Sunday, September 13, 2009

Skeptics and Norman Borlaug

I’m preparing to head off to a pro-science “skeptics” brunch — the Lucky Thirteen Club, run by Danny Korostyshevsky the 13th of each month — and I just hours ago received word of a blow to the scientific world. Dr. Norman Borlaug, the agricultural scientist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) credited with saving a billion lives, passed away yesterday. He was also a trustee of the American Council on Science and Health, the little science-promoting non-profit where I work, so expect to hear more about him on the organization’s site this week.

My hopes on this sad occasion are scientific and secular ones, such as the wish that anti-biotech activists (who have saved no lives but have imperiled many) will stop denouncing Borlaug (just as I wish anti-market activists would stop trashing the late Milton Friedman, the only other Nobelist who ever told me to keep up the good work). Nonetheless, now might be a good time to mention the fact that I have a favorite prayer, not a terribly surprising or original choice.

The Serenity Prayer (not to be confused with the anxiety-inducing mantra “serenity now!”) was likely written by Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian and grandfather of Times culture editor Sam Sifton). Its advice is so rational (after that first syllable starting with “G”) that even Ayn Rand praised it (and my paternal grandmother, who is still with us at roughly Borlaug’s age, used to keep it hanging in her kitchen in New Hampshire):

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference

It’s not a bad summary of a properly integrated conservative, progressive, and skeptical worldview, really. We can’t change the physical laws of the universe, for instance, nor the laws of economics — but people like Borlaug show you are even more likely to accomplish amazing, world-altering things if you understand the scientific and economic constraints within which we operate.

The Lucky Thirteen club, I take it, focuses on spotting and overcoming one’s own superstitious thinking (not just religion per se), the seemingly-helpful heuristics for thought that turn out not to make sense upon closer examination. Some we need, some simply hurt us, and we may not sort them as easily as we think we do. (The desire to sort what works from what doesn’t through some method other than one individual’s intuitions and gut instincts is the best justification for ongoing filter mechanisms ranging from scientific debate to tradition to markets to the multiple-floating-countries “seasteading” plan being discussed in a few weeks at that conference in San Francisco Bay I’ve mentioned.) You can accomplish a great deal — and generate great ideas — starting with some measure of intellectual humility and discipline.

P.S. The more complex the situation, the more cautious we must be about mistaking simple heuristics for the full story — something skeptical-yet-ideological folk like me should keep in mind at tomorrow night’s 8pm Objectivist gathering at NYU to hear Yaron Brook and John Allison try to explain the financial crisis.

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