Friday, October 03, 2008

Sagan and Reagan

Matthew Nisbet at Framing Science asks whether Sagan and Reagan were the dominant public communicators of the 1980s:

Were Ronald Reagan and Carl Sagan the dominant communicators of the 1980s? Watching this past week the PBS American Experience biopic on Reagan reinforced in my mind the parallels between the president and the astronomer that I have mentioned at this blog before and during Q&A at talks.

The Great Communicator and the Showman for Science coined the dominant metaphors of the 1980s, Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire" and Sagan re-casting the strategic arms race in terms of "nuclear winter."

It is clear from Sagan's writings and his biography that he really did not like Reagan and at one point also refused a dinner invitation at the White House - and from their positions, we can see why. But Nisbet brings up a good point about their attitude towards religion:

Both also understood the need to reach out to religious publics to achieve strategic goals. Reagan, a believer in biblical Armageddon, gave his famous "evil empire" speech to a meeting of Evangelical leaders, calling on them to "speak out" in their churches against a nuclear freeze.

The atheist Sagan, in advocating his "nuclear winter" hypothesis, traveled with a delegation of scientists to the Vatican to give a research briefing for Pope John Paul, who subsequently issued a statement against nuclear build-up. Based on the meeting's success, Sagan came away convinced of the need to emphasize the common goals between scientists and religious publics in solving world problems. Later he would use the same strategy in calling attention to global warming.

Today, E.O. Wilson is playing Sagan's role and is reaching out to Evangelicals on the common stance on climate change and on the preservation of biodiversity.

Read the full post here (it includes a clip from the Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech).