I love this piece by TIm Minchin and the animated short film of it just came out today.
“The Earth is a very small stage, in a vast cosmic arena.”
I am totally guilty of spreading around the OMGLookIt’sAMcDonaldsHamburgerThatWon’tDie meme, but I came across a really great article today about why observation is not science:
Steve Novella writes:
Let’s consider what variables might be interesting to control for with the “rotting hamburger” question. The most obvious one would be to set out McDonald’s hamburgers (more than one so that we can at least do some statistics) and compare them to a group of hamburgers that are home cooked with known ingredients vs hamburgers from another restaurant chain. But there are other variables also. How well are the hamburgers cooked (which relates to their moisture content at the beginning of the experiment)? There are many environmental conditions that should also be controlled for, if not varied to see their effect: humidity, temperature, ventilation, and light exposure. Link
So, yeah. Let’s make a deal, you and I, to try and not just accept observations that confirm an already held bias (McDonalds can still be bad and evil for so many reasons regardless of their burger’s state of decay, or lack thereof). M’kay?
Oh, and while we are at it, let’s look at why science trumps “common sense,” regardless of what most people might believe:
My favorite line: “We may stare into infinity, but we are unprepared to comprehend it.”
Generally, when we learn the basics of a subject, we are learning only partial truths about that subject. Too often, those partial truths, when combined, can even create a kind of lie, leaving us either confused about a subject or entirely too sure that we understand something that is far more complex than we know. The trick is to recognize that most of what we know, unless it is something we specialize in, is a mixture of partial truths and misunderstandings.
Which is why I found this essay on evolution from PZ Myers to be so interesting. It broadened my understanding of evolution in ways that made me realize just how little I truly understand about the biology and processes involved. I don’t understand a whole lot more than I did (though I do understand a little more). More importantly, however, I am reminded of just how much I don’t know.
Stop thinking of mutations as unitary events that either get swiftly culled, because they’re deleterious, or get swiftly hauled into prominence by the uplifting crane of natural selection. Mutations are usually negligible changes that get tossed into the stewpot of the gene pool, where they simmer mostly unnoticed and invisible to selection. Look at human faces, for instance: they’re all different, and unless you’re looking at the extremes of beauty or ugliness, the variations simply don’t make much difference. Yet all those different faces really are the result of subtly different combinations of mutant forms of genes.[From It’s more than genes, it’s networks and systems : Pharyngula]
The more you know, the more you grow, sure. But you have to know that you don’t know something before you can want to know more. To paraphrase The Doctor, it’s the people who are sure that they know all the answers that are the dangerous ones.
Inspiring words. Again from Carl Sagan.
Science continually reevaluates its conclusions and assumptions and is able to recognize when those conclusions are wrong after testing and experimentation:
Protons are 0.00000000000000003 meters smaller than we thought. That sounds like nothing, but it means one of these things must be true: Undiscovered particles are lurking, quantum mechanics needs recalculating…or the universe is impossible. (Here’s hoping it’s the first two.) Link
What’s interesting is that for many, the strength of the scientific method (the ability to question assumptions and even change its conclusions about the nature of the universe), is seen as a weakness. I don’t just mean those right-wing ideologues who refuse to understand the nature of climate change. I think there are a lot of people out there (liberals and progressives included) who can get very frightened by a universe that isn’t fixed. Remember the resentment about Pluto being demoted? For those who are my age, remember how fundamentally wrong it seemed when you found out that the “Brontosaurus” doesn’t exist and was merely the incorrect identification of an apatosaurus (with the wrong head even!)?
The world is a big and scary place in many ways, and when science comes along and says, “you know what, after experimentation and testing, we discovered that we were wrong and the nature of the universe is different than what we’ve been saying for a while now,” people get agitated and upset and they feel distrustful because, for the most part, we like to pretend that our world is constant and consistent.
When you look up at night, you might see a thousand stars. With binoculars, you might see tens of thousands. With a decent telescope, that number goes up to a seemingly amazing tens of millions.
This one image shows tens of thousands of trillions of stars. A million stars for every man, woman, and child on Earth, with more to spare. And it’s only one small part of the sky.[From A thousand trillion suns | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine]
And stunning beauty.
And the rare occurrence of pride in my species that, as tiny and ephemeral and fragile as we are, we figured out how to see so far into the universe.
If you want to know where I am heading in my own philosophies of life, science, and critical thinking, this video reveals my current trajectory.
We may be a small, selfish, vicious, short-sighted species in many respects. But that we can see and understand the vast processes that have shaped our existence still makes me smile and love humanity despite itself.
From NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site.