Carl Sagan On The Dumbing Down Of America

Excerpt from astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s 1995 book: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Here’s the transcript:

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 American 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. As I write, the number-one videocassette rental in America is the move Dumb and Dumber. “Beavis and Butthead” remain popular (and influential ) with young TV viewers. 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 crucial 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 this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

I also like this, from the same book:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

7 thoughts on “Carl Sagan On The Dumbing Down Of America

  1. Marj

    I wonder what he would say now, but of course he’d still be on the same right track. What stood out for me in this was where he says, “we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” What a loss that he died so young.


    1. Bix Post author

      That part stood out for me too, superstition and darkness. And also “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.” Even in my lifetime, I can feel a move away from substance towards superficiality.

      You made me look it up … This book was published in 1995. Wikipedia says he died in December, 1996. He was only 62.


  2. Melinda

    One thing I really liked about him was that he did NOT dismiss spirituality or religion (unlike avowed atheists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who redid Sagan’s “Cosmos” in a manner that, imo, was terribly disorganized and had many digs at religious belief. Very disappointing.


  3. Bix Post author

    I know I can be cynical, but I still believe in humans, in their intelligence, in their compassion. I don’t think we are any less intelligent, I just think we are less educated. And I think we are less educated because … what he said here, “the mixture of ignorance and power.” It does not serve those in power to correct any ignorance of the masses. The HUGE and growing wealth gap fosters this mixture of ignorance and power.



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