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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

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Carl Sagan took seriously the role of explaining the arcane mysteries of the scientific world to the general public. In The Demon-Haunted World, he finds himself bewildered by the then increasingly popular pseudo-science that the public was taking so seriously.

His prime target for debunking here is the phenomenon of alien abduction. In the decades immediately preceding the book's publication in 1996, this phenomenon was so prevalent that a 1992 Roper poll revealed that 18% of the American public reported "waking up paralyzed" and feeling that there was an alien presence in the room. As Sagan says, if one were to extrapolate the results of this poll, it could mean that 2% of Americans had actually been abducted and subjected to various types of probes and sexual experimentation. Ruefully amused by the absence of skepticism about these reports, Sagan quips, "You would think some of the neighbors would have noticed."

Sagan offers other explanations to those who might be credulous or addicted to hoaxes. Sagan cites relatively common human experiences such as hallucinations and sleep paralysis as plausible explanations for occurrences such as alien abduction. In the chapter titled "Therapy," he acknowledges that many of these people must have serious psychological issues, and many memories of supposed alien abuse are likely disguised memories of genuine sexual assault.

Of course, some phenomena are simply the work of hoaxers. For example, crop circles—the patterns widely believed to have been carved into agricultural fields by alien visitors and diligently studied by 'cerealogisits' for a number of years—were revealed to be a massive prank. They were the invention of two middle-aged Brits who proudly displayed their tools and carefully planned designs to the media in 1991.

In the latter part of the book, Sagan discusses obstacles to the progress of science, such as the power of religion and the prevalence of folklore and myth. He believes that they must be overcome before rational thought and the experimental method can begin to establish a role in society. He recognizes that science and scientific reasoning can be difficult for many people due to its sometimes contradictory nature.

...at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.

Sagan ends with a chapter invoking the wisdom of the polymath Thomas Jefferson on the crucial importance of education, skeptical thought, and scientific thought in sustaining a healthy democracy. He concludes,

In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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