Science, grieving, and discovery

December 21, 2006

I’ve been thinking about Carl Sagan today and the nature of skepticism.

OklahomaSunsetWhen I teach the big class in biology here at OU, we spend a lot of time contrasting Science (repeatable observations, falsifiable hypotheses) with Authority/Religion (transfer from teacher to student, deity to devotee, a trust/faith based relationship). Its something I think we as scientists don’t do nearly enough, discuss what science is and isn’t. The closest thing we get to it oftentimes is the travesty of “The Scientific Method” lab.

One of the big differences between Authority and Science is how we deal with being wrong. When you discover something you knew from Authority is wrong, it is betrayal, a violation of trust. When you you discover something you know from Science is wrong, it is progress! And it is glorious.

Not to say that learning you’re wrong isn’t painful and disorienting. When one of my dearly beloved hypotheses is snuffed out by the weight of evidence (especially if I’ve known and nurtured this hypothesis for years) I  enter the 5 stages of grieving,

1. Denial: “Whaa??? I did something wrong.”
2. Anger: “Fuckit! Three months wasted!”
3. Bargaining: “If I tweak the statistics…”
4. Depression: “Fuckit! Three months wasted!”
5. Acceptance: “Ya know, if this is actually real….cooooooooool”


The great popularizer

December 21, 2006

Galileo Galilei There was once a time, a long time ago, when scientists communicated their discoveries to a fascinated world through popular books and lectures. Galileo’s Dialogues, after all, was a gripping a good read, even as it helped topple the Church’s domination and open an Age of Discovery. The Universe, Galileo suggested, was a lot grander without an omniscient, omnipotent God.

Now fast forward a few hundred years. Another fellow came along, writing and speaking about remarkably similar stuff. The Universe was big, billions big. And the Age of Discovery continued on, carried forth by a belief in the power of rationality against prejudice, intellect against the ravings of the night. All in books written with a wit and concision, accessible to anybody with the patience to crack a book and relax for a while.

Now, as a young man I followed Carl Sagan’s career, book by book, TV appearance by TV appearance. And when I first found myself at University, I was mystified by the scorn Sagan often received, not just from no-nothings, but from the folks who could best appreciate his message: the scientific community themselves. And it is here I would like to leave it: Carl Sagan was a ground-breaking (or should I say, ground re-breaking) popularizer of science at a time when most of the Academy couldn’t be bothered. And it was his often lonely voice that helped pave the way, that made communicating science with vigor, wit, and panache a respectable enterprise. Here’s to Dr. Sagan.
Carl Sagan