Carl Sagan’s “foreboding” of a dumb America; too late to stop it?

August 9, 2017

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

Are we already too late?

In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. 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 key 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 America 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.

Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.

Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?

How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.

Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?

We have cause to worry, I think.

  • 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
  • While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
  • Flat Earthers? Oy.
  • Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
  • Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
  • Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.

How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?

 

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.

How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?

More:

The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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Photography as an instrument of history: Ukraine’s Independence Square

February 21, 2014

Tweet from the Wall Street Journal shows, in very dramatic form, how photographs can be used to record history and current events, telling a story that words just cannot.

 WSJ Wall Street Journal - #Ukraine's Independence Square: then and now http://on.wsj.com/1d9q7IL  pic.twitter.com/vzqPKj79Cb

WSJ Wall Street Journal – #Ukraine’s Independence Square: then and now http://on.wsj.com/1d9q7IL pic.twitter.com/vzqPKj79Cb

In Ukraine, there’s an enormous difference between 2009 and 2014.  In five years, Kiev is a different city.

Do we attribute the differences to corrupt government, to the assault on democratic institutions, or to the movement to end the corruption and boost democracy?

It’s more impressive that I can show in a link here; at the WSJ site, the two photos are interactive — you can grab the middle line with your mouse and move it to see the damage in 2014.  Check it out.

Are there similar photographic comparisons for Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Venezuela, Brazil, China, Britain, the United States?  If you know of some, or if you have created some, will you share?


Boston University: Writing history, a guide

August 26, 2011

AP history classes worry about writing more than most history classes.  But we really should do more writing in history class, both as a tool to learn about history in the past, and as an exercise in actually writing history.

Searching for something else, I stumbled on a guide published by thBoston University’s Department of History.  It’s not dull at all, but lively, and therefore quite useful, even though it starts out in French:

Raison d’être

Good, clear writing is, for most historians and professional writers, more of a process than a God-given talent. It begins with a blank piece of paper (or computer screen) and ends with a clearly organized and persuasive argument
in the form of a research paper, a published article, or a book manuscript.

History as a discipline is in its essence the discovery and interpretation of signs of the past as well as conventions of how to cite such evidence. It thus combines research (the search for historical evidence) and the organization of data into a convincing argument. Historical writing is one variety of written expression which seeks to inform and persuade the reader through the use of evidence organized around a central thesis or argument.  Good historical writing is not merely description, though it may employ illustrations and appeals to the reader’s imagination.

AP history teachers may find it useful for their classes.  Students working on National History Day projects may find it useful.  You may find it fun to read.  Check it out:  Boston University Department of History Writing Guide (in .pdf).


Famine in Somalia: ‘This is a race against time to save lives’ | Need to Know (PBS)

July 24, 2011

About genocide and other political issues that lead to the deaths of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people:  We keep saying “never again!”  When is never?  There is famine today in Somalia.

Alison Stewart of PBS’s Need To Know:

This week, the U.N. declared a state of famine in parts of Somalia. Need to Know speaks with Adrian Edwards of the U.N.’s Refugee Agency about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the region.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Video: Famine in Somalia: ‘This is a race again…, posted with vodpod

[2014 Update: Video expired, no longer available for streaming. Story and some details, here.]

More, Resources:


Memphis Public Library assembling history of 2011 floods

June 28, 2011

Here’s a good idea:  The Memphis Public Library is putting together an archive on the 2011 floods in the area, we learn from the Memphis Daily News:

St. Mary’s Senior Helps Library Build Flood Archive

St. Mary’s Episcopal School student Ellery Ammons is devoting her summer break to helping the Memphis Public Library & Information Center build an archive documenting the Mid-South floods of 2011.

Ammons, an employee of the Shelby Forest General Store owned by her parents, is also a Girl Scout, working toward her Gold Award.

Recognizing the need to document this year’s historic deluge, the high school senior decided to take on the tasks of soliciting, cataloging and archiving community photos to create the 2011 Flood Collection.

She plans to create a digital archive of flood photographs to provide future generations with an accurate record of the floods that ensued when the Mississippi and its tributaries overflowed in Memphis and the surrounding areas this past spring.

Library digital projects manager Sarah Frierson said she’s delighted to have the extra hands in the history department, saying the collection “will be a wonderful complement to the library’s existing Mid-South Flood Collection, which documents the floods of 1927 and 1937.”

The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar Ave., is seeking photo donations to add to the 2011 Flood Collection. Donations, which will become part of the library’s permanent collection, can be brought to the history department on the main library’s fourth floor or e-mailed to Flood2011.Photography@gmail.com.

– Aisling Maki


Wegman Scandal: Attack on climate scientists based on shoddy scholarship

October 4, 2010

John Mashey assembled a massive document that nails down the case that bad science and politics make the complaints against scientists and the science that indicates global warming occurs, and can be attributed to greenhouse gases.  It is a scandal, though it’s unlikely to be reported that way.

Mashey’s entire paper — and it’s very, very large — is published at Deep Climate.

Mashey’s paper indicts staff work done for Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas — not that any of the voters in Barton’s district will let this major breach of ethics sway their votes, but those who want to vote against him can be gratified that they are on the moral side of the ballot.

Mashey wrote:

This report offers a detailed study of the “Wegman Report”: Edward J. Wegman, David W. Scott, Yasmin H. Said, “AD HOC COMMITTEE REPORT ON THE ‘HOCKEY STICK’ GLOBAL CLIMATE RECONSTRUCTION”(2006).

It has been key prop of climate anti-science ever since. It was promoted to Congress by Representatives Joe Barton and Ed Whitfield as “independent, impartial, expert” work by a team of “eminent statisticians.” It was none of those.

A Barton staffer provided much of the source material to the Wegman team. The report itself contains numerous cases of obvious bias, as do process, testimony and follow-on actions. Of 91 pages, 35 are mostly plagiarized text, but often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning. Its Bibliography is mostly padding, 50% of the references uncited in the text.  Many references are irrelevant or dubious.  The team relied heavily on a long-obsolete sketch and very likely on various uncredited sources. Much of the work was done by Said (then less than 1 year post-PhD) and by students several years pre-PhD. The (distinguished) 2nd author Scott wrote only a 3-page standard mathematical Appendix.  Some commenters were surprised to be later named as serious “reviewers.”  Comments were often ignored anyway.  People were misused.

The Wegman Report claimed two missions: #1 evaluate statistical issues of the “hockey stick” temperature graph,  and #2 assess potential peer review issues in climate science.  For #1, the team might have been able to do a peer-review-grade statistical analysis, but in 91 pages managed not to do so.  For  #2, a credible assessment needed a senior, multidisciplinary panel, not a statistics professor and his students, demonstrably unfamiliar with the science and as a team, unqualified for that task.   Instead, they made an odd excursion into “social network analysis,” a discipline  in which they lacked experience, but used poorly to make baseless claims of potential wrongdoing.

In retrospect, the real missions were: #1 claim the “hockey stick” broken and #2 discredit climate science as a whole. All this was a facade for a PR campaign well-honed by Washington, DC “think tanks” and allies, underway for years.

Now, if only Mashey had some e-mails stolen from Joe Barton, we could get some traction on the issue, eh?  ::wink-wink, nudge-nudge::

One may wonder what it will take to rehabilitate the skeptical side of the debate, to the point that they contribute more than mau-mauing.

Mashey’s paper makes that case that Joe Barton worked hard to pull off a great, hoaxed political smear, with a high degree of success.  Who will have the backbone to do anything about it?  Global cooling will proceed to the next ice age before any Republican shows backbone, I predict.

But, how long before the Fort Worth Star-Telegram or the Dallas Morning News picks up the story?

Other Texas bloggers?  Anyone?

It’s not an air-tight legal brief (I could quibble with some of the legal material), but in a better world, a world where politicians actually do good politics and public servants do public service, the House Rules Committee and Ethics Committee would be reading Mashey’s piece, and asking pointed questions.  U.S. attorneys in Washington, D.C., and the Northern District of Texas, would also be downloading Mashey’s piece, and puzzling it out.  Journalists in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Galveston and Houston in Texas, and Washington, D.C., and New York, would also be poring over the piece.  Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia would also be paying attention to it, if he were concerned about justice.

More (watch for updates):


Naked-eye star gazer Jack Horkheimer, dead at 72

August 22, 2010

Jack Horkheimer, the guy who worked for more than 30 years to acquaint people with the fine old tradition of naked-eye astronomy, died in Miami Friday.  He was 72.

Jack Horkheimer, America's Star Gazer - Photo by Bill Wisser

Jack Horkheimer, America's Star Gazer, at home in a television production studio - Photo by Bill Wisser, first published in Astronomy, January 2006

A short note appears in Sunday’s Miami Herald:

`Star Gazer’ host Jack Horkheimer dies

By ELINOR J. BRECHER, ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

Jack Horkheimer, Public Television’s “Star Gazer,” died Friday afternoon of a respiratory ailment, according to a spokesman for the Miami Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium.

Born June 11, 1938, he was 72.

In an e-mail to staff, museum officials said they were “very saddened to have just learned that our resident Star Gazer, Jack Horkheimer, passed away today after being ill for quite some time.

“Jack was executive director of [the] Planetarium for over 35 years and was an internationally recognized pioneer in popularizing naked-eye astronomy. He was also a recognized media celebrity, often being the foremost commentator on all astronomy related happenings nationwide.

Horkheimer was best known as the creator, writer and host of public television’s “Star Gazer,” the 30-year weekly TV series on naked eye astronomy. Seen on PBS stations nationwide, “Star Gazer” reached millions of people, helping create a love of the stars for several generations of enthusiasts.”

Arrangements are pending.

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/08/20/1785361/star-gazer-host-jack-horkheimer.html#ixzz0xJv6dDOq

Many of my best opportunities to watch stars come when I’ve far away from optics to improve the sighting.  Horkheimer’s practical advice on how to eyeball the sky delighted me from the start.

Horkheimer was a media guy, not an astronomer or scientist in any strict sense.  He was a great popularizer of astronomy.  Star Gazer may be the single most effective educational program on astronomy in history, by viewers and by total effect.

Checking his website, I note that he’s got, in the can and ready to broadcast, episodes of Star Gazer for weeks to come.

Here’s Star Gazer for the coming week:

More:


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