The Mistrust of Science

By Atul Gawande

The following was delivered as the commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, on Friday, June 10th.

If this place has done its job—and I suspect it has—you’re all scientists now. Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is 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. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

When I came to college from my Ohio home town, the most intellectually unnerving thing I discovered was how wrong many of my assumptions were about how the world works—whether the natural or the human-made world. I looked to my professors and fellow-students to supply my replacement ideas. Then I returned home with some of those ideas and told my parents everything they’d got wrong (which they just loved). But, even then, I was just replacing one set of received beliefs for another. It took me a long time to recognize the particular mind-set that scientists have. The great physicist Edwin Hubble, speaking at Caltech’s commencement in 1938, 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. The scientist has an experimental mind, not a litigious one.

As a student, this seemed to me more than a way of thinking. It was a way of being—a weird way of being. You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge. Hubble said it best when he said, “The scientist explains the world by successive approximations.”


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6 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – Science is 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.

    Science CAN also be a career, but the point of the methodology is well worth emphasising to all who engage in objective study.

  2. I hear people all the time making claims about nutrition, about conspiracies, about the supernatural as if this were solid information. It is just intuition. When I challenge them they get really huffy that I do not believe them.

  3. “Sorry…history graduates, even you are too.” Thanks for the pat on the head, but this is not the whole picture. Historians, like “scientists” are also systematic thinkers who base conclusions on rational analysis of evidence. However, there are significant differences between history and the so-called “hard sciences.” In spite of the well-worn aphorism, history does not repeat itself, which means that historical conclusions may be usefully informative but historical processes are not replicable. In this, history and geology closely resemble each other. The other obvious difference is that conclusions in history are never certain. Of course in the fields categorized as science all findings are theoretically provisional, but the possibility of a right answer is assumed. This is never the case in history. The actual facts that may discovered in historical research are essential as axioms to Euclidian geometry, but they are made useful only in the context of interpretation, which is always debatable. (I like to tell students that there are no absolutely correct answers in history, but there are certainly some wrong ones.) History continually grows and therefore must constantly be revised, partly to remove factual errors, but also to make it relevant to the living generation. The current mania for STEM has infected both popular thought and some parts of the academy, but it fails to take cognizance of the systematic thought that is found in other disciplines. After all, the root meaning of the word is “knowledge.”

  4. While I like Dr. Atul Gawande speech and its sentiment, and while indeed I’m a practitioner of scepticism and evidence-based analysis, as an English graduate, I’m perforce to object to including myself within the scientific community, the members of which seek a mathematical verification of the truths they pursue. Scientist and technologist have become leading ingredients to our evolution, encompassing our population and associated economic growth, bringing our very fine quality of life. And indeed the evidenced-based scientific approach, as contrasted with the ideological approach (e.g., vaccinations), is the way for all to go. The thing is, perhaps sadly for some, human existence, and that of our communities and countries, does not and never will be subject of mathematical verification. While the scientific approach needs be our cornerstone, we also very much need to recognize that there’s far more at play. Those disciplines based upon language (so called social sciences) are very much aware that the medium of language itself influence interpretations and explanations. Nevertheless, to get into the bigger picture, think about democratic governance and the current US presidential campaign or, what I should think is mandatory of all proponents of scientism, read Shakespeare or Whitman and appreciate the extent of existence that they’re on about.

  5. fadeordraw ##4

    I think your (and C.P.Snow’s) division is an unhelpful concept as usually voiced. I find scientists to be fully rounded, Shakespeare lovers say, as much as any. I find sciencephobes to be mostly dull folk with no particular taste for the arts or caring about the cultivation of meaning in lived lives. I do find however amongst some of the cleverest arts proponents, the pomo set, a proud and wilfull ignorance of science. (This is an historic and academic emnity about funding and struggling to appear scientific themselves….)

    For these latter I prescribe Professor Richard Holmes “The Age of Wonder” to show how the poet can and did feed off the latest science (deep space and deep time etc.) to bring meaning.

  6. Hi Phil, with your rather, again, dismissiveness, re: the bigger picture than the scientific approach, ”think about democratic governance and the current US presidential campaign“.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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