Everything you do everyday has something to do with science.
Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi, PhD CEO of the American Society of Microbiology
Think about everything you did in the last hour. Without exception, every single aspect of your life is directly affected by the scientific discoveries of the last few centuries: There are the obvious things like your cell phone, TV, and computer, but consider also that you are alive and able to read this blog post because you didn’t die of cholera as a child. Your mother didn’t die of sepsis after childbirth. Flush toilets. Praise Science!
And yet, there is an ever-strengthening societal distrust of science and scientists. There are a number of factors driving this. To begin with, there is our human tendency to fear things we don’t understand. The body of scientific knowledge has grown to the point that only the people who devote their lives to studying a particular field can truly understand it. Everyone else just has to trust that what they say is true. For most of us, any discussion of quantum physics sounds too fantastical to be true. In the office, I regularly encounter reasonably educated parents who don’t understand the difference between viral and bacterial infections. As a result, I spend a fair amount of my time explaining why an antibiotic is not going to cure their kid’s cold. And don’t get me started on vaccines, which are arguably the most important health discovery of the modern age, save millions of lives, and prevent unmeasurable amounts of suffering.
The war on science is not new. History is rife with examples of the torture and persecution of scientists whose findings contradicted the prevailing religion of the time. Just as the rise of the anti-science Ash’arism school of Sunni Islam contributed to the end of the Islamic Golden Age, the increasing political strength of Christian Fundamentalism is driving science denial in the west. We now have a growing group of young-earth creationists and flat-earthers who reject even the most obvious scientific observations in favor of religious faith.
Cultural trends outside of religion are also to blame. Postmodernism – which propounds that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is relative and is up to individuals to determine for themselves – sees scientific evidence as inevitably biased by the agenda of the scientist conducting the research and equates knowledge with opinion, thus setting the stage for our current environment of “post-factual” politics. Mass marketing appeals from Madison Avenue have trained us that statistics can be manipulated to support any claim. And of course, our western culture of consumerism encourages us to ignore inconvenient evidence about climate change. Who wants to “Reduce, Reuse, & Recycle” when it’s so much easier to throw out the old stuff and buy new stuff?
Sometimes [the truth is] uncomfortable. Sometimes we dig up stuff that says we’re hurting the planet, we’re hurting our environment, we’re hurting each other. When that happens, we need to face up to it and collectively try and do something positive about it. The response I’m seeing now is that we try and push it away. We try and deny it. We try and push away even the science that’s giving us the truth. And that bothers me and so I want to be here and be counted for the truth.
Richard Condit, PhD Professor Emeritus~University of Florida on why he marched for science.
Science is important. As the parent of a child with a rare and catastrophic disorder, I need science to help ensure that Sarah receives effective and safe treatments, not quackery. We need more funding and better science education starting in elementary school. We need a new period of enlightenment where science is celebrated rather than vilified. Want to save lives, save the planet, improve quality of life, end hunger, and cure horrible life-threatening diseases? Science can do all of these things. It is imperative that we restore faith in the power of the scientific process. We should all become scientists. And I would go so far as to say that, regardless of your individual religious beliefs, we should all be Buddhist scientists.
Why would I make such a bold statement? Let’s break it down into its two parts.
First: Why does everyone need to be a scientist? Since the invention of the Internet, information is readily available to anyone with WiFi and a computer. And anyone can post anything they want. On his podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney says,
Whatever you currently believe, no matter how wrong or strange, or against the grain of scientific consensus, confirmation for that belief is a Google search away.
All of us, myself included, are susceptible to confirmation bias. If we strongly believe in something, we can find support for it somewhere in cyberspace. There is a widespread lack of understanding of the difference between anecdotal experience and scientific evidence and plenty of people believe that the ability of a lawyer to convince a jury of something constitutes real evidence.
From an early age, absolutely everyone should learn the basics of the scientific method, and be required to take courses in all the basic fields of science. And – it pains me to say it – we all need a solid understanding of statistics. Ugh! I despise statistics. Nevertheless, I believe it should be included in every math curriculum from kindergarten through twelfth grade. It’s not that I think everyone should, or even could, be a scientific expert, but everyone needs to be able to evaluate the validity of a claim for themselves without having to rely on others to do the work for them.
Second: Why Buddhist? I should start by clarifying that I am not advocating that anyone convert to Buddhism as a religion. Stick with whatever religion – or lack thereof – you prefer. You can still observe the core Buddhist practices. For the remainder of this post I will not refer to Buddhism as a religion. Although, in many cultures it is practiced as such, the foundational teachings are essentially about living life in a way that reduces suffering – both your own and other’s.
Buddhism is widely recognized as being “science-friendly” and many regard the historical Buddha as a scientist. In his quest for enlightenment he experimented with several different techniques discarding those that didn’t work based on the evidence of his own experience. He exhorted his followers to do the same:
O monks and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so must you examine my words and accept them, not merely out of reverence for me …
If you were to follow the Dharma purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as a disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly – only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One.
In the prologue to his book, The Universe in a Single Atom, The Dalai Lama writes, “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that – as in science so in Buddhism – understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
The biggest lesson I learned when I was a post-doc at Rockefeller was that no one owns science. No one owns nature. If you find something that’s counter to what you believe, you’re obliged to accept it and move on and build on that because that’s the trail of truth.
Dickson Despommier, PhD Professor Emeritus~Columbia University on why he marched for science.
The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: 1) The human experience is inherently imbued with a certain amount of discontent and suffering; 2) The experience of suffering is directly related to our collective tendency to cling to our own deeply held misunderstanding of the nature of the universe; 3) It is possible to overcome this tendency toward suffering; 4) The way to a happier life is to cultivate wisdom through ethical living and mental discipline by following the practices outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path.
One of the more common ways we delude ourselves is by believing in the permanent, unchanging nature of what we know. The true nature of reality is impermanence. This is just as true for our body of scientific knowledge as it is for anything else. David McRaney puts it this way:
Science is a self-correcting system. So, it not only continuously adds new evidence, making it so that there are things we know today that we didn’t know yesterday, but it never stops attacking the ideas that it already has – it never stops tearing down its own models. So, a lot of what we knew yesterday, what we considered factual, well it isn’t true any more.
But, just because what we know may change over time, facts are not merely opinions that one can choose to believe in or not based on one’s own personal philosophy. As Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said, “Science is true whether or not you believe in it!” It’s not the laws of physics that are changing, it’s our ability to understand them that evolves as our technology and capacity to observe and measure phenomena become more sophisticated.
Remembering the 4 Noble Truths and practicing Sila (ethical living) will reduce suffering for scientists and lay people alike: Scientists will be less susceptible to data mining to prove a hypothesis. Big pharma CEOs will be less likely to put profit before patient welfare. Scientific Journals would open up access to everyone facilitating sharing of information. Folks will stop posting inaccurate sensationalist memes on Facebook!
When we are taught to think critically and given the tools to evaluate data independently, we are more able to practice clear seeing (Vipassana). When we let go of our attachment to our own opinions, we can be more open to changing when the evidence supports contrary facts. Cultivating wisdom and compassion allows us choose the wisest path, the path that reduces suffering for ourselves and the world.
I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be. ~Isaac Asimov
Quotes from scientists on why they marched for science come from This Week in Virology Podcast: Washington D.C. March for Science. Check out MicrobeTV- Science Podcasts and Shows for more awesome podcasts by real scientists.