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[flagged] Carl Sagan on the dumbing down of America (goodreads.com)
23 points by hkhn 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 20 comments





For easier reading here:

“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 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.”


The book is "The Demon-Haunted World" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Demon-Haunted_World

I don’t understand some of the comments—-

It’s a quote from the past. It is eloquently written in a long tradition of dystopian prose.

What’s striking is Sagan speaking to the magical thinkers of his time, and trying to shock them by the change he envisions (duh—it is a scary picture).

And what we have today are literate moderates who gave up on democracy after Nixon was pardoned, shocked into consciousness.


I recognize that the following is an HN middlebrow dismissal of Carl Sagan, so I'm probably wrong, but I want to try anyway.

My worry with quotes like these is that there's always a hint of nostalgia and conservatism mixed through it. It's easy to remember your own past as more nuanced, more substantial than the present, but is that really true? I can never tell.

In this case, were people really more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they were in the mid nineties, or was he simply surrounded more by well-read, nuanced people when he was younger than when he was older? Or maybe both are the case? He complains about dumb TV shows in exactly the same way people these days complain about dumb Youtubers. Wouldn't there have been equally dumb things in Sagan's past that just happened to be easier for him to ignore?

I've read quotes with a very similar vibe but focused on other (perceived) societal changes, such as changing sexual mores, immigration, and so on. It's basically the standard template "things were better in the past than they are now, wrt $TOPIC-that-I-care-about, so I worry about the future". In Sagan's case, obviously, $TOPIC is science, but you could swap it out for nearly anything and write a similar story and it'll ring true to people with similar values as yours.

Basically, I think all I'm asking is, is society really dumbing down? Or are we simply confronted with it more?


>My worry with quotes like these is that there's always a hint of nostalgia and conservatism mixed through it.

Nostalgia and conservatism are always attacked in a kneejerk way. Some things were indeed better in the past, and it makes sense to want to conserve them. And, similarly, the future or present is not magically better, just newer temporarily.

>In this case, were people really more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they were in the mid nineties, or was he simply surrounded more by well-read, nuanced people when he was younger than when he was older?

The public discussion and politics, and the people involved were more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they are today. How about that?

E.g. back then some serious news outlets (with more gatekeeping and quality control and staff in remote areas, paid proof editors, etc) were the average person's main option to get their news.

Now any random, under-staffed, "news" website (which doesn't even have proof-readers, on-field reporters, or anything, and just repeats AP and Reuters news, opinion pieces, and internet gossip, is a "media outlet" anybody can access. And that's the best case, on top of random blogs and social media accounts.


> In this case, were people really more well-read and less ignorant in Sagan's past than they were in the mid nineties, or was he simply surrounded more by well-read, nuanced people when he was younger than when he was older?

It depends which people you talk about. The average person? Maybe not.

Thought leaders that shape the overall tone of social consciousness? Almost certainly.

That’s certainly the course over a much longer time window in the country.

If nothing else, the print (and even within print, shifts in frequency and volume) >> radio >> TV (and now >> social media) media transition has led to shifts in what the influential content is and what kind of people are thought leaders. And every step along that progression is to media that inherently are less suited to informational/intellectual content and more suited to content that short-circuited intellectual processing for pure emotional urgency.


"...Basically, I think all I'm asking is, is society really dumbing down? Or are we simply confronted with it more?..."

It doesn't matter whether it's the lesser of the two, what matters is the overall effect on society as a whole.

For example, If people are generally more ignorant, would that be a benign thing 'overall' to society? Or non-benign?


> Basically, I think all I'm asking is, is society really dumbing down? Or are we simply confronted with it more?

We are going through a tremendous democratisation of dissemination of opinions. Each and everyone can publish content and there are better platforms for building a reader base.

The humans having opinions are mostly the same as before. The ability to hold at least two contradicting ideas in your head at the same time is still subject to the normal distribution of intelligence. My very subjective take on this is that individual humans can shine, while humans as a population... not so much.

A key, post modern, difference is that everybody has their own right to their understanding of 'truth'. There is no longer any normative mechanisms that weed out outliers, allowing QAnons of this world to proliferate. I am really not very hopeful for the near future. Over time, we will of course learn to live with this situation.


My first instinct was to google up the Socrates quote about "youth of today" and make fun of how some old men always complain about decline of civilisation.

However, I stopped when I remembered the fate of Athens and Greece after Socrates. Although humanity as a whole certainly advanced forward in the last couple of thousand years, Greek civilisation did experience decline that Socrates predicted; old man yelling at cloud wasn't as wrong after all.

I believe that humanity will advance forward in the next couple of thousand years. But it doesn't mean that it will won't decline in the next few hundred years.


Feels like 2 steps forward, one step back on average to me.

I don't see how popularity of comedy featuring dumb characters is evidence for the dumbing down of America. None of them are presented as role models, and the jokes frequently involve them suffering because of their poor decisions.

In which year was this written?

Given the film reference, sometime mid-1995.

Book was published in 1995

I wonder why this quote is paraded on HN every 6-9 months?

Maybe we need reminding; the more you feed the beast, the bigger it gets.

(Vague and broad maxim courtesy of any 'ancient' civilisation)


It's not a great quote. Sagan is eloquent in describing his fears, but the concern for Beavis and Butthead was "ok boomer" even at the time and an extremely bad look now. Even in B&B Judge is clearly worried about the same things Sagan is, the difference is Judge's belief that the intelligentsia aren't going to be any help for us either. (And they weren't! And still aren't!)

It's not so prescient. The same quote was often raised 15-20 years ago during the Bush Jr. years with similar praise for its foresight. But the economical transformation was well underway when Sagan wrote it, and even today it hasn't been that long (25 years) since it was written. In some sense it's horribly myopic - concern about 10-30 second mass broadcasts rather than 20 paragraph conspiracy theories from your uncle is quaint!

It's not a good context for it. Sagan would have detested Kassam and Rubin, holding them up as prime examples of the media, political, and intellectual failings he's describing.


Repointing the link away from David Rubin and Raheem Kassam makes my comment now look crazy, but also is a fairly standard whitewash re. right-wing positions slowly but definitively taking over the skepticism movement in the US.

>It's not a great quote. Sagan is eloquent in describing his fears, but the concern for Beavis and Butthead was "ok boomer" even at the time and an extremely bad look now

I'd say that rather "ok boomer" is bad now (a thought stopping cliche), and will look extremely bad and dated in the future.


Yeah but this guy was a socialist! /s

This randomly came to my YT queue one day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qk1kuYPt51g


What a great clip. Commonsense unfortunately branded as extremism by the extremists that control the mainstream discourse.



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