Friday, May 21, 2010

Conversation with Dawkins

> view of earth as a pale blue dot

After reading, thinking, and writing about the work of Richard Dawkins, I had the unbelievable luck of speaking to him in person!! At the recent Science and Religious Conflict conference, over beef wellington, I got a chance to ask him about the public understanding of science (he held an Oxford chair by that title), popular science book writing (he's now working on a children's book), what role religion plays for him (he calls himself an atheist Anglican), and life in the little town of Oxford. Still reeling from the encounter, I'm going to try to write some coherent thoughts about everything we talked about.

One subject that came up was how somebody should go about communicating science. He thinks there are two main approaches – one that emphasizes the usefulness of science (look what this new pill or piece of technology can do for you!), and the Carl Sagan approach, emphasizing the wonder, awe, and sheer marvel of science. Dawkins suggested that he favored the latter, since it draws people into a longer-lasting appreciation and interest in science that provides more than a fleeting fascination with the latest fad or gadget. He’s probably on to something – a little while ago the NY Times found that its most e-mailed articles tended to be those that inspired awe, particularly science articles.

But what about the usefulness approach? After all, many people may first be introduced to physiology when they get a blood test, to chemistry when they look at the nutrition facts on a cereal box, to electromagnetism when they have to replace some batteries, or light and optics when they’re buying a new camera. A Pew Research Center study found that most people, even if they don’t know basic high-school science facts, still know something about the areas where science is personally relevant to their health and daily lives. So the science we deal with on a day-to-day basis seems like a good starting point for discussion and further curiosity, acting as a bridge into the wider world of science that Sagan championed and Dawkins promotes. One approach may feed the other, and if a combination is possible – the useful and the awe-inspiring, the relevant and the celebratory – so much the better. 

On that note, some words from Carl Sagan about the pale blue dot:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena... 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. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves... It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

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