Basically, Sagan argues that (1) scientific literacy and critical thought are vital for the success of any democratic society; (2) the scientific method is presently the best method that we have to determine some sort of provisional truth that we can work with; (3) science is successful due to the error-correcting machinery present in its method; and (4) democracy is a good social system of governance as it also contains error-correcting attributes.
Sagan highlights the dangers of, and presents some very convincing arguments against, the claims of fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, astrologers, faith healers and alien abductees. One of the central aims of the book is to debunk these pseudoscientific beliefs, as well as to highlight the differences between pseudoscience and real science:
Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively . . . A succession of alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observation. Science gropes and staggers towards improved understanding . . . Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof . . . Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced. (pg 25)The book is also useful as it provides invaluable information on critical thought. The chapter titled ‘The Fine Art of Baloney Detection’ provides some tips on how to spot spurious arguments and false claims made by television adverts, politicians, astrologers and the like.
One thing bothered me though. As an indication of the decline of critical thought in society, Sagan lists various television programmes. For example, he criticizes Star Trek for misinterpreting the theory of evolution, and X-Files for presenting a half-baked idea of critical thought. I found his criticism of television programmes a bit tiring; it reminded me of those little old ladies at my childhood church who would complain for hours about television and how it was corrupting the minds of children.
I must admit that I really liked The Demon-Haunted World. All in all, a good book with good arguments against superstition and pseudoscience, although Sagan’s intermittent doomsday tone got to me somewhat.