Perpetuating The Enlightenment

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Perpetuating The Enlightenment

  1. 1. Perpetuating the Enlightenment: Keeping the Candle of Science and Reason Burning into the 21st Century Prepared for: Dr. Frank Van Nuys as a Requirement for IS 201 Fall Semester, 2007 Prepared by: K. Mark Northrup Submitted on: December 3rd, 2007
  2. 2. Contents Introduction ...............................................................................................................................................................1 Why the IS (STS) Program? .................................................................................................................................2 Personal Background ..............................................................................................................................................3 Career Field Choice.................................................................................................................................................4 The need for the public understanding of science ..........................................................................................5 Potential Grad School Opportunities..................................................................................................................7 Potential Challenges, Obstacles, and Rewards................................................................................................7 Conclusions ...............................................................................................................................................................8 Works Cited ...............................................................................................................................................................9 For Further Reading ..............................................................................................................................................10 Useful Web Links ..................................................................................................................................................10 i
  3. 3. Introduction The future of humanity depends on science, and its product, technology. Ironically, as a nation, we are profoundly ignorant of basic findings of science and the methods of rational inquiry and intellectual honesty which lie at the heart of the scientific method. These intellectual tools are also what make democracy, in any sense that is worthwhile, possible (Demon-Haunted World, 38). For many people, science is a big, scary mass of facts knitted together by arcane mathematics. What “science” says seems to shift daily, but science is not only a noun, insofar as it is a body of collected knowledge of how the universe works, it is also verb; science is a method for understanding the world; it is a process, not just a result. The world is an uncertain place, so human beings seek certainties, and if they cannot find them legitimately, people will make them up–the need is that strong. Beginning with superstitions that later evolved into organized systems of religious belief, throughout history this need for answers, for certainties, has led humanity to find seeming certainties that need not be questioned, reconsidered, or revised. For many people, the knowledge that there were eternal truths that did not have to be periodically re-evaluated was a comfort amid the harsh realities of life. Only when observation, aided by crude implements, yielded evidence that much of what people had previously believed to be true was actually mistaken, did some start to question received dogma. For most, actually making the observations that might belie cherished “truths” required an expenditure of time, labor, and resources that they could not afford. Frequently, the ideas that resulted from the observations of those who could afford the time, labor, and resources to make them seemed far removed from the world of those for whom survival was a daily struggle. 1
  4. 4. Arguably, it was when Edward Jenner first used cowpox virus to prevent smallpox in 1796 that ushered in the era of fundamental scientific discoveries that affected everyone. In this case, the idea that there exists a realm of life, invisible to the naked eye, that causes disease, rather than it being the result of supernatural forces or the will of a god (World Book, Vaccination) impacted the lives of even the poorest people. The more that humanity learned about the universe, the less central humans seemed. This loss of status, combined with the tentative nature of science, which is forever refining and improving our understanding of the world, runs counter to so much that humanity has always believed to be true. Part of the beauty of science is that while it cannot say which ideas are eternally “true,” it can say, unambiguously, which notions are false, or at the very least, so highly unlikely as to be of little use. Science says, unambiguously, that the idea that the Earth is only 10,000 years old is just plain wrong, much to the consternation of young-earth creationists. The analogy, famously expressed by Bertrand Russell, that the assertion that there is a china teapot orbiting the Sun brilliantly illustrates that fact that the makers of any assertion, no matter how widely-believed, carry the burden of proving their case by the presentation of evidence, not those that question the assertion (Russell). This tension sets up many of the issues confronting society as it deals with science and what it tells us what is and is not possible. Why the IS (STS) Program? Today, a four-year college degree often takes more than four years and has to be narrowly focused in order to cover all the pertinent material. It is quite possible to go through four years of college and not have to read Shakespeare or Homer, learn about past civilizations, or about how one’s chosen field relates to other areas of human intellectual discourse. Paradoxically, so much of the cutting-edge research in science today frequently crosses a number of disciplines. These 2
  5. 5. issues are some of the reasons for the Interdisciplinary Sciences (IS) program, and why the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) specialization in particular is so valuable. Personal Background Raised religious, I also was a bright, inquisitive kid with a profound interest in science. I toyed with belief in ghosts and Bigfoot and UFO’s, but I was always a skeptical, critical thinker. An early indication of my skeptical, scientific mindset was the fact that I was one of those kids who would ask in Sunday school, “Where did Cain get his wife?” I devoured books about science, avoiding anything about that godless “evil-ution” stuff. Past a certain point though, I could not avoid the references to evolution in my reading because evolution in general is everywhere in nature and is not limited to just. If I continued my practice of avoidance of evolution, I would run out of reading materials. Confident that my “faith” could withstand the challenge, I kept on reading. Over several years I became convinced that the creationist arguments and evidence were completely without merit. My faith eroded away. I was morally outraged at the intellectual dishonesty of the deliberate distortions and outright lies used by creationists to bolster their case, which ran counter to what I took from the morals I was brought up with. My new-found skepticism was not limited to just biblical creationism. I re-examined everything I once thought I was certain of in light of the actual evidence, and bit by bit the scales fell from my eyes and I found I could calmly, hopefully, and confidently stare into the immensity of the cosmos and not be afraid of what I might find. In 1983, I began a 20-year career in the U.S. Navy in the field of Aviation Electronics. Attending classes in my off-duty time, I earned a General Studies Associate’s degree with the math and science grounding to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree at a four-year institution. 3
  6. 6. I was able to complete my junior year in Electronic Engineering at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Unfortunately, my military commitments precluded accomplishing coursework for my senior year. I retired from active duty in 2003 and worked at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC for a year. To take advantage of Veterans Administration Educational benefits, I returned to my childhood home to attend the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Career Field Choice My intellectual heroes have been individuals like Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Skeptics Society founder, Michael Shermer. Under no illusions about my talents compared to these distinguished public intellectuals, I do hope to add my voice to the vital work of facilitating the public understanding of science and in Carl Sagan’s words, to hold up “a candle in the dark.” This sort of career will not happen overnight. I will have to spend time as a professional technical writer before I can do any freelance science popularization. This would provide the steady income I need to pursue my graduate-level work as well. There are a number of professional associations that I will join that will provide tools for professional development as well as opportunities to network with other professionals in the field, for example, the National Association of Science Writers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The outlook for the technical writing field is good. According to one on-line source, the national growth in technical writers is expected to be 23% nation-wide and 18% in South Dakota (Technical Writers). One potential local employer is the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, or DUSEL facility. being built at the former Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota (Team Selected) which will surely need scientifically-literate non-specialists 4
  7. 7. able to communicate science to elected officials and the public. My dream job would be with someplace like Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York or with the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, working to further the public understanding of science. The need for the public understanding of science A Biology survey course I took this past summer from Black Hills State University is illustrative of the need for the increased public understanding of science. That class may be one of the last science classes that a non-science major will need to take. For the rest of their lives, those students, who will be parents, voters, and fellow citizens, will be bombarded by claims that biology can speak to, from the nonsense of homeopathic “medicine,” to diet fads, to the mass of misunderstandings and outright distortions and lies of Intelligent Design/Scientific Creationism, to the notion, born of ignorance, that a human clone is somehow less “human” than an identical twin, and the related proposition that human embryos in a Petri dish possess an immortal, supernatural soul. Despite opportunities to genuinely inform and engage the students, the instructor kept on passing up chances to do so. When covering sexual reproduction and how sometimes portions of chromosomes can be switched around, I mentioned that in 2004, scientists had actually identified which two chimpanzee chromosomes merged and now form part of specific chromosomes in the human genome (Hillier, 2005). I directed the instructor to the original Nature paper, who was, to my surprise, unaware of this spectacular confirmation of a common ancestry of humans and our nearest relative, the chimpanzee. My concerns, in which I am not alone, have been eloquently expressed by Carl Sagan, “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key 5
  8. 8. manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” (Demon-Haunted World, 25) Dr. Sagan’s concerns over the public understanding of science are well-founded. Pseudoscience and non-reason are behind the well-coordinated efforts of conservative religious groups to control the course of science education in particular, education in general, and the national policy decisions of our government. These groups are not unopposed. The National Center for Science Education, or NCSE, is very active in the fight to keep evolution, the unifying principle of the biological sciences, an integral part of the public school curriculum (Gross, 0682). Another champion in the cause of keeping the Enlightenment value of reason central to public discourse is the Center for Inquiry. Formerly known as the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP, they are guided by the maxim, succinctly expressed by Thomas Jefferson, “I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.” (Koch and Peden, 640) Aside from the well-organized attacks on science education in our schools and on an empirical, rational, scientific outlook in general in America, polls since the early 1990’s reveal that Americans hold a number of pseudoscientific, superstitious, and paranormal beliefs 6
  9. 9. (Newport and Strausberg) (Moore) (Lyons). According to Gallup, in 1990, 46% of those polled believed in “Psychic or spiritual healing or the power of the human mind to heal the body.” in 2001 that number had gone up to 54% (Newport and Strausberg). In another Gallup poll, conducted in June, 2005, 21% of Americans surveyed believed in witches (Lyons). Misperceptions and ignorance also cost society dearly in the area of health care. The homeopathic medications industry is valued at $600 million per year (MarketWatch). This figure does not include the money made by the homeopathic practitioners themselves. Many parents, seemingly most of them mothers, claim that standard childhood vaccines can give rise to conditions like autism, maintaining that their infallible “mommy instinct” trumps the last 100 years of modern medicine (Manning). That a thousand anecdotes cannot make a single shred of real evidence is apparently foreign to many people’s way of thinking. Potential Grad School Opportunities Once my time is done here at the Mines, I hope to go on to graduate studies in the “Science and the Public” master’s program offered jointly by the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Center for Inquiry. This degree is offered completely on-line and should fit well with full-time employment. Potential Challenges, Obstacles, and Rewards One of the day-to-day challenges in taking up this sort of work is keeping ones cool when encountering people that consider it a virtue to accept as true, propositions for which there is no evidence or worse yet, considerable disconfirming evidence. It will also be a challenge to “get my foot in the door” of the science-writing community. The way to do that will be, I think, to produce consistently good work as a technical writer, perhaps working for the high-tech industry, 7
  10. 10. or perhaps by working in the public relations field for an organization concerned with the interface of science literacy, reason, and public policy. The rewards will likely not be fame or fortune. It would be rewarding enough to light a few candles for science and reason and watch them grow and prosper. Conclusions There is, admittedly, not much reason to feel sanguine about the future; between the rising tide of pseudoscience and superstition, climate change, overpopulation, the threat of pandemics, the rise of religious fanaticism–both at home and abroad, and having enough energy for the 9-10 billion human beings there will be in coming decades. The continued survival of our species will depend on a majority of the planet radically changing their assumptions and expectations and this will require that their delusions be confronted publicly and often, even if it is deemed politically incorrect. Civilization is balanced on a knife edge and is being pulled by a number of dangers and the only hope is for humanity to proceed by the light of science and reason, guided by knowledge of ourselves and the world in which we evolved. 8
  11. 11. Works Cited Gross, Liza “Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology.” PLoS Biology 4.5 (2006), 0680- 0683 EBSCOHost Megafile, Devereaux Library, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City, SD. 2 December, 2007 <http://web.ebscohost.com/> Hillier, LaDeana W.; et al, “Generation and Annotation of the DNA Sequences of Human Chromosomes 2 and 4” Nature, 4/7/2005, 434.7034, 724-731 “Hyland's Inc. Reports More Consumers Turn to Homeopathic Medicines to Fight Illness at Home.” MarketWatch. 31 October, 2007. 27 November, 2007. < http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/hylands-inc-reports-more- consumers/story.aspx?guid=%7B83866A47-3423-4D82-B6B6-C80F658AD3D2%7D> Koch, Adrienne and Peden, William, eds. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2004. 640. Lyons, Linda. " Paranormal Beliefs Come (Super)Naturally to Some." Gallup. 1 November 2005. The Gallup Poll. 29 November, 2007 < http://www.gallup.com/poll/19558/Paranormal-Beliefs- Come-SuperNaturally-Some.aspx>. Moore, David. "Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal." Gallup. 16 June 2005. The Gallup Poll. 29 November, 2007 < http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans- Believe-Paranormal.aspx>. Newport, F., Maura Strausberg. “Americans' Belief in Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena Is up Over Last Decade.” Gallup. 8 June, 2001. The Gallup Poll. 29 November, 2007 < http://www.gallup.com/poll/4483/Americans-Belief-Psychic-Paranormal-Phenomena-Over-Last- Decade.aspx>. Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God?”(commissioned-but not published-by Illustrated Magazine in 1952). (no date given). Campaign for Philosophical Freedom. 2 December, 2007 <http://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/religion/br/br_god.html>. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997. “Team Selected for the Proposed Design of the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory” National Science Foundation. 22 August, 2007. 29 November, 2007 <http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=109694> “Technical Writers-South Dakota” careeronestop. (date not given). careerinfonet.org. 2 December, 2007. <http://www.careerinfonet.org/occ_rep.asp?next=occ_rep&level=&optstatus =011111111&id=1&nodeid=2&soccode=273042&stfips=46&jobfam=> “Vaccination.” World Book Encyclopedia, 1975 9
  12. 12. Further Reading Sagan, Carl. Billions and Billions. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998 Shermer, Michael. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search For God. New York, Owl Books, 2003. Shermer, Michael. The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. New York, Oxford University Press, 2002. Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Owl Books, 2002. Useful Web Links Center For Inquiry. http://centerforinquiry.net/education/graduate_program/ James Randi Educational Foundation: an educational resource on the paranormal, pseudoscience and the supernatural. http://www.randi.org/ National Association of Science Writers. http://www.nasw.org/ National Center for Science Education. http://www.natcenscied.org/ Secular Coalition for America: Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, AMERICANS. http://www.secular.org/ The Skeptics Society. http://www.skeptic.com/index.html 10

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