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    Carl Sagan’s future ‘celebration of ignorance’ prediction from 1995 was spookily spot on

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    Cosmologist and science educator Carl Sagan made a name for himself in popular culture as the host of the TV show “Cosmos” and the author of more than a dozen books bridging the gap between the scientific complexities of the world and the people who live in it. Intelligent and eloquent, he had a way of making science palatable for the average person, always advocating healthy scepticism and the scientific method to seek answers to questions about our world.

    But Sagan also possessed a keen understanding of the broad array of human experience, which was part of what made him such a beloved communicator. He wrote about peace and justice and kindness in addition to science. He did not shun spirituality, as some sceptics do, but said he found science to be “a profound source of spirituality.” He acknowledged that there’s so much we don’t know but was adamant about defending what we do.

    Now, a quote from Sagan’s 1995 book, “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” has people talking about his uncanny ability to peek into the future. His predictions didn’t come through supernatural means, of course, but rather through his powers of observation and his understanding of human nature. Still pretty spooky, though.

    He wrote:

    I have a foreboding of America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all of the 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; with 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.

    And when the dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites now down to 10 seconds or less, lowest-common-denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

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    His words seem downright prophetic in an era where the least qualified people rise to the highest levels of power more and more often, people glom onto outlier voices that contradict broad scientific consensus on everything from climate change to public health, and social media sound bites fuel more and more extreme views devoid of nuance and complexity.

    And the most frustrating part is that the people who get wrapped up in quacky conspiracy theories or take on radical stances based on illogical rhetoric don’t see their own ignorance. They’re told they’re the ones thinking critically, they’re the ones who are knowledgeable simply because they’re questioning authority (as opposed to the “ability to…knowledgeably question those in authority” Sagan refers to, which is not the same thing).

    “When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition,” Sagan wrote. We watched this play out in the U.S. during the pandemic. We see it daily in our politics at either end of the spectrum. We witness it in social discourse, especially online. One thing Sagan didn’t foresee was how ignorance, pseudoscience and superstition would be rewarded in today’s world by algorithms that determine what we see in our social media feeds, creating a vicious cycle that can feel impossible to reverse sometimes.

    However, Sagan also offered a hopeful reminder that people who fall prey to peddlers who push “alternative facts” for their own gain are simply human, with the same desire to understand our world that we all share. He warned against being critical without also being kind, to remember that being human doesn’t come with an instruction manual or an innate understanding of how everything works.

    “In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be,” he wrote. “Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

    Discerning truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience isn’t always simple, and neither is the challenge of educating a populace to hone that ability. Taking a cue from Sagan, we can approach education with rigorous scientific standards but also with curiosity and wonder as well as kindness and humility. If he was right about the direction the U.S. was heading 30 years ago, perhaps he was right about the need for understanding what led to that direction and the tools needed to right the ship.

    You can find much more in Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”here.

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