When you truly know someone, you can generally tell when they are lying or not telling the entire truth. It’s more difficult when you don’t know someone, and harder still if you admire them and often agree with their point of view. It’s easy to let our guard down, because let’s be honest, trust isn’t a bad thing. That doesn’t mean too much trust can’t get us into trouble, especially when it concerns those admired figures that we grew up seeing on TV or hearing on the radio. With that in mind, how can we defend ourselves from false or misleading claims that we are told by certain elected officials in their efforts to obtain, retain, or regain power? How can we apply skepticism without becoming overly distrustful of everything?
In the final interview before his death, astrophysicist Carl Sagan sat down with television journalist Charlie Rose and provided some insight on the matter.
Interview with Charlie Rose, 27th of May 1996:
SAGAN: “My feeling, Charlie, is that it’s not that pseudoscience and superstition and New Age so-called ‘beliefs’ and fundamentalist zealotry are something new. They’ve been with us for as long as we’ve been human. But we live in an age based on science and technology, with formidable technological powers.”
ROSE: “Science and technology are propelling us forward at accelerating rates.”
SAGAN: “That’s right. And if we don’t understand it, and 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? 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.’”
ROSE: “Surprising. What’s the danger of all this?”
SAGAN: “There are two kinds of danger. One is what I just talked about. That we’ve arranged a 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. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it? And the second reason that 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 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.”
Carl Sagan didn’t have a crystal ball to know how relevant his words would be today. There have always been those who take advantage of the blind trust of the general public. Thinking scientifically, i.e. skeptically, about what we’re being told is a form of self-defense against the onslaught of false narrative and opinionating.
The United States of America is a republic; a representative democracy. Individuals vote for candidates to bring their voices to the legislative and executive bodies. Checks and balances exist between the three branches of government purposefully established to protect Americans from tyranny. But even these checks and balances have their limits. Lies and half-truths have weakened the legitimacy of our great republic and eroded the trust of the electorate. The ultimate check and the final balance to this American experiment is an educated, informed, and engaged public.
Sagan Interview: https://speakola.com/ideas/carl-sagan-science-last-interview-1996