NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?
Are we already too late?
In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:
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. 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.
Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.
Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.
Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?
How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.
Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?
We have cause to worry, I think.
- 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
- While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
- Flat Earthers? Oy.
- Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
- Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
- Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.
To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.
How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?
Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.
“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.
How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?
The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight: