Science, Such a Sweet Mystery

It's not what science knows, but what it doesn't, that really matters.

Charles Chan, Flickr
Charles Chan, Flickr

I have been teaching and doing research at the university level for more than 40 years, which means that for more than four decades, I have been participating in a deception — benevolent and well intentioned, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. As a scientist, I do science, and as a teacher and writer, I communicate it. That's where the deception comes in.

When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered. Nothing wrong with this. After all, we work hard deciphering nature's secrets and we're proud whenever we succeed. But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there's a whole lot more that we don't know.

Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts, suggesting that "knowing" science is a matter of memorizing: this is how cells metabolize carbohydrates, this is how natural selection works, this is how the information encoded in DNA is translated into proteins.

In my first college-level biology course, I was required to memorize all of the digestive enzymes and what they do. Even today, I can't stomach those darned chemicals, and I fear the situation is scarcely much better at most universities today.

Paradoxically, the strong point of American higher education — our talent as a nation vis-a-vis, say, China — is that we are supposed to be more open to innovation and original thinking, whereas they are more "into" rote learning. It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

There's plenty to communicate because we are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone's philosophy. But don't get the wrong idea, Horatio: Mystery is not the same as mysticism, and I'm not referring to some sort of ineffable, spiritualistic claptrap beyond the reach of natural law and human understanding. Just as "weeds" are plants that haven't yet been assigned a value, scientific mysteries are simply good questions waiting for answers.

I'm not thinking here of the obvious unknowns, such as "Is there life on other planets?" or "How many particles can dance on the head of the CERN accelerator?" Rather, there is plenty we don't know about the things we think we understand. Nor is this a problem or a momentary lack of closure. Science is altogether dynamic and wonderfully incomplete.David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Looking just at my field, evolutionary biology, the unknowns are immense: How widespread are nonadaptive traits? To what extent does evolution proceed by very small, gradual steps versus larger, quantum jumps? Why does sexuality occur at all, since it is fully one-half as efficient in projecting genes into the future compared with its asexual alternative? What is the purpose of all that "junk DNA"? Did human beings evolve from a single lineage, or many times, independently? Why does homosexuality persist? Why do women — unique among mammals — conceal their ovulation, possess conspicuous nonlactating breasts and experience orgasm, as well as menopause? Why is the life span of men so much shorter than that of women? Why do we have such big brains? Why are we conscious? Why do we age, sleep, dream, blush, cry or yawn? This is but a partial list.

Don't be discouraged, however. "Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious," writes Richard Dawkins. "Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: It gives them something to do."

And we've got plenty to do. We might start by acknowledging our ignorance. We could then revel in the numerous hypotheses that have already been proposed to rectify that ignorance; there are, in fact, a dozen or so potential explanations for each of the mysteries listed above — we just don't know, yet, which ones are the most promising.

There is a difference between science as a body of knowledge and science as the pursuit of the unknown. Ideally, there would be no tension between the two because it's only by pursuing the unknown that we obtain knowledge. And yet, these two aspects of science coexist uneasily. This wasn't always the case.

Between 1751 and 1765, the Encyclopédie was published in France. It endeavored to summarize all human knowledge in its 18,000 pages of text, 75,000 different entries and 20 million words. Its primary editor, Denis Diderot, was one of the heroes of the Enlightenment, and indeed, the Encyclopédie represents a culmination of Enlightenment thought, which valued reason, science and progress — what we know — above all else.

It is paradoxical testimony to how much we have learned in the intervening 250 years that today no one could seriously entertain the prospect of summarizing all human knowledge in a book, or series of books, or even via the Internet. And yet, the temptation remains: to rest on our laurels, to celebrate our truly encyclopedic knowledge, to teach it, write it, speak it, learn it, demand that it be mastered as if what we know now is enough. (Or, worse yet, to glumly conclude that we have reached "the end of science.")

To be sure, we need to keep celebrating and transmitting what we know, but, at least as important, we had better keep our eyes on what we don't know if the scientific enterprise is to continue attracting new adherents who will keep pushing the envelope of our knowledge rather than resting satisfied within its cozy boundaries.

"There is a crack in everything," writes poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen. "That's how the light gets in."

Comments

very interesting read.
It essentially affirms the notion that 'belief' in science (or thinking that something is 'the truth') has no real application.
We may discover things that after numerous tests repeat same results... however, that doesn't mean it will stay fixed forever.
Its at the very core of science to keep an open mind to new possibilities and actively question the pre-established notions.

But the problem we are facing today is that when you DO start questioning preconceived notions... others have a tendency to single us out... call us 'crazy' or 'how dare you question the work of 'well established' people'?
'Who are you to question it?'

Lol... I simply ignore such people mostly... but other times if we are debating about certain things I do try to explain that questioning things (pre-established ones especially) is just a part of science - and it should be done by EVERYONE... not just 'scientists' (they are hardly an authority on these matters seeing how they are Human like the rest of us).
Although... one other notion to keep in mind would be:
question everything and pre-established notions now more than ever...
because we live in a system where practically EVERYTHING (including scientific research) is heavily monetized.

Results from numerous experiments are filtered first and then released.
Those who paid for certain studies to be done will probably NOT allow publishing of results that actively disprove a heavily monetized pre-established notion in the first place.

Thank you for this interesting perspective on science.
In my humble opinion, Science is victim of an unfair trial here. All serious medical schools teach students that medical knowledge will only have a 5 years old cycle and that we don’t know so much about cells, brain cells, stem cells etc... NASA PRs are trying to fund programs saying we don’t know much about the universe yet. I don’t think scientists are suffering from a lack of humility.

About memorizing digestive enzymes at school, I think this is a different problem: how can medical schools design exams and selection processes which best serve advances in medicine and medical care?

Mike from Switzerland

Taking into account that current methods of learning are extremely ineffective for most people (industrialized education heavily tied in with repetition), a different approach would probably be to for example be exposed to subjects in smaller dosages.
When you do that, you are able to retain the information with higher degree of quality.

Given the socio-economic system we live in which promotes extreme competitiveness... people are pushed a lot more towards 'quantity' (in which case, 'quality' suffers).

We've been recording information in books so we can look it up when needed.
Same thing with computers - except that we can easily store things in far larger quantities - and information can be easily accessible.

There is no need to memorize everything under the sun.
While I will agree that the human brain is capable of holding a great deal of information on a variety of subjects... the way we go about education today is completely ineffective.

Taking into account that current methods of learning are extremely ineffective for most people (industrialized education heavily tied in with repetition), a different approach would probably be to for example be exposed to subjects in smaller dosages.
When you do that, you are able to retain the information with higher degree of quality.

Given the socio-economic system we live in which promotes extreme competitiveness... people are pushed a lot more towards 'quantity' (in which case, 'quality' suffers).

We've been recording information in books so we can look it up when needed.
Same thing with computers - except that we can easily store things in far larger quantities - and information can be easily accessible.

There is no need to memorize everything under the sun.
While I will agree that the human brain is capable of holding a great deal of information on a variety of subjects... the way we go about education today is completely ineffective.