I draw strength from reflecting on what a privilege it is to be alive and what a privilege it is to have a brain that’s capable in its limited way of understanding why I exist and of reveling in the beauty of the world and the beauty of the products of evolution. The magnificence of the universe and the sense of smallness that gives us in space and in geologically deep time is humbling but in a strangely comforting way. It’s nice to feel you’re part of a hugely bigger picture.
First, cast doubt on the science. Second, question the personal motives and integrity of the scientists. Third, magnify genuine disagreements among scientists, and cite nonexperts with minority opinions as authorities. Fourth, exaggerate the potential harm caused by the issue at hand. Fifth, frame issues as a threat to personal freedom. And sixth, claim that acceptance would repudiate a key philosophy, religious belief, or practice of a group.
Go out early tomorrow evening and you will see Venus and Jupiter to the west, and Saturn to the south. Use a telescope if you can. Seeing such marvels for yourself is much more immediate and personal than looking at images on the television. The natural world is fascinating, and is even more so if you are prepared to observe, to experiment, to think, and to try and understand.
[…] significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.
Why Explore Space?
In 1970, Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to NASA scientist Dr. Stuhlinger about his research into a piloted mission to Mars asking him how he could suggest to spend money on such a project when there are children starving on Earth. Stuhlinger wrote back to her a thoughtful reply that’s worth reading, especially today.
Imagine you live in a world very similar to yours, except that there is a war that has been going on for centuries. The borders need to be protected against the Orks. As tradition dictates, this hard but honorable work is the realm of men and the epitome of manhood, and it has been like that for as long as society can remember. Recently, things have changed a little. The military service has become less dangerous, and almost no men die in service anymore. It has also become voluntary. Men are not automatically joining the army as soon as they come of age. They can delay it. As a result, the numbers of men studying at university has risen dramatically; universities used to be the realm of women until about 50 years ago. Still, most men eventually join the army, often giving up their ambitions, and men who don’t are viewed suspiciously. If you sign up for service, this changes your life forever. You cannot un-sign. You need to spend about 20 years in the army, and while the first five years are the most intense, it also requires hard work afterwards. Not surprisingly, this compromises the ability of men to pursue careers. They usually have to take at least a year off at the beginning of service, often more, to concentrate on learning how to fight. They might work part-time later, but this, some say, diminishes the quality of their service. Studies have proven that this is not really the case, but a powerful prejudice survives. Women, therefore, still dominate the professional world and make careers, as it has been for centuries. ‘Women are better suited for careers, this is clear from their brain chemistry’, many say. ‘On the other hand, men are made for battle. This has been like this since the dawn of time. It is better to accept this fundamental fact of life.’
Pseudoscience is a morphing monster of undue credulity; an “unsinkable rubber duck,” as some skeptics have called it. The reality is that we will always be burdened with the irrational and the unscientific. Believing in weird things isn’t unnatural; rather it is an extension of a highly adapted mind. But to move accurately through today’s world, a healthy scientific skepticism is warranted. With New Age beliefs making a resurgence, the anti-vaccination movement gaining strength, creationist bills passing US state legislatures, promises of personal genomics spawning new and dubious treatments, and health gurus sprinkling the word “quantum” on everything like an over-used spice, skepticism should be, now more than ever, a liberally applied tool. For the critical thinker, discovering and understanding our cognitive foundations is tantamount to a new beginning, a fresh way to look at the world. Learning how to think about thinking, learning how to navigate the perils of human cognition, is the way through.
If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relative in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we’re distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead, we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.
Mystery, as such, is no bad thing. Pointing out mysteries can be a valuable exercise—firing up our curiosity and getting us to engage our intellects. Nor is there anything wrong with acknowledging that some things may forever remain a mystery, and might even be in principle unknowable.
Sometimes it’s also reasonable, when faced with a problem case for an otherwise well-established theory, to put it down as a mysterious anomaly. If on countless occasions an experiment has confirmed water boils at 100 degrees C, the fact that on one occasion it appeared not to may quite reasonably be put down to some unknown factor. If we can’t discover what went wrong, it can be reasonable to just shrug and move on—putting the freak result down to some mysterious problem with the set up (a faulty thermometer, perhaps).
It’s also often reasonable, when we have a theory that works but we don’t fully understand why it works, to say, “Why this happens remains, for the moment, a mystery. But we know it does.” We might have strong evidence that smoking causes cancer, say, long before we understand why it does so.
So the appeal to mystery has its proper place, even in science. What I object to is the way in which the appeal to mystery is increasingly relied on to deal with what would otherwise appear to be powerful evidence or arguments against certain beliefs, particularly beliefs in the supernatural. Whenever mystery is erected as a barrier to rational inquiry, a barrier that says, “You scientists and philosophers may come this far armed with the power of reason, but no further—turn back now!” we should be concerned, particularly if no good reason is given for supposing science and reason cannot, in fact, take us further. The more we appeal to mystery to get ourselves out of intellectual trouble—the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts or discoveries—the more vulnerable we become to deceit: deceit by both others and by ourselves.
↳ Stephen Law - Believing Bullshit
Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia—hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding.
The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The three-pound organ in your skull—with its pink consistency of Jell-o—is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we’ve dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you’re the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.
↳ David Eagleman - Incognito.
We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa. These are indisputable facts. And rather than diminishing our humanity, they should produce satisfaction and wonder, for they connect us to all organisms, the living and the dead.
But not everyone sees it that way. Among those reluctant to accept Darwinism, human evolution forms the core of their resistance. It doesn’t seem so hard to accept that mammals evolved from reptiles, or land animals from fish. We just can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that, just like every other species, we too evolved from an ancestor that was very different. We’ve always perceived ourselves as somehow standing apart from the rest of nature. Encouraged by the religious belief that humans were the special object of creation, as well as by a natural solipsism that accompanies a self-conscious brain, we resist the evolutionary lesson that, like other animals, we are contingent products of the blind and mindless process of natural selection.
↳ Jerry A. Coyne, ‘Why evolution is true’.