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Month December 2008

Thoughts on the Anniversary of Carl Sagan’s Death, part 3

It's become an annual tradition of sorts for me to commemorate Carl Sagan's death, which occurred eight years ago today. I celebrate his life and the contribute he made to my past, present, and future, and to all of us through his writing, his scientific career, and most especially through Cosmos, and the Pale Blue Dot

I listen, as I often do throughout the year, to his words in Pale Blue Dot, either as he spoke them or in one of the many tributes which have circulated online. 

This year I believe we have cause for optimism as the public profile of science seems to rise in prominence from its recent lows during the Bush Administration.  President-elect Obama has nominated Steven Chu and and John Holdren to cabinet and key staff positions within his team, putting real scientific experience into high-level policy and administrative positions.  Of course, Chu and Holdren face massive and entrenched opposition to real movement on climate change, stem cell research, and a host of other issues.  And the incoming administration as a whole is hamstrung by a global economic crisis.  But our hope in the return of science and expertise to the White House is not a false hope, because as the song goes, hope is never false. 

Despite hope, as Carl Sagan often reminded us, most realms of culture are not self- or error-correcting by nature.   Common sense, religion, and politics are realms in which hopeful belief, unsupported supposition, benign ignorance, and outright self-deception can lie uncorrected for years, centuries, or millenia.  It takes a specific type of thinking, a specific type of argument, self-applied standards of evidence, and the willingness to be wrong in order to escape, however briefly, the spectrum from blind faith through outright self-deception.  But it does happen, as Carl wrote:

"In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a
really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they actually
change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again.
They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because
scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens
every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened
in politics or religion."

Whether it really will transpire that some of the good aspects of science will merge with politics in the upcoming administration, whether Obama will have time, will, or support for informed policy-making, or the political will and capital to spend in making informed policy-making into the law of the land, remains to be seen.

But hope is never false, and Carl Sagan would have loved to see the return of expertise and science to a place of respect and potentially even power in our public discourse.  Sagan was also fond of saying that "science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations.  When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we think of those who came before, seeing for them as well."

As we move into the next few years, those who care about expertise, evidence, and rationality in policy and public deliberation will have to see for Sagan, who sadly left us well before he should.  Well before we stopped needing his voice, saying so clearly what many of us need to hear.

Election hangover…