Saturday, November 9, 2013

Carl Sagan Day 2013: Making peace with uncertainty

Once again it is the day to remember and celebrate the life and vision of Carl Sagan. Along with Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry, Sagan was one whose works had a profound impact on my younger self and opened my eyes to what an immense, fascinating, and dangerous place this Universe is. There is not a day that goes by when I do not remind myself that we live under the most precarious of circumstances, and that the conditions which support our existence could change drastically with little notice. Neither of these realizations paralyzes me, though, mostly because there is little I can do to alter this situation and spending energy worrying about gamma ray bursts, potential asteroid strikes, or black holes is not terribly productive. What they do promote, however, is first a great sense of gratitude at the fact that I am here, living life, and still have the chance to make a difference for the better in the lives of the people and other creatures with whom I share this narrow strip of biosphere; and second a coming to terms with the undeniable fact of uncertainty.

We do not have all the data, we cannot predict the future, and in those limited areas where we do have some ability to make a relatively educated guess about how things really are, it is only because people like Carl Sagan spent their lives in long study, observation, experimentation, analysis, and synthesis. The scientific method in action often entails going down lots of blind alleys and dead-end streets, lots of painstaking trial and error, and lots of staring at your results until at last that flash of insight hits. It also means humbly accepting the possibility that you might be wrong. But the great thing about science is that of all human institutions it has by far the best track record of figuring out its mistakes, admitting them, and correcting them. Scientists are proven wrong on a pretty regular basis, but you know who proves them wrong? Other scientists! Not some guy typing in his basement at 2 AM. And just because one hypothesis doesn't pass muster it doesn't mean that any competing one is by default correct. Irish comedian Dara O'Briain summed it up best:  "Science knows it doesn't know everything; otherwise, it'd stop. But just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you."

In his life and writings, Carl Sagan exemplified this openness to possibility and acceptance of uncertainty. He cultivated his sense of wonder but also applied the rigors of the scientific method to weed out the ideas that could not pass the evidence test. As the saying (often attributed to him, but likely coined long before) goes, he had an open mind, but not so open that his brains fell out. Like any person, he had his faults (some say he smoked too much weed, but I don't consider that a negative), but if you are looking for someone who actually lived to put up as a role model, you can't go wrong with Carl Sagan. Happy birthday, far traveler. You left us too soon, but your life and work continue to inspire and motivate those of us who appreciate science to stand up for it amid the cacophony of ignorance that dominates most of public discourse today.

From the stars we came, and to the stars we shall return.

But of course it also helps to keep this in mind as well:      

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What a week, man.

So like most of the rest of the country, I followed the events that played out in Boston this week with great interest. I have both family and friends living in the city and its surroundings, none of whom were directly affected by Monday's tragedy, but were definitely inconvenienced by Friday's lockdown. While I am glad that both of the identified suspects are now accounted for, the hunt for the younger brother that consumed most of the daylight hours yesterday left a very bad taste in my mouth, particularly after I learned that the suspect would not be read his Miranda rights.

I have little sympathy for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who appears at this point to have been the willing accomplice to his older brother's plans for mass murder. He may not have been the primary instigator, but he went along with it and whatever a court of law finds him guilty of it will be well deserved. However, as the first "terrorist" attack on U.S. soil since 9/11/2001, this offers us the chance to do things correctly when it comes to the legal process and to show to the rest of the world that the blundering and overreach that followed in the wake of 9/11 will not be repeated. Unfortunately, the shutdown of a major American city to apprehend one suspect, and to then state the intention to not read that suspect (who last I heard is still in serious condition), who is a U.S. citizen, the rights he is entitled to as an accused person under the law if and when he recovers tell me that the police state is still alive and well in the supposed land of the free. I hope cooler heads prevail here, and that we eventually do stay true to our principals, but events thus far have not inspired much confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Camp Quest blows up the internet

So the internet (or at least my particular corner of it) has been blowing up since about this time yesterday about an incident involving Camp Quest Oklahoma and a Tulsa area restaurant that agreed to host a fundraiser for them, but then aborted it an hour into the event (it was supposed to go from 4-8 PM) when the owner claimed to have just found out that the camp served children primarily from non-religious families and that most of its volunteers identified as (gasp!) atheists. As many of you know, I have for many years volunteered on the board of Camp Quest of Minnesota as well as the national organization Camp Quest Inc., so this has really touched a nerve with me. To see a fellow camp franchise treated in such a poor fashion is incensing and serves as a reminder of exactly why I devote so much of my free time to the Camp Quest movement. I am not sure what was going through the restaurant owner's head when he decided to pull the plug on the event (and as always in a controversial situation like this there are conflicting reports of what exactly was said to the CQ OK organizers), but apparently he claims that he had no idea of what Camp Quest was really all about until he saw the flyers that patrons were bringing in to take part in the fundraiser. Flyers that he (or his staff) had approved weeks before the night of the event. And of course the owner has gone on the record saying that he was motivated to abort the fundraiser by his "Christian philosophy".

Appropriately this owner is now neck deep in a PR shitstorm of his own making because, as anyone who has been paying any attention at all to recent history knows, that is what now happens when you openly engage in anti-atheist discrimination. If he had called the CQ OK folks the day before the fundraiser, or even a couple of hours before it started to tell them he had issues with letting a bunch of paying customers who also happened to not believe in any god through his doors, that would have been defensible (but just barely). The true cravenness here is squashing the event after it had already begun, when some people had already come to the restaurant, had eaten and paid for their meals with the expectation that 10% would go to CQ OK, and had left; and people who had already invested time and energy to attend the fundraiser were arriving and had to be told it was not happening. Now I am not sure how good the food is at Oklahoma Joe's BBQ in Broken Arrow (note that there are other restaurants in other cities that have the same name, but are NOT affiliated with this one), but I imagine most of those planning to attend had scheduled their evening around the fundraiser and were at least expecting a decent meal as part of the bargain. So not only has this guy shortchanged needy kids (the money raised was to help fund scholarships for campers), but he has screwed up a bunch of people's dinner plans and proven himself to be a lousy businessman in the process. He deserves everything that is coming to him.

Finally, while it pains me that the CQ OK folks had to go through this, and I and other volunteers try our best to keep Camp Quest as a whole away from the front lines of the culture wars (camp is nothing if not a safe haven for kids from just this type of assholery, many of whom have to endure some version of it on a daily basis), there is at least the silver lining that because of the publicity this is generating, CQ OK is going to take in a massive amount of money (including a $5000 matching grant from the Stiefel Foundation) that will dwarf what the proceeds from the original fundraiser would have been had it not been marred by this act of idiocy.