Science and Pseudo-Science
If you go and teach, as I sometimes do, in a kindergarten or first grade classroom, you find a room full of scientists. Their questions are deep and fundamental: Why is the sun yellow? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? They have no idea that there is such a thing as a dumb question.
If you teach a class of high school seniors, you find something completely different: enormous concern about social approval by peers and great wariness about asking ''dumb questions.''
Most human beings early develop a set of scientific attitudes. It combines curiosity, a sense that the world is knowable, and — slowest to develop — the skepticism of a prudent used car purchaser. Yet something happens between first and twelfth grade — and it isn't just puberty. The natural interests of all these little scientists are replaced by science anxiety.
The inherent curiosity of these young people does not disappear. Yet where science is poorly taught, missing in the national intellectual discourse, not discussed casually over dinner in the average household, and absent from television talk shows, people's natural instinct for it is unsatisfied. They turn somewhere else.
To a significant degree, they turn to superstition and pseudo-
science. To take one example, consider the issue of ancient astronauts.
Millions of books have been sold on the thesis that many of the ancient monuments of the human species — e.g., the pyramids of Egypt — were built by extraterrestrials or under extraterrestrial tutelage. The argument, often, is that the author can't figure out how such things were made, so the only alternative is that beings from elsewhere did it.
Now this is a fascinating idea, I agree, but archaeologists have actually studied the subject. They understand how you build pyramids — barges up the Nile, inclined planes, tens of thousands of slaves, a few decades, and you're there. It is a mystery only to those ignorant of archaeology.
Where archaeologists have insufficiently explained their findings, ancient astronauts slip in. I claim that most of the people fascinated by claims of ancient astronauts would be as fascinated by the story of the real monument-builders and how we know about them — if this were accessibly communicated, not just in books but on television.
The same is true of UFOs. I'm personally very interested in the possibility of life elsewhere. I'm not opposed to our being visited; it would save me a whole lot of trouble. We send spacecraft to other planets, and try to find pathetic little martian microbes, of which there seem to be none. Large radio telescopes are being used to see if anyone is sending us a message. I would be delighted if those guys were coming here. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence — and the evidence — real, non-anecdotal, physical evidence — is crummy.
The UFO ecological niche is filled partly because discussions of the nature of scientific evidence are virtually absent from popular culture. Skepticism is present in the used car lot, but absent before the "newspaper" offerings of the supermarket checkout line. It's much more interesting to hear that there is extraterrestrial life than to hear, well, we are just at the beginning of our studies and we don't yet know.
People are hungry for science and technology explained in a non-intimidating way with some of the grandeur and wonder left in. I believe the American media and a whole lot of others have grossly underestimated the intelligence and in-
terest of the general public. This is probably true across the board, but it's certainly true in science. We can turn this matter around through the mass media and improvements in the schools.
It is clear there is a problem. We have a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which the average person understands hardly anything about science and technology. This is the clearest imaginable prescription for disaster — especially in a purported democracy. A fascination with pseudo-science is a dangerous foundation on which to base decisions about the environment, health care, defense and the many other urgent problems the nation and the planet face.
September 30, 1990
Carl Sagan is the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.
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Confronting Creeping Complexity
Robert W. Lucky
Many of us are, and not only from eating too much at holiday parties. Fax machines, cellular telephones, electronic mail, voice mail, telephone answering machines, phones in airplanes, pagers, and other devices have us drowning in messages and phone calls. Computers bombard our lives with more information than we can absorb.
Listen to the groan of people programming their VCRs or read best-sellers like Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and one sees this anxiety of Americans
about the stress of modern life. Complexity is a fundamental residue of the Information Age and it is rising steadily — in technology, business, social systems and the daily rituals of life.
It's a trend that deserves more serious attention. The telephone network was easily understandable and manageable only a decade ago. Now it has slipped beyond the comprehension of any single person. The collapse of a significant portion of the AT&T network a year ago underlined the vulnerability mired in this complexity.
Other large interconnected systems are found in transportation, the air traffic control system and the military. Computers that contribute to these systems also provide tools to control them, but one of the most important problems of our time is whether we human beings can manage such extraordinary complexity successfully.
As an engineer who has helped develop the technologies of the Information Age, my own view is that our species is up to the task of managing even a bewildering level of complexity.
That is an optimistic view, and an experience I had recently made me painfully aware of how out of touch it may be with that of other Americans. I appeared as a guest on a television talk show about the future. After speaking glibly about a world made more pleasant by robots, high-definition television and the like, I was roundly criticized by the other guests, who insisted that the world's prospects are bleak.
The environmentalist on the show was strident in his recitation of statistics on pollution. The educator spoke of the decline of literacy. The economist talked about global starvation, and the former police officer sitting beside me on the sofa warned of the inevitability of drugs and crime. When I held to my viewpoint that technology would make the future better, the others looked at me with scorn. What does a technologist know about such things?
That's a reasonable question for Americans to ask of people like me, since we produced this technology and have a dubious record of predicting its impact. Few of the engineers who developed the videocassette recorder imagined that every town today would have a video rental store. The inven-
tors of optical disks concentrated on video applications, never guessing that compact audio discs would displace vinyl records.
So technology produces complexity and is unpredictable, yet engineers like myself remain optimistic about its application. As a consequence, we make progress where none is expected. Unaware that cities are a hopeless cause, we design successful urban transportation systems like BART in San Francisco or the Washington Metro. Oblivious to the hopelessness of the educational crisis, we pursue technological aids to education.
This single-minded pursuit of solutions may be hopelessly naive for the world of the future, and there's no question technology can produce bad outcomes as well as good ones. But I do think most Americans would be better off if they shared our approach of viewing technology as an ally in a world of creeping complexity rather than as the enemy.
Technology and simplicity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe technology increasingly will free us to focus on matters more worthy of our human intellect, producing a world in which art, religion, music and philosophy coexist with amazing technical advances. Technological products are only tools, and they can be used to make life less, as well as more, stressful. The real solution to our frazzled lives lies not with rejecting technology but with harnessing it in new ways to manage information overload, quiet the beepers, and calm our nerves. We need to retain faith — not so much in technology as in our own power as humans to make it work for ourselves.
December 16, 1990
Robert W. Lucky is executive director of the Research Communications Science Division at AT&T Bell Laboratories.
* * *
The Reality Beyond Science
Victor F. Weisskopf
From Patriot missiles to new medicines, our lives are affected as never before by developments in science and technology. As one who has dedicated his life to science, I share the widespread concern of my peers about how little many Americans understand about science. Yet I think an opposite problem also exists — people depending too much on a scientific view of the world at the exclusion of other perspectives.
An anecdote about two of my former mentors illustrates the dilemma. The story goes that Werner Heisenberg and Felix Bloch, two of the giants of modern physics, were walking along a beach on a sunny day. Bloch was explaining a new way of looking at the geometrical structure of space. Heisenberg, his mind drifting into complementary avenues of experience, interrupted: "Space is blue and birds are flying in it."
Like Heisenberg, the rest of us also need to guard against seeing the world solely through scientific eyes. When we admire a sunset, for example, we may think of the scientific reasons why the sun is red. Yet we also should be impressed by the beautiful color combinations. The starry sky on a beautiful night may make us think about the fascinating facts of stellar evolution. But it is also symbolic of awe-inspiring infinity and the mysteries of the night. A Beethoven sonata contains not only sonic vibrations but also an emotional message.
Unfortunately, many people, and not only some scientists, resist this complementary view of things. There is a trend today toward clear-cut, universally valid answers. The scientific approach often is considered the only reasonable and serious one. There are good reasons for this belief; no field of human experience seems inaccessible to scientific comprehension. Yet even if scientists eventually unravel the processes underlying our own thoughts and emotions,
other methods of discourse still will be needed to grasp complex experiences.
History has shown that whenever one perspective is emphasized, others are unduly neglected. Just as science and technology now are in the forefront, religion dominated during the Middle Ages. The religious view of life was so dominant that nobody in Europe made a scientific record of the appearance on July 4, 1054, of a supernova ten times brighter than the brightest star. In China, by contrast, a detailed record of the phenomenon was made.
The one-sided emphasis on religion during the Middle Ages produced great art and lasting moral principles, but it also led to serious abuses, such as the murderous Crusades and the neglect of corporal suffering. One must ask whether today's emphasis on science and technology has led to dangerous exploitation of our environment, an overemphasis on material values and irrational overproduction of weapons of destruction.
I do not believe a direct cause-and-effect relationship exists. But I do think it important as we approach a new century that we recognize the totality of human experience. For moral and political decisions, scientific insight can point out the consequences of certain actions. The decisions themselves, however, must rest on non-scientific arguments, applying concepts that deal with the human soul and moral values. Applying varied approaches does not mean choosing among them to justify all actions. Nor is it a denial of values. Rather, ethical principles are strongest when derived from many sources and then applied firmly to the situation at hand.
Science and technology comprise some of the most powerful tools for solving problems. But they provide only one path toward explaining the varied and apparently contradictory ways of the mind when we are faced with the realities of nature, our imagination and human relations. Other paths are equally needed, if for no other reason than to help prevent thoughtless and inhuman abuses of science.
Niels Bohr, the father of quantum physics, taught me many years ago that complementary ways of perceiving the world
are essential to understanding it. He was right. Now, decades later, we can look forward to a future full of unfathomable scientific and technical advances. Yet we will continue to confront nationalism, religious fundamentalism and other intolerant views. Our only chance of achieving a better world is for all of us — scientists and non-scientists alike — to apply many different approaches rather than relying on science alone.
March 17, 1991
Victor F. Weisskopf is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article is adapted from his autobiography, The Joy of Insight (Basic Books).
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Columbus Day and the Frontier of Exploration
Edward C. Stone
Five hundred years ago tomorrow, three ships commanded by Christopher Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas after a 10-week voyage across the Atlantic. This opened an era of exploration of the Americas by European adventurers and was hailed by generations of students as the discovery of the New World.
Although some historians point to evidence of earlier visits by Europeans, and others are troubled by the cultural and economic consequences that resulted from the meeting of civilizations from two hemispheres, Columbus' feat remains significant. His voyage dramatically extended the frontier of the world as known to his European contemporaries.
Five hundred years after Columbus' voyage, the world that
once seemed so vast has shrunk to what has been called our global village. The passage between the continents that required weeks of hazardous sea travel is now accomplished comfortably by air in only hours. Satellite television coverage of news in other countries has brought immediacy to once remote events.
The launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union 35 years ago opened another new frontier. The Space Age expanded rapidly because of the competition during the
Cold War, but it also recaptured the spirit of exploration. Like Columbus' voyage, the journeys into space presented unknown hazards and challenges that we couldn't be sure we could meet. But these journeys also presented opportunities for observing the universe and for exploring and understanding not only Earth but also the other bodies in the Solar System.
The human frontier now encompasses the Moon, even if only briefly so far, and our robotic emissaries have visited all of our planetary neighbors except Pluto. A television series that begins airing on PBS tomorrow night, "Space Age," recounts the remarkable history and examines the future of the space program.
The last 35 years have given us confidence that the frontier of space is accessible. Indeed, space missions often seem deceptively routine, even though they remain among the most challenging endeavors we can undertake. Because weightlessness and other aspects of space cannot be completely simulated in an Earth-based laboratory, space systems can be tested only partially before launch. Once in space, repair is much more difficult or even impossible, yet in many instances the systems must function nearly perfectly for a decade or more.
The bounty of scientific knowledge that our missions have returned could give the impression that there is little interesting left to discover, that the veils obscuring nature's larger secrets have been stripped away, leaving only the details to be observed. I do not believe this to be the case, and I fully expect the century ahead to hold discoveries just as astonishing as those we have already witnessed.
As in the past, some of the most important discoveries will be those that differ the most from our expectations. Columbus anticipated making landfall in the Far East and, in fact, sent a delegation to seek the court of the Mongol emperor when he reached Cuba. He did not foresee coming upon an unimagined continent.
Similarly, in planning the Voyager mission to the outer planets, we at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had no idea that the two spacecraft would glimpse erupting volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io when they flew past the planet in 1979.
I believe it is invigorating for a society to share a sense that there remains something new to discover and understand, a sense of a future that differs from the present. Space will remain a limitless frontier that can provide the whole world with such a sense, much as Columbus' voyages of exploration provided for the Old World.
Looking ahead to the next 500 years, some of our greatest accomplishments are certain to occur in space. Human exploration will extend to Mars and beyond, while robotic systems will explore regions of space inaccessible to humans, and telescopes on the Moon will observe the distant universe with increasing clarity.
Recent findings about small bodies beyond Pluto, and about fluctuations in the Big Bang and the origin of the Universe, remind us that space provides unlimited opportunities for discovery and surprise. As we commemorate this historic anniversary, the best way to honor Columbus is not with parades but with the renewal of our own human spirit of exploration.
October 11, 1992
Edward C. Stone, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is vice-chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee that advised the PBS television series ''Space Age.''