The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark, by Carl Sagan. Headline, $29.95.

In 1656 Thomas Ady, in his book A Candle in the Dark, was one of the first to speak out against the witch mania which had engulfed Europe. This was at a time when any illness or storm, or anything out of the ordinary, was put down to the influence of witches. If there were no witches, the witch-hunters reasoned, how else could these things happen?

When the world seemed mysterious and terrifying, belief in witchcraft seemed to make some sense of events. Few had Ady’s courage to question the conventional wisdom — those challenging the witch-hunters ran the risk of being accused themselves. (An earlier whistle-blower, Friedrich von Spee, was perhaps lucky to die of plague before he could be punished for writing his Precautions for Prosecutors in 1631). But, as Sagan argues, questioning of conventional wisdom is precisely what is needed if society is to remain free and not return to the days of the Inquisition. We need to be open to new ideas, he says, and absolutely scrupulous about standards of evidence.

Sagan argues persuasively that this approach, essentially that of science, is necessary for the maintenance of a free and democratic society. But for many, impatience with science’s insistence on evidence is growing. And when pet theories lack scientific support, pseudosciences develop. Sagan devotes almost half the book to an account of the pseudoscience he knows best, the field of alien visitations, explaining why scientists remain unconvinced that UFOs are alien spacecraft, and why those claiming to have been abducted by aliens probably haven’t been.

In fact, the alien abduction phenomenon seems to have close parallels with the mediaeval witch mania. The “demons” of those times, who consorted with the witches and led them into all manners of wickedness supposedly lived in the sky, were sexually obsessed, telepathic, and walked through walls, much as aliens are supposed to do. If it seems inconceivable that so many otherwise normal people could believe in alien visitors when none exist, it is worth remembering earlier beliefs concerning demons.

Of course, some maintain the aliens have always been here, but were not recognised as such and taken for demons. But why, asks Sagan, were there virtually no reports of flying saucers before 1947? Why were warnings about the dangers of high technology (so often a feature of abduction stories today) not given earlier when there might have been some chance of stemming the technological tide? Why have the genetic experiments apparently continued for centuries? Surely the aliens must have achieved their objectives, whatever they are, by now? No, more likely the stories of demons and aliens (and, for that matter, fairies and apparitions of the Virgin) seem to be expressions of an underlying psychological phenomenon rather than reflecting any external reality.

The Demon Haunted World is a book every skeptic should read. Besides providing perhaps the best critique of the alien visitation phenomenon so far, it sets out very clearly the philosophical underpinnings of skepticism and its relevance for society. Sagan’s final book is a fitting memorial to one of science’s greatest communicators.

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