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The world needs Carl Sagan now more than ever

The world needs Carl Sagan now more than ever


January 24th, 2017

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Predicting the future can often feel like a fool’s errand, as anyone who’s ever forecasted the continued smartphone domination of Symbian and Windows Mobile would affirm. And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in this time of transformative change and to retreat to concepts that feel comforting in their apparent completeness and coherence. The more unexplained things there are, the more opportunity there is for myths, legends, and superstitions to fill the void.

Carl Sagan was one of the best and most prominent voices fighting the rise of scientific ignorance in the United States, and an excerpt from his book The Demon-haunted World was circulated on social media this weekend:

Sagan’s words, originally published in 1995, are chillingly prescient of our time. Two decades in advance, he perfectly diagnoses the present paralysis of information exchange that has been brought on by the pollution of discourse with varieties of wilful and inadvertent misinformation. Whether we call the problem fake news, alternative facts, or the old favorite of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), Sagan’s foreboding of a world where we’re "unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true" seems to be materializing right before our eyes.

"Unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true."

The quote could have continued to be even longer, because the subsequent part is just as good and accurate (though Sagan himself might have argued that we’d lack the attention span to read that far):

"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. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning - not just of science, but of anything - are avoidable, even undesirable."

There’s no denying the accuracy of Sagan’s predictions about manufacturing being outsourced away from the US and the concomitant failure of public representatives to "even grasp the issues." Frankly, the entire excerpt is so in line with our reality at the start of 2017 that it feels trite and obvious to say. Except it was written more than 20 years earlier.

I’m sure Carl Sagan, who passed away in 1996, would have preferred to have had these words disproven by people heeding the rest of his book. The full title of the work was The Demon-haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, and it was penned as an impassioned encouragement to use scientific thinking and the scientific method to inform the decisions we make on a daily basis.

But, in the world we’ve ended up with, there’s still great weight and significance to Sagan’s now-prophetic writing. It demonstrates his point so perfectly: he practiced the scientific skepticism and thinking that he preached, and that’s what helped him accurately analyze the trends of his time and forecast their eventual outcomes in ours.

"In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights."

Even holding our political representatives to account, argues Sagan, is an act best conducted using a scientific approach: the final chapter of Demon-haunted World, co-written with his wife and collaborator Ann Druyan, is titled "Real Patriots Ask Questions." It concludes with the following words:

"But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness."

The lessons I take away from Sagan’s book are that the scientific method can help us better predict and prepare for the future, but more than that, it can also help us shape it. As important a message today — when the Trump administration threatens the Environmental Protection Agency, net neutrality, climate change action, and the availability of a consistent standard of healthcare and education across the United States — as at any other time in history.