Days of Future Passed

My son recently called me on the phone and read me this quote,

“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 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), the lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstitions, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”

Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist and popular science writer and presenter, wrote this in his book “Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” in 1995. 1995! The number of predictions in this passage which have come true is just staggering. Some of them took until the age of Trump to come to fruition, while many of them have been growing since the Reagan administration in the 1980’s. It’s interesting to note that superstition was already thriving in the American halls of power during Sagan’s time because President Ronald Reagan regularly made policy and scheduling decisions based on advice his wife received from an astrologer.

The first part of the quote is demonstrably accurate. America is largely a service and information economy and many of its manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to other countries including Mexico and China. According to The Balance, a reputable financial advice and news website based in New York City, manufacturing used to be the largest component of the U.S. economy. In 1970 it made up 24.3% of America’s GDP, but by 2018 that percentage had shrunk by half. China held the fifth spot in international manufacturing in 1970, and by 2010 it had hit number one. Several economic laws and changes put in place by Reagan’s government made this decline inevitable. It was none the less insightful of Sagan, not an expert in economics by any stretch, to connect the dots from Republican financial policies enacted in the 1980’s to the current dismal state of American manufacturing.

The next part of Sagan’s dystopian prediction about awesome technological powers being in the hands of only a few people seems charmingly naive considering the ubiquitous nature of cell phones. On further thought, however, there actually are several very powerful and intrusive technologies which are employed exclusively by select groups. Online retailers and social media platforms employ algorithms to collect personal data about their users, and the U.S. military uses state-of-the-art drones and GPS tracking to target their enemies. Also, increasing numbers of governments and law enforcement agencies have huge banks of footage taken without permission by CCT cameras. They use sophisticated face recognition programs to tag and sort these images of average people just going about their lives. Organizations employing such technology argue that they only intend to use it for the greater good (eg. to catch criminals) when in fact there is no guarantee that it won’t one day be abused. Then there is the information leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 concerning the existence of numerous global surveillance programs employed by the National Security Agency to covertly amass information about private citizens.

I don’t know if I even need to address the next bit about people not being able to “…knowledgeably question those in authority” because it is so clearly true. Many reporters either won’t or can’t or don’t know how to ask probing questions in the polarized reality of present-day American journalism. Remember the 2016 Republican debate where the moderators allowed Trump and Rubio to make leering innuendos about each other’s penis size? Or how about last week? Trump gave a disastrous interview to Axios wherein he fumbled three loose-leaf papers like an awkward 9-year-old giving a book report. Worse yet he failed to acknowledge, or clearly even understand, that the number of deaths due to Covid-19 should be the primary metric of his efficacy in handling the disease. Trump came off looking very bad in the exchange, so he immediately ran back to the safety of Fox News where he was thrown really difficult and timely questions like, “…are you going to commit more resources to exploring UFO’s and open the documents to the public?” Wow, talk about speaking truth to power!

There are so many examples of American society slipping into “…superstition and darkness” that it was hard for me to choose just two. Let’s start with Texas Governor Rick Perry’s official proclamation that April 22 to April 24, 2011 were to be Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. They were in the midst of a profound drought at the time and Perry asked that all Texans pray over that Easter weekend “…for the healing of our land” and for God to give them rain. Perry wasn’t even the first American leader to suggest that prayer was an effective response to drought. In 2007, Georgia governor Sonny Perdue led a lengthy and well-attended church service praying for rain. I would imagine these same men would call the rain dance of indigenous people superstitious, but I would argue there is virtually no difference between the two rites except for the form of supplication and the name of the deities being invoked. The desired result and chances of success in both cases are exactly the same. The prayers didn’t work, by the way, and the drought continued to worsen over the next four months. About 17% of the state was experiencing drought conditions when the Days of Prayer were instituted, and that number rose to 70% by the end of June. Texas did not experience any substantial rainfall until 168 days after Perry’s initiative.

Sometimes blind faith can lead one down a superstitious or fact-denying path, but increasingly social media and the internet have come to serve that function. NBA superstar Kyrie Irving insisted that the world was flat in 2017. The following year Irving apologized for voicing his theory publicly. He had received a lot of push-back from the parents and educators of young fans who believed him. Irving said he underestimated how important he was to his admirers and was truly sorry for any distress or confusion he may have inadvertently caused. What he never said, however, was that he didn’t actually think the earth is flat. His exact words were, “And even if you believe in that, just don’t come out and say that stuff. That’s for intimate conversations…” His mistake wasn’t that he was wrong, but rather that he shouldn’t have told people what he truly believes. The shape of the earth is an irrefutable and well-proven fact, yet here is an influential person who, from “…watching a whole bunch of Instagram videos”, firmly holds a belief which was empirically proven wrong when Magellan returned to Portugal in 1522 after circumnavigating the globe. Irving is just one contemporary person amongst many who, as Sagan writes, “…is unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true”. Beliefs and opinions have become conflated with facts.

The next part of Sagan’s quote implicates the media in this incremental “dumbing down” process. There is currently very little television programming that objectively contains content that I would consider “substantive”, and 10-second sound bites have proliferated with the number of platforms vying for our attention. As for “lowest common denominator programming”, I could fill up the rest of this page with the titles of shows whose sole purpose is to pander to their audiences’ most prurient interests such as the “Real Housewives” series, “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”, “Survivor”, and “Big Brother”. The list goes on and on.

Sagan’s concern about the credulous consumption of “pseudoscience” has proven prophetic. Perhaps the best known and most damaging example of this phenomenon is the anti-vaccination movement. English physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in the highly-regarded British medical journal The Lancet in 1998. Wakefield’s research found that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was causing autism. No other lab could reproduce Wakefield’s results over the next several years so an investigation into his research and practice was begun by the British General Medicine Council, or GMC. In 2010 the GMC found Wakefield had been dishonest in his research, had acted against his patients’ best interests and had mistreated developmentally delayed children, and had “…failed in his duties as a responsible consultant.” The Lancet immediately retracted Wakefield’s findings, and he was barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. In a related legal decision, a British court held that there is “…no respectable body of opinion” to support Dr. Wakefield’s assertion that the “…MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked.” In other words, the man and his research were completely discredited.

This is when Jenny McCarthy takes over the story. Ms. McCarthy is an American celebrity whose career began when she appeared in Playboy. She has since done some acting and hosting, and is currently likely most famous for reporting from the street on “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve”, and for being Mrs. Donnie Wahlberg. All in all she is clearly a person with absolutely no medical expertise. McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism in 2005. Experts have since agreed that the boy’s symptoms are more in keeping with something called Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, and many have suggested that he was misdiagnosed. McCarthy insists that he definitely is autistic, even though she is quoted as saying he, “…doesn’t meet the diagnostic characteristics for autism.” What? Regardless, McCarthy is sure, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her son developed autism because of the MMR vaccine. She has therefore become the face of the anti-vaxxer movement, promulgating her dangerous views on various talk shows and in her book on the subject. She has promoted many controversial and sometimes dangerous therapies to treat autism, and in 2008 was given the Pigusus Award, a tongue-in-cheek accolade for the most outstanding contribution to pseudoscience.

The dark and harmful side to McCarthy’s stance on vaccination is that many people believe her regardless of all evidence to the contrary and the public health community’s constant efforts to debunk her claims. The anti-vaxxers she has thus spawned are responsible for ever-increasing and sometimes deadly outbreaks of diseases which would otherwise have been eliminated by vaccines. A 2019 CDC report confirms 1,282 cases of measles in 31 states – the highest number reported in the U.S. since 1992. This paper also makes clear that the majority of these outbreaks happened amongst people who were not vaccinated. Last year the World Health Organization produced a document entitled “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019”. Vaccine hesitancy is included in this list along side air pollution and climate change, antimicrobial resistance, Ebola and other high-threat pathogens, and the global influenza pandemic. The WHO reports,

“Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccination is one of the most cost-efficient ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”

The popularity of the pseudoscience which grounds the anti-vaxxer movement continues to grow. This does not bode well for how things will go when a Covid-19 vaccine is finally discovered and made available. People who refuse to be vaccinated will be putting others’ lives at risk, and will almost certainly be the cause – as they are now – of entirely preventable deaths.

Sagan was referring largely to popular movies and TV shows of the day when he suggested that a “celebration of ignorance” was especially culpable in the “dumbing down of America”. In 1994, the year before Sagan wrote his book, “Beavis and Butt-Head” began its eight year run on MTV to rave reviews, and both “Forrest Gump” and “Dumb and Dumber” were hugely successful, grossing $347 million and $127 million respectively in the American market alone. I honestly think there is something to be said for Sagan’s theory. “The Simpsons”, “Family Guy” and “South Park” all provide satirical social commentary, but only to their more intelligent fans. Many viewers likely take the stupid characters who abound in these shows at face value, laughing at how dumb they are without going any deeper into the subtext of the scripts. The amount of idiocy presented on the surface of these programs may well have helped to normalize stupidity in general to a largely non-discerning audience.

Almost all of the fears Sagan enumerates in the quote from “Demon Haunted World” have unfortunately appeared to come true. This passage proves how acutely attuned he was to the nature of his times, the character of the American people, and the price they would eventually pay for walking heedlessly down such a misguided and self-defeating path. Sagan again proved prescient in the final interview he gave before his death in December of 1996. He said,

“If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”

Enter Donald Trump.

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