Thursday, September 21, 2006

The value of science

People often don't trust science, because they don't understand it, and any random scientific point is often something that can't be explained in a couple of minutes. But astronomer and author Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, had a talent for explaining things. In this talk from 1994 he explains, not a particular point of science, but the value of science in general:
There is a reward structure in science that is very interesting: Our highest honors go to those who disprove the findings of the most revered among us. So Einstein is revered not just because he made so many fundamental contributions to science, but because he found an imperfection in the fundamental contribution of Isaac Newton. (Isaac Newton was surely the greatest physicist before Albert Einstein.)

Now think of what other areas of human society have such a reward structure, in which we revere those who prove that the fundamental doctrines that we have adopted are wrong. Think of it in politics, or in economics, or in religion; think of it in how we organize our society. Often, it's exactly the opposite: There we reward those who reassure us that what we've been told is right, that we need not concern ourselves about it. This difference, I believe, is at least a basic reason why we've made so much progress in science, and so little in some other areas.
These days it's easy to find examples of how we've made the wrong choices because people were quick to support our leaders no matter what, and because the people who pointed out where our leaders were wrong got shouted down and tagged as "traitors" and "terrorists" instead of rewarded. If I were someone that anybody was listening to, I'd probably be marked as an enemy of the state just for bringing it up.

The weird part to me is how clearly Sagan saw where the country was headed, long before 9/11 caused too many people to lose the capacity for rational thought:
There's another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It's a foreboding I have—maybe ill-placed—of an America in my children's generation, or my grandchildren's generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we're a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what's true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.
That hits home for me, at a time when our leaders have pretty much given up on providing us with leadership in favor of stirring up our hatred and suspicion, appealing to our fears and prejudices, discouraging us from independent thought, and in general building a bridge to the 14th century, in the apparent hope that we'll cross that bridge and then burn it behind us.


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