Enlightenment Now

A colleague of Steven Pinker’s once told him: “I have observed many smart people who have little idea of how to logically think through a problem, who infer causation from correlation, and who use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted.”

Have you ever noticed this tendency in those who seem to have the strongest opinions? More importantly, have you ever noticed this glitch in your own world viewfinder? In almost every aspect of our lives–politics, news coverage, medical diagnosis and treatments, liberal arts, the humanities, your racist uncle at Thanksgiving, history, climate change, immigration–we just can´t help it.  And if you think the choice between deepening our collective understanding of the world and a reliance on ignorance and superstition is a no-brainer for everybody, sorry, it just ain’t so.

Because we humans are so vulnerable to our own cognitive biases and blind trust in our own “gut feelings” about questions that occur to us, we invariably get a distorted view of the state of the world.  Simply put, the world isn´t nearly as bad as you might think it is, and there are specific reasons why this is so.  In Enlightenment Now, Pinker not only relies heavily on data collected over time in graphs and charts (Max Roser´s graphs are wonderful and thorough. Click here to see), he explains why it is important to pay attention to this evidence, to understand how science and reason are often muddled in the public sphere, and to understand why things have gotten better.  He shows that the progress that the we have made as a species is quantifiable, despite the best efforts of influential people from all over the political spectrum to obfuscate and deny this fact. What has gone up globally? Life expectancy, GDP per capita, social spending, literacy, leisure time. What has gone down? For a start, work hours (in Europe and the US), costs of necessities, workplace-related deaths, terrorism deaths, rape and domestic violence, racist, sexist and homophobic opinions, natural disaster deaths, battle deaths, undernourishment, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, famine deaths, homicide deaths.

You may already be tempted to “whataboutery.”  What about ISIS? What about all these school shootings? I have personally overheard three different violent fights between a man and a woman in the last 6 months alone.  It is not the job of the statistics to ignore specific cases or highlight one or another, it simply represents averages and overall trends that come from the combination of objective observation and data gathering.  And it important to know how to read a graph and how to process statistics (which sometimes is surprisingly difficult).  I think the point of all these graphs isn´t to say that the problems they delineate don´t exist or are no longer important, it is to demonstrate the incredible progress we have made in the end.

Nor is Pinker suggesting that the path to progress is an easy one. There are many who surprisingly hate progress. And he argues that we are hard-wired to do stupid things: we follow passions, intuitions, faith, authority, gurus and celebrities and hunches, we rely on anecdote in lieu of logic and reason, we have a short-term memory, we relegate science to a corner when it conflicts with tradition. Many people even seem to reject ideas simply because they themselves do not understand them, and contend that to accept them is to be gullible. And nowhere is this more blatant than in the public reception of science. You must have noticed this in politicized issues like climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, public health and education.  And anti-science skeptics come from everywhere, from the congressman who brought a snowball to Congress to disprove global warming to Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator to flat earthers.  Have you seen that guy in California who sells raw, untreated water? This is a great option to hydrate yourself if you´re into Hepatitis A and diarrhea, and the reason we know this is because actual scientists found a way to treat water so more people could drink it without shitting themselves to death (Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow discovered the chlorination of water, which saved 177 million lives. Click here to learn more).

Indeed there have been important people in history that bucked these human tendencies and made our world a better place in which to live longer and happier. Thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Galileo and Thomas Paine did not pretend that we are always rational movers fighting the chaos, nor were they without faults and errors themselves. Rather, they presented ideas that rose above our irrationality, showing how we can outsmart our own inner homo sapiens, with all our deficiencies. Emmanuel Kant declared, “Dare to understand!”  An important overlying theme for these thinkers was the Enlightenment idea that we should pursue reason in order to understand the complexities and problems of the world.  This book is clarifying my idea of what the Enlightenment even is, and has shown me the importance of reason in everyday life, and that the enemies of reason come from unexpected places. And even though we have made giant strides in the quality of life on our planet, it is self-defeating to ignore this progress and to forget these Enlightenment ideals, instead we must not cease to build upon them.




From Eternity to Here

img_1036To extinguish your total bank of knowledge on the subject of a book by page 11 can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your self esteem, your habits of curiosity or your attitude about learning.  I try not to read books that I suspect will simply restate what I already know, or ones that I am predisposed to agree with. Rather I enjoy books that are a bit out of my league. I may have overshot a bit with this one.

If you have ever watched Sean Carroll’s Youtube videos, you know that his verbal speed is not much slower than 299,792,458 meters per second, which is also the known speed of light. But a book can be paused, reread, skimmed and scanned, and Carroll is one of those Richard Feynman kind of physicists that perfectly explains complex ideas that are nearly impossible for the layman to retain, much less explain to another layman. And the reader can reread as many times as it takes to get it (the pictures help, too).

The idea of time has fascinated me ever since I sat one day at a bus stop and realized that if there is no matter, there can be no time.  So what is time? In an episode of Brian Cox’s excellent series The Wonders of the Universe, Cox explains that the reason things are the way they are is because it is much more likely that they would become that way than another way. Things change from an ordered state to a disordered state because there are many more different ways to be disordered than ordered.  And this is crucial in the understanding of time and why it is important.

Entropy is the number of ways that the components of a system can be rearranged without a noticeable difference.  As Brian Cox explains above, a pile of sand has high entropy, and a sand castle has low entropy.  There is no law in physics that says the sandcastle could not  be blown by the wind to form another adjacent, identical sand castle; it is only much more likely that it will not. Why is this important in relation to time?  We know now that entropy always increases over time, and the only way that we really know the difference between the past and the present is because of the processes of matter changing from low entropy to high entropy.  It is the reason we can’t remember the future, why we get old, why it’s very hard to unscramble an egg, why there is an arrow of time that goes in only one direction.  We notice change and therefore conceptualize that change with time.

I can now move on with my day, and chapter 2.

This is why I read.


From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

By: Sean Carroll 

Dutton, 438 pages

In Defense of Polymaths

The Invention of Nature                                                                                                                                           by Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 473 pp.

imageAlexander Von Humboldt was an often insufferable chatterbox who dominated conversation and dinner parties that usually included important contemporaries, thinkers and politicians.  His interests spanned from the movements of land masses and volcanology to astronomy, from plant and animal habitats to mineralogy to map making, from vertebrate nervous systems to geopolitics, but his greatest contribution was his (now self-evident) concept of nature.  Before Humboldt, studies were made in general isolation and empircal observation didn’t necessarily mix with the theoretical.  But Humboldt made a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand and recording volumes of invaluable observations.  And although outside of scientific circles he is mostly forgotten, his name has left a permanent mark. He has more things named after him than anyone.  There is the Humboldt ocean current that flows past Chile and Peru, there are parks in South America named after him, like the Pico Humboldt in Venezuela and the Sierra image Humboldt in Mexico.  There is a village in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a bay in Colombia, and a geyser in Ecuador named Humboldt. In Greenland there is the Humboldt Glacier and the Kap Humboldt.  There are rivers and waterfalls in New Zealand and Tasmania, and mountain ranges in China, South Africa, Antarctica and New Zealand.  There is the Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris and parks in Germany (his native country).  In North America, there are four counties, and thirteen towns, mountains,  and lakes named after him (and one river).  There is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and two parks–one in Chicago and one in Buffalo, named Humboldt.  Almost 100 animals and 300 plants are named after him, and the state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Several minerals have his name, and there is even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His contribution to exploration and scientific thinking is almost unknowable because it is so vast. And most interestingly, he was not a scientist, but a naturalist and compulsive documenter with insatiable wanderlust and curiosity.  His immeasurable influence can at least partly be measured by his associates and those he affected.  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was his close friend, and Humboldt undoubtedly had an influence in his finishing Faust. Charles Darwin kept Humboldt’s Kosmos as a guiding inspiration, filling it with notes, and he attributed the development of his Origin of Species to Humboldt so blatantly that we might never have heard of his natural selection or evolution.

Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt’s maps of the western territories invaluable, and found himself giddy with excitement when the eccentric German came to visit the White House in a young United States.

imageThe philosphy of conservation in the United States owes much to Humboldt.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is in large part a rumination of his ideas of the interconnectedness of nature. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1860, a book inspired directly by Humboldt’s ideas, and marking the beginning of conservation movement.  Henry David Thoreau found a way to focus his introverted, mountain man eccentricities after discovering Humboldt, and eventually broke away from Emerson’s existentialism, more and more valuing Humboldt’s direct observation of nature. During his time in Yosemite, John Muir filled his copy of Humboldt’s Views of Nature and Cosmos with notes, at a time when he was coming up with his ideas of glacial formation of landscapes.

Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman both loved the writings of Humboldt.

A comprehensive list of his influences could go on and on, and this book is a voluminous collection of fascinating stories, and strong encouragement for someone like me, a person with wildly varied interests, but who cannot claim to be a scientist or specialist in most things.  Our view of nature nowadays owes so much to the tenacity and inventiveness of Humboldlt, and Wulf has made a proper, highly readable book of it.

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections - copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections – copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer