Health&Science: Embracing An Imperfect Science
Published: Monday, February 11, 2013
Updated: Monday, February 11, 2013 00:02
The word “science” freaks some people out, but your last name doesn’t have to be “Nye” to recognize that the Earth revolves around the Sun, washing your hands prevents diseases, and that black stuff growing in your eight-man bathroom is actually a family of microscopic critters–cute, right? But as early as 100 years ago, not all of these facts were obvious to the common man, or any man for that matter.
Doctors used to perform surgeries directly after conducting autopsies on diseased corpses–without washing their hands. Despite centuries and centuries of astronomical observation, it wasn’t until the 1500s that someone suggested the Earth isn’t the center of the universe. At the time of BC’s founding, people still thought that house flies spontaneously grew out of garbage.
Sitting on the shoulders of giants, it is easy for us to laugh at the ignorance of past men. We’ve been bred since birth to wash our hands after using the bathroom, and how many times have we heard, “The world doesn’t revolve around you!” Certainly, however, the end of scientific knowledge extends past the question of how best to practice basic hygiene.
There are certain things we know we don’t know–for instance, there is a bounty of undiscovered knowledge pertaining to outer space. Other hot areas of research: sleep, gravity, and magnets–how do they work?! The real question, and also the question we don’t have the answer to, has to do with what we think we know but really don’t.
In the history of science, many discoveries were made accidentally or by chance. Take, for example, the discovery of penicillin–the first antibiotic to be isolated in a laboratory setting. If a Petri dish containing the bacteria that causes Staph infections had not been accidentally left uncovered, a patch of mold that secreted the “miracle drug” may not have grown on it and we might still suffer from diseases like typhoid fever that used to claim the lives of thousands every year.
Another classic story told in every middle school science class is how Sir Isaac Newton was hit on the head by a falling apple and had an epiphany. The end product of this was the Law of Gravity, a mathematical relationship between the sizes of two objects, the distance between them, and the speed at which they gravitate toward each other. People had known since the beginning of time that things fall downward, but it took a fruity blow to the head—not exactly standard scientific protocol—to realize that there is a science behind it.
I am not advocating against the use of the scientific method. It is a tried and true system for answering the many, many questions of mankind. If we spent all day sitting under apple trees waiting to have an epiphany, then the rate of scientific discovery would stagnate faster than AOL’s monthly revenues after the introduction of high-speed internet. What I am advocating for, however, is an open mind and a healthy skepticism of what we believe to be true.
Just as we go to doctors for medical advice when we are sick, we go to professors when we are curious about an academic area of interest. Similarly, just as a doctor can misdiagnose a patient, a professor can be wrong in the course of his or her teaching. The philosopher Rene Descartes rejected anything as true that he could not know without any grain of doubt, as should we.
We make certain assumptions for the sake of further learning—can you imagine trying to study chemistry without accepting atomic theory as true?—but keep in mind the fact that these assumptions are not set in stone, and that the assumptions our grandparents were taught to make are not necessarily the same ones we make today. Simply put, the world as it is not quite the world as we see it, and we ought to be mindful of this.
By virtue of knowledge, we are inclined to believe that everything we know is the truth, but by virtue of the truth, we cannot know more than that which we have for ourselves discovered. We live in a dynamic world–there are constants, and there are plenty of variables. Our job is to seek out the constants, and to define the variables in terms of truths that we really do know. So be skeptical, prove your professors wrong, and keep your eyes peeled for an apple falling your way.