A letter about science

This is a letter I wrote to Cara Santa Maria, a science columnist at the Huffington Post. I thought it might be of some interest to readers of Forging Soul.

Cara,

I watched your talk with Joe Rogan and you’re obviously a very intelligent and articulate young woman. I disagree with your conclusions on some things, but I understand why you are where you’re at. I’d be willing to bet there is no way I could change your mind, and I have not read your writings so maybe I am off base here, but I would like you to consider something.

At no point in the development of science have humans been right about everything they thought they knew. It is unscientific, and in fact irrational, to believe that people 100 years from now will not look back on the science of today as not just incomplete but frighteningly naive, in some cases foolish and destructive.

The idea of bleeding people as a medical practice goes back to Hippocrates and was practiced into the 1900’s before being abandoned. Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who discovered that washing your hands after dissecting corpses, before you delivered babies saved lives…he ended his life in a mental institution and was ridiculed and ruined by his fellow physicians. You see, at the time there was no theoretical basis for accepting his finding–germ theory had not yet been developed.

The history of science is filled with examples like these.

Perhaps you think we’re somehow different now than we have been for every moment of our long human history. It’s a common enough belief. I’d ask you to be wary of this belief.

You’re young and smart. As you get older, I trust that you will learn that science is advanced as a result not only of filling in ever tinier gaps in existing knowledge, but in discovering things that are in contravention to what had been established science. I may not know much but I know that this will continue to be the case, and will always be the case.

The leading cusp of true science is a turbulent boundary zone where skepticism and honest, unprejudiced inquiry are inescapably mixed with the a lot of science denial and things even I would consider woo woo. In your vigor defending the established science, vigilance against unthinking acceptance of scientific orthodoxy will serve you well, and serve science and thus humanity.

I was prompted to write this by your obvious reverence for Carl Sagan, someone I deeply admire as well. Look into the meetings Carl had with The Dalai Lama, and you will see Carl Sagan being what I consider to be a role model for a scientific–and yet intellectually humble–mind. That humility is the place in which new growth can occur instead of just growth into the gaps. It may not fit with your image of the power of the intellect and reason, but humility–the willingness to consider the possibility you might be wrong–is the actual source where the power of reason originates.

If we all had a bit more political humility as well, we might actually see more of the fruits of working together instead of just dreaming of them and lamenting their absence in our world as we fight over every detail.

Best Wishes,

Mark Kenski

Update 2/15/13: I think this letter stands on its own, but if you are interested in another 1384 words on the subject, you can find them here on my personal blog.

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