Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Path You Need Next

I built the joyful-life-decision tool Choice Compass partly because I was becoming more and more frustrated with the idea that we have to change ourselves to be better. That we don't have wisdom already inside of us, and that who we are isn't already enough.

This idea that we are not enough is prevalent in U.S. culture, and sadly has been transmitted around the world. It's a useful idea for people who want to sell things, in that if we feel we are not enough, we are likely to want to buy things to approach a feeling of completeness. My partner Brooks Palmer writes about this phenomenon in his Clutter Busting blog as well as his books, so I won't go on about it at length here. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence that regardless of how many toys and trips people buy, feeling like you're complete is really an inside job.

At the same time as I say this, I want people to use Choice Compass (or, really, any tool that's useful) to help them figure out how to tap into their inner wisdom. The wisdom that's already there, but seldom accessed without a lot of analytical overlay. And, I charge for the tool. So how is this any different than the people my partner and I are decrying?

The difference is explained beautifully by Linda Stone, an elegant and original observer of technology and human potential. She points to the new "quantified self" movement, which has brought us Fit Bits and the like, and has asked -- do we need more information about how to improve ourselves? Or are we actually hungry for what she calls "Essential Self" technologies -- technologies that bring us closer to accepting and learning about who we are?

I had a conversation with Linda recently about these ideas, and we agreed that Essential Self tech is an under-represented idea that is starting to blossom. Maybe it's the "I'm OK, You're OK" of the 21st century, as it includes any method that brings us more in alignment with who we already are. However, it's not the most popular form of technology, to be sure.

In my conversation with Linda, I had an insight. There seems to be a clear difference between a forward-moving path for someone who has high status and lots of power in the world and a forward-moving path for someone who has low status and less power in the world. The person with lots of power will generally move forward in his or her life by learning how to relax, let go of control, and serve others.

But let's talk about the person with less power in the world. Relaxing can be useful for this person as well, to be sure. But letting go of control makes little sense when you don't have much control to start with. By the same token, people with less power are almost always serving others in our culture. So that's not a lesson that's necessary to be learned. What is necessary? When coming from little or no power, what is desperately necessary is to learn how to develop and use your voice. To listen to your inner wisdom. To accept your body, home, and possessions as they are. And to build boundaries and practices that allow your to develop more power and control in the world.

These are starkly different visions for what a personal growth path requires. The quantified self technologies really lean toward neither of them, as far as I can tell. Thus far, they seem to lean toward keeping track of your fitness and health numbers, and maybe helping you relax. For those aims, quantified self tools can be very useful, and can in some cases be life saving. But they don't really move people forward on their individual paths.

In my opinion, what is missing is twofold: 1) an acknowledgement that both of these paths exist and are completely valid for different people and for the same person at different times in life, and 2) new technologies that support either or both of these paths. These dual-path technologies would appeal to what is the best next step for someone, rounding out the distance between us. The more powerful of us would learn to make room for the outside world (taking Linda's cue, let's call these "Essential Other" technologies), and the less powerful would learn to locate and use their power inside (Essential Self technologies). In fact, in addition to Choice Compass, a few ideas loosely related to both things are starting to crop up, and some of them are also supported scientifically (for example, see the tools at happify.com).

I would like to see this dual-path movement grow. I'd like many voices to offer clear and explicit discussion of these differing and equally valid paths. And I'd like to see new tools for both inward and outward movement toward completeness, differentiated according to whichever path you need next.