Sunday, April 2, 2017

Repost: Carl Sagan, the great science popularizer, vs. 1846 Sunday School text

Carl Sagan's famous essay, "Pale Blue Dot," is quoted and praised all across the cyber-galaxy, but just how original is it?  Ever wondered that?  How does it stack up, quotation-wise, against the 1846 American Sunday School Union text, The Starry Heavens (The Solar System, Part II)?  Let's find out by comparing select passages between the two texts.  Let's discover what 19th century children were learning about astronomy in Sunday School class in the days before the Civil War.

Sagan quotes are followed by select passages from The Starry Heavens:

Sagan: "The Earth is a small stage in a vast cosmic arena." And, "Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark."

The Starry Heavens: "What is the whole of this globe on which we dwell compared with the solar system, which contains a mass of matter so many millions of times greater?  What is it in comparison with the hundred millions of suns and worlds which, by the telescope, have been descried through the starry regions?"

Sagan: "Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one other, how fervent their hatreds.  Thinks of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

The Starry Heavens: "What, then, is a kingdom, a province, or a baronial territory, of which we are as proud as if we were the lords of the universe, and for which we engage in so much devastation and carnage?  What are they, when set in competition with the glories of the sky?"

Sagan: "Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light."

The Starry Heavens: "(The objects connected with astronomy) show us what an insignificant being--what a mere atom, indeed, man appears amidst the immensity of creation!"

Sagan: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.”

The Starry Heavens: "We have reason to believe that the most exalted beings in the universe--those who are furnished with the most capacious powers, and who have arrived at the greatest perfection in knowledge--are distinguished by a proportional share of humility."

We close with a highly ironic Sagan quote: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths."   Do those "conventional faiths" include 19th century American Christianity?


Getting the fallacies wrong

The YouTube fun continues--I pointed out there (i.e., at the Matt Dillahunty post) that the appeal to authority fallacy (I forget its formal name) is something completely different than what they are suggesting.  It's not something that happens anytime one cites an authority in an argument; it's more like citing a false authority.  For instance, nine of out ten birdwatchers recommend a particular brand of truck tire--are birdwatchers, as a group, qualified to do so?  Are they experts in that area?  Some wold be, certainly, but as a group, of course not.

Or, here's what Einstein says about camera lenses.  Einstein was one of our species' smartest humans, but I'm not aware he had any expertise in that area.  Appeal to authority is a kind of empty name-dropping.  Like, nine out of ten Hollywood actors believe global warming is, to a significant extent, caused by humans.  I happen to believe that, too, but not because actors push it.  I believe it because it's the general consensus of climate experts.

Bogus authority.  Or, what the hell did Arthur Godfrey know about laundry detergent?  When we cite a legit authority, we're committing no fallacy.  None.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

I'm glad we cleared that up.

I wanted to clarify, btw, that my sarcastic and not always nice comments about the various logic-and-reason celebs are that way because the folks in question are pretending to be experts on subjects they are not expert in.  (Philosophy, for one big example.)  Hence, they have some sharp retorts coming--knowingly or not, they're scamming their listeners and followers.  Pretending to be something you're not isn't the greatest crime in the world (unless, of course, you're taking people to the cleaners, money-wise, and I don't think any of these folks is doing that), but the logic'n'reason celebs have certainly harmed the cause of promoting logic in cyberspace, given the drivel they post.  Want a bogus definition of the No True Scotsman fallacy?  No problem; just go to some source other than Wikipedia or Standford, and you may very well get your wish.  Their behavior comes down to spreading nonsense in the name of combating nonsense.

The "skeptic" movement was in trouble from the start, what with a brilliant but uneducated magician the main star, media-wise, of the show (we're talking James Randi).  You push the idea that just anyone can practice scientific skepticism, and, before you know it, just anyone is.  Never mind that scientific skepticism is a highly specialized application of critical thinking, one that requires expert knowledge in a specialized area.  Never mind the reality.  Just hype it as something anyone can do, and, before you know it, anyone is.  And so we have a blogosphere packed with bogus definitions of elementary logical fallacies and essays which falsely accuse believers of committing an affront to reason simply by believing in a higher power.  And, craziest of all, we have atheists who apparently object to all of the "if/then" stuff that goes on in philosophy.  No one is allowed to imagine that something could be true; one has to know whether or not it's so.  One needs proof--conclusive proof.  What would philosophy look and feel like without the intellectual license of "If A is so, then..."?