Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Last Interview (1996)

Until the end of his life, Carl Sagan (1934–1996) con­tin­ued doing what he did all along — pop­u­lar­iz­ing sci­ence and “enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly con­vey­ing the won­ders of the uni­verse to mil­lions of peo­ple on tele­vi­sion and in books.” When­ev­er Sagan appeared on ”The Tonight Show” with John­ny Car­son dur­ing the 70s and 80s, his goal was to con­nect with every­day Amer­i­cans — peo­ple who did­n’t sub­scribe to Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can — and increase the pub­lic’s under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of sci­ence.

At the end of his life, Sagan still cared deeply about where sci­ence stood in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion. But while los­ing a bat­tle with myelodys­pla­sia, Sagan also sensed that sci­en­tif­ic think­ing was los­ing ground in Amer­i­ca, and even more omi­nous­ly with­in the cham­bers of the Newt Gringrich-led Con­gress.

Dur­ing his final inter­view, aired on May 27, 1996, Sagan issued a strong warn­ing, telling Char­lie Rose:

We’ve arranged a soci­ety on sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in which nobody under­stands any­thing about sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and this com­bustible mix­ture of igno­rance and pow­er soon­er or lat­er is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is run­ning the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in a democ­ra­cy if the peo­ple don’t know any­thing about it.

20 years lat­er, fig­ures like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are out there, try­ing to pop­u­lar­ize sci­ence with new forms of media. But the same struc­tur­al prob­lem, so well artic­u­lat­ed by Sagan, remains large­ly in place. And yet there’s rea­son to hope. Because even as estab­lish­ment politi­cians still play the same games with sci­ence, there are ear­ly signs that, as with oth­er impor­tant issues, pub­lic opin­ion is shift­ing beneath their feet.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Glob­al Warm­ing: A Free Course from UChica­go Explains Cli­mate Change

Carl Sagan Tells John­ny Car­son What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chau­vin­ism in It” (1978)

Carl Sagan’s Ambi­tious Col­lege Read­ing List: Pla­to, Shake­speare, Gide, and Plen­ty of Phi­los­o­phy, Math & Physics (1954)

Carl Sagan Explains Evo­lu­tion in an Eight-Minute Ani­ma­tion

Carl Sagan Writes a Let­ter to 17-Year-Old Neil deGrasse Tyson (1975)

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  • Wes says:

    I am a almost 67 year old male that has always been skep­ti­cal of reli­gious guar­an­tees, but was taught not to ques­tion any­thing about the reli­gion I was born into. I now feel that I have the right to seek out the truth. I just fin­ished read­ing The Demon Haunt­ed World and would give this book the high­est mark pos­si­ble. The book was designed to be read and under­stood by any­one want­i­ng a fact doc­u­ment­ed sci­en­tif­ic alter­na­tive to what we’ve been taught all of our lives. I high­ly rec­om­mend this book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.