Wonder and Skepticism Part I: Where’s the Wonder?

In 1995, Carl Sagan published an essay titled “Wonder and Skepticism,” in which he described the push/pull of wonder and skepticism as the bedrocks of science.

Science involves a seemingly self‐contradictory mix of attitudes: On the one hand it requires an almost complete openness to all ideas, no matter how bizarre and weird they sound, a propensity to wonder. . . . But at the same time, science requires he most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way you can distinguish the right from the wrong, the wheat from the chaff, is by critical experiment and analysis. (pp. 29-30)

Parts of the essay almost seem that, despite his clear-headed arguments for critical analysis, Sagan might have made a good fortune-teller. His predictions for problems of our day are downright scary in their accuracy. So, it seems only wise to consider again his two-sided prescription: wonder and skepticism. Today I’d like to think about wonder.

Spring of 2020 has been a time unlike any other. We’ve had no shortage of things to wonder about: Which activities are safe? Which are not? How do we balance physical and emotional well-being? What are the kids going to do if it rains AGAIN? Which store still has flour? But those concerns are unlikely to lead to the kind of wonder that makes science happen, at least not unless we take them to another level. Scientific or creative wonder says, no matter what our current situation, the world—the universe for that matter—is an amazing and wonderful place. The more we open our eyes to the things around us, the more interesting and beautiful they become. Sagan described his first encounter with a book on astronomy, seeking to learn what stars might be.

It was stunning. The answer was that the Sun was a star, except very far away. The stars were suns; if you were close to them, they would look just like our sun. I tried to imagine how far away from the Sun you’d have to be for it to be as dim as a star. … I hadn’t a ghost of a chance of figuring it out. But it was clear to me that you’d have to be very far away. Farther away, probably, than New Jersey. The dazzling idea of a universe vast beyond imagining swept over me. It has stayed with me ever since. (p. 25)

I love the image of young Carl staring up at the stars, trying to imagine how impossibly far away they’d have to be in order to be as big as the sun. Farther than New Jersey, indeed! Helping young people find that sense of wonder in some aspect of the word is at the root of all kinds of creativity. For some young people, it will come when viewing a plant making its way to sunlight through concrete, or seemingly endless varieties of fish in an aquarium. For others it can be discovering beauty in language, abstract paintings, or the bravery of suffragettes. It can even be the realization that in this time of many problems, we can be among those who solve them. Wonder allows us to view the world with eyes of discovery and awe. It makes us want to learn and explore.

Wonder isn’t always as easy as it sounds. When faced with something new and strange, it is easy to respond with fear or distrust. For some young people, wonder requires pushing through the social norms of “too cool to care” to find their own place in the world. As I’ve thought about things we can do during this pandemic summer, I’m aware that our options are going to vary by time, place, and the vagaries of the virus. But wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing, I hope you’ll think about how you can open your own world to wonder, and share that with the young people in your path. Given my age and location, it seems I’ll be spending a lot of time close to home this year. Already, I’ve found that I’m viewing the growing things along the sidewalk where I walk with more interest. I’ve had the chance to stream musical and theatrical productions not normally available online. I’m even examining my garden with more care—how differently the various types of tomatoes are growing! We know that various types of constraints can spur creativity. Perhaps these temporary constraints on our space can help spur wonder. I’m going to work on it. How about you?

Sagan, C. (1995). Wonder and skepticism. Skeptical Enquirer, 19, 1, 24-30.


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