Monday, March 21, 2016

Remembering Carl Sagan and his Legacy of Critical Thinking

It's hard to believe that Carl Sagan died 20 years ago.  But it's worth remembering his death because it's worth remembering his life, his belief in and dedication to public engagement with science.  In this last interview with Charlie Rose he articulates the two arguments that motivated him throughout his life to continuously seek new ways to communicate science to everyone.  First, he reminded us that science is power, surely the defining power of our time.
We live in an age based on science and technology with formidable scientific powers.... If we don't understand it ... then who is making all the decisions ... that are going to determine the world our children are going to live in?
We have arranged a society based on science and technology ... in which nobody understands anything about [it]....  This combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces.  
But he did not stop there.  He went on to underline the fact that science is a critical thinking tool for all of us, based on asking good questions.
Science is more than a body of knowledge: its 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 who are in authority, then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.
So in both ways, a public and popular understanding of science is critical to our democracy.  Sagan asserts, and I believe he's correct, that Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers were well aware that democratic institutions did not depend solely on the consent and civil rights of the governed but also on their critical thinking.  I love how he just epitomizes the distinction between skepticism and cynicism.  If people can't ask good questions of their political leaders and hold them accountable, then we'll will cease to run our government and "it will run us."

On the margin, perhaps it has even less to do with the size of government or even the function of government and more to do with our critical relationship to it.  A philosophical, historical and practical understanding of science can help.

No comments:

Post a Comment