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:      

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