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Towards Day 23: A Candle in the Dark

Anne Dalke's picture


NASA: candle in the dark (=the unlit side of Saturn's rings)

I. coursekeeping
today's notetaker: TyL

for next Tuesday, read 100 more pp. from
Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World

I'll review then what's upcoming re:
performances, papers, portfolios ...

in the meantime, a reminder that a week from Friday, Dec. 3, your third 4-pp paper is due on-line: possible subjects include the graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Commission Report, Path to Paradise, Henrietta Lacks and Carl Sagan....or anything arising therefrom; am happy to talk w/ you about that paper before it's due, and would be delighted to encourage more co-writing, more back-and-forthing between you, more conversational, less argumentative styles (ckosarek?)

Directly relevant to the conversation we had early last week about running the risk of adding unrelated distractions into our papers: see y'day's NYTimes article about Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

II. before looking out to space, looking back a bit down here:
In pictures: Banksy Returns to Bethlehem

and Henrietta Lacks:
I was very touched by the book...I was filled with great sadness reading the reactions of the Lacks family....On the other hand, from the scientists’ point of view, Henrietta’s cells have proven to be of great importance

Rebecca's Skloot... spends a lot of time focusing and addressing on her own interaction with the family...lots of the time I completely lost sight not only of Henrietta's cells...but of Henrietta herself. I don't know that the book actually uses Henrietta as a way to make science accessible and personal I think it uses her family and their situations ... most of us probably did deeply connect to Henrietta and her exploitation by the systems she lived in. But Skloot ... focuses on her own voyage within the living Lacks family ... I think this is a conscious editorial decision.

I agree and think that another level of the story of Henrietta Lacks definitely lies in Skloot’s journey (or struggle) to discover information about who Henrietta was ... Skloot talks about the process of gathering information, writing it up, and how difficult and lengthy the whole process was. Skloot is almost as present in this narrative as Henrietta is ... Skloot used portions of the book to justify some of her own actions.

tgarber: Oprah will produce a movie

veritatemdilexi: As I am now skeptical of all the words that I read I looked up the word benefit in the OED and was reminded that benefit is both a noun and a verb.  I am used to benefit being used as a verb- "To do good to, to be of advantage or profit to; to improve, help forward."   However, the noun form of benefit most closely ascribes what I believe Henrietta Lacks' action demonstrates- "a thing well done; a good or noble deed."

SandraG: Reading  the 9/11 Report I felt so distant and like it was something that happened long before my time and that it had no impact on me... This contrasted heavily with the story of Henrietta Lacks where I felt connected and more emotionally invested in her story....I just felt a sense of guilt that I felt more emotionally vested in a story that was in no way connected to me than something that impacted my life and our world as a whole in such a drastic manner.

rachelr: I agree with SandraGandarez- even though The 9/11 Report wasn't "just the facts" (mostly due to the images), because it wasn't a first-person narrative I didn't feel like I could connect to the plot in the same way that I could reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

via veritatemdilexi:
Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues
"scientists can't possibly anticipate many types of future research..."Do we have the trust of the public to say, 'Look, we have your cells....five or 10 years from now they could be used in a completely different way. With your permission, we need to have that flexibility'" [requesting permission to do the to think about that as a question of ethics??]

the suppressed moral premise that everyone will benefit from the advances ... presupposes that all of us really benefit.... So in the absence of guaranteed access to a decent level of medical care, the moral justification for that structure breaks down."

"We often get lost in our own world when there is a disjunction of science and humanity—the self-interested drive for recognition and glory can lead us down the wrong path that crosses ethical boundaries .... When people come to a [medical] institution, they are vulnerable"

III. Doubting and Believing

Smacholdt:  Sagan points out that religion was a way for people to explain things that they could not understand.... I think that in large part, in his book Sagan is trying to convey that myths and folklore were how people understood the world hundreds of years ago, but now science has taken the place of these stories to explain things that are difficult to understand.

Owl: he makes it seem as though the individual is at fault for not wanting to immerse themselves in science, as he writes-or rather quotes- "the young are disastrously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding."(p6) He fails to recognize that half the population that isn't immersed in the science, math, and technology fields, is composed  mainly of women, who are not trained to like the hard sciences. They are from birth excluded from the fundamentals of science, math, etc. that intrigue people into the field. They therefore, as well as those who do not find the sciences compelling, have to find something else to depend on to be their truth (as science is for those that are immersed in it). That is why "a God of the Gaps is assigned responsibility for what we do not understand."(p8) A God is created for those that do not find science compelling enough to celebrate in it.

tgarber:  Though I do not typically enjoy science or anything related to it, I enjoyed Sagan's description of how science impacts our lives through the years: improving our means of communication, entertainment, health, etc. I could appreciate the "textbook-like" information that he provides, but that same information that once kept me interested in the book also made me dislike the book so far. He also disregards those who do not praise science as he does, and that left me indifferent about the book.

What is your experience of science?
Can you describe a time when you were a scientist?

What is your experience of belief?
Can you describe a time when you believed (something)? 

What is your experience of the relationship between science and belief?

How does your story compare w/ the one that Carl Sagan tells in Demon-Haunted World? 

*"so many of us who want so badly to ... believe --in Someone ... looking out for us ...The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be ... it takes work to be skeptical" (57, 69, 187).

* "Science is a profound source of spirituality...It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas...and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything...error-correcting machinery at its very heart" (29, 27).

Reading Notes
12: Nietzsche decries the "unbroken progress in the self-belittling of man" brought about by the scientific revolution
14: Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled.
15: Religions are often the state-protected nurseries of pseudoscience.
20-1: Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one...Pseudoscience is just the opposite...Skeptical scrutiny is opposed....Science has a far keener appreciation of human imperfections and fallibility....
22: The method of far more important than the findings...
26: We've arranged a global civilization in which...we profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.
27: It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas...and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything...error-correcting machinery at its very heart.
28: One of the great commandments of science is, "Mistrust arguments from authority" .... This independence of science ..makes it dangerous...
29: Science is a profound source of spirituality
31: There are no forbidden questions in science
32: science is part and parcel humility
34: Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no longer apply?
36: the language is spare, technical, cautious, clear ... unself-serving, circumspect, understated
37: The difference between physics and that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.
38: The values of science and the values of democracy are indistinguishable.
44: We seek a pattern, and we find one.
45: The Man in the Moon is in fact a record of ancient catastrophes.... even before life arose on Earth. It is a characteristic conceit of our species to put a human face on random cosmic violence.
...the pattern-recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none
48: the human-biased filter of our perception
55: But I might be wrong.
57-8: Skepticism doesn't sell newspapers ....reports persist and proliferate ...because there are so many of us who want so badly to be jolted out of our humdrum lives be able, really and truly, to believe --in Someone .. .looking out for us ...What a relief it would be: doubt reliably abolished!
59: If we knew beforehand what we'd find, it would be unnecessary to go...But we humans have a talent for deceiving ourselves.
69: that remorseless taskmaster called the scientific method: Everything hinges on the matter of evidence...The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be.
76: The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge ... But our politics, economics, advertising , and religions... are awash in credulity.
82: I am often asked, "Do you believe in UFOs?" I am always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence. I'm almost never asked, "How good is the evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships?"
93: A 1969 study by the National Academy of Sciences...concluded that "the least likely explanation of UFOs is the hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings".... "Least likely" is really saying something. This rhetorical excess is an index of how distasteful the whole subject has become to many scientists.
100: It's a stimulating exercise to think of questions to which no human today knows the answers, but where a correct answer would immediately be recognized as such....Perhaps we should hold a contest and collect the best responses to "Ten Questions to Ask an Alien."
115: The gods watch over us and guide our destinies ...people feel better believing in them.
116: "demon" means "knowledge" in Greek--especially about the material world...."Science" means "knowledge" in Latin. A jurisdictional dispute is expoosed, even if we look no further.
124: [on the similarities between the spaceship and witchcraft stories:] sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experiments...a shared delusion based on common brain wiring and chemistry?
133: the UFO abduction syndrome portrays..a banal Universe. The form of the supposed aliens is marked by a failure of the imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns.
153: the very dangerous doctrine that "the power or intensity with which something is felt" is a guide to whether it's true.
156: Misrememberings are the rule.
173: Magic requires tacit cooperation of the audience with the magician--an abandonment of skepticism, or...the willing suspension of expose the trick, we must cease collaborating.
180: I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my likely to get me into trouble. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.
184: it takes work to be skeptical
187: Keeping an open mind is a virtue--but...not so open that your brains fall out. Of course we must be willing to change our minds...but the evidence must be strong.
200: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection
204: better the hard truth than the comforting often turns out that the facts are more comforting ....
207: well-being as adults depends on knowing the world as it really is
210:What's in the [baloney detection] kit? Tools for skeptical thinking...the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and--especially important--to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion but... whether the conclusion follows form the premise.
*Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis...It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it.
*This is a problem that affects jury trials...jurors make up their minds very early..and then retain the evidence that seems to support their initial impressions...The method of alternative working hypotheses is not running in their heads.
211: Quantify.
We will not learn much from contemplation.
218: Gullibility kills.