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In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan wrote the following item in a list of ideas about how to put more science on television:

Regular exposés of pernicious pseudoscience, and audience-participation 'how-to' programmes: how to bend spoons, read minds, appear to foretell the future, perform psychic surgery, do cold reads, and press the TV viewers' personal buttons. How we're bamboozled: learn by doing.

I'm not sure whether he is speaking metaphorically (see Evolution of "push somebody's buttons" and "know what buttons to push") or whether he is referring to some aspect of American 90s television programming.

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    I hear metaphor. Commented Jul 20, 2022 at 23:10
  • Unless the TV viewers are robots, I doubt he's being literal. Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 1:03
  • @MarcInManhattan Of course, but how would you put it in different terms? I'm trying to figure out how to translate the sentence.
    – JohnEye
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 8:30
  • It's a pun, so you'll have trouble translating unless it's into a language which has a metaphorical usage similar to "push someone's buttons". If you want to know how to phrase "push someone's buttons" in another language, this is the wrong forum: see the target language's SE, or linguistics SE.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 9:10
  • @StuartF The problem is not that I am looking for a similar pun in another language, but that I don't really understand what the pun is about. Would you explain it please?
    – JohnEye
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 10:09

2 Answers 2

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Since Sagan said that in 1996, the possibility he did not recognise it as a pun is vanishingly small - though that doesn't mean it was deliberate.

Many parts of Google suggest the phrase 'push your buttons' dates from about 100 years ago, when new-fangled household appliances started to use buttons both to turn on the juice and to control them.

The small screen was often called an 'idiot box' or 'boob tube' because if it wasn't mainly fools who chose to watch, still the act of watching seemed to turn many into morons.

Some saw TV as a threat to humanity, even if only as the new line in 'bread and circuses' for keeping the plebs quiet and on the showman's side so yes, almost literally casting the TV viewers as robots.

If the state could use TV as the 'opiate of the masses' so could advertisers use it as the key to the people's purses; so much so the content they sponsored gave us the term 'soap opera.'

People using buttons to control devices even while corporations and politicians use devices to control the people is a cruel irony.

Where the two sides of that equation come together, they forge the TV remote, which is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

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Carl Sagan is suggesting that television programs should expose pseudoscience, which is a collection of beliefs or practices that claim to be scientific but do not adhere to the scientific method. By including audience-participation 'how-to' programs, Sagan is advocating for a hands-on approach that demonstrates the tricks and techniques used by those who promote pseudoscience.

In this context, "press the TV viewers' personal buttons" means to engage the audience by addressing their emotions, interests, or concerns. By showing the viewers how these techniques work, Sagan hopes to educate them about the fallacies of pseudoscience and promote critical thinking. His ideas here reflect his broader goal of encouraging scientific literacy and skepticism in the face of misinformation.

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