This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
Looking for evidence of what made America great? A good place to start is our genius for scientific envelope-pushing. Since World War II, it’s brought forth one game-changer after another, in cars and planes, computers and phones — you name it. American innovation has led the world as medical breakthroughs made workers and their families healthier and longer-lived.
That’s what makes President Donald Trump’s war on science so gobsmackingly perverse. In mid-July, with COVID-19 infections hitting distressing levels in the Sun Belt, the president and his advisers chose to diss their own doctors, most notably infectious disease guru Dr. Anthony Fauci, as wrongheaded losers.
Days later, faced with ailing poll numbers, Trump shifted gears, restarting regular White House COVID briefings by setting aside his chronically sunny view that the virus would someday magically disappear. “It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” he conceded. Yet gone from the dais were Fauci and other data-driven experts who might challenge Trumpian spin.
Writing in The Washington Post, four former heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated the obvious: “Trying to fight this pandemic while subverting scientific expertise is like fighting blindfolded.”
But here’s the thing: Our world may seem to be burning as Trump fabulates and excoriates, but he didn’t start the fire. Disregard for science and rational thinking, and an accelerating love for conspiracy theories, has long captured American hearts and minds.
Carl Sagan sent up a warning flare 25 years ago. In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, the astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and host of TV’s original Cosmos series, worried that a country dumbing itself down on fast-twitch media and entertainment was learning to ignore the role science and technology play in our everyday lives.
The “consequences of scientific illiteracy,” Sagan argued, “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,” because, for one thing, it threatens America’s economic health.
We’ll never know what Sagan would make of today’s citizens’ revolt against wearing face masks to protect fellow citizens; he died in 1996. But he did see irrationality on a roll. A civilization that had “saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history” through advances in medical science and agriculture was, Sagan suggested, submerging a time-honored reverence for scientific knowledge in a hodgepodge of solipsistic pseudoscience.
He understood the temptation. “Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled,” Sagan wrote. “It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods) … it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease… . It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance.”
Aside from Fauci besting him in the polls, what may gall the president, I suspect, is the doctor’s attitude toward error. Instead of trying to cover up their mistakes, bred-in-the-bone scientists use them to recalibrate toward the truth. Knowing you can’t bluff a killer virus, they embrace the belief that facing up to missteps and learning from them, not opting for easy answers and unfounded opinion, is the way to fix our problems.
Sagan knew that takes patience and guts. “If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to fall into error,” he wrote, “then we can confidently expect that error — even serious error, profound mistakes — will be our companion forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.”
Not famous for self-reflection, Trump blames the CDC, Democrats or whomever challenges his COVID scenarios for “politicizing” science, while he politicizes science. All the more reason to nurture a public knowledgeable enough to robustly debate the uses of science and technology, or at least ask the right questions. Not to do so, Sagan argued, borrowing from Thomas Jefferson, means “leaving the government to the wolves.”
At times, Sagan can sound downright prophetic: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy…” he said, “when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when … our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”
Today, there’s a new wrinkle Sagan anticipated but didn’t live to see. In his 2018 book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, conservative author Tom Nichols argues our “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden” lifestyles have fostered “an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.” The upshot is not just disinterest, but “a rejection of science and dispassionate rationality, which are the foundations of modern civilization.”
Time, and the November election, will tell if the pendulum will swing back to a greater regard for science-based decision-making, but frankly the odds aren’t looking great. Even if a coronavirus vaccine were to come online, surveys indicate large numbers of people may think twice about getting inoculated. And while science and state-supported fiction slug it out, the virus wins.
How to turn the tide? For Sagan, humility was a key. It’s “better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? … And if our naïve self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss?”
Let’s hope we can keep that candle burning. Otherwise, it’s dark ages here we come.