Half the American public doesn’t know that the earth revolves around the sun, laments Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World. A mere 9 percent accept evolution as a natural process, and only 45 percent accept it at all. Sagan, the astronomer whose TV series Cosmos made him more famous than scientists are usually allowed to get in this country, is alarmed by our slack-jawed, dumbed-down national state of mind. Pop culture, he asserts, has engaged the general public in ”a kind of celebration of ignorance.” He compellingly dissects the resemblance of current obsessions (like alien abduction and therapist-aided recovered memories of ritual abuse) to the irrational debris of earlier centuries (like witch manias and demonic sexual encounters).
If the air these days is thick with New Age vapors and fundamentalist fumes, if the Dark Ages aren’t exactly over yet, it probably has something to do with a science phobia that exists in this country today. Sagan’s aware of the problem, but he may underestimate it. While discussing alien-abduction stories, he fails to notice that those grayish little humanoids with oversize heads — humorless, cold, clinical — are caricatures of lab scientists. Still, this book, with its moving personal asides, is ample evidence that the best scientists, like Sagan, are human, and humane.