Tuesday, November 13, 2012


   I do not 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 than 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 waste, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and low price, products people want to buy, then industries will continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to other parts of the world. Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data "highways," abortion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high-resolution TV, airline and airport safety, fetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depression or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning-after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial predispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.

   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 its own 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 has been exemplary. Of the 535 members of the U.S. 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.

   So how do Americans decide these matters? How do they instruct their representatives? Who in fact makes these decisions, and on what basis?

      -Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1996
It is usually considered poor form and a little dishonest to make a quotation at such length from someone while contributing so little yourself. But the nature of this statement, recently rediscovered in this book that had long sat dormant on my bookshelf, seemed so timely, so prescient, and so well stated that I could neither abbreviate nor amend it in good conscience.

1 comment:

johnmurphy said...

It's a marvelous book; one of my favorites.