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January 30, 2009

Experimentation

Dr. Carl Sagan

There are many hypotheses of brilliance and elegance that have been rejected because they did not survive a confrontation with experiment. The human condition would be greatly improved if such confrontations and willingness to reject hypotheses were a regular part of our social, political, economic, religious, and cultural lives.

  --  Dr. Carl Sagan

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

CompassionRise sometimes has a tone of certainty. In our articles we sometimes use the word "must" -- as in "Nature v. Nurture" we wrote:

A hopeful perspective is in itself valuable, but we must test it and follow our experiments and research to practical results, with an honest desire for greater good and an open mind about how it may be achieved.

In "Ignorance and Real Peace" we wrote:

Defeating ignorance to make peace means we must drain the swamps of prejudice, assumption, and misunderstanding. We must find facts to demystify disagreements. Where ignorance remains there is an equal instability in peace.

In "The Great Responsibility" we wrote:

With the scientific method, there are answers  -- theories and lessons, policy recommendations, productive results -- but the answers must remain open to improvement.

A scientist claiming to have found an absolute, definite answer has violated the scientific method.

That is the line we walk with compassion and science: the certainty we have is: uncertainty. We offer some conclusive prescriptions for a more compassionate life and a more compassionate world, while we also embrace challenges, debates, and improvements to our conclusions. If you have research which disputes a conclusion of ours, then that is not a threat to us. We would welcome it and weigh it against comparable research, to improve our conclusions or possibly replace them.

Unlike a religion, we do not believe our conclusions, we offer them as our best understanding and we expect to know better in the future. In the article "Science and Humility" we wrote:

Jacob Bronowski wrote that science is "not a mechanism but a human progress, and not a set of findings but a search for them." The ideals of the scientific method can guide not only productive experiments, but also the ethical struggles in our daily lives. We must detach ourselves from our assumptions, our opinions, and our conclusions.

Some say science is devoid of compassion, but science and compassion are two expressions of the same idea. A more scientific approach, from personal ethics to civil society, is our most universal, rational, and practical means to the end of greater honesty, openness, and humility.

In his scientifically casual but socially serious book The Dragons of Eden -- Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, popular scientist Carl Sagan defined reason, which we equate for this purpose to science and compassion:

"Reason: a courageous working through of the world as it really is."

Doing the right thing requires humility and courage and hard work, whatever your word for it -- reason, science, compassion. We are not compassionate for the sake of compassion -- we are not compassionate because we believe it is right, we are compassionate because we have learned it is better. Compassion includes its own improvement; it is not perfect, and we continue to seek better still.

In closing "The Dragons of Eden," Sagan also quotes Jacob Bronowski:

We are a scientific civilization. That means a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. Science is only a Latin word for knowledge. .... Knowledge is our destiny.

Here Bronowski refers to knowledge, but not in the sense of unquestionable fact, instead in the general sense of knowing. That is the integrity of our knowledge -- that it can withstand infinite question.

Compassion is like wisdom; to be wise is not to know.