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Towards Day 24: Doubting and Believing

Anne Dalke's picture



jaranda's course notes

Carravaggio, "Doubting Thomas"

John Granville Gregory, "Still Doubting"

I. coursekeeping
welcome back! any relevant stories re: science?
pseudo-science? storytelling (fictional or non-?)

today's notetaker
:jaranda pinch-hitting!

for Thursday, read the first 1/2 of Robert Coles' The Call of Stories--and think
about the role that stories play in your life
: how might we update the tales Coles has to tell? what particular role might non-fictional stories play here?

a reminder that this Friday, Dec. 3, your third 4-pp paper is due on-line;
(on the graphic adaptation, Path to Paradise, Henrietta Lacks, Carl Sagan, related ideas....)
that I'm happy to talk w/ you this week about that paper; and that I would be delighted
to see more co-writing, more back-and-forthing between you,
more conversational, less argumentative, more collaborate, less individualistic styles....

for example:
Who wants to participate in my third paper?

On Beyond Webpapers?

Revewing what else is upcoming re: performances, papers, portfolios ...

II. Doubting and Believing, Part II-->
Last week, we shared our experiences of belief (loss of belief), and of science,
and used them as test cases to explore Carl Sagan's stark binary:

*"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).

How is it possible to be both open-minded and rigorously skeptical? Can we train ourselves to "loop"back and forth between these two poles?

Afterthoughts from this conversation

Owl on women's exclusion from the fundamentals of science

rachelr: a science major finds issue with how centrally he placed science
(and writing an "informed consent" form for Henrietta Lacks?!)

FatCatRex: According to Sagan, normal lies somewhere between reality and fantasy...
some of our shared truths came from a space of collective dreaming, instead of fact.

maht91:  In the chapter about Hallucinations, there is a line on page 105 that says: "...much of culture is hallucination," and that "the whole intent and function of ritual appears to be...[a] group wish to hallucinate reality"....According to the OED, hallucinate is "to be deceived, to suffer illusions, entertain false notions, blunder, mistake"... the etymology...means "to wander in mind, talk idly, prate."

Smacholdt: I think that this was great book to read for this class because it covers a lot of what we’ve discussed about how you can truly prove something. As Sagan points out on page 137, everyone’s senses are are we supposed to prove things about the world? ...Sagan also ... admits that he too is ... prone to superstitious wishes and beliefs, like wanting to see his parents again.

veritatemdilexi: I came across a quote from Brunno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment"-"He can achieve... understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams-ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.  BY DOING THIS, THE CHILD FITS UNCONSCIOUS CONTENT INTO CONSCIOUS FANTASIES, WHICH THEN INABLE HIM TO DEAL WITH THAT CONTENT.  Suggesting that we exist in a world of "nonfiction" but we then teach our children through "fiction" to create a "reality" that then allows them to deal with the "facts" of life.  Perhaps the only way to understand nonfiction is through fiction? Ideas?

jaranda: Sagan raises a lot of questions about what we take as “fact” throughout the book, and while it would be nice to see at least some of them answered, it seems as though the stubbornness to acknowledge anyone has been duped, will mean change is a long way off.  

Picking up on these ideas...

"Denial by definition": Definitions -- establishing limits -- are powerful verbal tools. They can help us understand words better. However, words sing. Words are poetic and polyvalent. When we cram them into definitions, we are always performing a Procrustean maneuver.

If the result doesn't seem to fit our definition, it may be that we need to come up with a better definition.

Just exactly what does Sagan's book add to/subtract from/how does it expand on our earlier conversations about the "construction" of reality? Of stories?? Has reality returned??

Sagan is "obsessed with reality" (this is the title of chapter 13):

p. 252: "we're talking not about an internal mindset, but about understanding the external reality"

p. 269: he challenges the "strangely waxing academic opinion... that holds 'true' or 'false' to be a delusion"

p. 270: "Who dares to set limits on human ingenuity? In fact, Nature does....a fairly comprehensive and very brief statement of the laws of contained in just such a  listed of prohibited acts."

p. 273: "the order of the Universe is not an assumption; it's an observed fact."

And yet: does he believe/do you "believe" that we are alone? (cf. p. 396)

Reading Notes, continued....

224: "Telepathy" literally means to feel at a distance.
230: science polices itself...But [not] faith-healing.
240: the placebo effect
241: If we don't want to get taken, we need to do this job for ourselves.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle...It's simply too painful to acknowledge...that we've been taken.
244: Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam, and wishes disguised as fact...ripple through mainstream political, social, religious, and economic issues in every nation.
252: Some even allege [science]'s entirely subjective, as is, they say, history.
254: It has an overwhelming advantage over history, because in science we can do experiments.
255: all that social turmoil and human weakness aids the enterprise of science.
258: Where in this subjective continuum, from almost fully independent of cultural norms to almost wholly dependent on them, does science lie?
263: Science is its passion for framing testable hypotheses, in its search for defintiive experiments that confirm or deny ideas, in the vigor of its substantive debates, and in its willingness to abandon ideas that have been found wanting.
267: A common critique of science is that it is too narrow.
270: A related complaint is that science is too simple-minded, too "reductionist"
295: When we are asked to swear "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"--we are being asked the impossible.
311: The impediment to scientific thinking is...political and hierarchical
312: political revolutions, skepticism about religion, and the rise of science go together.
317: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us...It has been the means for our survival....When we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them.
323: Every question is a cry to understand the world.
372: We seek meaning, even in random numbers. We're significance junkies.
381: Stereotypes abound...a kind of intellectual laziness....we concentrate on one or two bits of information, and then place them in a small number of previously constructed pigeonholes. This saves the trouble of thinking....
382: One of the stereotyped occupations is science.
392: What does it mean to have physical contact?...there is no physical contact.....there is only the interaction of electric fields. Nothing is touching anything.
394 (Feynman): What we call stars are only inferences...drawn from the only physical reality we have yet gotten from them--from a careful study of the unendingly complex undulations of the electric and magnetic fields reaching us on earth.
396: it's harder to think of a deeper [question about the Universe] than whether we are alone. Even if we never decrypted the message contents, the receipt of such a signal would transform our view of the Universe and ourselves.
400: A necessary aspect of basic research is that its applications lie in the one knows which aspects of basic research will have practical value....Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn.
[last two chapters with "more political content"!]
416: The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions.
434: In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights...this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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.
28: One of the great commandments of science is, "Mistrust arguments from authority" .... This independence of science ..makes it dangerous...
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.
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
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 exposed, 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: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.