Happy Carl Sagan Day - November 9

Happy (slightly belated) Carl Sagan Day! Yesterday was Carl's birthday and that's a good reason to celebrate the wonders of the Cosmos. Not that we need an excuse.

As you may remember, I'm reading The Demon-Haunted World and this is my second post sharing some of Carl's most inspiring and thought-provoking passages.

Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudoscience. Sparse and poor popularizations of science abandon ecological niches that pseudoscience promptly fills. If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience. But a kind of Gresham's Law prevails in popular culture by which bad science drives out good. (p 6) 
How depressingly true. So what can we do about it? What can you and I do about it? We can drive this point home, to everyone we know, that knowledge requires adequate evidence. Then follow up with what adequate evidence means (such as, not (usually) anecdotes, etc).

This is something you can do even on Facebook, or with your friends and family, or as a blogger. We can all help spread this important information that is obviously not getting to most people.

Every generation worries that educational standards are decaying. One of the oldest short essays in human history, dating from Sumer some 4,000 years ago, laments that the young are disastrously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding.
... I don't know to what extent ignorance of science and mathematics contributed to the decline of Athens, but I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. (p 6-7)
So while older generations have been complaining about the ignorance of younger generations since the beginning of recorded history, it doesn't diminish the situation as we face it today, and the responsibility of each of us to try to reduce this egregious problem as much as possible.

Carl is right that now, more than ever, it's dangerous to be so ignorant. We all need to work together to deal with issues like global warming, exponential population growth, and many many other crucial issues.

Not to mention, when you're woefully ignorant about the need for adequate evidence to prove something as legitimate, you are going to get bamboozled by pseudoscience, unscrupulous companies and people, and much more (I won't even open the huge can of worms that is politics).
Hippocrates of Cos is the father of medicine. ... But he is chiefly celebrated because of his efforts to bring medicine out of the pall of superstition and into the light of science. In a typical passage Hippocrates wrote: "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things." (p 7-8) 
Hippocrates called out the God of the Gaps argument around 390 BCE. Over 2,000 years later, people still die or suffer unnecessarily in this country because they or their family resorts to prayer or pseudoscience instead of science-based medicine. For example, people spend hard earned money on homeopathy, Airborne, cosmetics (anti-aging creams, etc), some types of chiropractic, colon cleansing, crystal or faith healing, most types of hypnosis, magnet therapy, ayurveda, traditional chinese medicine, acupuncture, quantum mysticism, etc, because they are told it will cure them or make them feel better. They often even forego science-based medicine entirely for these "treatments", often because they have a misplaced fear or hatred of modern medicine and science. (Steve Jobs is a recent example. He didn't get treatment for his pancreatic cancer for 9 months while he tried alternative "medicine" instead. Cancer can grow an awful lot in that amount of time.)

Carl goes on to talk about what the world was like before we had modern, science-based medicine. People had much shorter lives. Infant mortality was high, and death in childbirth was common. People died of things we don't even think about these days, now that we have antibiotics, life saving medication, vaccines, and know about good hygiene, proper sterilization and proper sanitation. (In some countries more than others, even today, unfortunately).

We all benefit from science every single day. I'm sitting at a computer (full of advanced electronic hardware and software, and made of silicon and metal, not to mention lots of plastic which is used in a myriad of places for very helpful things), a compact fluorescent light is on behind me. I have an abundance of nutritious food to eat in my refridgerator, which sits next to my convenient microwave. I have a television to watch in the evenings, with the added bonus of HD and a DVR. Even my shoes and clothes are more comfortable than they were when I was young. The fabrics are much softer and less itchy. I have a reliable car that was designed and tested through research. If I cut myself I can apply an antibiotic to prevent infection. I can take ibuprofen for a headache and fever. I can take medicine to keep my heart safe by reducing my high cholesterol. I could go on ad infinitum.

As we approach Thanksgiving (for Americans, for the rest of you, now is as good a time as any to think about this stuff too!), why not write down all the things you use in a day:

  • All the medicines you've ever taken (prescribed and OTC)
  • All the vaccines you've received, and the diseases you didn't get because of them (if you didn't get vaccinated and you still didn't get polio, mumps, rubella, tetanus, etc, then thank all the kids around you that did get vaccinated. You benefited from Herd Immunity)
  • All the technology you have at your disposal, from cell phones and computers to cars and electricity.

All of those awesome things have benefited from systematic research and science. It's impressive, isn't it? Now thank all the tireless scientists who investigated and observed our wonderful Cosmos, and then tested their hypotheses rigorously, so that our lives are longer and full of much less hardship than even a hundred years ago, not to mention 2,000 years ago.

Now, share the wonders of science and the importance of the scientific method (even for finding your keys, with a simplified version!) with everyone. What greater gift could you give to someone than knowledge and understanding of something so important?

Repeat that last step often! :)

The first post about DHW: The Most Precious Thing

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