Monday, March 21, 2016

Remembering Carl Sagan and his Legacy of Critical Thinking

It's hard to believe that Carl Sagan died 20 years ago.  But it's worth remembering his death because it's worth remembering his life, his belief in and dedication to public engagement with science.  In this last interview with Charlie Rose he articulates the two arguments that motivated him throughout his life to continuously seek new ways to communicate science to everyone.  First, he reminded us that science is power, surely the defining power of our time.
We live in an age based on science and technology with formidable scientific powers.... If we don't understand it ... then who is making all the decisions ... that are going to determine the world our children are going to live in?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Reason, Truth, Lies, Empiricism and Belief in the Age of the Internet

In the March issue of The New Yorker Jill Lepore posted an amusing rant on reason, truth, lies, empiricism and belief in the "Age of the Internet."

She asks a good question:  How do we know?  And what is the role of evidence?  Reason?

Lepore observes in this season dominated by the Republican debates and largely negative advertising based almost exclusively on unsubstantiated opinion and belief:
  1. "Tump doesn’t reason... He wants combat." 
  2. "Cruz’s appeal is to the judgment of God. 'Father God, please . . . awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss,' he preached on the campaign trail."
  3. "Rubio’s appeal is to Google."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is it Christmas Everywhere in the Universe?

Is it Christmas everywhere in the Universe?  

Dennis Overbye, one of my favorite science journalists, has taken a stab at this question in a light-hearted and fun way in this article in the Times, asking himself, "would an alien know it is Christmas?"  I love how he manages to stimulate our thinking by posing some interesting questions with a few answers but without writing a treatise on the philosophy of science and religion.  How exactly does he do it?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Journalist Asks "How Do We Know"

Dean Miller, the Director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University posted this warning on his New York Time blog.  News literacy, whether you are a producer or consumer of news, is based on skepticism and, perhaps more than anything else, a healthy awareness of your own bias.

But it seemed odd to me that he could ask the question "how do we know" and feel obligated to restrict his assessment of veracity to the text itself and not even mention objective sources or empirical evidence outside of the story.  Is that the best we can do?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Monday, November 25, 2013

Robotics Scientists Meet to Discuss Ethics

In October a group of leading robotics scientists and engineers met to discuss the ethical implications of their work.  Until recently a vast majority of industrial robots have been confined to cages where they work and humans are unwelcome.  Increasingly, however, we find robotic applications in our human world.  They are "aware" of us, sensing our presence, our identities, our activity and inferring from those data our intentions and goals.  And these robots act in our world too, based on their own objectives and what they can sense from their surroundings, including present human beings.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Memory: The Relationship Between Brain and the Experience of 'Self'

Interesting article in Time Magazine about a woman named Lonni Sue Johnson who was a very successful artist, violinist and pilot until she suffered an attack of encephalitis in 2007 at the age of 57.  Studying patients like Johnson, scientists are learning about the relationship between the physical brain and experiences and even the nature of 'self'.
With the help of the hardware and Johnson's willingness to sit still for so much study, science may be able to answer one other, more abstract question: What is it like to have lost so many memories about your life and the world? If who you are is an amalgamation, at least in part, of the things you've experienced--the people you've loved, the places you've lived, the tragedies you've endured--are you actually you at all when those things are wiped away? The self is ineffable, but it's also material, the product of neurochemicals sparking their way through living tissue. How we draw the line between those two dimensions--the biological and the experiential, the brain and the far less knowable mind--has kept philosophers awake for millennia.