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?

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The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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M.A.S.H. quote of the moment: War is worse than hell

May 22, 2017

"Why do you say that, Hawkeye?" Screen capture from video snippet of M.A.S.H.

“How do you figure that, Hawkeye?” Father Mulcahy, screen capture from video snippet of M.A.S.H.

Our correspondents Jameses, Stanley and Kessler, alerted me months ago to this exchange in the old television show, “M.A.S.H.” In a discussion of the First Battle of Bull Run, we discussed war as hell.

War is worse than hell, they said. Still true.

They pointed to a scene from “M.A.S.H.”

Dialogue borrowed from IMDB:

Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.

Father Mulcahy: How do you figure that, Hawkeye?

Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?

Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.

Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them — little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.

Deep thinking, maybe wisdom, from a mobile operating room filtered through sit-com writers.

M.A.S.H., copyright 20th Century Fox

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February 15 is Shoulders of Giants Day

February 15, 2017

February 15th is Shoulders of Giants Day (unless you’re still on the Julian calendar).

Or should be. 

Famous quotations often get cited to the wrong famous person. ‘Somebody said something about standing on the shoulders of giants — who was it? Edison? Lincoln? Einstein? Jefferson?’  It may be possible someday to use Google or a similar service to track down the misquotes.

The inspiration, perhaps

Robert Burton, author of "Anatomy of Melancholy"

Robert Burton, melancholy scholar at Oxford

A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.

Robert Burton (February 8, 1577-January 25, 1640), vicar of Oxford University, who wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy to ward off his own depressions

The famous quote

Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir Godfrey Keller, 1689

Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir Godfrey Keller, 1689

If I have seen further (than you and Descartes) it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Sir Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675, Julian/February 15, 1676, Gregorian

Newton consciously paid tribute to others who had plowed his science fields before, even if he came up with different crops, er, answers. All science is based on something that comes before it, and in the modern world science advances, oddly, by trying to disprove what scientists thought happened before.

But the sentiment applies equally well in business, in politics, in raising children. We are products of what we learn, and what we learn is a result of culture, which is a result of history. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

It’s our job to try to see farther, and not just look down, at how far up we are.

Someone will ask (since we so often discuss it), ‘can we fly our flags today?’

Of course you may fly your U.S. flag today. It’s not a day designated by law, but you may fly it in honor of Sir Isaac Newton’s letter if you wish. The U.S. flag code suggests times Americans may fly their flags, but does not require it, nor does law forbid flying the flag for other occasions, or just for every day.

Maybe better, climb to the top of the flag pole. What can you see, aided by a giant’s height?

Other references:

Inscription on the edge of Britain's 2-pound coin; in this photo, four coins are used, to show the entire inscription. Flickriver image

Inscription on the edge of Britain’s 2-pound coin; in this photo, four coins are used, to show the entire inscription. Flickriver image, 1875Brian

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience. But, nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.

 

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Quote of the moment: Ali, ‘said I was the greatest even before I was’

February 3, 2017

Muhammad Ali, mural on business building on west Commerce Street, Dallas, Texas. Photo, Creative Commons copyright by Ed Darrell.

Muhammad Ali, mural on business building on west Commerce Street, Dallas, Texas. Photo, Creative Commons copyright by Ed Darrell.

It’s a tribute to self-confidence, a motivational-poster caption with a hundred different photos just featuring Muhammad Ali.

On the mural, Ali is quoted, I said I was even before I knew I was.” Here’s the more commonly-accepted version:

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”

Can you guess? It’s difficult to pin down a solid attribution for the quote. I have little doubt he said it — but can someone say where?

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Quote of the moment: Ann Richards, open doors of government, let people in

February 1, 2017

Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the Governor's Office, with the motorcycle she got on her birthday. Texas State Library image.

Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the Governor’s Office, with the motorcycle she got on her birthday. Texas State Library image.

Sarah Weddington wrote:

Ann now rests at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Her grave marker reads, “Today we have a vision of a Texas where opportunity knows no race, no gender, no color—a glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the doors and let the people in.”

Weddington wrote a remembrance to Richards in The Texas Observer, October 12, 2012. This quote comes from Richards’s speech at her inauguration as Texas Governor, January 15, 1991.

Richards served Texas as governor, 1991 to 1995.

Let the sunshine in, then!

Texas Gov. Ann Richards's grave marker in the Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas, reverse. Quote comes from her 1991 inaugural address. Image from Findagrave.com

Texas Gov. Ann Richards’s grave marker in the Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas, reverse. Quote comes from her 1991 inaugural address. Image from Findagrave.com

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Quote of the Trump administration? “What’s the Constitution between friends?”

January 8, 2017

Timothy J. Campbell, Congressman from New York; photo from Mathew Brady negative circa 1870; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005691716/

Timothy J. Campbell, Congressman from New York; photo from Mathew Brady negative circa 1870; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005691716/

What’s the Constitution between friends?

–Timothy J. Campbell (1840-1904), Attributed, circa 1885

A little more below the fold? Certainly. Read the rest of this entry »


Scrooge’s 2016 Christmas gift to Donald Trump: His platform reduced to three words

December 30, 2016

Oh, why bother with this BEFORE Christmas? It’s more salient now, looking at the new year, and wondering what is the fate of man and men, in the new year.

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via Pinterest.

It’s a Quote of the Moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later), Trump’s platform, and life, edited down to just three words, in green:

Darkness is cheap,
and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

Isn’t that the entire GOP platform in three words? “Darkness is cheap.”

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap. With the advent of Donald Trump’s insult politics, offending America’s allies and all American ethnic groups possible, with un-ironic calls to drop nuclear weapons, GOP politics is even darker than ever.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

 

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from a bit later in Dickens’s story, when the Ghost of Christmas Present ushers Scrooge to glimpse what is in the present, but what will be the future if Scrooge does not repent:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Think of 2014, 2015, and 2016, children abused in Central America and in the Middle East, fleeing as best they can, only to die, off the shores of Greece, on the southern deserts of the U.S., or be cast into incarceration after having achieved a nation whose very name promised them refuge, the United States. “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” Dickens described. Whose children? “Man’s.” Yours, and mine.

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

Hope you had a merry Christmas in 2016. Let us remember, as Tom and the late Ray Magliozzi always reminded us, the cheapskate pays more in the end, and usually along the way. Is Darkness cheap? Let us then eschew it as too costly for a moral nation, too costly for a moral people.

Is Donald Trump as smart as Ebenezer Scrooge? Is his heart as good as Scrooge’s heart?

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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