What do you call someone who believes that from the simplest molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen there arose by pure random chance, four billion years ago, a replicating entity that could be plausibly defined as alive? What do you call a person who believes that this creature or creatures like it eventually evolved into the amazing diversity of organisms that we see on our planet today? What do you call a person who marvels that this process of biological change has allowed the emergence of a creature that is sentient, that can study the universe in stunning detail, that can create models of the distant past and distant future, that can inject into the world images and sounds and ideas of surpassing beauty? You call such a person a skeptic. A skeptic, in today's society, is someone who accepts the scientific theory of our origins and of nature—even though there are innumerable competing ideas involving spirits, demons, UFO aliens, exploded planets, the Face on Mars, untapped psychic powers, shadow governments, time travelers and various kinds of "new physics". For a journalist who ventures forth into modern society it is a challenge to sort what is real from what is merely reassuring. There is a profusion of what can be called Bad Information. But there are things that can be done to combat Bad Information and make the scientific version of reality more palatable to a society starved for deeper truths.
Joel Achenbach is a staff writer of The Washington Post. He's the author of three books based on his nationally syndicated column, "Why Things Are," which ran from 1988 to 1996. He now covers a range of subjects, from politics to science. He is in the final stages of a book for Simon & Schuster, to be published in November 1999, about the cultural and scientific fascination with extraterrestrial life. Achenbach graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1982 and worked at The Miami Herald for eight years prior to joining The Post. Since 1991 he has been an occasional commentator on NPR's "Morning Edition". He and his wife Mary have three daughters and reside in the District.
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