Science as a Candle in the Dark

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The Nature of Science

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike--and yet it is the most precious thing we have.

Albert Einstein,

There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980; p.333)

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. [...]
The method of science ... is far more important than the findings of science.
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Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; pp.25,22)

Yin and Yang At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes--an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.
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Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.304)

It is surprising that people do not believe that there is imagination in science. It is a very interesting kind of imagination, unlike that of the artist. The great difficulty is in trying to imagine something that you have never seen, that is consistent in every detail with what has already been seen, and that is different from what has been thought of; furthermore, it must be definite and not a vague proposition. That is indeed difficult. [...]

But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.23 and p.10)

The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific "truth." But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations--to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess.

Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol.I (1963/1989; p.1-1)

The principle that the observation is the judge imposes a severe limitation to the kind of questions that can be answered. They are limited to questions that you can put this way: "if I do this, what will happen?" There are ways to try and see. Questions like, "should I do this?" and "what is the value of this?" are not of the same kind.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.16)

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, "This is the way it is going to work, I'll bet," he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of development in science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.27)

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.

Albert Einstein, Physics and Reality (1936; p.59)

Consider the very roots of our ability to discern truth. Above all (or perhaps I should say "underneath all"), common sense is what we depend on--that crazily elusive, ubiquitous faculty we all have, to some degree or other. [...] If we apply common sense to itself over and over again, we wind up building a skyscraper. The ground floor of this structure is the ordinary common sense we all have, and the rules for building new floors are implicit in the ground floor itself. However, working it all out is a gigantic task, and the result is a structure that transcends mere common sense. Pretty soon, even though it has all been built up from common ingredients, the structure of this extended common sense is quite arcane and elusive. We might call the quality represented by the upper floors of this skyscraper "rare sense"; but it is usually called "science". And some of the ideas and discoveries that have come out of this originally simple and everyday ability defy the ground floor totally. [ View longer excerpt ]

Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985; p.94)

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The Wonder of Science

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Isaac Newton     [written just before his death]

We are driven by the insatiable curiosity of the scientist, and our work is a delightful game. I am frequently astonished that it so often results in correct predictions of experimental results.

Murray Gell-Mann

Yes, I am a relentless quester after the chief patterns of the universe -- central organizing principles, clean and powerful ways to categorize what is "out there".

Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (1985; p.xxv)

The next aspect of science [besides the technology it delivers] is its contents, the things that have been found out. This is the yield. The is the gold. This is the excitement, the pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out. Perhaps most of you know this. But to those of you who do not know it, it is almost impossible for me to convey in a lecture this important aspect, this exciting part, the real reason for science. And without understanding this you miss the whole point. You cannot understand science and its relation to anything else unless you understand and appreciate the great adventure of our time. You do not live in your time unless you understand that this is a tremendous adventure and a wild and exciting thing.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.9)

Science properly done is one of the humanities, as a fine physics teacher once said. The point of science is to help us understand what we are and how we got here, and for this we need the great stories: the tale of how, once upon a time, there was a Big Bang; the Darwinian epic of the evolution of life on Earth; and now the story we are just beginning to learn how to tell: the amazing adventure of the primate autobiographers who finally taught themselves how to tell the story of the amazing adventure of the primate autobiographers.

Daniel Dennett

It seems to me that when it's time to die, and that will come to all of us, there'll be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, that you had learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. I mean, there's only this one universe and only this one lifetime to grasp it. And, while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.

Isaac Asimov Interview with Bill Moyers (1988)

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends up in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing -- atoms with curiosity -- that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge of the uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch mans's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.39)

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Science and Democracy

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It is just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it's like democracy.
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Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.27)

Moyers: Is it possible that you suffer from an excessive trust in rationality?

Asimov: I can't answer that very easily. Perhaps I do, but I cant' think of anything else to trust in. You say to yourself, "If you can't go by reason, what can you go by?" Now, one answer is faith. But faith in what? I notice there's no general agreement in world of these matters of faith; they are not compelling. I have my faith. You have your faith. And there's no way in which I can translate my faith to you or vice versa. At least as far as reason's concerned, there's a system of rational argument following the laws of logic, et cetera, that a great many people agree on. Therefore, in reason there are what we call compelling arguments. That is, if I locate certain kinds of evidence, even people who disagreed with me to begin with, once they study the evidence, find themselves compelled to agree by the evidence. But wherever we go beyond reason into faith, there's no such thing as compelling evidence. Even if you have a revelation, how can you transfer that revelation to others? By what system?

Isaac Asimov Interview with Bill Moyers (1988)

As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what, is important for some other reason than that it is true, a whole host of evils is ready to spring up.

Bertrand Russell, Can religion cure our troubles? (1954/1957; p.197)

We are error-prone. [...] We're good at some things but not in everything. Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations. "For Man is a giddy thing," teaches William Shakespeare. That's where the stuffy skeptical rigor of science comes in. [...] The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; pp.21-22)

[There are some] features of the professional life of the scientist, which make of it one of the great phenomena of the contemporary world. [...] There is ... a total lack of authoritarianism, which is hard to comprehend or admit unless one has lived with it. This is accomplished by one of the most exacting of intellectual disciplines. In physics the worker learns the possibility of error very early. He learns that there are ways to correct his mistakes; he learns the futility of trying to conceal them. For it is not a field in which error awaits death and subsequent generations for verdict--the next issue of the journals will take care of it. The refinement of techniques for the prompt discovery of error serves as well as any other as a hallmark of what we mean by science.

In any case, it is an area of collective effort in which there is a clear and well-defined community whose canons of taste and order simplify the life of the practitioner. It is a field in which the technique of experiment has given an almost perfect harmony to the balance between thought and action. In it we learn so frequently that we could almost become accustomed to it, how vast is the novelty of the world, and how much even the physical worlds transcends in delicacy and in balance the limits of man's prior imaginings. We learn that views may be useful and inspiriting although they are not complete. We come to have a great caution in all assertions of totality, of finality or absoluteness.

In this field quite ordinary men, using what are in the last analysis only the tools which are generally available in our society, manage to unfold for themselves and all others who wish to learn, the rich story of one aspect of the physical world, and of man's experience. We learn to throw away those instruments of action and those modes of description which are not appropriate to the reality we are trying to discern, and in this most painful discipline, we find ourselves modest before the world.

[...] This combination of courage and modesty ... is the lesson that science always tries to teach to anyone who practices it. ... The value of science as method, rather than science as doctrine, underlies the practices of teaching to scientist and layman alike.

Robert Oppenheimer, Physics in the Contemporary World (1947 MIT lecture)

It is of great use in the pursuit of knowledge not to be too confident, nor too distrustful of our own judgment, nor to believe we can comprehend all things or nothing. He that distrusts his own judgment in every thing, and thinks his understanding not to be relied on in the search of truth, cuts off his own legs that he may be carried up and down by others, and makes himself a ridiculous dependant upon the knowledge of others, which can possibly be of no use to him... On the other side, he that thinks his understanding capable of all things, mounts upon wings of his own fancy, though indeed Nature never meant him any, and so venturing into the vast expanse of incomprehensible verities, only makes good the fable of Icarus, and loses himself in the abyss. We are here in the state of mediocrity; finite creatures, furnished with powers and faculties very well fitted to some purposes, but very disproportionate to the vast and unlimited extent of things...

John Locke, Journal (1677)

This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields. It was born of a struggle. It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure. And I do not want us to forget the importance of the struggle and, by default, to let the thing fall away. I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.28)

In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

We are not so smart. We are dumb. We are ignorant. We must maintain an open channel. I believe in limited government. [...] No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.57)

Freedom is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of science--which is one reason the Soviet Union could not remain a totalitarian state and be technologically competitive.
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At the same time, science--or rather its delicate mix of openness and skepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate--is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in an industrial and highly technological society.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; pp.431)

Il faut bien protéger les lampes: un coup de vent peut les éteindre...
[One must protect the candles well: a single blow of wind can extinguish them...]

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince

Is science of any value?
I think a power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value.
Once in Hawaii I was asked to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple a man said, "I am going to tell you something that you will never forget." And then he said, "To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell."

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All (1963/1998; p.6)

The unprecedented powers that science now makes available must be accompanied by unprecedented levels of ethical focus and concern by the scientific community--as well as the most broadly based public education into the importance of science and democracy.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.419)

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The Need to Popularize Science

A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places, and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.317)

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994; p.81)

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

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.400)

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

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.39)

If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. [...]
A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.

Thomas Jefferson

When is the last time you heard an intelligent comment on science by a President of the United States? Why in all America is there no TV drama that has as its hero someone devoted to figuring out how the Universe works? When a highly publicized murder trial has everyone casually mentioning DNA testing, where are the prime-time network specials devoted to nucleic acids and heredity? I can't even recall seeing an accurate and comprehensible description on television of how television works.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996; p.376)

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