White Coat Underground

Sunday paean

Science is hard. But science, and the methodological naturalism that underlies it, has proved to be the best way to observe, describe, and explain our reality. Sure, people can come up with ridiculous straw man arguments like, “but how do you measure love?” but these arguments ring hollow. (We measure “love”, a behavior, by the observable behaviors that human beings report when they are “in love”.) To a scientist, the appeal to magic to describe the world is difficult to understand, since the real puzzle is so much more fun. If, for example, you discover the cause of a particular disease on the genetic and molecular level, you can predict how you might affect the natural history of that disease, and rationally develop treatments for it. That’s one of the reason it’s difficult for us to understand improbable medical claims—they take the beautiful complexity of reality, and turn it into a parlor game.

I bring this up because of the birthday of one of my science heroes, Charles Darwin. Like Mendel, Pasteur, Crick, Watson, and many others, he discovered basic, important principles about a particular scientific field (biology). Because his findings were so important, evolutionary biology is sometimes erroneously called “Darwinism”—this is quite an honor, but not quite proper, as modern evolutionary theory is built on the foundation so eloquently laid out by Darwin, but has gone in directions which, while he probably could have imagined them, he did not have access to.

Science has its heroes, and they are “beatified” for various reasons. For Darwin, it was being able to so clearly document his discoveries. For Einstein, it was his ability to make intuitive leaps and prove them. One of my science heroes is Stephen J. Gould, a somewhat controversial figure in evolutionary biology. His popular essays taught me the basics of evolution, and even how to think scientifically. He also wrote with heart. It is probably not too much of a stretch to say his writings helped me to choose the study of medicine.

Medicine, as I practice it, is not a science in and of itself, but rather the “operationalization” of science—or it should be. If we define medicine simply as the attempt to make people well, then there is no difference between medicine and shamanism. If we extend it to the prevention and treatment of human disease informed by scientific analysis and practices, then we are almost there. If we add the phrase, “with compassion”, we’ve pretty much got it right.

Modern shamans
, the ones who offer to cure whatever ails you with whatever potion or magic trick they happen to be selling, are simply fulfilling the desire to make people feel better (that is, assuming they are honest but deluded, rather than con-artists). They claim compassion, but deception is not compassionate. Diverting people from real care is not compassionate. Leaving out the science leaves out the compassion, as without science, you cannot help a patient.

The same phenomenon exists is the other sciences, albeit a bit differently. If the modern shamans are the “false prophets” of medicine, then the creationists and other reality-deniers are the false prophets of biology. A prophet is generally considered to be someone with “special knowledge” based on the supernatural, and a compulsion to share that knowledge. The scions of the biology-denial movement, such as Michael Egnor and William Dembski, are prophets, not scientists. They are driven to evangelize their supernatural beliefs about life, and to try to tear down the “established” norms of science, as if science is just one of a myriad of possible “ways of knowing”.

To come up with realistic, testable ways of describing reality is very difficult. Scientists struggle for years to find a good way to isolate and test voltage-gated sodium channels, impossibly small biological machines with impossibly important implications for health. Prophets bypass this by proclaiming them “designed” and leaving it at that. They don’t have any way to extend that knowledge into clinical discoveries. Prophets feel they are conduits of divine knowledge. No scientist has ever been that arrogant. (Let’s see one of these prophets go through a thesis defense in a biology department).

In science, it’s possible to have heroes without deifying them. The complaint that we deify Darwin is simply wrong, but a predictable error. If you, as a prophet, feel that all truly important knowledge is a gift of the supernatural, then anyone who has access to that knowledge is either divine, or near-divine. Scientists don’t really get this. When we sing the praises of one of our heroes, we also see their faults. We know that they saw something important, but that the knowledge they found could have been found by other intelligent and diligent colleagues. But they did it first, and they did it well.

So today, I sing the praises of my scientific but all-too-worldly heroes, like Darwin, Gould, Osler, and the thousands of scientists laboring every day to help us understand our world. They are not divine, but their discoveries, made without the help of a Hotline to Heaven, are all that more remarkable.


  1. #1 Strider
    February 15, 2009

    Love the eighth paragraph!

  2. #2 Luci
    February 15, 2009

    A lovely post like this is appreciated by your fanbase here, but it would be great to see more writing like this out in the mainstream media to promote discussion and jog more alternative thinking to the magic based answers to everything being pushed for money or faith or both.

    The heroic aspect is an open door, as is getting the message out about the compassionate side of scientists.
    When reality is this amazing, who needs myths to cover the same areas? Enough people to create a constant challenge to the articulate scientists and medical folk to not give up on their arts of persuasion and effective communication in addition to the labwork and long hours.

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    February 15, 2009

    I’ve never understood the idea of hero as deity. I’ve always thought heroes should be people you can aspire to be. I’m certainly not achieving godhood anytime soon.

    Nicely said.

  4. #4 DLC
    February 16, 2009

    A Hero as someone to look up to can be a good thing to have,unless that hero is someone not worth looking up to.
    (as in Behe, Egnor, Comfort etc.)

  5. #5 The Blind Watchmaker
    February 16, 2009

    We should avoid putting “ism” after someone’s name. This creates a noun and makes it sound deified.

    “ian” is a more appropriate suffix. It creates an adjective. No deification, just an adjective that lets us know what we are talking about. We can have Mendelian inheritance, Newtonian physics. How ’bout Darwinian Biology?

    I agree, “evolutionary biology” is more appropriate, but if someone said Darwinian biology, I would know what they were talking about and would not have the urge to genuflect.

  6. #6 Danimal
    February 16, 2009

    I bring this up because of the birthday of one of my science heroes, Charles Darwin. Like Mendel, Pasteur, Crick, Watson, and many others, he discovered basic, important principles about a particular scientific field (biology).

    Hem. No mention of Einstein. He was my hero.

  7. #7 PalMD
    February 16, 2009

    Hey! I gave E his props in there…

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