Slightly off topic, but until I stumbled upon a mention of it online I had been unaware that today would have been Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday.

Few intellectuals have influenced me as much as Sagan did. From an early age, long before I realized I didn’t have the math chops to study it, I thought i wanted to be an astronomer. So I was completely blown away by the book version of Cosmos, particularly Sagan’s explanation of the Drake Equation.

More important, though, was Sagan’s contribution to the public discourse. Sagan understood that science isn’t just another means of getting at information—it’s an important measuring stick of where we stand as a civilization. As we’re all too aware today, and as George W. Bush’s eight years in office taught us, when people don’t understand science—not necessarily the detailed bits of knowledge it leads to, but at the very least how it works and what it claims to say—then a vital door is left open, and through it will saunter all manner of chicanery, politicization, and demagoguery.

Americans have a long way to go when it comes to understanding science (and liberals are not exempt from this), but we’d be much worse off had Carl Sagan never been born.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.