Until the end of his life, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) continued doing what he did all along — popularizing science and “enthusiastically conveying the wonders of the universe to millions of people on television and in books.” Whenever Sagan appeared on ”The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson during the 70s and 80s, his goal was to connect with everyday Americans — people who didn’t subscribe to Scientific American — and increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of science.
At the end of his life, Sagan still cared deeply about where science stood in the public imagination. But while losing a battle with myelodysplasia, Sagan also sensed that scientific thinking was losing ground in America, and even more ominously within the chambers of the Newt Gringrich-led Congress.
During his final interview, aired on May 27, 1996, Sagan issued a strong warning, telling Charlie Rose:
"We’ve arranged a society 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."
2 min. clip:
SAGAN: 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, 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?
ROSE: But what's the danger of all this?
SAGAN: There's two kinds of dangers. 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.