09 Sep How Science Must Save Itself
I had a dream a few nights ago that was striking in its message.
In the dream, I was a veterinarian. I was about to see an important patient, a dog, and I was reviewing some information about him. He was at least twenty years old, and very sick. I planned to give him a shot as well as a bath. That was standard procedure.
But when his owners carried him into the office, my heart melted. I took this old, weak dog into my arms and put him on the floor. I did not want to give him a shot or a bath, I wasn’t sure he could withstand either of those. This dog required something different.
I got down next to him to examine him, and when I did I saw that his elbows were damaged. As soon as I noticed this, he spoke to me. “My name is Science,” he told me, “My elbows hurt. But when I vibrate my hands, they feel better.” He demonstrated this by shaking his paws in artful ways — they seemed like the way a virtuoso ballerina or piano player would move her hands. As he shook his paws, I saw the muscles and skin on his elbows relax.
For awhile I was stymied by the meaning of the dream. Then after a few conversations about it, I realized it’s simple. Science requires flexibility to be healthy. What can help science maintain its flexibility is to treat it compassionately and listen to its own prescription for itself, which is for scientists to do artful work that shakes things up and restores the flexibility that is inherent in the scientific process.
Science, like all systems of thought, has gone through periods during which it becomes rigid. In these times, reliance on dogma and what we already know outpaces reliance on the scientific method and the discovery of what we don’t yet know.
During these times, which I believe to include the present era in science, it is critical to remember that the essence of science is not a series of facts, but instead a process. What makes the scientific method so beautiful and democratic is that if something is reliably observed, it must be explained whether it suits dogma or not. This is also the very gem that can easily be ignored once scientists begin to focus on results rather than the process that brings those results to light.
What is rigidifying science right now is current dominant focus on getting grants and papers published, as well as the very real concerns most young scientists have about making sure they do work that will get them a job rather than reveal deep truths. As a result, it seems that the artful use of process itself is rare.
A parallel example is the relationship between mysticism and religion. Mysticism can be considered a process of receiving information about spiritual and moral truths. But any religion that attempts to carry on without mysticism becomes rigid and dead.
Why is this? Why should lack of focus on the process and over-awareness of products kill any venture aimed at finding truth? Because truth is always being revealed. We are never done being surprised by more truths. If we stop looking, if we stop using the scientific method because we think we have “enough” truth, or if we have a “basic” understanding of the natural laws, then we will miss out on what we could know.
The artful use of our paws — shaking things up, hoping to be proven wrong, working towards falsifying our own biases — this is how science must save itself.
What’s most beautiful to me about my dying-dog dream is what made me fall in love with science in the first place: Science itself knows the way to heal. Within the process of the scientific method…inspiration, observation, testing, replication, sharing…we have all the keys to remembering our ignorance. We can use science’s own prescription to restore the flexibility of mind we need to make the next scientific revolution a giant step towards truth.