Carl Sagan’s 1995 prediction of a future ‘festival of ignorance’ was completely accurate

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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 writer of “The Stranger.” Over 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 to the average person, always advocating healthy skepticism and the scientific method to find answers to questions about our world.

But Sagan also had a deep understanding of the wide range of human experiences, which made him such a beloved communicator. In addition to science, he wrote about peace, justice, and kindness. He did not eschew spirituality, as some skeptics do, but said he found science to be “a deep source of spirituality.” He acknowledged that there is much we don’t know but was adamant about defending what we do know.

Now, a quote from Sagan’s 1995 book, “Demon-ridden world: Science as a candle in the darkness,” People talk about his uncanny ability to peer into the future. Of course, his predictions did not come through supernatural means, but through his powers of observation and understanding of human nature. Still, it’s pretty scary.

He wrote:

,I foresee the America of my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States will be a service and information economy; when nearly all manufacturing industries will have moved to other countries; when amazing technological powers will be in the hands of a small number of people, and no one who represents the public interest will understand the issues; when people will lose the ability to set their own agendas or to question those in power intelligently; our critical faculties will be impaired, we will be unable to distinguish between what feels good and what is true, and we will slip back into superstition and darkness almost without noticing.

And that’s when America’s stupidity is most evident in the slow decay of critical content in the most influential media, with 30-second soundbites now reduced to 10 seconds or less, lowest-common-denominator programming, unconvincing presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

His words seem eerily prophetic in an era where the least qualified people are rising to the highest levels of power, people are paying attention to outlier voices that contradict the broad scientific consensus on everything from climate change to public health, and ads circulating on social media are promoting extremist views devoid of nuance and complexity.

And the most frustrating thing is that people who get caught up in false conspiracy theories or take radical positions based on irrational rhetoric are unable to see their own ignorance. They are told that They Those who think seriously, They People who are knowledgeable only because they are questioning authority (as Sagan said about the ability to “knowingly question those in power”, which is not the same thing).

“When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we are caught in pseudoscience and superstition,” Sagan wrote. We saw this in the US during the pandemic. We see it daily in our politics at both ends of the spectrum. We see it in social discourse, especially online. One thing Sagan did not foresee was that in today’s world ignorance, pseudoscience, and superstition would be rewarded by the algorithms that determine what we see in our social media feeds, creating a vicious cycle that can sometimes seem impossible to reverse.

However, Sagan also offered a hopeful reminder that those who fall prey to vendors pushing “alternative facts” for their own profit are simply human beings, seeking to understand our world, which we all share. He warned against being critical without being compassionate, to remember that being human does not come with an instruction manual or an innate understanding of how everything works.

“The way skepticism is sometimes applied to matters of public concern has a tendency to underplay, to demean, to ignore the fact that, whether deluded or not, the proponents of superstition and pseudoscience are real human beings with real feelings who, like skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be,” he wrote. “In many cases their aims are in keeping with those of science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this noble quest, we should temper our criticism with kindness. None of us is perfectly equipped.”

It is not always easy to distinguish truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, science from pseudoscience, nor is it challenging to educate people to hone this ability. Taking a cue from Sagan, we can approach education with rigorous scientific standards as well as curiosity and wonder, as well as kindness and humility. If he was right about the direction America was headed 30 years ago, perhaps he was also right about the need to understand what it would take to get in that direction and what tools would be needed to steer the ship in the right direction.

You can find much more at Sagan “Demon-ridden world: Science as a candle in the dark”Here.


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