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January 14, 2009

Science and Humility

The Dalai Lama

In this ever-changing world there are two important things that we should keep in mind. The first is self-examination. We should reexamine our own attitude toward others and constantly check ourselves. Second, we must be prepared to admit our faults and stand corrected.

 -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

The scientific method calls for constant examination, measurement, and testing, and then for honesty and humility with results. Science requires comfort with doubt and confrontation of uncertainty. Science requires that we take a guess -- they call it a hypothesis -- we must lay our reputations on the line with our egos beside us.

Jacob Bronowski wrote that science is "not a mechanism but a human progress, and not a set of findings but a search for them." The ideals of the scientific method can guide not only productive experiments, but also the ethical struggles in our daily lives. We must detach ourselves from our assumptions, our opinions, and our conclusions.

This mentality should not be carried beyond practicality. We do need "working definitions," to take educated guesses, and we need to make attempts before we know if they will work. Our minds cannot be so open that we essentially do not know anything and cannot act. Instead, we must define what we know not as certainty but as our best judgment, then continue to question what we know.

Some say science is devoid of compassion, but science and compassion are two expressions of the same idea. A more scientific approach, from personal ethics to civil society, is our most universal, rational, and practical means to the end of greater honesty, openness, and humility.

There is a popular distinction between professional and amateur scientists; there should not be. There is a phrase "trained scientist" and even the simple title, "scientist," which is generally used to drive consensus and defend opinions. If you know better and you can prove it, then you have earned license to ignore these titles. It does not matter what college you did or did not attend, it is your understanding of the scientific method which matters. If you know it and apply its principles in your work and life, then you are a scientist. Many a "trained scientist" has less humility than he or she should; practice of science in work does not replace practice of science in all the rest of your private and public life.

Do not fear disagreement with the conclusion of a "trained scientist," but understand that as the scientific method requires, you will need to provide at least as much reason for your disagreement. Science is no more or less difficult than any other form of honesty. In this article from science journalist James Hrynyshyn, we see the mistake and the admission of Steven Goddard, a popular writer who disagreed with "trained scientists." Goddard's original conclusion was due to an error in his understanding of available information. In a positive example of the Dalai Lama's message today, Goddard later admitted his mistake publicly. In an example of how far many of us have yet to progress, however, Hrynyshyn notes other writers who cited the wrong version of Goddard's assertion to support their own, related arguments. Later these writers failed to update their citations and their own, consequently wrong conclusions.

Though it has room to grow, science has been popularized a great deal. Once it was the practice of a tiny percentage of people. It was a guarded, private wisdom even as it had in its heart a profound public concern. In his address to The British Balneological and Climatological Society in 1903, President E. Symes Thompson stated: "Ours is a scientific Society in which the welfare of all is the aim of each." In modern times, let us replace the guarded, private "Society" with our shared, public "society." Let us practice more science, and make the welfare of all our aim.