Characters

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan, isn't a work of fiction, so characters don't appear in it in the same way they appear in a novel. You might say, though, that we are the characters. To understand what I mean by this, you should read the book. I highly recommend it. Everyone concerned with the state of our public discourse, and science's place in it, should read it. I won't summarize the book's contents here. Instead, I'll discuss those 'characters.'

The book's subtitle is Science as a Candle in the Dark. In 1995, Carl Sagan was one of the world's best-known scientists. He'd written a dozen books, presented a wildly popular television series, advised governments, and taught at world-class universities. He was probably one of the few people really qualified to judge the state of science as a field of inquiry, particularly in American society. So, what message did he want to send with his last book? That we're benighted, stumbling blindly along, wielding our ignorance like a cudgel to smash the product of centuries of painstaking intellectual effort that dragged us out of the Dark Ages, past the alchemists, past believers in a flat Earth and a geocentric universe, past the magicians and witch hunters.

That's the clue to who the 'characters' are in his book. Sagan desperately wanted to leave the world scientifically better off than he found it. He did, but by the time he was dying, in the mid-1990s, he was afraid the charlatans and con men in charge worldwide would render all that work irrelevant. He wrote to us, pleading with us not to forget the scientific method, not to forget the value of critical thinking, not to abandon the idea that it's possible to figure out the universe without resorting to supernatural causes. It's a good thing he did, in my opinion. At the end of the twentieth century, American state boards of education were choosing not to teach evolution in science classes or choosing to mandate the teaching of creationist myths alongside it. Anti-science movements, like those disbelieving climate change, were enrolling new adherents by the millions. Leaders of developing countries publicly questioned the epidemiology of AIDS, insisting that HIV infection was the result of witchcraft rather than unprotected sex.

The demon-haunted world of the book's title wasn't an imaginary world, to Carl Sagan: it was this one. He wrote to us, the public, because we're responsible for that, and because only we can fix it. We're in that book. If you've ever stood for a long time in a dark room with only a candle for light, you'll understand. The light is hope, but the feeling of loneliness is just about unbearable. You have to focus on the candle to stay sane. Carl Sagan wanted us to remember that.

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