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.


  1. I love how your bring up that without mysticism, religion become stiff and dead. Like a tree that is still standing, but no longer alive. It seems that science, when it's alive, thrives on the openness to see, and that means seeing things that don't support how you think things are. That seems closer to the truth because I don't think life is figure-out-able. Like you can understand it. That seems to be the booby-prize. But that pure, unprejudiced seeing seems to be the healing you spoke about. Thanks for making me look at things bigger than usual!

  2. This is a beautiful post. Science does indeed have its own prescription for healing, but I think your metaphor is wonderful... in order to use that very prescription, we have to be willing to change, be revealed to new truths, and shake things up. I love your point of truth is always being revealed...i think many scientists approach the world from a very non-inspired place of "There is a finite amount to know, and we are almost there...!!!" (pant pant pant) and they get tired and impatient.

    1. Hi Sky!

      Thanks for your kind words. Totally agree that we have to shake things up and be willing to let our cherished hypotheses fall away.

      Groove on!


  3. I particularly love your sentence: "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." yet I'm not sure people are so willing to try to explain what does not suit dogma. Do you really ? Would love to know your thoughts.

    And that's one of the things I would have loved to discuss today with you -- this is Javi, hopefully inviting in some of those parts of Javi that know more about Javi than Javi :)

    When you talked about the puppet (conscious part / ego) and the master puppet (unconscious / self), I thought that Science has probably been built over the shoulders of the puppet, and that even though it tries to ask questions to the master puppet and claims it has a refined a method for reliable Q&A... things might not really work in that way.

    Have you read "The Structure of the Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn ? Maybe there isn't such a thing as "normal science" and it's all more about evolution than it is about revolutions, but I feel that the scientific method is quite more based on dogma that we've been told or would like to believe (of course Rupert Sheldrake's "The Science Delusion" comes to mind here now too).

    Ah... one more thing ! I encourage you to send that beautiful dream to the person I told you about today (the dream analyst). I reckon you might be in for a LOVEly surprise !

    (Don't want to make explicit publicity here so can send you her details via email if you wish)

    Loved meeting you !