I don’t know to what extent ignorance of science and mathematics contributed to the decline of ancient Athens, but I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time then in any that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth.
How can we affect national policy—or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives—if we don’t grasp the underlying issues? As I write, Congress is dissolving the Office of Technology Assessment—the only organization specifically tasked to provide advice to the House and Senate on science and technology. Its competence and integrity over the years have been exemplary. Of the 535 members of the US Congress, rarely in the twentieth century have as many as one percent had any significant background in science. The last scientifically literate President may have been Thomas Jefferson. [3rd president, 1801-1809]
So how do Americans decide these matters? How do they instruct their representatives? Who in fact makes these decisions, and on what basis?
Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because distracting confrontations with reality are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed.
At the heart of some pseudoscience is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.
Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying. When we shy away from it because it seems too difficult (or because we’ve been taught so poorly), we surrender the ability to take charge of our future.
But when we pass beyond the barrier, when the findings and methods of science get through to us, when we understand and put this knowledge to use, many feel deep satisfaction. This is true for everyone, but especially children—born with a zest for knowledge, but so often convinced in their adolescence that science is not for them. I know personally, both from having science explained to me and from my attempts to explain it to others, how gratifying it is when we get it, when obscure terms suddenly take on meaning, when we grasp what all the fuss is about, when deep wonders are revealed.
In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging with the magnificence of the Cosmos.
“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science.
The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy began—in their civilized incarnations—in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it. Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. [emphasis added] Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is the bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. The more widespread its language, rules, and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly through the products of [misapplied] science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.
Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us—and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.
Any extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth—scrutinizing what we mainly present our children in [the media]—might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?
Over the years, a profusion of credulous, uncritical TV series and “specials”—on ESP, channeling, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, ancient astronauts, Big-Foot, and the like—have been spawned. The style-setting series In Search of. . . begins with a disclaimer disavowing any responsibility to present a balanced view of the subject. You can see a thirst for wonder here untempered by even rudimentary scientific skepticism. Pretty much whatever anyone says on camera is [assumed] true. The idea that there might be alternative explanations to be decided among by the weight of evidence never surfaces.
How much science is there on the radio or television talk shows, or those dreary Sunday morning programs in which middle-aged white people sit around agreeing with each other? When was the last time you heard an intelligent comment on science by a President of the United States?
In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the “information superhighway” was; 42 percent didn’t know where Japan is; and 38 percent were ignorant of the term “holocaust.” But the proportion is in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbitt, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 percent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; different philosophies or religions; or maybe it’s drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or “desecrating” the flag.
It is possible—given absolute control over the media and the police—to rewrite the memories of hundreds of millions of people, if you have a generation to accomplish it in. Almost always, this is done to improve the hold that the powerful have on power, or to serve the narcissism or megalomania or paranoia of national leaders. It works to erase public memory of profound political mistakes, and thus to guarantee their eventual repetition.
In our time, with the total fabrication of realistic stills, motion pictures, and video. . , and with critical thinking in decline, restructuring societal memories. . . seems possible. What I’m imagining here is not that each of us has a budget of memories implanted in special therapeutic sessions by state-appointed psychiatrists, but rather that small numbers of people will have so much control over news stories, history books, and deeply affecting images as to work major changes in collective attitudes.
We saw a pale echo of what is now possible when Saddam Hussein, the autocrat of Iraq, made a sudden transition in the American consciousness from an obscure near-ally—granted commodities, high technology, weaponry, and even satellite intelligence data—to a slavering monster menacing the world. . . . it was striking how quickly he could be brought from someone almost no American had heard of into the incarnation of evil. How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in responsible hands?
Another contemporary example is the “war” on drugs—where the government and munificently funded civic groups systematically distort and even invent evidence of adverse effects (especially of marijuana), and in which no public office is permitted even to raise the topic for open discussion.
Trends working at least marginally towards the implantation of a very narrow range of attitudes, memories, and opinions include control of major television networks and newspapers by a small number of similarly motivated powerful corporations and individuals, the disappearance of competitive daily newspapers in many cities, the replacement of substantive debate by sleaze in political campaigns, and the episodic erosion of the principle of the separation of powers.
Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict the skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 34,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power.
The unprecedented powers that science now makes available must be accompanied by unprecedented levels of ethical focus and concern by the scientific community—as well as the most broadly based public education into the importance of science and democracy.
There is no nation on Earth today optimized for the middle of the twenty-first century. We face an abundance of subtle and complex problems. We need therefore subtle and complex solutions. Since there is no deductive theory of social organization, our only resource is scientific experiment.
[Thomas] Jefferson was a student of history—not just the compliant and safe history that praises our own time or country or ethnic group, but the real history of real humans, our weaknesses as well as our strengths. History taught him that the rich and powerful will steal and oppress if given half a chance. He described the governments of Europe, which he saw first hand as the American ambassador to France. Under the pretense of government, he said, they had divided their nations into two classes: wolves and sheep. Jefferson taught that every government degenerates when it is left to the rulers alone, because rulers—by the very act of ruling—misuse the public trust. The people themselves, he said, are the only prudent repository of power.
But he worried that the people are easily misled. So he advocated safeguards, insurance policies. One was the constitutional separation of powers; accordingly, various groups, some pursuing their own selfish interests, balance one another, preventing any one of them from running away with the country. He also stressed, passionately and repeatedly, that it was essential for the people to understand the risks and benefits of government, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in the political process. Without that, the wolves will take over.
He advocated freedom of speech, in part so that even wildly unpopular views could be expressed, so that deviations from the conventional wisdom could be offered for consideration.
He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared to the cost of ignorance, of leaving the government to the wolves. He taught that the country is safe only when the people rule.
At the time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there should be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today. Where are they?
When we consider the founders of our nation—Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others—we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility. They were fluent in the English language. They wrote their own speeches. They were realistic and practical, and at the same time motivated by high principles. They were not checking the pollsters on what to think this week. They knew what to think. They were comfortable with long-term thinking, planning even further ahead than the next election. They were self-sufficient, not requiring careers as politicians or lobbyists to make a living. They were able to bring out the best in us. They were interested in and, at least two of them, fluent in science.
These excerpts, and I could have pulled many more, are from a book that belies its age. It could have been written yesterday, but it was written twenty years ago. That is a generation ago. To think that little has been done to improve our situation, and much has been done to compound our problems, is scary. To realize that the media, and the few who control it, are pushing us further down the rabbit hole is scarier. To see greed getting further out of control, and the power it wields systematically trouncing on democracy is scarier yet.
The human propensity for myth and magic, superstition and pseudoscience, fantasy and fairytale, illusion and imitation, and the resistance and anger exhibited when dearly held beliefs are challenged by established or newly revised facts reveals serious, fundamental functional flaws in the human brain. That we have developed technologies far beyond the wildest dreams of the most educated people of a short two centuries ago, those who founded the United States, wrote the constitution and the bill of rights, in addition to those who spearheaded the Age of Enlightenment, and that we have capacities far beyond what appears to be our current ability to control the technological prowess we have in our hands, drives home the grave need for reason, logic, skepticism, critical thinking, and a grounding in evidence based science.
And Carl Sagan drives home those themes in his last book. He covers the need for science education, not just for engineers, but for everyone. He speaks of the need for responsible media, the need for getting out from under the oppression of ignorance, and the joy of discovery. The splendid wonder of learning, the revelation of how and why, the examination of inner and outer worlds, drove Sagan to science. He spent his life inspiring in others that same sense of wonder he found in discovery, knowledge and understanding. This book was his final gift to the world.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan, Random House, 1995.
p.s. And by the way, I didn’t come across a single typographical error in this book, unlike every book I’ve read that’s been published in the last several years. See [Typo Schmypo]
[Honestly!] – part 1
There was concern in the early 1980s that only 50 corporations controlled more than half of what you watched, heard, and read in the media. (The Media Monopoly, by Ben Bagdikian, 1983) Today that figure would be welcomed. See [Media Monopoly Revisited]
Look at the scary stats on media ownership [Media Monoliths]
And another statistic to contemplate. The average American student under 18 spends more time watching TV than attending school. About 1000 hours per year in school and about 1300 hours watching TV (and a third of TV is commercials). Think of the results if those numbers were reversed.
From Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason :
Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.
T. H. Huxley :
The foundation of morality is to . . . give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.