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Ann Druyan: “The disconnect between science and all the rest of us is deadly”
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If you follow the news these days, you'll encounter conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccination activists and multi-billionaires who want to privatize space travel. Not a good time for science – or so it seems.
Hardly anyone knows this situation better than Ann Druyan: She is co-creator, executive producer, director and co-author of "COSMOS," the world's most successful documentary series, was Creative Director of the “Voyager Golden Record” and has been championing the popularization of science for decades.
In this interview with P!NG, she tells us why she is full of hope especially now, what angers her about Jeff Bezos' space stunt, and why she is calling for storytelling courses for scientists.
P!NG: You and your late husband, the famous scientist Carl Sagan, often said that you fear a world where technology and science have become a complete mystery to us. Has this fear come true?
Ann Druyan: In some ways it’s more true, in other ways it is less – and the ways in which it is less true is what gives me hope. I always go back to this quote by the Russian poet Yevtushenko. He said to me: “It’s not that there aren’t enough good people in the world. It’s that we don’t have each other’s phone numbers.” And now we have each other’s phone numbers! Because of that access to more information than anyone in the history of the world, now is the time for hope.
And what worries you?
The reason that I remain so concerned about a society where only an elite priesthood understands how things work is because we saw this happening in so many ancestral communities in history. We need to demystify nature and the workings of human technology so that every one of us can be an informed decision maker. The disconnect between science and all the rest of us is deadly.
Can you give an example for that?
For instance, we have devolved to a place where thoughtless people like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk can launch their junk into space, spend billions of dollars on these vanity projects that won’t advance our understanding of nature in any way. They only make it possible for the luckiest few to have a joy ride – that’s it. It’s pathetic.
Is this privatization of space travel a leap backwards?
Absolutely! Even in the worst days of the Cold War, the communication within the global scientific community was quite open and remarkable. I was so critical of the United States during the Vietnam War, during the terrible crimes that the US committed in far too many other places, but I could still feel pride about the Apollo Program. I could still say: We may be very messed up, but we can accomplish mythic achievements for all of mankind.
What is the most important scientific mission of today?
What matters to me the most – and has for a long time – is to end the massive destruction of the environment. I don’t think we should be allowed out to any other world until we’ve demonstrated in a long-term fashion that we can live with more foresight and less greed and destructiveness.
What makes you so hopeful that we will learn and achieve this task?
Well, I was reading in my New York Times this morning that the nations of Europe are joining together to do the most extreme joint program to revert climate change. I take some hope from that. There is a growing world-wide coalition of people who know what’s going on. I see so much more concern for the wellbeing of other species today. It used to be kind of a joke; people would say things like: “I have to give up my job for some obscure snail I never heard of?” Now people appreciate the wisdom of protecting other life forms.
Maybe it’s because of the pandemic, the climate catastrophe and politicians like Trump dominating the news, but it seems like conspiracy theories and fake news have gained a lot of followers.
I think what they have in common with each other is a sense of alienation. They feel resentful and cling to that illusion that somehow, they are superior. That identity is a comfort. I don’t mean that disparagingly. We humans are big liars; we lie to each other and to ourselves. It’s like we are alcoholics. Science is weening ourselves from our most cherished delusions. When we try to talk to people who disagree with us, we must really try to understand where they are coming from.
One argument that comes up often is that scientists are too arrogant. How would you respond to that?
Oh, it’s true. I have seen a tremendous amount of scientific arrogance, although I know many scientists who I would describe as the most humble of any humans I have ever met. When science is used as a badge of authority to hit people over the head with – that’s a disaster.
There is an effect named after your husband: The Sagan effect, where scientists get blamed by their own peers because they try to make science accessible and popular for a broader audience. What does the scientific community need to change?
I think there needs to be change on a much bigger level. Any institution in the US – and I can only speak to here because my experience is limited to here – that is offering an advanced degree in science should have a requirement for storytelling and in civics, to understand what their responsibility is. Communications, ethics, civics – I don’t think anyone should get an advanced degree in science without at least being exposed to these ideas in a systematic way. I still hear stories from scientists who really feel it’s their duty to communicate with the public being penalized by their fellow peers for doing that. To me that is a recipe for disaster. You know what was interesting when that happened to Carl?
All these people who were gossiping and saying these deeply hurtful things about him were politeness itself when they met him face to face. Smiling from ear to ear, not one bad word.
How cowardly. Especially since science thrives on open controversy.
Exactly! That alone shows how unhealthy this behavior was. They must have known themselves that they were wrong.
You are not a scientist yourself. What inspired you to dedicate your life to the popularization of science?
I am a hunter-gatherer of stories. The way I became less alienated from science was when I began to read some of the great stories in the history of science and realized kindred spirits: People who really wanted to know what was going on – answering those deepest questions that any one of us, at one time or another, must have felt. It’s the most natural thing in the world, every child asks these questions, but it gets beaten out of us because we are intimidated by the fear of asking a stupid question.
The same thing happened to you when you were in school, right?
Yes, my Pi-trauma in middle-school. I had just learned about π and asked my math teacher: “Is this ratio of Pi true for every circle in the universe?” I was twelve, and this discovery felt to me like a religious experience. She looked at me and famously said: “Stop asking stupid questions.” I burst into tears and fled. I never wanted to go back. To me, being called “stupid” was the worst possible insult.
Today, you teach millions of viewers about the wonders of science with COSMOS. One of the things that stands out about this documentary series are the incredible images and special effects – it looks like Star Wars. What can science learn from Hollywood about telling its story?
When I was fighting for the budget of all three seasons of COSMOS, I fought hard for a budget for these lavish special effects – not because we wanted to cheaply engage the audience and fool them, but because the story we were telling was about these grand national phenomena that we wanted to do justice to. It’s my hope that when someone sees a season of COSMOS, it prompts more questions or it builds confidence that science is not dull, it’s engaging, and it makes each of us more powerful. There is a lot science and Hollywood can learn from each other.
What can Hollywood learn from science?
It always breaks my heart when I see a big budget movie with copious VX-effects, and you see what empty calories are being churned out. It’s almost toxic, really. Almost every one of these movies is about superheroes, which to me has a whiff of fascism about it…
Because it tells the story that some Übermensch will come and solve our problems – that’s a bad idea. I love storytelling and I love fiction. I don’t think fiction should be like medicine. I just wish that Hollywood had a little more curiosity for reality.
There wouldn’t be a COSMOS without you, you are the co-creator, a writer, director, producer. Yet the faces of the show have been two male hosts: Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Have you ever been interested in stepping in the spotlight yourself?
No, I don’t think I am the right person for that. First, I am not a scientist. I don’t have that credibility that you have to earn from many, many years of very difficult study. I don’t think of myself as the host who could speak with that authority, even so I wrote the words – and by the way, I wasn’t doing these jobs alone, there were 968 other people working with me, so I had a lot of help.
What made Carl Sagan and today Neil deGrasse Tyson the right hosts?
Carl was that completely unique intersection of scientific rigor, poetry, soul, joy in sharing what he was able to find out and the humility of a scientist who knows he doesn’t know very much. Carl was born to be host of COSMOS. Of course, tragically he died way to young. When I was setting out to produce the second season, I wanted someone who could connect with the largest possible number of people. And I knew Neil since he was in his early twenties, I knew he could do that job. Now that we’re working on season 4 maybe different possibilities arise. By the time I’m done I would like people to realize that any kind of person can be scientist. That what a scientist looks like is as varied and diverse as what people look like. So, we’ll see what happens in the next season.
About Ann Druyan
Ann Druyan is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director specializing in the communication of science. She was the Creative Director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project - the Voyager Golden Record, recordings of the most important songs and sounds of mankind, sent into space as a message of peace to possible intelligent alien lifeforms – and Program Director of the first solar sail deep space mission, launched on a Russian ICBM in 2005.
She wrote with her late husband, Carl Sagan, the original 1980s Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning TV series “COSMOS: A Personal Voyage.” As Founder and CEO of Cosmos Studios, since 2000, Druyan built on the success of the original “COSMOS” television series, by creating “COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” for the FOX and National Geographic Television Networks. Druyan was the lead executive producer, a director and co-writer on the series, for which she was awarded the Peabody, Producers Guild and Emmy Awards in 2014. The show was seen in 181 countries and by hundreds of millions people worldwide. Her most recent series is COSMOS: Possible Worlds (2020) She wrote the companion book which was published by National Geographic in February 2020.