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Don Pettit: There is much yet to learn

The beauty and power of science is that it does not have all the answers

donI often think of the warning given by planetary scientist, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and famous broadcaster Carl Sagan. Paraphrasing, Sagan said there is nothing more dangerous than an advanced scientific technological civilization inhabited by a population that knows little or nothing about science or technology. He called it a recipe for disaster. I see it playing out around me every day.

My worry increases when I see more and more people getting all of their information from a social media network that seems designed to amplify misinformation, valuing click rates and profit above truth. The more sensational, the more outrageous the post, the more it spreads. Facts be damned!

I worry when I realize that most people no longer read or write anything longer than a text or a tweet, while science and technology, the issues they create and the answers they provide, are complex. The tendency is to replace the depth required for real understanding with spoon-fed conspiracy theories.

It's all in your pocket

Part of the problem is that we are all now walking around with a super computer in our pocket or purse. This super computer — your phone — promises what now amounts to infinite information, infinite music, infinite videos, and infinite communication anywhere on the planet. In fact, unlimited everything, always at our fingertips.

This encourages the feeling that because we can Google any answer to any question at any time, we already know everything and therefore don’t have to learn anymore. This actually turns off curiosity and the desire to actually learn something new. Why bother when it’s all in my pocket just a swipe away?

And then there are the algorithms tracking our every move, our every click, our every purchase, feeding us more and more of what we “like” and less and less of what we don’t. The result? We are more and more insulated from new information, and become more and more reinforced in our own beliefs and opinions, often mistaking opinion for truth. Witness the divisiveness growing around you, day by day.

Because of this, our powerful global communications systems are driving us apart, not bringing us together as promised. Sure, there are wonderful ways of using this tech to organize people around important causes, and to spread real info too, but the technology itself, as it is set up today, seldom does.

Science inspires

The beauty and power of science is that it does not have all the answers. In fact, that principle is a cornerstone of scientific inquiry: knowledge evolves as we move closer and closer to a better understanding. Without that guiding principle, knowledge would become static, locked in, and would quickly become dogma.

Science, when coupled with curiosity, gives us much more than infinite knowledge or unlimited facts. It gives us perspective. It inspires awe and wonder. It helps us appreciate what we have, right now, right here in front of us, without always scrambling for the unlimited “more.”

Back to Sagan from his famous 1980 book and video series Cosmos:

“Welcome to the planet Earth – a place of blue nitrogen skies, oceans of liquid water, cool forests and soft meadows, a world positively rippling with life. In the cosmic perspective it is, as I have said, poignantly beautiful and rare; but it is also, for the moment, unique. In all our journeying through space and time, it is, so far, the only world of which we know with certainty that the matter of the Cosmos has become alive and aware. There must be many such worlds scattered through space, but our search for them begins here, with the accumulated wisdom of the men and women of our species, garnered at great cost over a million years. We are privileged to live among brilliant ant passionately inquisitive people, and at a time when the search for knowledge is generally prized. Human beings, born ultimately of the stars and now for a while inhabiting a world called Earth, have begun their long voyage home.

“…WE speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Put down your phone for a while. Be curious, read a bit more. There is much yet to learn.

Don Pettit is a community columnist living in Dawson Creek and Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.

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