By now you’ve likely seen a prediction made by Carl Sagan going around on Facebook. You know what we’re talking about — it’s the one about “the dumbing down of America.” Maybe you wrote it off as a gag, maybe you took it seriously, but there are two points to make here: The first is that, yes, the prediction is very real; the second is that it’s far older and, in its own way, as anti-scientific, as the thinking it bemoans.
If you missed it, here’s the full passage, from Sagan’s book Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
If you’re not terribly optimistic about the current direction of the world, it’s easy to indulge in a belief this really is the end. The problem, though, is that Sagan is just the latest in a long line of doomsayers. And as we all know, doomsayers tend to be wrong. And they’re not just wrong in the idea that the world is about to end, they’re wrong in how they characterize the rest of the world.
For example, left out of the feel-bad Facebook quote is the fact that Sagan goes on to note that the popularity of Beavis and Butthead and Dumb and Dumber are sure signs that we’re on the verge of a stupidocalypse. In this, Sagan is very much a past thinker: One of the oldest surviving treatises on Christian morality, De Spectaculis, was all about how going to the public games and spectacles was a terrible thing, morally. Sagan has more in common with Tertullian, here, than he does with a rational thinker looking at history.
Worse, in its own way, this flatters the reader with some rather poisonous rhetoric by dividing the world into smart people and the hopeless dumb-dumbs laughing at cartoons. How many people reading this quote on Facebook and clucking their tongues at the news have refrigerators full of organic foods, despite the total lack of evidence they have any sort of added nutritional value, for example? How many people, reading this quote now, are old enough to remember when AIDS was a “gay-related” disease that couldn’t possibly infect straight people? In the 1980s, people mocked Ronald Reagan for saying that trees caused pollution. Thirty years later, it turns out the Gipper was actually onto something.
Perhaps the worst thing, though, is the idea that “superstition and darkness” are concrete states, and either you’re in them or you’re not. How we see the world is constantly evolving. A learned, educated person, one hundred years ago, would have told you that dunking a person suffering from mental illness in ice-cold water was a cutting edge treatment, that cancer was caused by falling out of a tree or getting punched in the face, and that white people ruling the world was the result of the natural order. Now, believing that last one gets you punched out on national television while you try to explain the symbolism of a cartoon frog.
Make no mistake, the human race is facing some very real, very dangerous challenges, from climate change to economic inequality to the ever-accelerating pace of scientific advancement overwhelming the ability of lawmakers and ethics bodies to cope. And it’s difficult to see how world governments are prepared to deal with some of these issues.
Sagan is right that human history is dotted with horrible failures on the part of humanity to spot the worst parts of the future and prevent them from happening. But we shouldn’t give into apocalyptic thinking. Choosing to do nothing, in the end, is the same as letting the worst of the future happen. To use Sagan’s metaphor, each of us has to be the candle in the darkness, and while we may not be able to banish it entirely, we can offer a light to draw others toward.