This conversation unfolded as part of Bill Moyers' "World of
Ideas" tour during the presidential election year of 1988, which
elevated the voices of writers, educators, historians, poets,
scientists, and many other deep thinkers in a rather remarkable
interview series. I wrote about it here, with special attention to Moyers' interviewing tactics. I featured his discussion with E.L. Doctorow of the political novel here. The above image is a still from Asimov's interview with Moyers.
At the time of this interview, Isaac Asmov had written nearly four hundred books: not just science fiction, but also nonfiction science books and children's books featuring history and math. He had just become president of the American Humanist Association, and had been credited by one scientist as the greatest explainer of the age.
MOYERS: Are we romanticising this, or do you think that Saul Bellow's character Herzog was correct when he said that the people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. what they're really seeking, he said, is clarity, good sense, and truth, even an atom of it. People, he said, are dying for the lack of something real at the end of the day.
ASIMOV: I'd like to think that was so. I'd like to think that people who are given a chance to learn facts and broaden their knowledge of the universe wouldn't seek so avidly after mysticism.
MOYERS: What bothers you about mysticism?
ASIMOV: The same thing bothers me about mysticism that bothers me about con men. It isn't right to sell a person phony stock, and take money for it, and this is what mystics are doing. They're selling people phony knowledge and taking money for it. Even if people feel good about it, I can well imagine that a person who really believes in astrology is going to have a feeling of security because he knows that this is a bad day, so he'll stay at home, just as a guy who's got phony stock may look at it and feel rich. But he still has phony stock, and the person who buys mysticism still has phony knowledge.
MOYERS: You wrote a few years ago that the decline in America's world power is in part brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader. Why have we neglected science?
ASIMOV: Partly because of success. The most damaging statement that the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase "Yankee know-how." You get the feeling somehow that Americans -- just by the fact that they're Americans -- are somehow smarter and more ingenious than other people, which really is not so. ...
MOYERS: In 1980 you were afraid that the fundamentalists who were coming into power with President Reagan were going to turn this country even further against science, especially with their demands that biblical creationism be given an equal footing in the classroom with science. Have they made these inroads that you feared?
ASIMOV: Fortunately, the currents have been against them. But they still put pressure on school boards and parents, and it's become a little more difficult in many parts of the nation to teach evolution.
MOYERS: The fundamentalists see you as the very incarnation of the enemy, the epitome of the secular humanist who opposes God's plan for the universe. ... Are you an enemy of religion?
ASIMOV: No, I'm not. What I'm against is the the attempt to place a person's belief system onto the nation or the world generally. ... My objection to fundamentalism is not that they are fundamentalists but that essentially they want me to be a fundamentalist, too. Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and want everyone to believe that evolution is true ... Fundamentalists say they want to treat creationism on an equal basis. But they can't. It's not science. You can teach creationism in churches and in courses on religion. ....
MOYERS: But this is what frightens many believers. They see science as uncertain, always tentative, always subject to revisionism. They see science as presenting a complex, chilling, and enormous universe ruled by chance and impersonal laws. They see science as dangerous.
ASIMOV: That is really the glory of science -- that science is tentative, that it is not certain, that it is subject to change. What is really disgraceful is to have a set of beliefs that you think is absolute and has been so from the start and can't change, where you simply won't listen to evidence. You say, "If the evidence agrees with me it's not necessary, and if it doesn't agree with me, it's false." This is the legendary remark of Omar when they captured Alexandria and asked him what to do with the library. He said, "If the books agree with the Koran, they are not necessary and may be burned. If they disagree with the Koran, they are pernicious and must be burned." Well, there are still these Omar-like thinkers who think all of knowledge will fit into one book called the Bible, and who refuse to allow it is possible ever to conceive of an error there. To my way of thinking, that is much more dangerous than a system of knowledge that is tentative and uncertain.
MOYERS: Do you see any room for reconciling the religious view in which the universe is God's drama, constantly interrupted and rewritten by divine intervention, and the view of the universe as scientists hold it?
ASIMOV: There is if people are reasonable. There are many scientists who are honestly religious. Millikan was a truly religious man. Morley of the Michelson-Morley experiment was truly religious. There were hundreds of others who did great scientific work, good scientific work, and at the same time were religious. But they did not mix their religion and science. In other words, if something they didn't understand took place in science, they didn't dismiss it by saying, "Well, that's what God wants," or "At this point a miracle took place." ...
MOYERS: Is there morality in science?
ASIMOV: Oh, absolutely. In fact there is a morality in science that is further advanced than anywhere else. ... The morality of science is that you report the truth, you do your best to disprove your own findings, and you do not utilize someone else's findings and report them as your own. In any other branch of human endeavor -- in politics, in economics, in law, and almost anything -- people can commit crimes and still be heroes. ...
MOYERS: You love the field, don't you? You love science.
ASIMOV: Oh, I'm very fond of it. I think it's amazing how many saints there have been among scientists. ...