Jahiliyyah in Islamic theology refers to the “days of ignorance” or the period of history in the Arab world prior to God’s revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. In the wake of one of my earlier posts, in which I vented my frustrations over the seemingly increasing degree of stupidity and ignorance in the world, I’ve been wondering if we in the West are entering a kind of latter-day secular Jahiliyyah. Judging by the writings of people like Michael Shermer, Susan Jacoby and the late Jane Jacobs, it looks like I might not be alone in this respect. In an effort to channel those frustrations into something more positive and beneficial, I’ve put together a reading list of books that I feel addresses our growing intellectual crises. The first book on my list is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I chose to lead off my reading project with Sagan’s 1995 book because I’ve seen it referenced numerous times by writers who praised Sagan for his life long advocacy of reason and scientific empiricism. (It was this commitment of Sagan’s that inspired one Portland resident to invoke the scientist’s name in a recent letter to the editor of the city’s alternative newsweekly.) Inspired with this new sense of mission, I dived into The Demon-Haunted World the moment I left the confines of the public library. After zealously plowing through Sagan’s book in what seemed like just days, I’m glad after all these years I finally decided to read it. While not perfect, it’s nevertheless a fine book.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan methodically and intelligently debunks various manifestations of pseudoscience and the paranormal, including alien abductions, faith-healing, channeling and ancient astronauts. There’s also a “baloney detection kit” which I think is a wonderful tool for combating rhetorical fallacies and other anti-science con jobs.
Aside from my minor criticism that the book could have used a bit more editing, the only thing I found disappointing about The Demon-Haunted World is because it was published over 15 years ago it feels a bit dated. With the growth of the Internet we’ve seen a concomitant rise in the number of and influence of scientific fallacies and conspiracy theories. If I were king, I would have an updated version of this book published, complete with a new introduction and afterword by a suitable luminary. (I nominate Neil deGrasse Tyson or Michael Shermer.) But intellectual fantasies aside, even in its current form this is a powerful book and the perfect antidote for these frustrating times. Give it a shot. If you dare.