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Skepticism and Wonder

Sagan with a model of the Viking lander that would land on Mars. Sagan examined possible landing sites for Viking along with Mike Carr and Hal Masursky.

I saw an excellent vlog from Ayishat Akanbi for Double Down News. Ayishat’s message is clear, that ‘We’re living in a culture of fear and as a result freedom of speech is under threat:’

This video reminded me of the late great Carl Sagan, who was prescient in understanding the need to deal with people who disagree, even attack, us for our beliefs. Though his writing focused on superstitions and pseudosciences, his thinking is largely applicable to all forms of bigotry and ignorance in pursuit of a cause. Crucially, he examined how an individual or community can remain rooted in reason and truth when trying to combat ideologies which seek to destroy them. This is done by beginning from a place of compassionate understanding of the fears which motivate such irrational and dangerous beliefs.

Yet, such high philosophy and noble sentiment is challenging, even impossible. As Sagan notes:

When we are asked to swear in American courts of law — that we will tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — we are being asked the impossible. It is simply beyond our powers. Our memories are fallible; even scientific truth is merely an approximation; and we are ignorant about nearly all of the Universe…

In shining a light of awareness on our fallibility and ignorance, Sagan apprehended we are not only deeply enamoured to our beliefs, but are all too often defined by them. A reality which binds both us and those who are implacably opposed to our thinking. Yet, even in this impossible task, Sagan observes there is a way to balance our innate feelings of self-righteousness with our need to remain rational creatures:

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness.

Yet in arguing for kindness, Sagan doesn’t mean unconditional acceptance, because ‘every silent assent will encourage [the individual] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice.’ This is particularly necessary when that which opposes us is little short of hate speech, even if it dresses itself in righteousness. In such instances, we need to muster the courage to critique, analyse and ultimately confront beliefs which are, at root, nihilistic.

If we offer too much silent assent about [ignorance] — even when it seems to be doing a little good — we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.

In such instances, Sagan observed:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive… Whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted. If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.

If we allow fear into our hearts, to still the perturbation it is all too easy to try and ground our fears in ideologies that offer certainty. Sadly, such certainty invariably comes at a price: that of scepticism. Without which, a society will generally lack openness, critical thinking and compassion. In the vast ignorance of a society absent of sceptical enquiry, evil festers and spreads, like the coming of night, and all foul things come forth.

But Sagan envisaged an antidote to the evil:

Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I’d love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, television especially: a community of people really working the mix — full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence — and these standards applied with at least as much rigor to what they hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity.

Good night and good luck.


Image credit: JPL – https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_599.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=498811

This post is day 069 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. If you want to get involved, you can get more info from 100daystooffload.com.


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