carolyn_porco's picture
Planetary Scientist; Cassini Imaging Team Leader; Director, CICLOPS, Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado
Planetary Scientist; Cassini Imaging Science Team Leader; Director CICLOPS, Boulder CO; Adjunct Professor, University of Colorado

I've changed my mind about the manner in which our future on this planet might evolve.

I used to think that the power of science to dissect, inform, illuminate and clarify, its venerable record in improving the human condition, and its role in enabling the technological progress of the modern world were all so glaringly obvious that no one could reasonably question its hallowed position in human culture as the pre-eminent device for separating truth from falsehood.

I used to think that the edifice of knowledge constructed from thousands of years of scientific thought by various cultures all over the globe, and in particular the insights earned over the last 400 years from modern scientific methods, were so universally revered that we could feel comfortably assured of having permanently left our philistine days behind us.

And while I've always appreciated the need for care and perseverance in guiding public evaluation of the complexities of scientific discourse and its findings, I never expected that we would, at this stage in our development, have to justify and defend the scientific process itself.

Yet, that appears to be the case today. And now, I'm no longer sure that scientific inquiry and the cultural value it places on verifiable truth can survive without constant protection, and its ebb and flow over the course of human history affirms this. We have been beset in the past by dark ages, when scientific truths and the ideas that logically spring from them were systematically destroyed or made otherwise unavailable, when the practitioners of science were discredited, imprisoned, and even murdered. Periods of human enlightenment have been the exception throughout time, not the rule, and our language has acknowledged this: 'Two steps forward, one step back' neatly outlines the nonmonotonic stagger inherent in any reading of human history.

And, if we're not mindful, we could stagger again. When the truth becomes problematic, when intellectual honesty clashes with political expediency, when voices of reason are silenced to mere whisper, when fear alloys with ignorance to promote might over intelligence, integrity, and wisdom, the very practice of science can find itself imperiled. At that point, can darkness be far behind?

To avoid so dangerous a tipping point requires us, first and foremost, to recognize the distasteful possibility that it could happen again, at any time. I now suspect the danger will be forever present, the need for vigilance forever great.