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Every now and again you get a chance to think about what’s truly important to you. Regrettably, these chances will often arrive at moments of crisis, when your thinking tools are probably not at their finest.
Last night, however, I had an opportunity to reflect on my life priorities in a pleasant and relaxed setting. I was attending a lecture by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Directorate as the last installment of their 2008-2009 Distinguished Lecture Series. (And distinguished indeed it is. You can find out about this past season’s events at their website, http://www.union.wisc.edu/DLS/.)
The sponsoring committee (entirely student-run) used the occasion to poll the audience about what speakers they’d like to invite for next year’s series. I jotted down the family names of the people on the ballot:
While there are a lot of famous people on that list, you probably don’t recognize all the names; I sure didn’t. But among them are actors, astronauts, comedians, economists, feminists, government officials (current and past), humanitarians, journalists, lawyers, philosophers, politicians, scientists, and writers — a potpourri of intellectuals from across the spectrum — along with a 1-line summary of what they were most likely to talk about.
Choose 5. You’ve got about 10-15 minutes to review the list and pick your faves.
This isn’t a process that lends itself to detailed analysis, but neither are you being pressured into a snap decision. I fairly quickly picked my top 3, then spent some additional minutes dithering over who would get my last 2 votes. This is the list I finally came up with, in alphabetical order:
William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd president of the US
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist
Steven Pinker, evolutionary psycho-linguist
James Randi, magician and debunker of pseudoscience
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters
Not until after I’d made my choices did I recognize the pattern. While all of the speakers had considerable allure, and I would gladly have attended a lecture by almost any of them, my favorites were the ones who use the scientific method to describe how the world really works.
I surprised myself a bit with this. Yes, my background is in the sciences, but lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on politics. Thru my association with WisCon, I’ve developed a deep interest in feminist issues. And I’m absolutely addicted to Jon Stewart’s fake-news program on Comedy Central. But I passed up worthies like Fareed Zakaria, bell hooks, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Stewart in favor of the science geeks. (The exception, of course, was Bill Clinton, whose name was the 1st one I circled. I couldn’t really tell you why; I suppose it has something to do with Monica Lewinsky’s comment that “He’s an incredibly charismatic man.”.)
Anyway, this little “out of the blue” exercise gave me a chance to reflect on my priorities in life, and I guess I’m pretty happy with them.
Now I must go renew my subscription to Skeptical Inquirer.
PS: Dennett’s lecture was terrific!
PPS: If George W. Bush had been on the list, I would probably have voted for him, but for entirely different reasons than all the others.
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The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
-- George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer, 1856-1950