Science as a Candle in the Dark
By Carl Sagan
Random House, 457 pp.

In February, 1988, media outlets in Australia were alerted to the appearance for one night only at the Sydney Opera House of a 19-year-old American ceramic sculptor named Jose Luis Alvarez. Two years previously, it was said, Alvarez had suffered a mild concussion in a motorcycle accident. Afterward, those who knew him said that he had changed. Sometimes, a wholly different voice emanated from him. He sought help from a specialist in multiple-personality disorders. The psychotherapist determined that he was being used as a channel by a 2,000-year-old spirit named Carlos.

Alvarez, the press release announced, could summon Carlos by entering a trance in which his pulse slowed and then all but stopped. Suddenly, the pulse would return, but the life force in the body was no longer his. Carlos had taken over. The spirit would divulge the wisdom of the ages and foretell the future. He was coming to Australia because this “old new land” was to be the source of a momentous revelation.

The press kit included details of spectacular demonstrations by Alvarez/Carlos in the United States, along with a videotape of an audience cheering his appearance at a Broadway theatre and a recording of his interview on New York radio station WOOP.

Upon their arrival, Alvarez and his manager were interviewed on Australia’s Today Show. The host, George Negus, was skeptical. Carlos responded by laying a curse on him, the manager hurled a glass of water, and both stormed off the set. The tabloid press ate it up. “TV Outburst: Water Thrown at Negus” ran the front-page headline in the Daily Mirror.

On the day of the eventual appearance, the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was all but filled. Alvarez’s pulse was monitored. It stopped. Apparently he was on the verge of death. Then the change came over him. Carlos appeared, and mesmerized the audience with his spiritual wisdom.

The next Sunday, the Australian television program Sixty Minutes – named after its U.S. counterpart – revealed that the entire affair was not only a hoax, but a hoax perpetrated by Sixty Minutes itself. In order to show how easily the gullible could be taken in, the program had invented Carlos with the aid of James Randi, a former stage magician who has devoted his life to exposing fraud on the part of occultists, channellers and faith healers. Alvarez was indeed a ceramic artist. He was also Randi’s tenant. The rest was fabrication from beginning to end.

The Australian media were apoplectic. Sixty Minutes had transgressed the rules of journalistic conduct. It was simply wrong, fumed the Australian Financial Review, “that telling a lie is an acceptable way of reporting the truth.” Be that as it may, the fact remained that most Australian media outlets were so keen to exploit Alvarez/Carlos as a quirky story that they not only lavished publicity on him, but also made almost no effort to check his credentials. If they had, they would have discovered that there is no New York radio station with the call letters WOOP. The videotape of Carlos’s appearance on Broadway was a favour from the magicians Penn and Teller. During one of their shows, they invited Alvarez on stage and urged the audience to give him a round of applause. All that was shown on the tape was Alvarez basking in the warm welcome of a Broadway audience.

Carl Sagan, the Cornell University astrophysicist and science popularizer, recounts this story in The Demon-Haunted World half in despair. This time the hoax was set in order to be deliberately exposed, but Sagan frets at what he sees as a rising tide of irrationalism in our time, aided and abetted by irresponsible and sensation-hungry media. Science, he insists, borrowing the title of a book published by Thomas Ady in 1656, is “a candle in the dark,” but it’s dark out there, indeed, and getting darker.

What are we to make of the fact that the majority of Americans believe we are being visited by extraterrestrial beings, but almost half are unaware that the Earth goes round the sun? Or that there are 10 times as many astrologers in the United States as astronomers? Or that in tests of algebra skills among 17-year-olds around the world, Americans placed dead last? Crystals from Atlantis. Tales of alien abduction. Belief in telepathy and precognition. “Recovered” memories of Satanic abuse. The belief in government cover-ups, global conspiracies and occult forces beyond our ken. Widespread credulity, high paranoia and a growing industry geared to the promotion of the paranormal, the more outlandish the claims the better. There’s not a shred of credible physical evidence to support any of these mystical or otherworldly yarns, and yet they persist. Worse, Sagan worries that the fevered bunkum has begun to displace not only science but common sense. It’s just more fun to entertain notions of extrasensory powers or extraterrestrial visitations, and it requires nothing more than an active imagination.

The Demon-Haunted World is written as a sort of rearguard action against all this, a plea for a little level-headedness on the part of the public and the media. Much of its contents first appeared in Parade, a magazine insert in American newspapers that reaches some 80 million readers. As a compilation of magazine articles, the book has a tendency to work in fits and starts. It may not be Sagan at the top of his form, but it is still learned, gracefully written and entertaining in its own right. To its credit, it is rarely condemnatory. Sagan refuses to dismiss those who claim to have been kidnapped by little green men as crackpots. Instead, by charting a history of folkloric accounts of demonic possession, witchcraft and encounters with gremlins, hobgoblins and succubi, he attempts to explore where these stories come from and what they tell us about ourselves.

But no matter how well done, will it put a stop to the fascination with the paranormal? Not a chance. Sagan deplores the popularity of the TV series The X-Files, for example, and seriously proposes that network television launch a detective show in which, each week, the investigators debunk claims of the paranormal. Perhaps it could be called Solved Mysteries. Anyone who would suggest such a program with a straight face gravely underestimates what he’s up

  • Globe and Mail February 24, 1996