In skimming back through Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, I’m struck by something that didn’t catch my attention when I read it a year ago – or nearly did, to judge by my margin notes, but not consciously so.
And no, it’s not his smug, patronizing tone (impossible to miss), nor the tiresome and cliché takes on various subjects presented as deep thoughts. It’s his very unscientific writing throughout the book.
“Isn’t it more reasonable that…[his own interpretation, presented without evidence]?”
“A friend of mine claims…[some plainly sockpuppeted assertion].”
“…although these estimates are probably too high...[presented without reasoning to back up the claim]”
“…is an interesting question.” [a rhetorical one he then leaves unanswered]
“…clearly these factors are playing a role.” [on which he doesn’t elaborate further]
‘Is there really any alternative but Explanation X and Explanation Y?’
‘What does that imply about ___ ?” [another question he asks but doesn’t answer, leaving the reader to fill in the implication he’s too chickenshit to spell out himself]
“In more than one case…”, and “…the single German city of Wuerzburg in the single year 1598…” [(emphasis added) using a small number of examples to imply the general case, with no indication of how representative it actually is]
‘Their story seems very plausible, though I have no evidence.’ [an “argument” he would surely not accept from anyone with ideas differing from his own]
‘How could [incredulous misrepresentation of some matter he wishes to deride and debunk]?’
…And a bunch more that I only made short notes on after consciously noticing it.
In a book aiming in part to expose the soft thinking and intellectual shenanigans behind popular woo, this weaselry comes across as annoyingly hypocritical at best, if not intellectually dishonest. It’s exactly the kind of thing one encounters in the works of those he is debunking here: unsupported assertions, conjectures presented as fact, obvious fallacies, conclusions implied but left unstated, etc..
I’d always assumed that Sagan was the authentic science popularizer – actually super-intelligent and hyper-rational and intellectually powerful, unlike the pair of dimwits who succeeded him. I’ll grant that reading a single one of his books is hardly an exhaustive study of the man’s mind – to be fair given my criticism above, I have to acknowledge that this one book may be representative, but it could be better than or worse than his other works, or even not comparable. That said, I was underwhelmed with what I perceived of it the first time I read The Demon-Haunted World, and have been even less impressed on the second pass.