Reading, in these times, can be a dismal, even
a torturous task. At any given time I'm likely to have six, eight or even more books on the go. Some I can only take in small bites, a chapter or two at most. I reach a point where I just put it down and move on to another book. It helps to have them scattered around various rooms, waiting to be picked up for another visit.
One now has pride of place at my dining table. It's the late Carl Sagan's 1995 book, "The Demon-Haunted World." It's a pleasant, personal read. Last night, over whatever in hell it was I threw on a plate, I came across this passage that I thought to share with you:
...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 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 pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. ...The plain lesson is that study and learning - not just of science, but of anything - are avoidable, even undesirable.
We've arranged a global civilization in which most critical elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment, and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later the combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
"A Candle in the Dark" is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch hunts then in progress as a scam "to delude the people." Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the Witchmongers as arguing - "else how should these things be, or come to pass?" For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
Ady also warned of the danger that "the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge." Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic and national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
I know we in Canada have been dumbed down hugely. We must be careful to take care of our public schools, and hope it is not too late. In the US many of the private schools are religious ones that teach false stuff, so maybe they have had it.
Thank you for your hard work in writing this column and all the research you do.
i read that book in my late twenties when it first came out and still regard it as foundational to my worldview. one of the very best non-fiction books i've ever read, and one i still frequently recommend to people.
I share your concerns about our primary and secondary schools. I rarely mention it because my own experience is so far removed, of a different time, that I may not be in a position to fairly criticize. My children are long past those days so most of what I hear about today's schools is necessarily anecdotal.
As for these books, I'm finding it increasingly helpful to use works 10, 15, sometimes over a hundred years or more to make sense of what is happening today.
This somewhat eerie passage reflects what Sagan foretold in 1995, a year before his death. Predictions, with the proof of age, become, not speculation, but inspired wisdom and, for that, achieve a greater value to us today. Then there's the ever present fact that Sagan is a truly delightful read.
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