Astrology is a pseudoscience because openstudy

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  3. Carl Sagan The Demon Haunted World Science As A Candle In

They could run afoul of the state constitution depending on the state. Or, more likely, university policies and legal contracts. But probably not the constitution. The only exception I might draw answering your: when would it come into play? They are, essentially, the main path to being a military officer - which I would argue is a senior, federal, civil service job. AFAIK the federal government can't require a religious test to rise in civil service grade, so a class that prospective officers have to take to become officers in the US military seems, IMO, to be a place where such activity would be just plain illegal.

Depends on what you mean by outsiders. If you mean pundits, politicians, reporters etc. The University should guard its independence pretty strongly. That doesn't mean never accept constructive criticism, but I certainly don't want university leadership to be windsocks to political or social pressure. But IMO, there is no reasonable question as to whether the University can regulate the teaching conduct of its own professors: they can. In fact they must, because you can't have things like "a math major" or "core curriculm" if the University were to wash its hands completely of what the professors teach.

You can't have the Calculus course covering no calculus at all and the history of WWII instead - it just won't work. Professors get a lot of freedom to teach and research. That is good. Its unethical and does a disservice to all the students who paid good money and signed up to learn ABC. It is stated that this is ban honors course. If it doesn't count as a core course that makes me think it is offered through an honors college. If that's the case the blame for its design might not fall entirely with this faculty member; folk at the honors college may well have influenced it.

Still no real excuse for the course existence, of course. WMU's honors program had a 'science and eeligion' course during the s, taught by a physicist. It was nothing like this course appears to be. Yep, exactly. I don't think Hedin's course is unconstitutional, i think its the sort of problem that needs to be resolved by the university. But that fact that the chair of the physics and astronomy department doesn't see it as a problem If they defend Hedin, then BSU's physics and astronomy department is very likely going to lose credibility, and their undergrads are going to lose credibility when it comes to seeking jobs and graduate school entry.

Unless the grad school opportunity you seek is under Dembski or Behe, I suppose. In that case, I guess this course is a plus. I thought that initially but Jerry has made some persuasive arguments. Just because students are no longer compelled to attend University courses, doesn't mean that this is a violation - just look at court cases regarding other optional events like school football games, displays in civic squares, and prayers at city council meetings.

The University is getting a lot of public funds so why shouldn't they be held to the same standards that other public institutions are? There seems to be a rather interesting notion, held by PZ Myers and Larry Moran amongst others, that academic freedom at colleges and universities means that faculty can teach any damn thing they want in their classes. For undergraduate courses, this is poppycock. Generally, there is a syllabus for such courses which define the content and the subjects that are to be covered in such courses.

That was certainly true when I was an undergraduate. I'd be interested in seeing how an accreditation board feels about this class. Science, it is certainly not, regardless of whether it is an elective. Perhaps not exactly in the same way, but Hedin is a public employee, paid by the taxpayers. He doesn't get an exemption from Constitutional restrictions simply because he is a professor. The boundaries of knowing in science is a legitimate subject for advanced students and a number of philosophers of science teach such a course, but based on the reading list this fellow isn't teaching that.

I often give students pseudoscience to read because that's how they learn what it is, how to recognize it, and how to spot its flaws. But if you propose a course, academic freedom doesn't allow you to coopt the course for another subject. Just gave a seminar to our physics dept and they had a lot of strange determinist ideas about evolution although not antagonistic to it, just a failure to understand it. So as a biologist, this fellow probably has no business messing around outside his field in more than one respect. Look up the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and have a read keep a barf bucket handy.

For a while, the US Air Force Academy was utterly infested with hardcore preachy "you're with us or you're not going anywhere" religious-right extremism. Other service academies had their troubles, but Ground Zero was the Air Force, which as we all know, is responsible for managing a large chunk of our strategic nuclear deterrent. Fortunately it appears that Obama used his C-in-C authority to clean up a lot of that stuff, but there may still be remnants.

Utterly intolerable to have religious coercion in the military academies. And here's the legal item:. In all enlisted ranks, and in all commissioned officer ranks, you take an oath upon joining the service, that you are committed "to protect and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

If you can't uphold it, you're supposed to resign your commission or otherwise honorably exit the service. What the religious extremists were peddling was a "higher allegiance," sometimes in very very explicit terms: demanding that their subordinates pledge themselves to a specific religious doctrine, God first and Constitution second. And the legal item about that is, it sets up a deliberate conflict with the oath of service or commission.

IMHO anyone who has a "higher allegiance" should be honorably exited from the service on the grounds of conscientious objection same category as for principled pacifists. And anyone who demands that subordinates commit to God first and Constitution second, should be brought before a court martial on charges of fomenting mutiny. State funding of infrastructure buildings and grounds might be permissible if it is shared by a seminary and a public university, but funding seminary activities themselves seems inarguably unconstitutional.

I agree also that a university like Ball State has a right to protect its independence, but the University has a responsibility to not allow its faculty to violate the law. A really good argument against this class is that it was falsely advertised. If the department head is incompetent, that is not a constitutional violation, and it is not a constitutional defense. I am not aware of a case on-point regarding public employee college faculty and how they are bound by the First Amendment, but the publically funded University as a whole definitely is.

Alex 8: I think you are mixing up three issues: whether the state is endorsing a view through the professor ; whether the state is compelling attendence; whether tax funding can go indirectly to funding religious proselytization. The first is arguable but IMO, no. For the second - the state is clearly not compelling attendence at BSU or this class. And whether you agree with the judiciary's current interpretation of the constitution or not, federal precedents about the third come down fairly stongly on the "yes" side. Vouchers for religious schools are legal. Tax breaks for religious institutions are legal.

Religious organizations competing for federal grant funding is legal. Our courts have a long history of upholding tax expenditures that have an indirect effect of supporting religious outreach by some group or peson. You might argue that it ought not be that way, but I think its very hard for anyone to argue that it is not that way right now.

I'd also point out that the old standby, the Lemon test, does not say no religious intention or effect is allowed in what the state does or funds. It says merely that the state must have a - as in, "at least one" - secular purpose, and that the primary effect of the state's action must be secular. Funding a University clearly has a again, at least one secular purpose - general education. And I suspect even BSU would have an easy time showing that the primary effect of the taxes flowing into BSU is not to promote religion.

Heck, they probably spend more on football than they do on classes like this. I completely agree. You can teach calculus. But spending an entire calculus course teaching WWII history is unethical and does a disservice to the students who signed up to learn calculus. So much for teaching the controversy. In fact it's a pity, because, as Jerry Coyne pointed out, if you add some scriptures of Stenger, Carroll and Kraus to the list, those students might learn something useful indeed.

What's obvious to you and me might not be so obvious to them, especially given their average background. I find it really very typical that no single creacrapper has stood up and argued: whoah, wait a minute Mr. Hedin, this is not teaching the controversy! Intellectual honesty is not one of their characteristics; that's what this case makes clear.

Incompetence suffices. All my kids know I'm an atheist; my kids being contrary teenagers they sometimes write something like "Jesus is my Lord and my Shepperd" on the chalk-board. I never comment. Certainly it will never influence their grades. Rather I teach them what to do when subjected to such injustice.

With maybe a few rare exceptions, like an elected partisan official, employees both government and non-government educational and non-educational have only restricted, limited, "free speech" rights. Employees are paid to perform particular work, not to pontificate their opinions or debate non-work related issues.

The lawsuit against this government school and teacher for promoting their religion under the guise of teaching science appears to me to have a rock solid legal foundation. I don't agree at all with the hand wringing over free speech. The assistent professors and are legally accountable for upholding minimal academic standards, and in the case of government schools, of being secular. This was a very balanced and thoughtful post, JR, and I find myself in complete agreement.

It's impossible, looking at the reading list, to buy the argument that he is merely allowing his students to experience another view, or broaden their horizons; he's preaching, pure and simple. On the other hand, it's very dangerous to censor a professor, and it further fuels the flames of the Creationists who proclaim that they are being discriminated against.

This won't be those students' only science class, or science professor. Let them hear his say, and then let every single other science professor they will ever have in their lives perfectly, consistently, professionally, and inevitably prove him wrong on every count. Jerry Coyne I think you're right on this point. The problem with the course is not that it violates the First Amendment, or something, and Jerry's suggestion otherwise is overreaching.

The problem is that the course is imbalanced and poorly designed. It would have probably made sense for the review board at Ball State to send the syllabus over to the philosophy department there as part of their review. It's unclear what happened but this course appears to have slipped through. Neither are courses that teach bad science. All perfectly legal. On the other hand, a public employee promoting a specific religious viewpoint, under the guise of education, all financed with taxpayer money, is illegal.

That's the problem with the course. As Jason said in his original post, "Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are. Professors at colleges have academic freedom which grants them latitude to teach what they want in the classroom, and students are not being required to take the course. So I don't think that the situation is really the same. All due respect to your opinions, but let's introduce some more facts into the discussion. Several commenters have stated that the course is of low quality, but probably not illegal.

Schemp Edwards v. Aguillard McLean v Arkansas Bishop v. The last one concerns college instruction, not K In Bishop v. Aronov, the University of Alabama ordered a teacher, Dr. Bishop, to stop injecting religion into his classroom. One lack of parallel is that no one in a leadership position at Ball State has yet realised, or admitted, that the course is problematic.

My position is that Hedin's department should settle this problem. If his colleagues support what he's doing in the course then outsiders should not bring in lawyers to try and force their view on the department against its will. That's a very dangerous path. I would oppose it if I disagreed with the view of the outsiders i. Academic freedom is worth protecting. You don't just defend it for the people who think like you. I also witnessed at first hand the joy felt by those whose privilege it is to uncover a little about how the Universe works.

I've always been grateful to my mentors of the s, and tried to make sure that each of them knew my appreciation. But as I look back, it seems clear to me that I learned the most essential things not from my school teachers, nor even from my university professors, but from my parents, who knew nothing at all about science, in that single far-off year of Albert Einstein A s I got off the plane, he was waiting for me, holding up a scrap of cardboard with my name scribbled on it.

I was on my way to a conference of scientists and TV broadcasters devoted to the seemingly hopeless prospect of improving the presentation of science on commercial television. The organizers had kindly sent a driver. No, I didn't mind. Was he pulling my leg? Finally, it dawned on me. He paused and then smiled. That's my problem. I thought it was yours too. Buckley, but he did bear the name of a contentious and well-known TV interviewer, for which he doubtless took a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Would I mind? And so we got to talking. But not, as it turned out, about science. He wanted to talk about frozen extraterrestrials languish- ing in an Air Force base near San Antonio, 'channelling' a way to hear what's on the minds of dead people - not much, it turns out , crystals, the prophecies of Nostradamus, astrology, the shroud of Turin. He introduced each portentous subject with buoyant enthusiasm. Each time I had to disappoint him: 'The evidence is crummy,' I kept saying.

He knew the various speculative nuances on, let's say, the 'sunken continents' of Atlantis and Lemuria. He had at his fingertips what underwater expeditions were supposedly just setting out to find the tumbled columns and broken minarets of a once-great civilization whose remains were now visited only by deep sea luminescent fish and giant kraken.

As far as science can tell, they never existed. By now a little reluctantly, I told him so. As we drove through the rain, I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life. And yet there's so much in real science that's equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge - as well as being a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old volcanic ash?

What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism's defences and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Ebla that advertised the virtues of Ebla beer?

No, he hadn't heard. Mr 'Buckley' - well-spoken, intelligent, curious - had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe. He wanted to know about science. It's just that all the science had gotten filtered out before it reached him. Our cultural motifs, our educational system, our communications media had failed this man.

What society permit- ted to trickle through was mainly pretence and confusion. It had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation.


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He knew nothing about how science works. There are hundreds of books about Atlantis - the mythical continent that is said to have existed something like 10, years ago in the Atlantic Ocean. Or somewhere. A recent book locates it in Antarctica. The story goes back to Plato, who reported it as hearsay coming down to him from remote ages. Recent books authoritatively describe the high level of Atlantean technology, morals and spirituality, and the great tragedy of an entire popu- lated continent sinking beneath the waves. There is a 'New Age' Atlantis, 'the legendary civilization of advanced sciences,' chiefly devoted to the 'science' of crystals.

In a trilogy called Crystal Enlightenment by Katrina Raphaell - the books mainly responsi- ble for the crystal craze in America - Atlantean crystals read minds, transmit thoughts, are the repositories of ancient history and the model and source of the pyramids of Egypt. Nothing approximating evidence is offered to support these assertions.

A resurgence of crystal mania may follow the recent finding by the real science of seismology that the inner core of the Earth may be composed of a single, huge, nearly perfect crystal - of iron. A few books - Dorothy Vitaliano's Legends of the Earth, for example - sympathetically interpret the original Atlantis legends in terms of a small island in the Mediterranean that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, or an ancient city that slid into the Gulf of Corinth after an earthquake.

This, for all we know, may be the source of the legend, but it is a far cry from the destruction of a continent on which had sprung forth a preternaturally advanced technical and mystical civilization. Spurious accounts that snare, the gullible are readily available. Sceptical treatments are much harder to find. Scepticism does not sell well.

A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment. Maybe Mr Buckley should know to be more sceptical about what's dished out to him by popular culture.

But apart from that, it's hard to see how it's his fault. He simply accepted what the most widely available and accessible sources of information claimed was true. For his naivete, he was systematically misled and bamboozled. Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudo- science. Sparse and poor popularizations of science abandon ecological niches that pseudoscience promptly fills. If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience.

But a kind of Gresham's Law prevails in popular culture by which bad science drives out good. All over the world there are enormous numbers of smart, even gifted, people who harbour a passion for science. But that passion is unrequited. Surveys suggest that some 95 per cent 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 per cent illiteracy is extremely serious. Every generation worries that educational standards are decay- ing. One of the oldest short essays in human history, dating from Sumer some 4, years ago, laments that the young are disas- trously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding. All freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns the alphabet.

In that country arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I don't know to what extent ignorance of science and mathematics contributed to the decline of ancient Athens, but I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponen- tial population growth.

Jobs and wages depend on science and technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and low price, products people want to buy, then industries will continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to other parts of the world. Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data 'highways', abor- tion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high- resolution TV, airline and airport safety, foetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depres- sion or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning- after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial predispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.

As I write, Congress is dissolving its own Office of Technology Assessment - the only organization specifically tasked to provide advice to the House and Senate on science and technology. Its competence and integrity over the years have been exemplary. Of the members of the US Congress, rarely in the twentieth century have as many as one per cent had any significant background in science.

The last scientifically literate President may have been Thomas Jefferson. How do they instruct their representatives? Who in fact makes these decisions, and on what basis? Hippocrates of Cos is the father of medicine. He is still remembered 2, years later for the Hippocratic Oath a modified form of which is still here and there taken by medical students upon their gradua- tion.

But he is chiefly celebrated because of his efforts to bring medicine out of the pall of superstition and into the light of science. In a typical passage Hippocrates wrote: 'Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.

A God of the Gaps is assigned responsibility for what we do not yet understand. As knowledge of medicine improved since the fourth century BC, there was more and more that we understood and less and less that had to be attributed to divine intervention - either in the causes or in the treatment of disease. Deaths in childbirth and infant mortality have decreased, lifetimes have lengthened, and medicine has improved the quality of life for billions of us all over the planet.

In the diagnosis of disease, Hippocrates introduced elements of the scientific method. Britain had such a Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher. Her early studies in chemistry, in part under the tutelage of Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, were key to the UK's strong and successful advocacy that ozone- depleting CFCs be banned worldwide. Overlook nothing.

Combine contradictory observations. Allow yourself enough time. He recommended that physicians be able to tell, from present symptoms alone, the probable past and future course of each illness. He stressed honesty. He was willing to admit the limitations of the physician's knowledge.

He betrayed no embarrassment in confiding to poster- ity that more than half his patients were killed by the diseases he was treating. His options of course were limited; the drugs available to him were chiefly laxatives, emetics and narcotics. Surgery was performed, and cauterization. Considerable further advances were made in classical times through to the fall of Rome. While medicine in the Islamic world flourished, what followed in Europe was truly a dark age. Much knowledge of anatomy and surgery was lost.

Reliance on prayer and miraculous healing abounded. Secular physicians became extinct. Chants, potions, horoscopes and amulets were widely used. Dissections of cadavers were restricted or outlawed, so those who practised medicine were prevented from acquiring first-hand knowledge of the human body. Medical research came to a standstill. It was very like what the historian Edward Gibbon described for the entire Eastern Empire, whose capital was Constantinople: In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind.

Not a single idea had been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Even at its best, pre-modern medical practice did not save many. Queen Anne was the last Stuart monarch of Great Britain. In the last seventeen years of the seventeenth century, she was pregnant eighteen times.

Only five children were born alive. Only one of them survived infancy. He died before reaching adulthood, and before her coronation in There seems to be no evidence of some genetic disorder. She had the best medical care money could buy. In the developed world at least, parents today have an enormously better chance of seeing their children live to adult- hood than did the heir to the throne of one of the most powerful nations on Earth in the late seventeenth century.

Smallpox has been wiped out worldwide. The area of our planet infested with malaria- carrying mosquitoes has dramatically shrunk. The number of years a child diagnosed with leukaemia can expect to live has been increas- ing progressively, year by year. Science permits the Earth to feed about a hundred times more humans, and under conditions much less grim, than it could a few thousand years ago. We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours. There is still a religion, Christian Science, that denies the germ theory of disease; if prayer fails, the faithful would rather see their children die than give them antibiotics.

We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him to milligrams a day of chlozapine. The scientific treatments are hun- dreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. And even when the alternatives seem to work, we don't actually know that they played any role: spontaneous remissions, even of cholera and schizophrenia, can occur without prayer and without psychoanalysis.

Abandoning science means abandoning much more than air conditioning, CD players, hair dryers and fast cars. In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, the human life expectancy was about 20 to 30 years. It didn't rise to 40 years until around the year It reached 50 in , 60 in , 70 in , and is today approaching 80 a little more for women, a little less for men. The rest of the world is retracing the European increment in longevity. What is the cause of this stunning, unprecedented, humanitarian transition?

Longevity is perhaps the best single measure of the physical quality of life. If you're dead, there's little you can do to be happy. This is a precious offering from science to humanity - nothing less than the gift of life. But micro-organisms mutate. New diseases spread like wildfire.

There is a constant battle between microbial measures and human countermeasures. We keep pace in this competition not just by designing new drugs and treatments, but by penetrating progres- sively more deeply toward an understanding of the nature of life - basic research. If the world is to escape the direst consequences of global population growth and 10 or 12 billion people on the planet in the late twenty-first century, we must invent safe but more efficient means of growing food - with accompanying seed stocks, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, transportation and refrigeration systems.

It will also take widely available and acceptable contraception, significant steps toward political equality of women, and improvements in the standards of living of the poorest people. How can all this be accomplished without science and technology?


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I know that science and technology are not just cornucopias pouring gifts out into the world. Scientists not only conceived nuclear weapons; they also took political leaders by the lapels, arguing that their nation - whichever it happened to be - had to have one first. Then they manufactured over 60, of them. During the Cold War, scientists in the United States, the Soviet Union, China and other nations were willing to expose their own fellow citizens to radiation - in most cases without their know- ledge - to prepare for nuclear war. Physicians in Tuskegee, Alabama, misled a group of veterans into thinking they were receiving medical treatment for their syphilis, when they were the untreated controls.

The atrocious cruelties of Nazi doctors are well-known. Our technology has produced thalidomide, CFCs, Agent Orange, nerve gas, pollution of air and water, species extinctions, and industries so powerful they can ruin the climate of the planet. Roughly half the scientists on Earth work at least part-time for the military. 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.

There's a reason people are nervous about science and technology. And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world - down to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children's TV and the plethora of Faustian bargains in popular culture, from the eponymous Dr Faustus himself to Dr Franken- stein, Dr Strangelove, and Jurassic Park. But we can't simply conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power- crazed politicians and so decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.

In opinion poll after opinion poll science is rated among the most admired and trusted occupations, despite the misgivings. The sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibil- ity - more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism.

Mistakes are becoming too expensive. Do we care what's true? Does it matter? But is it? Only one hand went up. It was not mine. It's disheartening to discover government corruption and incom- petence, for example; but it is better not to know about it? Whose interest does ignorance serve? If we humans bear, say, hereditary propensities toward the hatred of strangers, isn't self-knowledge the only antidote?

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? In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, as so many before and after, decries the 'unbroken progress in the self- belittling of man' brought about by the scientific revolution. Nietzsche mourns the loss of 'man's belief in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceability in the scheme of existence'.

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character- building experience?

Old hat,' writes one of the referees of this book. But many 'scientific creationists' not only believe it, but are making increasingly aggressive and successful efforts to have it taught in the schools, museums, zoos, and textbooks. Because adding up the 'begats', the ages of patriarchs and others in the Bible gives such a figure, and the Bible is 'inerrant'. Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science.

We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favour. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting all the 'Buckleys' among us, providing easy answers, dodging sceptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and write us messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them, or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, accurately foretell the future.

These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature - often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation and often the cynical connivance of newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, movie producers and the like, such ideas are easily and widely available.

Far more difficult to come upon, as I was reminded by my encounter with Mr 'Buckley', are the alternative, more challenging and even more dazzling findings of science. Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because dis- tracting confrontations with reality - where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison - are more readily avoided.

The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science. But this isn't enough to explain its popularity. And if we're desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of scepticism.

Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods. In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance.

It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe. At the heart of some pseudoscience and some religion also, New Age and Old is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children's stories, to fulfil our heart's desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.

The enchanted fish or the genie from the lamp will grant us three wishes - anything we want except more wishes. Who has not pondered - just to be on the safe side, just in case we ever come upon and accidentally rub an old, squat brass oil lamp - what to ask for? I remember, from childhood comic strips and books, a top- hatted, moustachioed magician who brandished an ebony walking stick. His name was Zatara.

He could make anything happen, anything at all. How did he do it? He uttered his commands backwards. So if he wanted a million dollars, he would say 'srallod noillim a em evig'. That's all there was to it. It was something like prayer, but much surer of results. We are, as I like to say, starstuff. I blamed my pronunciation. Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact propor- tion as real science is misunderstood - except that the language breaks down here. If you've never heard of science to say nothing of how it works , you can hardly be aware you're embracing pseudoscience.

You're simply thinking in one of the ways that humans always have. Religions are often the state-protected nurseries of pseudoscience, although there's no reason why reli- gions have to play that role. In a way, it's an artefact from times long gone. In some countries nearly everyone believes in astrology and precognition, including government leaders.

But this is not simply drummed into them by religion; it is drawn out of the enveloping culture in which everyone is comfortable with these practices, and affirming testimonials are everywhere. Most of the case histories I will relate in this book are American - because these are the cases I know best, not because pseudoscience and mysticism are more prominent in the United States than elsewhere. But the psychic spoonbender and extraterrestrial channeller Uri Geller hails from Israel.

As tensions rise between Algerian secularists and Muslim funda- mentalists, more and more people are discreetly consulting the country's 10, soothsayers and clairvoyants about half of whom operate with a licence from the government. High French officials, including a former President of France, arranged for millions of dollars to be invested in a scam the Elf-Aquitaine scandal to find new petroleum reserves from the air.

In Germany, there is concern about carcinogenic 'Earth rays' undetectable by science; they can be sensed only by experienced dowsers brandishing forked sticks. Ghosts are something of a national obsession in Britain. Since World War Two, Japan has spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the supernatural. An estimated , fortune-tellers flourish in Japan; the clientele are mainly young women. Followers, at a high price, drank the 'miracle pond' water - from the bath of Asahara, their leader.

In Thailand, diseases are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized sacred Scripture. Australian peace-keeping forces in Haiti rescue a woman tied to a tree; she is accused of flying from rooftop to rooftop, and sucking the blood of children. Astrology is rife in India, geomancy widespread in China. Perhaps the most successful recent global pseudoscience - by many criteria, already a religion - is the Hindu doctrine of transcendental meditation TM. The soporific homilies of its founder and spiritual leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, can be seen on television in America.

Seated in the yogi position, his white hair here and there flecked with black, surrounded by garlands and floral offerings, he has a look. One day while channel surfing we came upon this visage. For a fee they promise through meditation to be able to walk you through walls, to make you invisible, to enable you to fly.

By thinking in unison they have, they say, diminished the crime rate in Washing- ton DC and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other secular miracles. Not one smattering of real evidence has been offered for any such claims. TM sells folk medicine, runs trading companies, medical clinics and 'research' universities, and has unsuccessfully entered politics. In its oddly charismatic leader, its promise of community, and the offer of magical powers in exchange for money and fervent belief, it is typical of many pseudosciences marketed for sacerdotal export.

At each relinquishing of civil controls and scientific education, another little spurt in pseudoscience occurs. Leon Trotsky described it for Germany on the eve of the Hitler takeover but in a description that might equally have applied to the Soviet Union of : Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth.

Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Russia is an instructive case. Under the Tsars, religious supersti- tion was encouraged, but scientific and sceptical thinking - except by a few tame scientists - was ruthlessly expunged.

Under Communism, both religion and pseudoscience were systematically suppressed - except for the superstition of the state ideological religion. It was advertised as scientific, but fell as far short of this ideal as the most unself-critical mystery cult. Critical thinking - except by scientists in hermetically sealed compartments of know- ledge - was recognized as dangerous, was not taught in the schools, and was punished where expressed. As a result, post- Communism, many Russians view science with suspicion.

When the lid was lifted, as was also true of virulent ethnic hatreds, what had all along been bubbling subsurface was exposed to view. The region is now awash in UFOs, poltergeists, faith healers, quack medicines, magic waters and old-time superstition. A stunning decline in life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant epidemic disease, subminimal medical standards and ignorance of preventive medicine all work to raise the threshold at which scepticism is triggered in an increasingly desperate population. As I write, the electorally most popular member of the Duma, a leading supporter of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is one Anatoly Kashpirovsky - a faith healer who remotely cures diseases ranging from hernias to AIDS by glaring at you out of your television set.

His face starts stopped clocks. A somewhat analogous situation exists in China. After the death of Mao Zedong and the gradual emergence of a market economy, UFOs, channelling and other examples of Western pseudoscience emerged, along with such ancient Chinese practices as ancestor worship, astrology and fortune telling - especially that version that involves throwing yarrow sticks and working through the hoary tetragrams of the I Ching. It was and remains a rural, not primarily an urban, affliction.

Individuals with 'special powers' gained enormous follow- ings. They could, they said, project Qi, the 'energy field of the Universe', out of their bodies to change the molecular structure of a chemical 2, kilometres away, to communicate with aliens, to cure diseases. Some patients died under the ministra- tions of one of these 'masters of Qi Gong' who was arrested and convicted in Wang Hongcheng, an amateur chemist, claimed to have synthesized a liquid, small amounts of which, when added to water, would convert it to gasoline or the equivalent.

For a time he was funded by the army and the secret police, but when his invention was found to be a scam he was arrested and imprisoned. Naturally the story spread that his misfortune resulted not from fraud, but from his unwillingness to reveal his 'secret formula' to the government. Similar stories have circulated in America for decades, usually with the government role replaced by a major oil or auto company. Asian rhinos are being driven to extinction because their horns, when pulverized, are said to prevent impotence; the market encompasses all of East Asia.

The government of China and the Chinese Communist Party were alarmed by certain of these developments. On 5 December , they issued a joint proclamation that read in part: [P]ublic education in science has been withering in recent years. At the same time, activities of superstition and igno- rance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have become frequent.

Therefore, effective measures must be applied as soon as possible to strengthen public education in science. The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society. We must be attentive and implement such public education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous.

Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty. Its causes, dangers, diagnosis and treatment are likely to be similar every- where.

Table of contents

Here, psychics ply their wares on extended television commercials, personally endorsed by entertainers. They have their own channel, the 'Psychic Friends Network'; a million people a year sign on and use such guidance in their everyday lives. Royalty has traditionally been vulnerable to psychic frauds. In ancient China and Rome astrol- ogy was the exclusive property of the emperor; any private use of this potent art was considered a capital offence.

Alternatives to Thinking

Emerging from a particularly credulous Southern California culture, Nancy and Ronald Reagan relied on an astrologer in private and public matters - unknown to the voting public. Some portion of the decision-making that influences the future of our civilization is plainly in the hands of charlatans. If anything, the practice is comparatively muted in America; its venue is worldwide. As amusing as some of pseudoscience may seem, as confident as we may be that we would never be so gullible as to be swept up by such a doctrine, we know it's happening all around us.

Transcen- dental meditation and Aum Shinrikyo seem to have attracted a large number of accomplished people, some with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. These are not doctrines for nitwits. Something else is going on. What's more, no one interested in what religions are and how they begin can ignore them. While vast barriers may seem to stretch between a local, single-focus contention of pseudoscience and something like a world religion, the partitions are very thin. The world presents us with nearly insurmountable problems.

A wide variety of solutions are offered, some of very limited worldview, some of portentous sweep. In the usual Darwinian natural selection of doctrines, some thrive for a time, while most quickly vanish. The continuum stretching from ill-practised science, pseudo- science and superstition New Age or Old , all the way to respectable mystery religion, based on revelation, is indistinct. I try not to use the word 'cult' in this book in its usual meaning of a religion the speaker dislikes, but try to reach for the headstone of knowledge - do they really know what they claim to know?

Just the week before, I had been in a fight - I can't remember, after all these years, who it was with; maybe it was Snoony Agata from the third floor - and, after a wild swing, I found I had put my fist through the plate glass window of Schechter's drug store. Mr Schechter was solicitous: 'It's all right, I'm insured,' he said as he put some unbelievably painful antiseptic on my wrist. My mother took me to the doctor whose office was on the ground floor of our building. With a pair of tweezers, he pulled out a fragment of glass.

Using needle and thread, he sewed two stitches. He knew about stitches, because he was a cutter in the garment industry; his job was to use a very scary power saw to cut out patterns - backs, say, or sleeves for ladies' coats and suits - from an enormous stack of cloth. Then the patterns were conveyed to endless rows of women sitting at sewing machines. He was pleased I had gotten angry enough to overcome a natural timidity. Sometimes it was good to fight back. I hadn't planned to do anything violent. It just happened. One moment Snoony was 1.

I had injured my wrist, generated an unex- pected medical expense, broken a plate glass window, and no one was mad at me. As for Snoony, he was more friendly than ever. I puzzled over what the lesson was. But it was much more pleasant to work it out up here in the warmth of the apartment, gazing out through the living-room window into Lower New York Bay, than to risk some new misadventure on the streets below. As she often did, my mother had changed her clothes and made up her face in anticipation of my father's arrival.

We talked about my fight with Snoony. The Sun was almost setting and together we looked out across the choppy waters. I peered intently. I wondered. Squinting, I had thought I'd made out a thin strip of land at the horizon on which tiny figures were pushing and shoving and duelling with swords as they did in my comic books. But maybe she was right. Maybe it had just been my imagination, a little like the midnight monsters that still, on occasion, awakened me from a deep sleep, my pyjamas drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. How can you tell when someone is only imagining?

I gazed out across the grey waters until night fell and I was called to wash my hands for dinner. When he came home, my father swooped me up in his arms. I could feel the cold of the outside world against his one-day growth of beard. On a Sunday in that same year, my father had patiently explained to me about zero as a placeholder in arithmetic, about the wicked-sounding names of big numbers, and about how there's no biggest number 'You can always add one,' he pointed out. Suddenly, I was seized by a childish compulsion to write in sequence all the integers from 1 to 1, We had no pads of paper, but my father offered up the stack of grey cardboards he had been saving from when his shirts were sent to the laundry.

My Teachers started the project eagerly, but was surprised at how slowly it went. When I had gotten no farther than the low hundreds, my mother announced that it was time for me to take my bath. I was disconsolate. I had to get a thousand. A mediator his whole life, my father intervened: if I would cheerfully submit to the bath, he would continue the sequence.

I was overjoyed. By the time I emerged, he was approaching , and I was able to reach 1, only a little past my ordinary bedtime. The magnitude of large numbers has never ceased to impress me. Also in my parents took me to the New York World's Fair. There, I was offered a vision of a perfect future made possible by science and high technology. A time capsule was buried, packed with artefacts of our time for the benefit of those in the far future - who, astonishingly, might not know much about the people of The 'World of Tomorrow' would be sleek, clean, stream- lined and, as far as I could tell, without a trace of poor people.

And sure enough, when the tuning fork was struck by the little hammer, a beautiful sine wave marched across the oscilloscope screen. And sure enough, when the flashlight shone on the photocell, I could hear something like the static on our Motorola radio set when the dial was between stations. Plainly the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise? My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science.

But in introducing me simultaneously to scepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method. They were only one step out of poverty. But when I announced that I wanted to be an astronomer, I received unqualified support - even if they as I had only the most rudimentary idea of what an astronomer does. They never suggested that, all things considered, it might be better to be a doctor or a lawyer.

I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization about the Periodic Table of the Elements, levers and inclined 3. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed. In high school laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off if we didn't get it.

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There was no encourage- ment to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes. In the backs of textbooks there was material you could tell was interesting. The school year would always end before we got to it. You could find wonderful books on astronomy, say, in the libraries, but not in the classroom.

Long division was taught as a set of rules from a cookbook, with no explanation of how this particular sequence of short divisions, multiplications and subtrac- tions got you the right answer. In high school, extracting square roots was offered reverentially, as if it were a method once handed down from Mt Sinai. It was our job merely to remember what we had been commanded. Get the right answer, and never mind that you don't understand what you're doing.

I had a very capable second-year algebra teacher from whom I learned much math- ematics; but he was also a bully who enjoyed reducing young women to tears. My interest in science was maintained through all those school years by reading books and magazines on science fact and fiction. College was the fulfilment of my dreams: I found teachers who not only understood science, but who were actually able to explain it. I was lucky enough to attend one of the great institutions of learning of the time, the University of Chicago.

I was a physics student in a department orbiting around Enrico Fermi; I discov- ered what true mathematical elegance is from Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar; I was given the chance to talk chemistry with Harold Urey; over summers I was apprenticed in biology to H. Muller at Indiana University; and I learned planetary astronomy from its only full-time practitioner at the time, G. It was from Kuiper that I first got a feeling for what is called a back-of-the-envelope calculation: a possible explanation to a problem occurs to you, you pull out an old envelope, appeal to your knowledge of fundamental physics, scribble a few approxi- mate equations on the envelope, substitute in likely numerical 4.

My Teachers values, and see if your answer comes anywhere near explaining your problem. If not, you look for a different explanation. It cut through nonsense like a knife through butter. At the University of Chicago I also was lucky enough to go through a general education programme devised by Robert M. Hutchins, where science was presented as an integral part of the gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge. It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski and Freud - among many others.

In an introductory science class, Ptolemy's view that the Sun revolved around the Earth was presented so compellingly that some students found themselves re-evaluating their commit- ment to Copernicus. The status of the teachers in the Hutchins curriculum had almost nothing to do with their research; per- versely - unlike the American university standard of today - teachers were valued for their teaching, their ability to inform and inspire the next generation.

In this heady atmosphere, I was able to fill in some of the many gaps in my education. Much that had been deeply mysterious, and not just in science, became clearer. I also witnessed at first hand the joy felt by those whose privilege it is to uncover a little about how the Universe works. I've always been grateful to my mentors of the s, and tried to make sure that each of them knew my appreciation.

But as I look back, it seems clear to me that I learned the most essential things not from my school teachers, nor even from my university professors, but from my parents, who knew nothing at all about science, in that single far-off year of Albert Einstein A s I got off the plane, he was waiting for me, holding up a scrap of cardboard with my name scribbled on it. I was on my way to a conference of scientists and TV broadcasters devoted to the seemingly hopeless prospect of improving the presentation of science on commercial television. The organizers had kindly sent a driver. No, I didn't mind.

Was he pulling my leg? Finally, it dawned on me. He paused and then smiled. That's my problem. I thought it was yours too. Buckley, but he did bear the name of a contentious and well-known TV interviewer, for which he doubtless took a lot of good-natured ribbing. As we settled into the car for the long drive, the windshield 6. The Most Precious Thing wipers rhythmically thwacking, he told me he was glad I was 'that scientist guy' - he had so many questions to ask about science.

Would I mind? And so we got to talking. But not, as it turned out, about science. He wanted to talk about frozen extraterrestrials languish- ing in an Air Force base near San Antonio, 'channelling' a way to hear what's on the minds of dead people - not much, it turns out , crystals, the prophecies of Nostradamus, astrology, the shroud of Turin. He introduced each portentous subject with buoyant enthusiasm.

Each time I had to disappoint him: 'The evidence is crummy,' I kept saying. He knew the various speculative nuances on, let's say, the 'sunken continents' of Atlantis and Lemuria. He had at his fingertips what underwater expeditions were supposedly just setting out to find the tumbled columns and broken minarets of a once-great civilization whose remains were now visited only by deep sea luminescent fish and giant kraken. As far as science can tell, they never existed. By now a little reluctantly, I told him so.

As we drove through the rain, I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life. And yet there's so much in real science that's equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge - as well as being a lot closer to the truth.

Did he know about the molecular building blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 4-million-year-old volcanic ash?


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What about the raising of the Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host organism's defences and subvert the reproductive machinery of cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the newly discovered ancient civilization of Ebla that advertised the virtues of Ebla beer? No, he hadn't heard. Nor did he know, even 7.

Mr 'Buckley' - well-spoken, intelligent, curious - had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe. He wanted to know about science. It's just that all the science had gotten filtered out before it reached him. Our cultural motifs, our educational system, our communications media had failed this man. What society permit- ted to trickle through was mainly pretence and confusion. It had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation.

He knew nothing about how science works. There are hundreds of books about Atlantis - the mythical continent that is said to have existed something like 10, years ago in the Atlantic Ocean. Or somewhere. A recent book locates it in Antarctica. The story goes back to Plato, who reported it as hearsay coming down to him from remote ages. Recent books authoritatively describe the high level of Atlantean technology, morals and spirituality, and the great tragedy of an entire popu- lated continent sinking beneath the waves.

There is a 'New Age' Atlantis, 'the legendary civilization of advanced sciences,' chiefly devoted to the 'science' of crystals. In a trilogy called Crystal Enlightenment by Katrina Raphaell - the books mainly responsi- ble for the crystal craze in America - Atlantean crystals read minds, transmit thoughts, are the repositories of ancient history and the model and source of the pyramids of Egypt. Nothing approximating evidence is offered to support these assertions.

A resurgence of crystal mania may follow the recent finding by the real science of seismology that the inner core of the Earth may be composed of a single, huge, nearly perfect crystal - of iron. A few books - Dorothy Vitaliano's Legends of the Earth, for example - sympathetically interpret the original Atlantis legends in terms of a small island in the Mediterranean that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, or an ancient city that slid into the Gulf of Corinth after an earthquake.

This, for all we know, may be the source of the legend, but it is a far cry from the destruction of a continent on which had sprung forth a preternaturally advanced technical and mystical civilization. What we almost never find - in public libraries or newsstand 8. The Most Precious Thing magazines or prime-time television programmes - is the evidence from sea floor spreading and plate tectonics, and from mapping the ocean floor which shows quite unmistakably that there could have been no continent between Europe and the Americas on anything like the timescale proposed.

Spurious accounts that snare, the gullible are readily available. Sceptical treatments are much harder to find. Scepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment. Maybe Mr Buckley should know to be more sceptical about what's dished out to him by popular culture.

Why Astrology Is a Crock

But apart from that, it's hard to see how it's his fault. He simply accepted what the most widely available and accessible sources of information claimed was true. For his naivete, he was systematically misled and bamboozled. Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudo- science. Sparse and poor popularizations of science abandon ecological niches that pseudoscience promptly fills. If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience.

But a kind of Gresham's Law prevails in popular culture by which bad science drives out good. All over the world there are enormous numbers of smart, even gifted, people who harbour a passion for science. But that passion is unrequited. Surveys suggest that some 95 per cent 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 per cent illiteracy is extremely serious. Every generation worries that educational standards are decay- ing. One of the oldest short essays in human history, dating from Sumer some 4, years ago, laments that the young are disas- trously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding.

All freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns the alphabet. In that country arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I don't know to what extent ignorance of science and mathematics contributed to the decline of ancient Athens, but I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before.

It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponen- tial population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and low price, products people want to buy, then industries will continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to other parts of the world.

Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data 'highways', abor- tion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high- resolution TV, airline and airport safety, foetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depres- sion or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning- after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial predispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.

How can we affect national policy - or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives - if we don't grasp the underlying The Most Precious Thing issues? As I write, Congress is dissolving its own Office of Technology Assessment - the only organization specifically tasked to provide advice to the House and Senate on science and technology. Its competence and integrity over the years have been exemplary. Of the members of the US Congress, rarely in the twentieth century have as many as one per cent had any significant background in science.

The last scientifically literate President may have been Thomas Jefferson. How do they instruct their representatives? Who in fact makes these decisions, and on what basis? Hippocrates of Cos is the father of medicine. He is still remembered 2, years later for the Hippocratic Oath a modified form of which is still here and there taken by medical students upon their gradua- tion. But he is chiefly celebrated because of his efforts to bring medicine out of the pall of superstition and into the light of science.

In a typical passage Hippocrates wrote: 'Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things. A God of the Gaps is assigned responsibility for what we do not yet understand. As knowledge of medicine improved since the fourth century BC, there was more and more that we understood and less and less that had to be attributed to divine intervention - either in the causes or in the treatment of disease. Deaths in childbirth and infant mortality have decreased, lifetimes have lengthened, and medicine has improved the quality of life for billions of us all over the planet.

In the diagnosis of disease, Hippocrates introduced elements of the scientific method. Britain had such a Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher. Her early studies in chemistry, in part under the tutelage of Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, were key to the UK's strong and successful advocacy that ozone- depleting CFCs be banned worldwide. Overlook nothing. Combine contradictory observations. Allow yourself enough time. He recommended that physicians be able to tell, from present symptoms alone, the probable past and future course of each illness. He stressed honesty. He was willing to admit the limitations of the physician's knowledge.

He betrayed no embarrassment in confiding to poster- ity that more than half his patients were killed by the diseases he was treating. His options of course were limited; the drugs available to him were chiefly laxatives, emetics and narcotics. Surgery was performed, and cauterization. Considerable further advances were made in classical times through to the fall of Rome. While medicine in the Islamic world flourished, what followed in Europe was truly a dark age. Much knowledge of anatomy and surgery was lost.

Reliance on prayer and miraculous healing abounded. Secular physicians became extinct. Chants, potions, horoscopes and amulets were widely used. Dissections of cadavers were restricted or outlawed, so those who practised medicine were prevented from acquiring first-hand knowledge of the human body. Medical research came to a standstill. It was very like what the historian Edward Gibbon described for the entire Eastern Empire, whose capital was Constantinople: In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind.

Not a single idea had been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Even at its best, pre-modern medical practice did not save many. Queen Anne was the last Stuart monarch of Great Britain. In the last seventeen years of the seventeenth century, she was pregnant eighteen times. Only five children were born alive. Only one of them survived infancy. He died before reaching adulthood, and before her coronation in There seems to be no evidence of some genetic disorder.

She had the best medical care money could buy. Diseases that once tragically carried off countless infants and The Most Precious Thing children have been progressively mitigated and cured by science - through the discovery of the microbial world, via the insight that physicians and midwives should wash their hands and sterilize their instruments, through nutrition, public health and sanitation measures, antibiotics, drugs, vaccines, the uncovering of the molecular structure of DNA, molecular biology, and now gene therapy.

In the developed world at least, parents today have an enormously better chance of seeing their children live to adult- hood than did the heir to the throne of one of the most powerful nations on Earth in the late seventeenth century. Smallpox has been wiped out worldwide. The area of our planet infested with malaria- carrying mosquitoes has dramatically shrunk. The number of years a child diagnosed with leukaemia can expect to live has been increas- ing progressively, year by year. Science permits the Earth to feed about a hundred times more humans, and under conditions much less grim, than it could a few thousand years ago.

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours. There is still a religion, Christian Science, that denies the germ theory of disease; if prayer fails, the faithful would rather see their children die than give them antibiotics. We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him to milligrams a day of chlozapine.

The scientific treatments are hun- dreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. And even when the alternatives seem to work, we don't actually know that they played any role: spontaneous remissions, even of cholera and schizophrenia, can occur without prayer and without psychoanalysis.

Abandoning science means abandoning much more than air conditioning, CD players, hair dryers and fast cars. In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, the human life expectancy was about 20 to 30 years. It didn't rise to 40 years until around the year It reached 50 in , 60 in , 70 in , and is today approaching 80 a little more for women, a little less for men.

The rest of the world is retracing the European increment in longevity. What is the cause of this stunning, unprecedented, humanitarian transition? The germ theory of disease, public health measures, medicines and medical Longevity is perhaps the best single measure of the physical quality of life. If you're dead, there's little you can do to be happy. This is a precious offering from science to humanity - nothing less than the gift of life. But micro-organisms mutate.

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Carl Sagan The Demon Haunted World Science As A Candle In

New diseases spread like wildfire. There is a constant battle between microbial measures and human countermeasures. We keep pace in this competition not just by designing new drugs and treatments, but by penetrating progres- sively more deeply toward an understanding of the nature of life - basic research. If the world is to escape the direst consequences of global population growth and 10 or 12 billion people on the planet in the late twenty-first century, we must invent safe but more efficient means of growing food - with accompanying seed stocks, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, transportation and refrigeration systems.

It will also take widely available and acceptable contraception, significant steps toward political equality of women, and improvements in the standards of living of the poorest people. How can all this be accomplished without science and technology? I know that science and technology are not just cornucopias pouring gifts out into the world. Scientists not only conceived nuclear weapons; they also took political leaders by the lapels, arguing that their nation - whichever it happened to be - had to have one first. Then they manufactured over 60, of them.

During the Cold War, scientists in the United States, the Soviet Union, China and other nations were willing to expose their own fellow citizens to radiation - in most cases without their know- ledge - to prepare for nuclear war. Physicians in Tuskegee, Alabama, misled a group of veterans into thinking they were receiving medical treatment for their syphilis, when they were the untreated controls. The atrocious cruelties of Nazi doctors are well-known. Our technology has produced thalidomide, CFCs, Agent Orange, nerve gas, pollution of air and water, species extinctions, and industries so powerful they can ruin the climate of the planet.

Roughly half the scientists on Earth work at least part-time for the military. While a few scientists are still perceived as outsiders, courageously criticizing the ills of society and provid- ing early warnings of potential technological catastrophes, many The Most Precious Thing are seen as compliant opportunists, or as the willing source of corporate profits and weapons of mass destruction - never mind the long-term consequences.

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. There's a reason people are nervous about science and technology. And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world - down to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children's TV and the plethora of Faustian bargains in popular culture, from the eponymous Dr Faustus himself to Dr Franken- stein, Dr Strangelove, and Jurassic Park.

But we can't simply conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power- crazed politicians and so decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history. In opinion poll after opinion poll science is rated among the most admired and trusted occupations, despite the misgivings. The sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibil- ity - more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism.

Mistakes are becoming too expensive. Do we care what's true? Does it matter? But is it? Only one hand went up. It was not mine. It's disheartening to discover government corruption and incom- petence, for example; but it is better not to know about it? Whose interest does ignorance serve? If we humans bear, say, hereditary propensities toward the hatred of strangers, isn't self-knowledge the only antidote? 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?

In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, as so many before and after, decries the 'unbroken progress in the self- belittling of man' brought about by the scientific revolution. Nietzsche mourns the loss of 'man's belief in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceability in the scheme of existence'.

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss?

Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character- building experience? Old hat,' writes one of the referees of this book. But many 'scientific creationists' not only believe it, but are making increasingly aggressive and successful efforts to have it taught in the schools, museums, zoos, and textbooks.

Because adding up the 'begats', the ages of patriarchs and others in the Bible gives such a figure, and the Bible is 'inerrant'. The Most Precious Thing to find that our ancestors were also the ancestors of apes ties us to the rest of life and makes possible important - if occasionally rueful - reflections on human nature. Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science.

We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favour. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting all the 'Buckleys' among us, providing easy answers, dodging sceptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and write us messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them, or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, accurately foretell the future. These are all instances of pseudoscience.

They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature - often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation and often the cynical connivance of newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, movie producers and the like, such ideas are easily and widely available.

Far more difficult to come upon, as I was reminded by my encounter with Mr 'Buckley', are the alternative, more challenging and even more dazzling findings of science. Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because dis- tracting confrontations with reality - where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison - are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science.

But this isn't enough to explain its popularity. And if we're desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of scepticism. Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods.

In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe.