Everyone starts out in life with ideas about how the world works. Our brains do this for us automatically. Even infants can tell when a cup is close enough to the edge of a table so as to be in danger of falling off. Finding patterns in what we observe and identifying relationships between variables is a way of being human. It’s part of being alive. We explain our world. We ascertain causality. We learn to predict.
And we think we are right.
Often we cling to ideas because they represent familiarity and safety. Sometimes it’s useful to cling to past ideas. Sometimes it’s impossible to let go. Sometimes letting go is fraught with anxiety, somewhat like jumping off a cliff. These experiences are all part of the human experience. Most of us have had moments when we figuratively did “jump off a cliff” in our search for truth, and found that there was no void after all.
The truth had been there all along.
We are all scientists in one sense or another. We all evaluate our observations about the world. In order to profit from our observations, we must be prepared to change what we believe is true when we find new information. We must constantly reevaluate in the light of our current experience.
Imagine you are learning to cook, and you believe that boiling everything is the right way to cook. If you are not able to question your assumptions about the importance of boiling, you’ll never be able to truly taste the reality of what you’ve prepared! Your bias will make it so that you can’t be a good observer. Boiling may stay “true” for you, but here’s the outcome: you’ll never be a great cook.
Science is the continual challenging of barriers to knowledge through acts of rigorous observation. Observation in this sense does not refer simply to scientific study design, research methodology and data collection, but to something more fundamental: It refers to our willingness to develop an awareness of how our biases affect the ways we perceive the world.
I’m referring to rigorously observing in the present moment so we can actually see what there is to be seen.
Nonetheless, we are limited. We don’t know what we don’t know. We cannot include variables that we don’t understand. We may have glasses on our faces that we are unaware we are wearing!
One of the assumptions many of us cling to is the idea that we are more advanced, smarter and more sophisticated than people in previous eras were. Many of us still cling to the notion that the average person in Columbus’ day truly believed the world was flat. We certainly believe that past eras were vastly inferior when it comes to health care. Indeed, modern-day advances are miraculous and some have the potential to be more life-saving than the medicine of ages past. But the existence of these advances doesn’t mean that what we knew centuries ago was merely superstition. It also doesn’t mean that modern medicine is always better, or is never harmful. For example, according to some experts, one of the leading causes of death in the United States is preventable harm resulting from medical treatment, or faulty advice to patients.
I find it interesting that in past eras, people in general used to find herbs much more useful, valuable and effective than we, as a people, find them today. I think the reason we don’t see their effects as reliably in our modern times is that we have significantly changed the context we live in, and overwhelmed our bodies and minds. We are so laden with “baggage” that the herbal supports that used to help our ancestors don’t seem to affect us the same way. Many herbs are mild enough to only provide a gentle nudge. Others are stronger. Then, there are some that are quite strong, so strong that they are rarely administered because they are dangerous. These last kinds of herbs are the ones that were grasped by the pharmaceutical industry and turned into medications. And they come trailing side effects.