Arthur C Clarke tribute: Science’s critical cheerleader

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My guest editorial on the late Sir Arthur C Clarke has just been published by the London-based Science and Development Network, SciDev.Net:

Arthur C Clarke: Science’s critical cheerleader

In this, I briefly comment on Sir Arthur’s accomplishments in popular science communication and his life-long crusade against pseudo-science — two important facets of the multi-faceted author, science populariser and underwater explorer who died on 19 March 2008.

Excerpts:

“Clarke’s forte was not only extrapolating about humanity’s technological abilities, but also exploring the nexus between science and society. With his death, science has lost an articulate and passionate promoter who challenged scientists to play a greater role in public policy and demanded that political leaders should take science seriously.

“But he was never an uncritical cheerleader for science, and that will be part of his enduring legacy. In an essay in Science, he cautioned, ‘For more than a century science and its occasionally ugly sister technology have been the chief driving forces shaping our world. They decide the kinds of futures that are possible. Human wisdom must decide which are desirable.'”

In my essay, I talk about how Sir Arthur readily took on a formidable array of anti-science beliefs and superstitious practices, from creationism and scientology to astrology and fire-walking. In these endeavours he joined other campaigners against pseudoscience, including scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and the magician James Randi.

“For a while, Clarke even made a modest living as a professional sceptical enquirer. Beginning with Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), he hosted three television series that probed – and sometimes exposed – numerous mysteries, superstitions and the paranormal.

“Even when Clarke didn’t find full explanations, he invariably demonstrated the value of keeping an open mind and asking the right questions. And instead of ignoring or dismissing popular obsessions, he tried engaging their proponents in rational discussion. That was characteristic of Clarke, a genial moderator who always sought to build bridges — whether between scientists and the public, or across the “two cultures” divide between the arts and the sciences.”

In all, Sir Arthur hosted three TV series over 15 years:
Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980)
Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985)
Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994)

These series had numerous re-runs for years on Discovery and other TV channels all over the world. They are still available on DVD. While some of the content is now dated by more information or insights emerging since their production, the series still inspires critical thinking – not to mention TV emulations that come out with many more frills than was possible in the 1980s.

Watch the opening of the first series, where Sir Arthur offered his own classification of mysteries (9 mins 21 secs):

Sir Arthur filmed all his pieces to camera from different, scenic locations in his adopted home in Sri Lanka. Few Sri Lankans realised at the time that this generated millions of dollars worth of free promotion for the country as a tourist destination.

In fact, I end my editorial by looking at Arthur C Clarke the public intellectual in Sri Lanka, where he lived since 1956. I look at how he won some battles with rational arguments while lost others (e.g. Sri Lankan obsession with astrology). This is clearly a subject I will return to in greater depth and analysis in the coming months.

In the modest cough department, I am immensely proud of how I sign off on this editorial:
Arthur C. Clarke mentored Sri Lankan journalist Nalaka Gunawardene and they worked together for 20 years.

SciDev.Net – the Science and Development Network – is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing reliable and authoritative information about science and technology for the developing world. Through http://www.scidev.net, it gives policymakers, researchers, the media and civil society information and a platform to explore how science and technology can reduce poverty, improve health and raise standards of living around the world. SciDev.Net is co-sponsored by the leading journals Nature and Science.

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