Sep 272012

I replied to a friend:

From my perspective,

human brains are wired to find patterns.  We need to be able to do that, in order to make sense of the world and our lives.  And, in order to survive – – recognize the patterns that lead to harm.

My brain seems to be good at “connecting the dots”, which the video you sent does too.

A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that I had to be careful because I know for certain that there are times when I make connections that seem absolutely, unrefutably real, but which later turn out to have a different explanation.

So sometimes the connections are correct.  Sometimes they are not.

I think the video falls into that category.  Some of the connections are real, some are not.

Coincidentally, I am currently struggling with a book titled The Believing Brain.  There are some things which I think the author has not got quite right  (INSERT: the last thought on this page (by Carl Sagan) says it better than the author of The Believing Brain, I think.)

There is this quote in The Believing Brain , that seems to me to be appropriate for our times.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Carl Sagan:

“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer,  pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren  song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.

Where have we heard it before?  Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity,  during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around  us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I didn’t want to type up the whole quote and didn’t have to – – someone else posted it on the internet!  along with these other quotes, which I think are inciteful.  I found a Treasure Box!

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All are quotes from Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

MANY THANKS to the website:

Note:  I often copy (capture) good material because sometimes the webpages become inaccessible later.

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“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements 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. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

“I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that we don’t know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?”

“I don’t think science is hard to teach because humans aren’t ready for it, or because it arose only through a fluke, or because, by and large, we don’t have the brainpower to grapple with it. Instead, the enormous zest for science that I see in first-graders and the lesson from the remnant hunter-gatherers both speak eloquently: A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places, and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future.”

“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. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

“Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate–with the best teachers–the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”

“But nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant than what we are able to imagine.”

“The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.”

“An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth – scrutinizing what we mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, the comics, and many books – might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?”

“One of the reasons for its success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart.  Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science.  When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

“If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?”

“Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves.”

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.”

“All over the world there are enormous numbers of smart, even gifted, people who harbor a passion for science.  But that passion is unrequited.  Surveys suggest that some 95 percent of Americans are “scientifically illiterate.”

That’s just the same fraction as those African Americans, almost all of them slaves, who were illiterate just before the Civil War—when severe penalties were in force for anyone who taught a slave to read.  Of course there’s a degree of arbitrariness about any determination of illiteracy, whether it applies to language or to science.  But anything like 95 percent illiteracy is extremely serious.”

“But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.”

“There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.”

“Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.”

“But, Jefferson worried that the people – and the argument goes back to Thucydides and Aristotle – are easily misled. He also stressed, passionately and repeatedly, that it was essential for the people to understand the risks and benefits of government, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in the political process.   Without that, he said, the wolves will take over.”

“Nevertheless, (Jefferson) believed that the habit of skepticism is an essential prerequisite for responsible citizenship. He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared to the cost of ignorance, of leaving government to the wolves. He taught that the country is safe only when the people rule.”

“There is much that science doesn’t understand, many mysteries still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light-years across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the case forever. We are constantly stumbling on new surprises”

“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”

“In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.”

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”

“The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don’t like that statement, but few can argue with it.”

“Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being.”

“In college, in the early 1950s, I began to learn a little about how science works, the secrets of its great success, how rigorous the standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something is true, how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human thinking, how our biases can colour our interpretation of evidence, and how often belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies turn out to be not just slightly in error, but grotesquely wrong.”

“Our perceptions are fallible. We sometimes see what isn’t there. We are prey to optical illusions. Occasionally we hallucinate. We are error-prone.”

“We saw a pale echo of what is now possible in 1990-1991, when Saddam Hussein, the autocrat of Iraq, made a sudden transition in the American consciousness from an obscure near-ally – granted commodities, high technology, weaponry, and even satellite intelligence data – to a slavering monster menacing the world. I am not myself an admirer of Mr. Hussein, but it was striking how quickly he could be brought from someone almost no American had heard of into the incarnation of evil. These days the apparatus for generating indignation is busy elsewhere. How confident are we that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always reside in responsible hands?”

“You squeeze the eyedropper, and a drop of pond water drips out onto the microscope stage. You look at the projected image. The drop is full of life – strange beings swimming, crawling, tumbling; high dramas of pursuit and escape, triumph and tragedy. This is a world populated by  beings far more exotic than in any science fiction movie…”

“Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn. We may have a little more to eat next winter but what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get through the winters to come?”

“If you’re only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crochety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries in the borderlines of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you’re too resolutely and uncompromisingly sceptical, you’re going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere scepticism is not enough.”

“Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which scepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate.”

“Gullibility kills.”   (INSERT:  that’s also the lesson of “Women Who Run With the Wolves”!

“Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best. If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish. They’re shy, we’re told, and some of us believe it. In twentieth-century parapsychology laboratories, there is the ‘observer effect’: those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi. What they need is darkness and gullibility.”

“The impediment to scientific thinking is not, I think, the difficulty of the subject. Complex intellectual feats have been mainstays even of oppressed cultures. Shamans, magicians and theologians are highly skilled in their intricate and arcane arts. No, the impediment is political and hierarchical.”

“The technological perils that science serves up, its implicit challenge to received wisdom, and its perceived difficulty, are all reasons for some people to mistrust and avoid it.”

“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for.”

“Nearly everyone in ancient Egypt exhorted the gods to let the Pharaoh live ‘forever. These collective prayers failed. Their failure constitutes data.”

“To make a contented slave,’ [Frederick] Bailey later wrote, ‘it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.’ This is why the slaveholders must control what slaves hear and see and think. This is why reading and critical thinking are dangerous, indeed subversive, in an unjust society.”

“When conventional medicine fails, when we must confront pain and death, of course we are open to other prospects for hope.

And, after all, some illnesses are psychogenic. Many can be at least ameliorated by a positive cast of mind. Placebos are dummy drugs, often sugar pills. Drug companies routinely compare the effectiveness of their drugs against placebos given to patients with the same disease who had no way to tell the difference between the drug and the placebo. Placebos can be astonishingly effective, especially for colds, anxiety, depression, pain, and symptoms that are plausibly generated by the mind. Conceivably, endorphins -the small brain proteins with morphine-like effects – can be elicited by belief. A placebo works only if the patient believes it’s an effective medicine. Within strict limits, hope, it seems, can be transformed into biochemistry.”

“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists – although heavy on the wonder side and light on scepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts’. By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little scepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.”

“The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable.”

“Keeping an open mind is a virtue—but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.”

“Scientists make mistakes. Accordingly, it is the job of the scientist to recognize our weakness, to examine the widest range of opinions, to be ruthlessly self-critical. Science is a collective enterprise with the error-correction machinery often running smoothly.”

“Dreams are associated with a state called REM sleep, the abbreviation standing for rapid eye movement. The REM state is strongly correlated with sexual arousal. Experiments have been performed in which sleeping subjects are awakened whenever REM state emerges, while members of a control group are awakened just as often each night but not when they’re dreaming. After some days, the control group is a little groggy, but the experimental group – the ones who are prevented from dreaming – is hallucinating in daytime. It’s not that a few people with a particular abnormality can be made to hallucinate in this way; anyone is capable of hallucinations.”

“Another glorious feature of many modern science museums is a movie theater showing IMAX or OMNIMAX films. In some cases the screen is ten stories tall and wraps around you. The Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museu, the popular museum on Earth, has premiered in its Langley Theater some of the best of these films. ‘To Fly’ brings a catch to my throat even after five or six viewings. I’ve seen religious leaders of many denominations witness ‘Blue Planet’ and be converted on the spot to the need to protect the Earth’s environment”

“Both scepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I’d love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, television especially: a community of people really working the mix – full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence; and these standards applied with at least as much rigour to what they hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity.”

“There is child abuse, and there are such things as repressed memories. But there are also such things as false memories and confabulations, and they are not rare at all. Misrememberings are the rule, not the exception. They occur all the time. They occur even in cases where the subject is absolutely confident – even when the memory is a seemingly unforgettable flashbulb, one of those metaphorical mental photographs.”

“Paid product endorsements, especially by real or purported experts, constitute a steady rainfall of deception. They betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers. They introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.”

“A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion – wonder, fear, greed, grief. Credulous acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that’s what P.T. Barnum meant when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute’. But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic, however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.”

“Arguments from authority carry little weight – authorities have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.”

“A statement: children who watch violent TV programmes tend to be more violent when they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children preferentially enjoy watching violent programmes? Very likely both are true. Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish between television and reality. But Saturday morning children’s programmes now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they graduate from elementary school?”

“Telepathy’ literally means to feel at a distance, just as ‘telephone’ is to hear at a distance and ‘television’ is to see at a distance. The word suggests the communication not of thoughts but of feelings, emotions. Around a quarter of all Americans believe they’ve experienced something like telepathy. People who know each other very well, who live together, who are practised in one another’s feeling tones, associations and thinking styles can often anticipate what the partner will say. This is merely the usual five senses plus human empathy, sensitivity and intelligence in operation. It may feel extrasensory, but it’s not at all what’s intended by the word ‘telepathy’. If something like this were ever conclusively demonstrated, it would, I think, have discernible physical causes -perhaps electrical currents in the brain. Pseudoscience, rightly or wrongly labelled, is by no means the same thing as the supernatural, which is by definition something somehow outside of Nature.”

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