An open mind.
I must confess to being a long standing Star Trek fan and, as a good fan should, eagerly anticipated Enterprise, the latest avatar in the Star Trek series. For those of you who have been in a cave for the last several years, Enterprise is about the first starship Enterprise and predates the original Star Trek in terms of that universe's history. At any rate in Enterprise, humans are just reaching out into space with warp drive and are just learning to work with other species, including of course the Vulcans. The last episode involved time travel, which the Vulcans' claimed to have shown to be impossible. I don't think I will ruin the surprise by noting that in Star Trek's universe, time travel is possible as any good Trekkie knows. But a brief interchange between the Vulcan science officer and another crew member impressed me. The Vulcan science officer was telling another crew member that her planet's scientists had disproved the the possibility of time travel to which the other crew member replied that the science officer should 'keep an open mind'. It was the science officer's response that is note worthy: namely that keeping an open mind is not the same thing as believing in something that you want to be true.
How well this captures the scientific mentality! Scientists are human and have their own wishes about what ought to be true or about what they want to be true and sometimes, maybe more often than we wish to admit, but the scientific attitude is to try to put those aside and base our scientific conclusions about the universe on the evidence at hand. This is what keeping an open mind really means. For example in the popular debate about evolution scientists are often accused of not having an open mind. Indeed the alleged close mindedness of the scientific establishment was used as an argument for de-emphasizing the teaching of evolution in Kansas in new science standards, a decision which was happily reversed. People are apprehensive about the possible implications of evolution for what it means to be human, are we for instance to behave as the other animals do? Is the basis of our ethics and morality not revelation through scripture or mystical union with a higher power but merely the result of physical processes? Indeed are there even a such thing as intrinsic God given human rights? Do I have a purpose? These questions are more comfortably dealt with by most of us in the realm of religion. We want to believe we are special, have a purpose and that morality is absolute and a gift from God. Because evolution seems to fly in the face of these comfortable ideas some people reject it out of hand and look for alternate 'theories': creation 'science' or 'intelligent design theory', ideas that most scientists reject as having any scientific validity. Why do we reject these ideas? It is not because we are closed minded but rather because what we know about the universe suggests that these ideas are most likely wrong from a scientific point of view. The empirical claims made by these so called theories do not match with the available evidence. Rejecting these theories is not closed mindedness but a desire to not cling to ideas merely because we wish them to be true.
What we wish to be true though should not always be discounted. Many scientists have the view point that the universe is somehow a logical and mathematically elegant place, something which may or may not be the case. But this search for elegance in the universe has been an important pointer for research. In physics and to a lesser extent in biology this search has driven scientists to search for general theories which can be applied in a wide range of contexts without getting hung up on specific cases. Today much of the interest in mathematical biology centers on general laws and theories which can be applied to many types of systems. Our interest in so called complexity theory is of that type- namely that a single set of mathematical structures might model a wide range of phenomena from the statistical mechanics of phase transitions between states of matter to the evolution of complex biological systems. In long run such a search may prove to be illusional, but it has driven science since the 17th century and still drives science today. So wishes are important but in science but only if we take the time to rigorously test those hypotheses related to our wishes, subject our biases to the scientific process and move on when our wishes fail the test of reality. This is what is meant by an open mind. This is ultimately what distinguishes real science from pseudoscience, for the latter is hung up on what is wished to be true as opposed to trying to find out what is most likely to be true, given the the evidence in the real world.
All material copyright © Paul Decelles 1996-2002 unless otherwise noted
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