Trashing Carl Sagan's Legacy
If there were an afterlife, which he vehemently argued there wasn’t, Carl Sagan would not be encouraged by recent developments in this country. Sagan, who would have turned 85 last week, would ponder events of the past weeks and wonder whether the efforts he had pioneered throughout his life—to encourage people to set aside their superstitions and accept the real universe for what it is, and to encourage science and reason as a basis for public policy—were wasted.
In his last interview, with Charlie Rose, in 1996 Sagan bemoaned both public scientific illiteracy and also efforts in Washington to politicize science:
“..who is making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there's no more than a handful of members of Congress with any background in science at all. And the Republican Congress has just abolished its own Office of Technology Assessment—the organization that gave them bipartisan, competent advice on science and technology. They say, "We don't want to know. Don't tell us about science and technology."
Anti-science sentiment in Washington in 1996 was mild in comparison to what is happening today. In its efforts to further combat science-based policymaking whenever the science contradicts political goals, the Trump administration announced last week plans to limit the scientific and medical research that the EPA can use to determine public health. regulations. Under the guise of transparency, the new regulation would require scientists to disclose all their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could utilize the conclusions of scientific studies.
The scientific community has pointed out that determining possible links between pollution and health risks rely on broad epidemiological studies that rely on personal health information garnered under assurances of confidentiality. What is worse, it is proposed that the new regulation would apply retroactively. This means that previous ground-breaking research including demonstrating connections between air pollution and premature deaths could now be ruled inadmissible when attempts are made to improve air quality.
This follows on a host of earlier administrative actions to limit the use of science at the EPA, taken under the tenure of the notorious anti-EPA activist Scott Pruitt as head of the agency. One of Pruitt’s early action was to remove from EPA advisory panels those scientists whose research is funded by the EPA and replaced them with industry lobbyists. Key regulations designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants were repealed, and potential bans on dangerous pesticides were sidelined. During Pruitt’s tenure EPA scientists complained that their work has been ignored by senior EPA leadership, and this situation did not change when Pruitt was replaced by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.
Sagan did not only speak out against pseudoscience in Washington, he worked hard to excite young people about the real universe so that superstition, including religious superstition, would not govern their everyday actions, or limit their opportunities to fully participate in a society whose economic health is largely governed by scientific and technological developments.
He would have been horrified by a recent development in Ohio, a state that has long served as an epicenter in the effort to water down science in public schools to accommodate religious opposition to scientific developments from Evolution to the Big Bang. In 2002, I, along with colleague Kenneth Miller, a biologist, testified before an unprecedented public hearing held by the Ohio State Board of Education, as they considered regulations that would have required the teaching the discredited religious notion of Intelligent Design alongside Evolution in high school science classrooms.
Happily, at the time we managed to stem efforts to dilute the teaching of science in that state. However, this past week the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that, while vaguely but effectively requires that students not be penalized for providing religiously motivated answers, even if incorrect, to scientific questions on tests or assignments as long as they properly justify their answers on religious grounds.
Proponents of these kind of bills, including all Republican members of the Ohio legislature, argue that fairness regarding religious liberty requires us to respect the tenets of religious teaching, even when scientific evidence runs contrary to these tenets. But as I argued in 2002, not all ideas require equal treatment in the classroom because some ideas are simply wrong. One of the key goals of science, and education more broadly, should be to learn to accept the universe the way it is, whether we like it not.
As usual, Sagan argued these issues more poignantly. His words of warning from 23 years ago should not be forgotten as they remain particularly poignant and appropriate today:
“..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 for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along. It's a thing that Jefferson laid great stress on. It wasn't enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. The people had to be educated, and they had to practice their skepticism and their education. Otherwise we don't run the government—the government runs us.”
Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist is President of the Origins Project Foundation, and host of The Origins Podcast. His most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told…So Far”.