A Healthy Skepticism: Embracing the Rationale Encompassing Science
Picture a scientist – doctor, physicist, forensics expert, it doesn’t matter which field. The image that the word ‘scientist’ conjures up in my mind is one of a long hallway, at the end of which is a laboratory, and at the doorway of that laboratory, a figure stepping inside that sacred space of science. Add to this figure a white coat, for professionalism. To the lab, add sterile apparatus, a microscope or two for an aura of intellectualism.
But that is not all. I have been that white-coated figure dubbed a scientist, and let me tell you, what completes the picture is something much more elusive – the acquisition of a new world view. For science is a world view, a discipline based on values of rationality, logic and above all, objectivity. And to submit to this discipline, the scientist must first cast off all personal and cultural baggage, must put even personal religious beliefs on hold and embrace what my sixth grade science textbook called “A healthy skepticism”.
Now let’s say that the laboratory I mentioned is part of the Anatomy department of Karachi’s oldest medical college, and that figure is not one but thirty-odd students and a professor. The theme of today’s lecture is general features, structure and function of upper and lower limbs. That is by no means as mundane as it sounds. Any discussion of structure-function evolution and exactly how certain muscles allow us precision and power grip dexterity through opposable thumbs, and how certain other features enable our unique erect bipedal gait, is bound to lead to one reaction: amazement and awe.
For these enraptured young students, these budding scientists, this is a moment of truth. Because from this point on, there are two approaches to the study of human anatomy, and a choice must be made. The first way is to see perfection in nature as a reflection of some divine Creator, and this comes more naturally to most students, who come from a religious background. The second approach is to view human anatomy (and physiology and so on) from an evolutionary perspective. With this approach, every bit of knowledge of biology does not come as blinding evidence of Grace; but instead fits together perfectly like a puzzle piece in the context of Darwinian principles of natural selection.
So how do we choose between the two ways of going about the study of medicine? Or do we simply deny that there is a choice to be made at all, and call it a matter of opinion: to each his own? To me, the question of choosing between the two approaches is akin to asking whether or not we are scientists in truth. Because if we are not willing to accept a truth (natural selection) over belief (creationism), then using the word ‘scientist’ for ourselves is unjustified.
I have yet to meet a single individual – student or teacher – in my medical college who is not guilty of either consciously or subconsciously carrying forward a personal belief system into scientific practice. It is not a debate of whether studying science inevitably strips one of religion or not; it is about building the capacity to distinguish between our rationally held beliefs and the ones we are emotionally attached to.
As we stand at the threshold of our laboratories and lecture halls, let us pause for a moment and ask if we are true to our identity as scientists; if we do not just have the white coat, but for once, the courage to call into question our own beliefs.
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