… we’ve had nearly forty years to assess the long-term impact and see how Sagan unwittingly contributed to a trend that has served to muddle public understanding of science.
… that’s the problem. The “March for Science” is an attempt to equate the political goals of the left with Science Itself, claiming the intellectual and moral authority of science for the left’s agenda.
… Science has its own unique language and methods: the language of mathematics and a method of systematic observation and experimentation. The reason science tends to be opaque to the public is because it ultimately requires that they understand its language and learn to use its methods. But how do you communicate the history and meaning of science to those who don’t yet speak its language? You turn science into something they can understand. You make into a narrative, a story.
In Sagan’s case, he mostly turned it into a story about brave and honest scientific pioneers fighting against the forces of superstition and obscurantism. He made it into a narrative of good guys versus bad guys, of the forces of light and progress against closed-minded reactionaries. This was sometimes oversimplified, but it wasn’t entirely wrong; the religious authorities who persecuted Galileo definitely weren’t the good guys. But Sagan fell into the temptation to make this narrative about science fit just a little too closely with the agenda of conventional late-20th-century liberalism, so he used “Cosmos” as a platform for the Cold-War-era moral equivalence of the “anti-nuclear” movement and for homilies about environmentalism.
“Cosmos” is an interesting intellectual time capsule, because it was broadcast just at the point when predictions of global environmental catastrophe were tipping between global cooling and global warming. So he presented the two as equally likely scenarios that required further study (and, of course, massive government funding). But this is the point at which he dropped his guard, forgot his own admonitions about following the evidence wherever it leads, and indulged the conceit that science would just happen to line up neatly with his own political preferences. Because what he didn’t do was to entertain the possibility that human being aren’t destroying the planet and we aren’t cruising toward planetary catastrophe. He literally does not even consider this null hypothesis as a possibility.
It was a glaring hole in scientific objectivity, but it set the path for the popularizers of science who would follow in his footsteps. He had fixed the narrative in place, and they followed it.
… If you don’t really need science and all you need is the narrative, then what you get is our own era’s official replacement for Carl Sagan: Neil deGrasse Tyson. As the decades pass by, Sagan’s imitators become less thoughtful and more propagandistic, less interested in conveying the actual scientific method and more concerned with just telling the public what to think. It’s also about making those who accept the approved “pro-science” political agenda feel that they are superior to all of those ignorant, knuckle-dragging bigots who disagree with them. It equates science, not just with the politics of the left, but with the left’s attitude of smug condescension. That’s how you get Tyson’s fake-but-accurate narratives or the meme-swapping superficiality of the IFL Science crowd.
That’s also how we get things like the March for Science, in which it is naturally assumed that defending science dovetails perfectly with the left’s “resistance” against the current administration and every part of its agenda. It reduces science to a narrow political pose and blinds people to its big questions and radically different method of inquiry.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Turning science into a narrative: For decades, the Left has been attempting to equate its political goals with Science Itself
Although is, and has been, a Carl Sagan fan "from way back", he cannot avert his eyes from How Carl Sagan Ruined Science.