The Problem of Scientific Illiteracy
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” says Richard Dawkins in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly these unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Fling your arms expansively wide to represent the span of all of evolution from its origin at your left fingertip to today at your right fingertip. All the way across your midline to well past your right shoulder, life consists of nothing but bacteria. Many-celled invertebrate life flowers somewhere around your right elbow. The dinosaurs originate in the middle of your right palm, and go extinct around your last finger joint. The whole story of Homo sapiens and our predecessor Homo erectus is contained in the thickness of one nail clipping. Everyone from the Sumerians, who were possibly the earliest civilized people, to the Beatles and Bill Clinton are blown away in the dust of one light stroke of a nail file.
“You must regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortune. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly became trillions of times more foreseeable than it was a split second before.”
We are also, Dawkins points out, lucky in another way. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century, when its time comes, is “the present century.” It seems that the present moves from the past to the future “like a tiny spotlight” inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. “The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.”
But you are in fact alive. Our planet is almost perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest festival of a planet. Yes, there are deserts and slums and racking misery. But look at the competition. Compared with most planets, this is paradise, and parts of it are still paradise by any standards. Would a planet picked at random have these properties? The most optimistic calculation would put the chances it would at less than one in a million.
It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose conditions are right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, that other kind would have evolved here. Privileged, we are given the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do in the short time before they close forever.
This fact is the best answer to those “petty-minded Scrooges” who are always asking what is the use of science? It is said that Michael Faraday once answered one of them, “Sir, of what use is a new-born child?” He meant that a child may be of no use for the present but it has great potential for the future. Also, there must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. For this we spend taxpayers’ money on the arts and conserve rare space and beautiful buildings.
Great poets might have been even greater if they had celebrated science. The same spirit of wonder that moved them inspires scientists. Dawkins asks, “Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? Isn’t it sad to go to your grave without wondering why you were born? Why are the startling discoveries and accomplishments of science so little appreciated and understood in modern life? Why are superstition and pseudoscience so widely believed in? Many consider science to be unpoetic and uninspiring of awe, reverence and wonder. They retreat into mysticism, being content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery we were not “meant” to understand. The scientist recognizes the mystery as profound but then works on it. But the “tingle of the spine” in the study of science has been hijacked by astrologers, clairvoyants, television psychics, and populist “dumbing-down” artists. One threat is hostility from academics sophisticated in fashionable disciplines. A voguish fad sees science as only one of many cultural myths, no more true nor valid than the myths of any other culture. And in the U.S. there is Kennewick Man, a skeleton discovered in Washington State in 1996, dated to older than 9,000 years. Intrigued by anatomical suggestions that he might be unrelated to typical Native Americans, anthropologists were preparing to do DNA tests when legal authorities seized the skeleton, intending to hand it over to representatives of local Indian tribes, who proposed to bury it and forbid all further study. Even if Kennewick man is related to American Indians, it is highly unlikely that his affinities lie within the same area 9,000 years later.
“Dumbing down” is a serious threat to scientific sensibility. Science Weeks and Science Fortnights betray an anxiety among scientists to be loved. “Funny hats and larky voices,” says Dawkins, proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun. Whacky ‘personalities’ perform explosions and funky tricks…I worry that to promote science as all fun and larky and easy is to store up trouble for the future.” Real science can be challenging; but like classical literature or playing the violin, worth the struggle. Dawkins is not belittling hands-on demonstrations, but rather is “attacking the kind of populist whoring that defiles the wonder of science.”
Letter From The Editor
Utah humanists are peculiar people. They espouse a naturalistic worldview in the most theocratic state in America. Is this masochism?
Utah humanists are often either UU émigrés from afar or ex-Mormons. The former are usually surprised to discover the power and pervasiveness of the LDS church in Utah affairs. The latter are very conscious of this influence and typically separated from the church only after a long period of disillusionment.
I was raised agnostic, converted as a teenager and resigned in my 40s. In an ethnic sense it could be argued that I am still a Mormon. My ancestors were pioneers in Utah in the 1850s, practiced polygamy, and were even involved peripherally in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Many of my predecessors were buried in their temple clothes. I was baptized, held the priesthood, attended “the Lord’s University,” stood in the prayer circles, and blessed and ate and drank the bread and water of the sacrament. Somewhere in my head I keep the hymns and the jargon of the Latter-day Saints. This is my personal history, pieces of my unique puzzle.
When I write about the LDS church and its members, I can find in myself empathy and outrage, admiration and horror. Perhaps many of you feel the same way.
And so I often find myself debating whether I should criticize LDS proclamations, policies or practices. A question about the Mormons becomes a question about me. Am I being anti-Mormon? Am I too deferential? Should I be trying harder to see the humanism in Mormonism? Will I offend my LDS friends, family members, co-workers, etc.?
I will probably always struggle with these questions, but they no longer silence me. Mormons and humanists can and will coexist. If it is fair for Gordon B. Hinckley to denounce nonbelievers, and for tens of thousands of LDS missionaries to condemn all beliefs that are not of their faith. The Latter-day Saints must expect that they will not escape criticism. But the criticism of rational, empathetic people will not undo the good that Mormons have done in the past or will do in the future. We do not live in parallel universes; we share the same world, although we may see it very differently.
Differences can lead to discussion and discussion to understanding and even acceptance, if not approval.
It is not too much to hope for.
Billions and Billions:
Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books, 1997, is the last book that Carl Sagan wrote before succumbing to myelodysplasia, a rare disease of the bone marrow. In fact, the final chapter designated an epilogue, was written by his wife Ann Druyan after his death.
One of the most interesting points in the book is Sagan’s claim that he never used the phrase, “billions and billions,” which is, as he notes “too imprecise.” The first few chapters of the book discuss large numbers. He teaches the reader not only the history of numbers but about very large numbers and the difficulty in trying to comprehend cosmic vastness.
The second section of the book tackles the issue of environmental responsibility in general and global warming in particular. Sagan recounts two ancient Greek myths to discuss our modern plight. Croesus asked the Oracle of Delphi what would happen if he invaded Persia. The response was that he would destroy a mighty empire. Only when his own empire was destroyed did it occur to him that the question he asked was incomplete. Current policymakers consult the oracles of think tanks, universities, etc. and often get answers to more than the questions they ask. Sagan writes “policymakers need-more than ever before-to understand science and technology. (In response to this need the Republican Congress has foolishly abolished its own Office of Technology Assessment.)”
The second myth is that of Cassandra whom Apollo granted the gift of prophecy to with a return promise of favors. When she reneged, the angered Apollo caused all of her prophecies to be disbelieved. Many of our policymakers simply refuse to believe dire predictions. “The job of the policymaker is to steer a prudent course between these two shoals,” says Sagan.
On the subject of global warming Sagan takes the stand that the chemicals we are dumping into the environment will be around for hundreds of years and it is therefore prudent to expect the worst. If the dire predictions are true it is going to take time and money to make corrections. We simply cannot afford to wait until it is too late to reverse our current trend and to develop a means to clean up our messes.
The book continues to discuss a wide range of social issues ranging from political systems to abortion. Sagan obviously knows that he is dying prematurely and his last commentary is what he truly believed. Consider this quotation:
“Perhaps the most wrenching by-product of the scientific revolution has been to render untenable many of our most cherished and most comforting beliefs. The tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors has been replaced by a cold, immense, indifferent Universe in which humans are relegate to obscurity. But I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of magnificence, and an intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And if much about he Universe can be understood in terms of a few simple laws of Nature, those wishing to believe in God can certainly ascribe those beautiful laws to a Reason underpinning all of Nature. My own view is that it is far better to understand the Universe as it really is than to pretend to a Universes as we might wish it to be.
Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the twentieth century will be the most profound challenge of the twenty-first.
I highly recommend this book to all of my friends, but especially to my humanist friends.
Living with the Local Culture
“March 3, Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporates LDS church, provides for confiscation of its assets and properties, dissolves Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, disfranchises all Utah’s women, and dissolves Utah’s militia (“Nauvoo Legion”).”
“March 7, 300 protesters march to Church Office Building on Sunday, “demanding that the Church speak out in favor of civil rights for blacks.”
“March 15, in special meeting President McKay, second counselor N. Eldon Tanner, and apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and Mark E. Petersen agree to counter Ezra Taft Benson’s preaching of “John Birchism at stake conferences” and his efforts to align LDS church with John Birch Society during upcoming conference. As result Church News publishes Petersen’s unsigned editorial on 26 Mar., that LDS church has “nothing to do w ith Birchers…avoid extremes and extremists.” Apostle Harold B. Lee’s conference talk also attacks Birch Society and indicates that unnamed Benson is not in ‘harmony’ with his quorum.”
–D. Michael Quinn,
The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 1997