Monday, August 15, 2011

Don't Be So Sure

Sometimes, I'm a little distressed at how not scientifically-minded I am. Just as a matter of pride. I'm a relatively bright and certainly well-educated woman. Arrogant as it may sound, I like to think that I am capable of comprehending most complex subjects out there, given enough time and sufficient explanation.

But then I watch science specials on cable TV. Well, my husband is the one that chooses to watch them; in fact, he's watching one now (interestingly enough, it's on the History International channel -- the History Channels are as inappropriately named as MTV). Most often, I just happen to be in the room while they're on, but I usually give them a good hearing anyway. And I usually come away feeling like an idiot. All the talk about particles and dark matter and relativity and wormholes and my head is just spinning.

And I always wonder how much of this they know and how much of this they conjecture. I wonder this about a lot of science.

Steve Martin did an old sketch on Saturday Night Live called "Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber". Theodoric cut hair and practiced medicine, primarily in the form of a lot of bloodletting.

Theodoric: How's my little patient doing?
Joan: Not so well, I fear. We followed all your instructions -- I mixed powder of staghorn, gum of arabic with sheep's urine, and applied it in a poultice to her face.
Theodoric: And did you bury her up to her neck in the marsh and leave her overnight?
Joan: Oh, yes. But she still feels as listless as ever, if not more.
Theodoric: Well, let's give her another bloodletting . . .

They also used to drill holes in people's heads. And diagnose mental conditions by feeling the bumps on people's skulls. This was science.

Theodoric: You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays, we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of body humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.

It seems to me that Science ceases to be Science when it becomes too sure of itself. When it stops challenging its own assumptions, it becomes . . . well, Religion, in the pejorative sense of the word. I have a feeling that our descendants will find our modern scientific arrogance as amusing as we find Theodoric of York fixing a couple broken legs with leeches on the forehead.

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