The intellectual humility of science

With science, what is true today is often proved wrong tomorrow. More so in the scientific study of the human body.

When malaria wasn’t sufficiently understood, it was thought to have been spread by bad air (hence the name mal-air-ia). Today, we have proven that thought to be wrong. In the 1950s, it was believed that lobotomy – severing the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain was an acceptable treatment for mental health patients. Today, we know that curing mental illness isn’t as simple as discarding the most evolved part of the brain. In the last 50 years, we have believed fat to be the enemy and the primary cause of heart disease, obesity and other health issues. Today, we know that sugar is the silent culprit, and we are changing our habits accordingly. In the scientific world of health and medicine, things are always in flux and knowledge is being constantly upgraded.

This can lead us to discredit science in these fields. It can lead us to vilify entire fields of systematic medicine and nutrition studies and instead, resort to alternative therapies. It can give rise to romantic feelings about how our ancestors had all this figured out, and revert to traditional cures. But is doubt – the bedrock of all of science, fundamentally a bad thing?

When we are in doubt, there is potential for learning something new. Whenever we make a discovery, we find out something new. At the same time, we destroy an old belief we held in its place or fill up a vacuum of ignorance that we faced up until that point. When we discovered that the anopheles mosquito spreads Malaria, we had to discard our old belief that Malaria was an air born diseases. The success of science is tightly intertwined with the room for being proven wrong. It is by destroying the old, that we can rebuild something newer and better.

It is hard to study the human body. We know a lot more about faraway galaxies and sub-atomic particles than our digestive system. This is not only because of the complex miracles that our bodies are, but also because it is difficult to carry out controlled experiments on human beings that lead different lives the moment they step outside laboratories.

However, discrediting science as a result, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. The prerequisite for carrying out scientific study is to provide disprovable hypotheses. And that is a good thing – possibly the best thing about science.

Science is centered around intellectual humility. To be learned is to know and acknowledge how little one actually knows.

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