interview he did before he died, the video is on YouTube and he was on the Charlie Rose show if you are inclined to watch it. He said at the time that there was a great interest in psychics, ghosts, and in particular, UFO's, within the U.S. population. Of
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course there still is, but at the time (early/middle 1990's) the popularity of the paranormal was growing at an exponential rate. He pointed out that, historically, whenever there is great uncertainty, unrest, and fear within a population, the interest in the paranormal, almost like clockwork, always rises.

Seances, tarot reading, psychics, etc., are sought out by people who need answers to unanswerable questions that science can't answer. So large numbers of people turn to the paranormal, or para-science, which, over time, can degrade the scientific method and people start to regress intellectually, scoffing at science. This book was written to remove those "demons" of anti-science, made to be read by a large audience in order to encourage people to be skeptical.

I encourage people to both read this book and watch Carl Sagan's final interview. In both, he's trying to teach us to question everything, to be curious, to explore, and to call b.s. on the charlatans who want to bamboozle you. His career of being both a scientist and a educator was to teach us to question, and at the end of his life he was seeing people fall, again, into the allure of the pseudosciences and the charlatans, and this book was written to help people see through it all.

A great book, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member SwitchKnitter
It's hard to say which part of this book I liked the best. The whole thing was fantastic. This is the first book of Sagan's I've read. Wow. I've got to look up more of his stuff. This particular text is about how important skepticism and open-mindedness are to day-to-day life, from evaluating TV
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commercials to politics. The chapters on supposed "alien abduction" had me laughing my ass off even as I was horrified by some of the stories. Great, great book. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
Easy to read, take no prisoners discussion of the problems with a world awash in pseudoscience. Sagan assails the mistakes of new age culture along with the UFOers, the cryptozoologists, and all others who would twist and torture the rules of evidence to provide support for their own preferred
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universe populated with all sorts of weird and mysterious creatures. He shows us the illogic of a world where the rules of nature are easily suspended, and he does it all with wit and charm. While I don't recommend that everyone consider reading the book on their honeymoon, for some of us quirkier members of the species, it simply adds to the delight.
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LibraryThing member epeeist
One of the few to stand against the tide of unreason arising in both America and the Islamic world.

A great book which totally debunks some of the lunacies alive in the world.
LibraryThing member amandrake
I forget what an amazing writer Carl Sagan really is. He's accessible, intelligent, thought-provoking - as well as provoking the occasional "YES!" in your brain when he perfectly states something that you always thought but couldn't quite put into words.
Also a great book to point to when people
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insist on the idea that atheists are mean, unhappy people who think they know everything.
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LibraryThing member sgerbic
Reviewed Aug - Sept 2001

The must read book 0voted in the Top 20 skeptic books, Sagan writes to be read by many. Many chapters are essays of their own only linked together for the book. Bits tell Sagan's own story, all are from his experiences. He tells us about his parents and how they taught him
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to love science even through they new nothing about it themselves. He has broken the book down into in the Moon, Face on Mars, Aliens, Therapy, Visions, Witchcraft in medieval times and modern, hallucinations, scientists and nerds as well as several chapters telling us why science is exciting and how to get others to think critically. Four chapters are more political and written with wife Ann Druyan. I loved the chapter with the dragon in the garage and found his stories about witchcraft very creepy. Not lunch time reading material. Tons of quotable material lies between pages, this is surly a great reference book for us all.

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LibraryThing member Robin_Goodfellow
you should carry this around in your pocket and keep reading it.
LibraryThing member literarytiger
This is a classic must-read for anyone interested in science and skepticism or anyone who has ever found themselves asking questions in the face of broad claims which we are expected to accept. It was Sagan's final book, and it is full of musings and questions which ensures his ideas will continue
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into the future. I loved how Sagan's mind worked and although I found him a little too placatory to people who may not have deserved it at times, this style ensures that he will be accessible to all readers, not just those who share his beliefs.
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LibraryThing member ElectricRay
I'm a big fan of Carl Sagan. I loved the `Cosmos' series, I thought `The Demon Haunted World' was an outstanding treatise on really important subject, and I really dug the movie `Contact'. I have only respect for his views the role and value of science and rational thought in everyone's daily life.
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So I looked forward to `Billions and Billions', his last work before his sad death a couple of years ago.
Well, while much of the book is true to form, in parts I was a little disappointed. For the first time, and maybe exactly because of his own dreadful circumstances, Sagan allows himself to stray from his stock material, - matters scientific and logical, where he's pretty unarguably right - to matters where, to my mind, he isn't - matters moral and political. So his chapters on the crises facing the world, all of which start out nicely enough, start introducing solutions which have a cloying, left wing, aroma to them.

To my reading of it, Sagan's basic thesis is that we (the proles) can't sort out the world's problems by ourselves, so we need a panel of wise men to legislate them away for us. That's a pile of old rope. Frankly, I have yards more confidence in the judgment (collectively) of the "man on the Clapham omnibus" than of any politicians (and I don't think the latter in any meaningful way represents the former), so I don't buy Sagan's argument at all.

But what bugs me is the unspoken intellectual imperialism of it. "Not only are there Wise Men who must make critical decisions for you", implies Sagan, "but they are people like Me." Well, sorry, but as anyone who has done a Bachelor's degree will know, the only people worse equipped than politicians to make judgments on behalf of the rest of us are people who spend their lives hanging out at places like Cornell University.

As a result Sagan starts sounding less like the completely dispassionate scientist and more like your common or garden sci-fi writer - his conceptions of how useful an idea government is aren't far off the loopy ones Arthur C Clark used to trundle out in his potboilers: you know, where, in five hundred years, finally the human race will Get It Right and we'll all live happily ever after.

Call me cynical, but it don't work like that. Given the history of science, a scientist of Sagan's calibre ought to know that.
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