Attention has been drawn to this address to California Institute of Technology graduates by Atul Gawande, who told them science was not a major or a career – it is “a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation”.
But this isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counter-intuitive and it has to be learned.
Gawande quoted the great physicist Edwin Hubble, who said a scientist has “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination”—not only about other people’s ideas but also about his or her own.
Gawande went on:
The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful. It has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).
Gawande’s address embraced people’s rejection of scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs and a study of 1974-2010 US survey data by sociologist Gordon Gauchat who found that despite increasing education levels, the public’s trust in the scientific community has been decreasing.
Recognising the difference between claims of science and those of pseudoscience becomes challenging.
Gawande concluded by telling the graduates:
Today, you become part of the scientific community, arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history. In doing so, you also inherit a role in explaining it and helping it reclaim territory of trust at a time when that territory has been shrinking. In my clinic and my work in public health, I regularly encounter people who are deeply skeptical of even the most basic knowledge established by what journalists label “mainstream” science (as if the other thing is anything like science)—whether it’s facts about physiology, nutrition, disease, medicines, you name it. The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.
The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth. What you have gained is far more important: an understanding of what real truth-seeking looks like. It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.
Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.
Gawande, a surgeon and public-health researcher, became a New Yorker staff writer in 1998.