As the family is in the shelter during "The Airborne Toxic Event," Babette reads from the tabloids, then Heinrich discusses knowledge. Why are these scenes back to back?
Both of these scenes take place right after the major event of Part II of the novel, “The Airborne Toxic Event,”: Jack Gladney is told by an official (who’s reading a report of his computer screen) that he has been exposed to Nyodene D, with all of the nebulous and unknown consequences that may have. The official tells Jack, “you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
Directly after this, Babette reads selections from the tabloid to the bored family and the surrounding, equally bored people. These snippets are fantastic accounts of UFOs and past life experiences, as in the cover story titled “Life After Death Guaranteed with Bonus Coupons.” After she reads this story aloud, Jack relates,
I studied the faces in the semicircle. No one seemed amazed by this account. . . . There was no interest shown in discussion. The story occupied some recess of passive belief. There it was, familiar and comforting in its own strange way, a set of statements no less real than our daily quota of observable household fact.
In other words, the audience seems to take this ridiculous information as a normal and natural description of events, and this seems less bizarre by the fact that everyone is living, at the moment, in such a strange situation of the “airborne toxic event.”
After she finishes, Heinrich launches into one of his oddly adult rants, this one about how little the average person actually knows about the workings of the modern world that surrounds him or her. Heinrich says, “we think we’re so great and modern. Moon landings, artificial hearts. But what if you were hurled into a time warp and came face to face with the ancient Greeks.” He points out that the average person could not describe the mechanism of a radio, or the nature of an atom. The implication is that the modern man lives among marvels (of technology, of science, etc.) and thinks himself the master of them, but he really understands them as little as any primitive man might. In the context of Jack’s recent experience, accepting a life-changing fact about himself because a computer screen tells him so, and the calm acceptance of the fantastic tabloid stories, Heinrich’s rant points out the absurdity of the modern circulation of knowledge, in which we lay claim to knowledge of the world we do not have and listen to popular sources, like the tabloid media and official statements, as if this is an appropriate way to understand the world around us.