Amid talk of “alternative facts” and a “post-truth” world that dominated the news directly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump on 20 January 2017, a quote from astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan emerged as a viral meme:
This is the excerpt from the passage containing that quote which was shared most frequently:
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.
This excerpt was taken from Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In a May 1997 review of that work, Smithsonian magazine described Sagan’s motivation for writing it: “In The Demon-Haunted World, the late astronomer Carl Sagan writes in defense of science and reason in a world he sees as darkened by ignorance, superstition, pseudoscience, deceitful advertising and mindless television.”
Sagan, for his part, described the book as “a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.”
The discussion of a loss of manufacturing jobs, an inability for public officials to grasp issues, and increasing distrust in science led many to assert that Sagan was predicting our current political and scientific climate — although, as Matt Novak articulated in a piece for Gizmodo, it’s often easy to view predictions of the future in a way that biases one’s reading of the them:
Now, it’s important to remember that the “accuracy” of predictions is often a Rorschach test. An interpretation of a particular prediction’s accuracy usually says a lot about the people interpreting them and their own hopes or fears for the future. And honestly, some of Sagan’s concerns sound rather quaint.
If you continue reading, the chapter goes on to talk about how the most popular videocassette rental was Dumb and Dumber, and how Beavis and Butthead was incredibly popular on TV. This, of course, was 1995, but there’s not much new to this way of thinking — each generation thinks that the next generation’s media is toxic and vapid and worthless.
Relevancy of the movie Dumb and Dumber notwithstanding, themes regarding the erosion of trust in favor of one’s own deeply entrenched views appear repeatedly in the book. For example:
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Whether or not 2017 was the fulfillment of a Carl Sagan nightmare is a subjective matter, but the proffered description of that nightmare was authentic.