I’m addicted to MasterClass.
You know how cooking shows can be entertaining even if you’re a terrible cook and you’re never going to prepare anything they’re showing?
MasterClass lessons are sort of like that. I know next to nothing about sales, hostage negotiations, wine appreciation, space travel or astrophysics, but the classes entertain and fascinate me.
In astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s MasterClass Scientific Thinking and Communication, you get to learn about cool stuff such as leap seconds (we’ve had 27 since 1972), the precise shape of the Earth (oblate spheroid, somewhat like a pear), and how planets are discovered.
Beyond such facts, though, the class is about human thought and the vital role of scientific thinking on human progress, sound decision-making, and perspective-taking.
Here are some quotes that got me pondering.
“The urge to feel special knows no bounds.”
“The cosmic perspective undoes this urge to feel special but it undoes it in a way that rebuilds it better than it was before.”
“The cosmic perspective teaches you that you’re special not for being different from everyone else but for being the same.”
There’s nothing wrong with feeling special. After all, not even identical twins are exactly alike. The combination of genes and environment makes for infinite possibilities. The problem is when being special is framed only in terms of how we’re different and unique, and when uniqueness leads us to think of ourselves and those like us as better than. This thinking is at the root of the human tribal mentality and the tendency of groups of people to dehumanize other groups.
The cosmic perspective frames being special in terms of how all humans (and all living creatures!) are alike and what’s common among us.
We’re all the product of cosmic events. We’re all made of stardust.
“Nature is the ultimate judge, jury and executioner. You can argue all you want but if nature doesn’t agree with you, you’re wrong. Whatever bias you’re bringing to the table, nature will decide.”
Nature is one of the only forces that doesn’t fail to humble us. Both in their beauty and wrath, natural phenomena have the power to elevate and terrify us. A magnificent sunset, a perfect ocean wave, a ravaging hurricane, or an unstoppable avalanche — they produce awe and remind us that our power and knowledge are limited.
Nature is an entity that proves us wrong. We obstinately argue against its truths at times. Think of Galileo, considered a heretic and persecuted by the Catholic Church for contradicting the Bible. Eventually, Galileo was proven right. Nature decides and prevails and is more powerful than any religious or political institution created by humankind. We should never bet against it!
“The day you stop making mistakes is the day you can be pretty sure you are no longer in the frontier.”
Though deGrasse speaks of the “moving frontier of science,” the same applies to any frontier of human endeavor. Olympic world records, for instance, are broken at every Olympics because those at the frontier of sports keep trying new techniques and finding better ways to train.
In the process of expanding any frontier, we necessarily make mistakes because we can’t know exactly what will move the frontier further afield.
New knowledge lies at the edge of the frontier. Only those willing to make mistakes can be on the frontier long enough to expand it.
“Search engines on the internet are the epitome of confirmation bias.”
“Confirmation bias: the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.”
We are all subject to cognitive biases, confirmation bias being one of the most common. We actively seek to read, watch and listen to information that confirms our beliefs, and discard conflicting evidence that lands on our laps.
No one who’s convinced climate change is real would Google the following: “Proof that climate change is unrelated to human activity.”
Even if you wanted to be neutral in the wording of your search, the algorithm will favor the types of results you have clicked on in the past! Such results will obviously favor your existing beliefs. Search engines rely on and intensify our biases. I, for one, find this deeply troubling.
“If you want to get closer to objective truths, you have to be able to say to yourself, ‘I was wrong.’”
It’s so hard to do. We hold on to our beliefs for dear life and are drawn to people who speak with a sense of certainty.
Beware of anyone who never admits to making a mistake and who always blames others for anything that happens within their specific area of influence.
Such an individual isn’t interested in the truth.
“If someone keeps repeating something to you, chances are they want you to believe it without analysis, without judgment.”
This is not always the case of course, though it often is when it comes to politicians or anyone trying to manipulate.
“Climate change is real.” “Climate change is a hoax.” We hear opposing statements such as these over and over. One clue as to which is more likely to be false or true is whether those making the statement are asking you to believe it just because they say so, or by providing scientific evidence that has been replicated, peer-reviewed, and on which scientific consensus exists.
“Writing is the ultimate form of communication because it passes through time. You can talk to someone 100 years from now when they read your writing.”
As a writer, of course I love this quote. It makes writing sound like time travel!
You just never know who’ll come across something you wrote way after you’re gone, and if you’ll get people in the distant future to change, do or understand something because of what you wrote a century ago.
“A theory is the highest level of understanding we have of anything in this world. It explains what we know has already happened, gives us an understanding of what is happening, and gives predictive power of things that have yet to happen.”
Whoa. Isn’t that something? A scientific theory must apply to the past, present and future. Now that’s a cosmic perspective.
It’s no small thing for a scientific proposition to become a theory. Take the Theory of Evolution. It explains the diversity of living forms, why species die out and change, and gives us a notion of which species may adapt to or survive environmental changes.
“What is wisdom after all? It’s the distilled essence of knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”
Wisdom, in adults, comes from the ability to analyze — deeply, honestly and humbly — accumulated knowledge and experience.
Wisdom requires a cosmic perspective, one that teaches that:
“You’re special not for being different from everyone else, but for being the same.”
🎧 YouTube link, for those who like to watch and listen.