Portraits of Wildflowers

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The wild remains of wild onions

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There’s a little stretch along upper Bull Creek where wild onions (Allium canadense var. canadense) flourish. Though I didn’t go there this spring when they were fresh, I stopped by on June 25th and found that the upper parts of the dried plants had taken on some rather wild shapes. You’re looking at two of them.



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“Science and Civil Liberties: The Lost ACLU Lecture of Carl Sagan”

That’s the title of a July 1st article in Quillette by Steven Pinker and Harvey Silverglate. Steven Pinker is a psychologist, linguist, and best-selling author of many books, most recently Rationality: Why It Seems Scarce and Why It Matters. Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties litigator, as well as a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). His website says he has been “taking unpopular stances since 1967.”

In the Quillette article, those two have resurrected an “uncannily prescient” speech that astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) gave to the Illinois state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in around 1987. “Sagan spoke prophetically of the irrationality that plagued public discourse, the imperative of international cooperation, the dangers posed by advances in technology, and the threats to free speech and democracy in the United States.” Here’s a portion of what Carl Sagan said:

The conclusion is that we desperately need error-correcting mechanisms. We are fallible. We’re only human. We make mistakes. We have a set of new technologies that, in many cases, we barely know how to control. Those in charge pretend otherwise. The question is how do we make sure that the most serious sorts of errors do not occur?

Now there is another area of human activity that has to face the same issues, and that’s the area called science. Science has devised a set of rules of thinking, of analysis, which, although there are exceptions in individual cases (scientists being humans just like everybody else), nevertheless, on average, are responsible for the remarkable progress of science.

And you all know, certainly, what these rules are. Things like arguments from authority have little weight. Like contentions have to be demonstrable. Like experiments must be repeatable. Like vigorous substantive debate is encouraged and is considered the lifeblood of science. Like serious critical thinking and skepticism addressed to new and even old claims is not just permissible, but is encouraged, is desirable, is the lifeblood of science. There is a creative tension between openness to new ideas and rigorous skeptical scrutiny.

This set of habits of thought could also, in principle, contribute to the kind of error-correction mechanism that is desperately needed in the society that we are generating. In public affairs, this sort of error-correction machinery in our society is institutionalized in the Constitution. It’s institutionalized, first of all, in the separation of powers, and secondly, in the civil liberties, especially in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution: the Bill of Rights.

The founding fathers mistrusted government power, and they had very good reason to, as do we. This is why they tried to institutionalize the separation of powers, the right to think, the right to speak, to be heard, to assemble, to complain to the government about its abuses, to be able to vote or impeach malefactors out of office.


You can read Carl Sagan’s full speech in the Quillette article.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman







Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 4, 2022 at 4:26 AM

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