Sorry, Carl Sagan: Science is Not the Answer

Science has brought about many wonderful things; not only this, but science, just as all other subjects, is fascinating. Through science man has the opportunity to not only observe the cell and celestial sights, but to understand them. That being said, science has its place. It is a continual trait of humanity, it appears, that it wishes to delegate power to those who are “smarter” than everyone else. In some cases, this is a leader of a religion or cult. For Plato, such was the philosopher king. In many cases today, scientists are proclaimed to be those who are worthy to lead, or those who “should” lead.

Today, the veneration of scientists and mathematicians has extended to many intellectuals. Let it be known, here, that I am not arguing for anti-intellectualism, nor against open mindedness. To merely point out one example, in my own case, while I have found disagreement in the ideas of Christopher Hitchens, I find his works enjoyable to read. That being said, I do not believe that Hitchens should have been an elected official or granted omnipotent political powers.

At this point, it is necessary to assert a few points. First, science, technology, and the ideas of some “experts”  have brought immeasurable good to humanity. Consider, in the realm of technology, what the printing did for the world. All the good done (though there, logically, must be bad as wel) cannot be fully explorered here, though one should ponder more if in doubt. That being said, inventing the printing press is not a qualification for political office—apart from being given political legal power no man should possess. Again, the point must be realized that I am not advocating stupidity, anti-intellectualism, or a retreat from knowledge.

The idea of a technocracy is taking this trend, and facet of human nature, one step further, into the political realm. On the surface (i.e. without any applied thinking), this system may seem appealing to many people. For “the masses” they will be having the smartest and savviest leading them. For the “smart people” (or, at least those in the fields that would be leading), they would be in power. Still, this presents many problems. First, a technocracy only centralizes great, governmental powers in the hands of a small number people. Second, there is no account taken for the inherent rights of all individuals (whether in the sense of property, firearms, or general liberty). Third, while the plans for such a system likely vary greatly, it appears as though there is little taken into account for the fallibility of the technocrats.

There is another, greater question that is raised by the concept of technocracy: who is fit to lead and what is fit to be the foundation of a government? In democracy, it is the majority’s opinion. In a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime, such is decided through force and violence. In the case of a republic—the shining example being the United States—ideas, rather than the leadership of men, served as the foundation. Of course, a dictator was not put in place, but representatives of the people were elected.  Were these representatives given omnipotent powers? No, not at all. Using the same legal precept as established in Medieval England with the Magna Carta, they too were “under the law.”

Are the “experts” in science, technology, and mathematics smart? The answer is obvious. No one is doubting that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are highly intelligent in their respective fields. But would it have been a good idea to hand nearly-omnipotent powers to Steve Jobs or Carl Sagan?

As we mentioned Carl Sagan previously, perhaps it is fitting to quote him, in illustrating another fallacy of technocracy. In his acclaimed Cosmos series he once said “I believe that our future depends powerfully upon how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mode of dust in the morning sky.” Ah, yes, the future—in terms of all of humanity—does not hang on the thread of continual respect for the inherent rights and the free market, but on the plunging deeper into scientific discovery. Science is vastly important, but it alone—without this minor addition of philosophy and economics—will not guarentee a positive future.

Also consider the general opinions of similar scientists. As most of them are concerned with saving humanity as a whole, they do not take a right wing stance in this very often. Stephen Hawking is very concerned in the viability of man’s continued existence on the earth. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Hawking said that “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity … the man-made dangers to our survival are much greater and ever-increasing.” In terms of a solution to this, Hawking stated “The only long-term survival plan is to spread out into space.” Here another intelligent man has been conned into believing the myth of man-made climate change. The solution propounded—upon stripping away the dreams of a cosmic migration—will likely result in a loss of liberty as never seen by humanity, and the project never leaving earth.

I realize that the idea of a blatant technocracy, at this short moment in time, seems an unlikely and uneccessary worry. But, as it has been said that the turning to of experts is a perpetual human action, the danger of a technocracy is always present. In the present time, this is even more the case.

With the economies of the world existing in a state of possible collapse, the attractiveness of handing everything over to the scientists, mathematicians, and technological experts will become only more tempting to many. It is in these times that the case for ideas—like the free market and natural rights—must be made as valid foundations of government, as opposed to the intelligence of a handful of “experts.” Beyond this, there is always the danger of the great illusion being brought upon a nation’s populace. Just as some may think their government to be one way, yet it is much darker, many may be tricked into accepting a long, crushing tyranny of a handful of scientists or “smart people.”

Christian Lopac | Wabash College | @CLopac

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8 Responses

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  1. Sonja
    May 09, 2014 - 10:49 AM

    Carl Sagan said: “I believe that our future depends powerfully upon how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mode of dust in the morning sky.”

    He is talking about survival. If we don’t understand our planet and the universe, our future will be to die out. That is separate from religion, politics, etc.

    If you don’t understand how to feed a baby, it will starve, no matter how much you sing to it, cuddle with it, or pray for it.

    Carl Sagan is being set up as a straw man. His quote is about survival of humans in the cosmos. It is logic. Yet you set it up as an example of ‘science over all’ hubris.

    AFTER the baby has been fed, the singing, cuddling, etc., will definitely give it a better future. But it has to be alive to enjoy that future.

  2. T Hodges
    Jan 10, 2014 - 08:46 AM

    Articles like this, written by brainwashed conservatives—young, inexperienced and completely un-nuanced as this little guy, or the oldest ignorant politician—is why America cannot have nice things. The people who deny Science and base their entire world views on a static, 2500-year-old book and the story of a haploid zombie, are sadly ignorant of Life itself. After 50 years of watching the death spiral of our society and environment at the hands of these people, I am convinced that they will never learn. I do hold out hope that a genetic mutation will occur and their offspring will wake up to Reality in their own lifetimes in time to change. Science trumps myth, always has, always will. It’s what people do with that information that determines the ultimate outcome.

  3. crusader
    Sep 16, 2013 - 02:04 AM

    This was a good essay, though there are a few mistakes on the political end. All governments are maintained by violence; in authoritarian polities, the constitution is merely founded on the idea that the rule of the best (aristocracy) or of one leader (an autocrat) serves the common good best. When you speak of republican government being founded on ideals, let’s be frank: the ideals are merely the governing philosophy of our rulers, viz., the financial elite and the crafters of public opinion.

    Ideology, indeed, is the real error of Sagan and many of his fellow astrophysicists. He has, seemingly without much reflection, underlain his entire philosophy not merely with secular humanism, but with the human rights doctrines and Whig interpretation of history implied thereby. Consequently, he perceives nationalism and ethnic identity (what I hold to be the proper foundations of the political order) as outmoded and foolish, and sees in space exploration nearly a program of social engineering whereby human nature can be transformed, and we united by a common endeavor. Yet, he fails to heed the history of utopian visions and attempted transformations of human nature. If we go into space, we will eventually change, but I aver it will not be evolution, but a reduction to our most harsh and primitive survival instincts.

    Sagan, Hawking, and the rest were/are so caught up in stellar history that they forget the contours and patterns of human history. They urge us to launch into space because of specious threats that even they do not expect for another 100,000 years, and in doing so threaten to change humans into an altogether less desirable race of heartless space dwellers. Since they have rejected the Truths of the Christian faith, they completely lose sight of all immanent things, the care of which is what we honor by calling human. I question the worth of their scientific knowledge, because it has wholly obscured from them the importance of those proximate concerns which are given to man here on this planet, and here alone, for his care. If the activity of their minds is “intellectualism”, then we ought have no shame in calling this “intellectualism” an unrivaled evil.

    Rather than go into the void of space needlessly, let us attempt to build up the Social Kingship of Christ on Earth, in anticipation for the Second Coming (almost certainly sooner than any of these scientists’ specious concerns would come to pass) when there shall be made a new Heaven and a new Earth.

  4. Not a racist, but....
    Jun 30, 2012 - 04:05 AM

    Scientist say global warming bad. They no say guns good. Guns good! You think guns good? Guns and liberty and free market. Me like free market guns. Me not fear electricity. Electricity make guns. Guns good! Liberty! Me not say you “dumb”, me just very “smart”. Me know “guns” is “good”. Free “market”!

  5. Tray
    Jun 29, 2012 - 08:41 PM

    Your protestations of not spreading anti-intellectualism remind me of people who say, “I’m not racist, but…” and follow it up with something obviously racist.

    I can’t deny the utility of conservatism when it comes to asking whether man should engage in an activity. Indeed, scientists would have done well to heed those questions when eugenics was on the rise. However, the will of the people is its own form of tyranny in our republic. We will always need experts to explain to the layman how the world works, however counter-intuitive their answers may seem.

  6. Jared Cowan
    Jun 28, 2012 - 10:14 PM

    I don’t think Carl Sagan was advocating a technocracy, but more cumulative and overarching study of science in education and appreciation of science in the world instead of leaving it to specialists.

    No one’s expecting everyone to be an expert, but to be remotely knowledgeable in a day and age when science is becoming more and more relevant in terms of everyday life, not to mention in ways that we seem to take for granted, evolutionary theory and models in particular.



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