carl sagan

Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.


So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.




Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – First Episode Review

Whoa, folks. I’ve just returned from a special pre-screening of the new Cosmos reboot (to air this Sunday at 9/8 central on FOX…and 9 other networks), and was really blown away. I’m a huge fan of the original series and was worried it wouldn’t live up, but based on what I’ve seen tonight, it stands a good chance.

First, the visuals are stunning. I imagine it’s a little like what watching the original Cosmos was like (which at the time had groundbreaking special effects). I was lucky enough to see it the big screen at a planetarium, which made it that much more impressive. The show’s host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, also delivers. He’s got just the right type of presence – cool, knowledgeable, in love with science – a great guy to show you around the universe. As for the science, at least in the first episode it’s pretty well known stuff – they don’t spend a great deal of time on explanation, but maybe that will come in later episodes as the first was a general tour of what the series will be about. Then again, the pacing is perfect, so maybe less specific or detailed explanation is a bonus. The episode moved from one astounding thing to the next, and I never felt bored or like I was watching NOVA (which I love, by the way, but is a different tone than what Cosmos needs). The music is also terrific, but there’s no memorable riff like Vangelis provided – at least not that I recall. But several things are back from the original, including verbatim quotes (e.g. “we are all made of starstuff”), the ship of the imagination, and the cosmic calendar. The animations – which I was initially concerned about – are very well done, and the first episode flashbacks focus on the life of Giordano Bruno and his persecution by the Catholic Church (by the way, if anyone noticed what looked like Jesus rising up toward heaven in the trailer…it’s actually Bruno…which makes much more sense).

My favorite part of the episode is near the end, when Neil gives a brief, personal tribute to Sagan. The two first met when Neil was an unknown 17 year old from the Bronx – Carl was kind enough to invite Neil to come up to Cornell to tour his lab, and spent an entire Saturday with him, inscribing a signed copy of one of his books, and even driving Neil to the bus stop and giving him his home number in case he had any trouble getting home. Neil gives a great line, something like “When I was touring Ithaca, I had some idea I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I also came away knowing what type of man I wanted to be.” The tribute features some old footage of Carl, and it’s quite stirring – I actually got a little choked up.

The two friends I came with – who had never seen the original – were also impressed. They seemed mesmerized by the size of the universe and the cosmic calendar – the exact reaction I’m hoping millions of people around the country will have.

Here are a few photos from the event – it was happening live in a few other cities across the U.S., and Neil, Ann Druyan, and Seth MacFarlane also sat for a Q&A after the screening (which I wasn’t able to stay for but you can view here).

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

Cosmos about to play on the big screen at the UT-Arlington Planetarium.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT - Arlington.

The line stretching out the door for the Cosmos Premiere at UT – Arlington.

Sagan’s Cosmos = Classical | Tyson’s Cosmos = Rock and Roll

Over the weekend, Fox released a teaser trailer for its upcoming Cosmos revamp featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’m an enormous fan of Carl Sagan’s original version (you can watch it on Netflix), and have been salivating over the prospect of an updated version since I heard the news about a year ago.

I’ve now watched the trailer probably 15 times (I know) and could not be more excited for its release in February 2014. The original inspired an entire generation, opening up the wonders of the Universe and of science in a distinctly human, poetic way. Tyson’s style is obviously very different than Sagan, more rock and roll than classical, but if anyone can carry on Sagan’s legacy it’s him.

Have a look at the new trailer below, and the original series trailer below that. Then get excited.

Texas, abortion, and the greatly missed level-head of Carl Sagan

Texas’ senate just passed a bill to ban all abortions prior to the 20th week of pregnancy, approximately four weeks earlier than the guideline set by Roe v. Wade. The bill gained momentum largely by way of a disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain as early as 20 weeks (see article on controversy here). Among other consequences, the new law, which requires a facility upgrade for clinics not meeting outlined surgical standards, will effectively shut down all but a few abortion clinics in the state (a state, by the way, with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country).

The bill has created quite an outburst across Texas and the U.S., with Senator Wendy Davis emerging as the outspoken hero of the “pro-choice” movement (she successfully thwarted the the bill’s first attempt at passage during a 13 hour filibuster).

All the hullabaloo prompted me to revisit Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1990 article in Parade Magazine, “Abortion: Is it possible to be both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’?”, which is still the most thoughtful, level-headed discussion of the issue I have encountered. After reading, you may begin to see why defining the ability to feel pain as the metric for fetus viability stands on quite shaky moral ground.

I’ve reproduced the first paragraph here:

“The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed . . . ”


A family photo from space – Cassini to snap Earth’s picture on July 19th

You might be familiar with Carolyn Porco’s 2007 TED talk, in which she introduced the world to some truly breathtaking photos taken from the Cassini robot spacecraft (launched in 2007). Well, Cassini is still up there, and on July 19th (from 4:27pm-4:42pm CST), it will be snapping another high-res photo of Saturn that is once again expected to feature earth in the backdrop, though this time in natural color. This will be the first time in history the people of Earth have known in advance their picture is being taken by a spacecraft millions and millions of miles away.

To celebrate, Porco and the Cassini team are encouraging people to spend a few moments outside during the actual photo time (you can look that up for your local area here) to reflect on and celebrate our existence, and to maybe even smile or wave for the camera. The event is officially titled, The Day the Earth Smiled.

For a very brief history of seeing our “pale blue dot” from space, and the impact that can have on our perspectives, see Robert Krulwich’s recent blog post highlighting several famous pictures here. And please don’t miss this –

The Nature of Evidence: Science vs. Religion

Lawrence Krauss has a new op-ed in the LA Times criticizing the Catholic Church’s loose definition of what constitutes evidence. As you probably know, being named a saint requires the sufficient demonstration of at least two miracles, and the late Pope John Paul II recently met this requirement by “curing” a woman in Costa Rica in 2011 (of what, the article does not say). A panel of doctors ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

The problem, as Krauss notes, is that inexplicable remissions happen in medicine somewhat frequently. Are all of these miracles, or is it more likely there is still some aspect of these diseases we still do not adequately understand (remember that medicine, despite the authoritative white lab coats worn by its practitioners, is a relatively recent discipline just now finding its footing as a science)? The Catholic Church is all too ready to declare instances like this “miraculous” without ever considering the more likely alternatives. This stands in direct contrast to the scientific ethos, which gives as much attention to trying to prove ideas wrong as it does to trying to prove them right.

In the mid 1800s, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France. Millions have since visited that site in hopes of being cured of their ailments, physical or otherwise. The Catholic Church has kept records of any claimed cures in Lourdes, and more than 60 have been ruled “miraculous”. Of course, it’s not difficult to compare this figure to the number of visitors to the site, year in and year out, and to compare that figure to the average spontaneous remission rate in most cancers and popular diseases. Unfortunately for the church, the latter number is actually higher – meaning, essentially, people who don’t visit Lourdes actually have a higher chance of spontaneous cure than those who do.

Between standards of evidence, there is probably no wider gap than that between the Vatican and science. Claims of miracles are not trivial – if true, they would indeed point to a higher power, and of something beyond our everyday experience. Therein lies the importance of being skeptical, of not settling for substandard evidence in the form of personal testimony or “God of the gaps” arguments (ie. we can’t explain it – therefore, God). As Carl Sagan summarized so well, we have to be careful not to yield to personal preferences in our search for truth, and acknowledge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Krauss’ Full Article Available Here: Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles – July 7, 2013 – LA Times