Carl Sagan died 18 years ago, yet in his final interview and book he predicted the current conservative denial of science and technology in favor of religious superstition and worried about the damage such a retreat from the very things which have built our society could do.
Charlie Rose read to him from a survey done in May of that year by The New York Times which found that less than half of American adults understood that the Earth revolves around the sun in one year. The survey also uncovered that only 25 percent of adults got a passing grade on an assessment of basic science and economics knowledge.
Sagan told him:
“It’s not that pseudo science and superstition and new age so-called beliefs and fundamentalist zealotry are something new. They have been with us for as long as we have been human, but we live in an age based on science and technology with formidable technological powers and if we don’t understand it, by we I mean the general public, if it’s something that, ‘oh I’m not good at that, I don’t know anything about it’ then who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in.”
We are seeing Dr. Sagan’s fears come to pass today with the science denying conservatives in Congress who nonchalantly dismiss climate change as a hoax perpetrated by liberal, anti-business scientists. The advances in science and technology that have allowed these scientists to make their determinations are inconvenient for current business models in the energy industry, and therefore they must be wrong.
Sagan noted that there were at the time (as it remains today) few Congressmen who had even a basic understanding of science and technology and that in their anti-science zeal under Newt Gingrich’s “contract with America” had just abolished, through de-funding, the Office of Technology Assessment, a grim harbinger of things to come.
Pointing out that in his book Sagan spares no one, deriding the Christian Scientists who would rather allow their children to die than give them insulin or anti-bi0tics as well as creationists and astrologers, Rose asked him what the danger is in these beliefs.
“There are two kinds of danger, one is what I just talked about — that we’ve arranged this society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
The second reason I’m worried about this is that science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. 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.”
Below is the first part of Dr. Sagan’s final interview.