Framing Science

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.”

In the years before cable television fragmented Americans into ever smaller viewership groups, both men took advantage of the broadcast television networks to communicate directly to a mass audience. Reagan would make speeches during prime time from the Oval Office such as his 1983 call to scientists to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative. “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete,” declared Reagan.

And before The Daily Show or The Colbert Report turned late night comedy into platforms for scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan would appear as a regular on Johnny Carson reaching tens of millions of viewers. The astronomer was so familiar to American audiences that Carson would even affectionately impersonate Sagan in skits (clip above.)

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.