Whatever one’s specific feelings are as the 45th president of the United States takes office, there is little doubt that the past twelve months represent a moment where a grand human experiment took an unexpected turn.
On one hand, it would be the height of hubris to imagine that this is any more significant than dozens of items in a very long list of events in human society across the past several thousands of years. Yet the laboratory of the 50 states is something genuinely unique in recorded history, and the timing of such a dramatic reversal of course – with its attended confusions and likely chaos – coincides with an unprecedented pivot point for our species as a whole. Big items are on the table, from the root functions of the environment that produced us in the first place to the tools we now have in our sticky paws, whether for genetic manipulation or intelligent computation.
Without belittling the genuine concerns and sense of futility for many people who made the decision they did in this election, something very, very undesirable and de-stabilizing has also been allowed to air itself in this process. I think the following quote from Carl Sagan captures a great deal of what that is:
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
The one thing we cannot, must not lose sight of is the glow of rational thought, of creativity and wonder, and the immense power these things have to lift all people up to a better place. For many of us in science it could be easy to fall into a pattern where we simply respond to what we object to in the world by expending energy on critiquing and ‘correcting’. But this is well understood to have very limited efficacy, because it also serves to draw even more attention to all that is irrational, incorrect, and misrepresented.
The better path is to work hard at presenting the best of what we’re capable of as a species – to lead from the front with inspirational insights, excitement, and humanity. We live at a time where we now know that the cosmos is filled with other worlds, we're decoding the very origins of life itself, and we have a verified picture of how the entire universe has evolved across the past 13.8 billion years. Our perspective on the nature of existence has never been more detailed or more provocative.
Bringing these glorious insights to the attention of all people is most certainly not easy. But it is part of the spark that will make sure the candle doesn’t extinguish, for all our sakes.