This week, a very specific passage from the famous astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, has caught everyone’s attention on Twitter.
In 1995, Sagan published a book titled The Demon-Haunted World which warned readers about the dangers of pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy, whilst he suggested to his readers that they should learn to think critically and skeptically. But now those passages that were written over two decades ago are suddenly true of today’s world.
The accuracies include occurrences such as a decline in manufacturing jobs, politicians refusing or being unable to represent the public interest, people feeling hopeless about politics, and revolutionary technology that only seems to improve the lives of 1% of people. Together with this, Sagan predicted that the public will become intellectually incapable of distinguishing between what makes us feel good, and what’s actually true, hinting towards today’s media issue of fake news.
Suspecting Carl Sagan had either a time machine or a crystal ball.
Ok, probably the time machine. pic.twitter.com/zpKH1HUYhz
— Charles Bergquist (@cbquist) January 23, 2017
Some reports have likened this to the way in which people perceive horoscopes. Linked with a concept known as optimism bias, horoscopes owe their success to the fact that people see what they want to see, with no real links to reality. This means that although humankind as a whole can be quite pessimistic about the future of society, they will be generally optimistic about their individual future prospects, which is similar to the way in which people are interpreting Sagan’s predictions.
A cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, Tali Sharot, told TIME, “You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.”
Further in the passage of The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan talks about the dumbing down of media content. He says, “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.”
Relating to this and cognitive bias, scientists believe that when people are presented with a scarily accurate prediction of the future, such as Sagan’s 1995 account, humans are all wired into being drawn to the details that confirm the existing beliefs about the world. So in this way, relating an old prediction of the future that was written by a well known astrophysicist merely reaffirms what people already believed about today’s society.