What Would an Extraterrestrial Think of Popular Media?
Beloved astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark twenty-five years ago. An accessible explainer on the scientific method and critical thinking, the book remains just as relevant today as it was then. The world is full of misinformation, biases, and downright falsehoods that can mire us in darkness. Science shines a light that can lead us through.
Unfortunately, humans all too often ignore science. Most of the time that's just because we don't see it. Popular media sources regularly feature diverting nonsense, broadcast dogmatic screeds, or even depict brutal violence. Not featured enough are stories of discovery, debates with intellectual humility, and tales of sussing out the truth with evidence and logic.
In one section of The Demon Haunted World, Sagan wondered what an intelligent alien might think after perusing everything that's available in the media.
"An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth – scrutinizing what we mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, comics, and many books – might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it."
And perhaps that extraterrestrial is on to something. Deluged in distractions, we lose our ability to discern fiction from fact. We can't agree on what's real. We can't even have a discussion about it. Many don't even care to try.
But we must. In the current state of affairs, charged with hardened ideology and easily aroused anger, we must overcome our molded instincts and listen to each other. Integral to this effort is being willing to admit we might be wrong. Then we can set about doing what's right together.
"Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage," Sagan wrote. "But if we don't practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us – and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along."