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Finding Awe, Reverence, and Wonder in Science


Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 23.2, March / April 1999

The central challenge addressed in Richard Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow is the perception among many that science somehow diminishes our appreciation of the world. It is a problem all who attempt to explain science to the wider public must sometime face, and noted thinkers like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner all have written about it. In 1995, Dawkins, the noted Oxford zoologist and evolutionist (and CSICOP Fellow), became the first Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford. In this book he faces these wider issues, which go far beyond evolutionary biology but are still enriched and informed by Dawkins’s intimate familiarity with that subject. His title is from Keats, who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to its prismatic colors.

Dawkins quickly lays that particular complaint to rest by showing how Newton’s optics led to spectroscopy which led to measurement of emission and absorption line spectra and thereby to direct understanding of the nature and characteristics of stars-their size, luminosity, history, and future (“Barcodes of the Stars”)-and then to our wider understanding of the cosmos.

“Newton’s dissection of the rainbow into light of different wavelengths led onto Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and thence to Einstein’s theory of special relativity,” notes Dawkins, adding: “If you think the rainbow has poetic mystery, you should try relativity.” All from a little “unweaving of the rainbow.” And nothing about it need diminish our astonishment and appreciation of the beauty of a rainbow arcing across the rain-darkened sky.

The positive message throughout is that the impulses to awe, reverence, and wonder that led the poet William Blake to mysticism (and lesser figures to paranormal superstition) are “precisely those that lead others of us to science. Our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same.” The scientist has the same wonder, the same sense of the profound, as the mystic, but with an additional impulse: let’s find out what we can about it. (Skeptical Inquirer readers got a teaser of some of the book’s arguments in Dawkins’s article “Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder,” March/April 1998.)

Dawkins argues that while poets might well seek inspiration from science, science should reach out to wider constituencies among poets, artists, and all others who share some of the same impulses.

He doesn't argue that scientists should attempt to write poetically, unless like Sagan or Loren Eiseley they have unique skills in that area. Simple clarity will do. Says Dawkins: “The poetry is in the science.”

Along the way, Dawkins examines superstition and gullibility, lamenting how people can find the “meaningless pap” of astrology appealing, in the face of the real universe as revealed by astronomy. He suggests that grouping people according to which of only 12 mythic signs they were born under is “a form of discriminatory labeling rather like the cultural stereotypes that many of us nowadays find objectionable.” He regrets that we are “in the grip of a near epidemic of paranormal propaganda on television.” He recalls Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, “that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and thoughtfully considers, “How are we to know when skepticism is justified, and when it is dogmatic, intolerant short-sightedness?” He refers to a “spectrum of improbabilities” and suggests ways to think about how to evaluate an amazing or miraculous story.

the blind watchmaker

Abetted by the media, astrology, paranormalism, and alien visitations have an inside track on the public consciousness, Dawkins notes, but there may be paradoxical grounds for encouragement in the realization that at least some of this tendency exploits “our natural and laudable appetite for wonder.” This wonder, given proper access, can be fulfilled just as well by science and the real wonders of nature.

In one chapter, “Unweaving the Uncanny,” Dawkins shows how to “take the sting out of seemingly astonishing coincidence by quietly sitting down and calculating the likelihood that it would have happened anyway.” He invents a term he calls PETWHAC, for Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental, useful in evaluating how probable improbable-seeming events actually are, liberating us from a need to invoke occult forces. He offers a number of fresh examples, such as when his wife bought her mother an antique watch and she got it home and peeled off the label to find revealed her mother’s initials, “M.A.B.” “Uncanny?” Dawkins asks. He does the calculation based on frequencies of names in phone directories and finds that if everyone in Britain bought an antique engraved watch, 3,000 of them would find their mother’s initials on it.

Seeking to understand how we are so strongly impressed by coincidences, Dawkins turns to his Darwinian roots. Like all other creatures, humans must behave as intuitive statisticians. We need to steer between false positive and false negative errors according to which offer the greater penalty in a given situation. Furthermore, our willingness to be impressed by uncanny coincidence was influenced by the smaller population size of our ancestors and the relative sameness of their everyday experience, leading us to expect a very modest level of coincidence. Yet today we are immersed in a giant global media culture and our access to stories of all kind is multiplied many times compared with that of our small-village ancestors. This means, says Dawkins, that the number of opportunities for coincidence is greater for each one of us than it would have been for our ancestors, and consequently greater than our brains are calibrated to assess. Theoretically, we can learn to recalibrate ourselves, but that is “revealingly difficult even for sophisticated scientists and mathematicians.”

There is much else in Dawkins’s purview. He writes about DNA fingerprinting (a bit hard-going, I must admit). He offers chapters on not just good poetic science, where helpful analogies and metaphors stimulate the imagination, but also on the danger of “bad poetic science,” the power of poetic imagery to inspire bad science, even if it is good poetry. Included here are Teilhard de Chardin’s “euphoristic prose poetry” and also the notorious fondness of mystics for “energy” and “vibrations,” technical terms creating the illusion of scientific content where there is no content of any kind. Quantum uncertainty has provoked its share of bad poetic science too, as has the postmodernist movement in academia and even, surprisingly, Dawkins’s own field of evolutionary theory. Dawkins considers his own concept of the “selfish gene” good poetic science that aids understanding rather than impedes it but says it is susceptible to being misunderstood by bad poetic science.

the selfish gene

Another chapter describes how there is a sense in which our DNA is a coded description of the worlds in which our ancestors survived. “And isn't it an arresting thought?” Dawkins asks. “We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this ancient library and die unsated by the wonder of it.” In a related sense, the brain of an individual houses a parallel set of models of the animal’s own world.

The final chapters deal with the wonderful machinery of perception. One example is how the nerve cells economize by registering only changes from moment to moment and ignoring the more common stasis-all the boring stuff. Computers are poor at recognizing patterns such as faces, but humans, through evolution, have become superb at these and other pattern-recognition abilities. We usually create fairly accurate models of the world but can also create illusions and concoct hallucinations when something goes just slightly awry. “A brain that is good at simulating models in imagination is also, almost inevitably, in danger of self-delusion,” Dawkins warns. When we see visions of angels, saints, or gods, they seem real because they must; they are models put together by the normal simulation software in the brain using the same modeling techniques that it ordinarily uses when presenting its continuously updated edition of reality.

Dawkins is one of the treasured few scientists today writing in depth about science and scientific processes for intelligent general readers whose works are simultaneously scientifically rich and provocative, accessible (although there is never a sense of being watered down), and successful. He brings a discerning critical intelligence and an impassioned concern in the hope that we will find science worthy of our own awe. At the same time by learning about our own genetic and environmental heritage and the workings of our brains we can learn how to be aware of our own capacities for self-delusion.

Kendrick Frazier

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.