Rearview Mirrors

Science is about speculation, investigation and often about results that even in their best form need to be tested and tested again. "As Marc Kirschner, a professor at Harvard Medical School pointed out in a thoughtful editorial in the journal, Science: One may be able to recognize good science as it happens, but significant science can only be viewed in the rear-view mirror." This means that over time, good science, verified by repeated experimentation and testing of results can provide us with the tools to both understand dangers to health and well-being and also how myth making can undermine truth. The challenges we face in contemporary culture are many, but none is more important than coming to consensus on the importance of science to our understanding of everyday life. Scientific research is more often than not wrong and challenging. But, it is precisely because of this that great care, curatorial care, has to be taken with the information that is circulating among all the micro-communities that now make up both the real and virtual worlds. In fact, there is a merger of sorts going on between the real and virtual. This means that we have to be on guard for distortions of facts, intersections of fictions and truths, and we have to be ready to map what we read to verify its origins. We have moved from consumers of information and data to creators of data and with that comes great responsibility. It is no longer good enough to make claims based on superstitions, anecdotal comments and poorly thought out research. We need a new culture based on truth built on shared assumptions that we have agreed to that is linked to science, the best of science.


One of Jean-Luc Nancy's recent books was just translated into English. It has the very awkward title, What's These Worlds Coming To? The book opens with a quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss that asserts, "It has been possible since the seventeenth century to believe that scientific thought stands in radical opposition to mythic thought and that one would soon eliminate the other. We may now wonder, however, whether we are not observing the beginning of a movement in the other direction." 

I bring this up because the crisis created by those who do not believe in vaccines represents far more than just a rejection of science or of reason. At its core is a negation of the values of the enlightenment. By this I mean, values that are not founded on mere speculation but recognize the importance of empirical investigation, validation and testing. The profound loss of faith in science means that mythic thought now has enough force to sway intelligent people to believe that what was obvious to previous generations is no longer so. Over the last twenty years there has been a continuous outflow of information from so many sources, that our society has splintered into smaller and smaller factions. Each micro-movement has its own set of beliefs, its own assumptions about truth, and its own modes of investigation. This shift is actually about a loss of faith in science's ability to explain the rush of data that often contradicts itself before consensus can be achieved. But, it is also about the failure of communities to recognize how interdependent they are, how interdependent we all are. 

The convergence among myth, truth and science and the arbitrary use of different methodologies for radically different purposes, means that speculative thinking can take hold, even if the evidence contradicts what people believe in. Lévi-Strauss intuited something very important. We are transforming stories into reality and in the process misunderstanding both the impact and effect of the fictions we create. Sophistication and naiveté co-exist and always have, but once mythic thought is transformed by force of thought or communal sharing into fact, we are winding back the clock of history.