It’s easy to be excited about facts when they support our own opinions. It’s nice to believe that uncomfortable facts are fake. Likewise, it’s comforting to believe that everyone who disagrees with us is ignorant. When the truth is so obvious, we say, “How could anyone but an uneducated bumpkin deny it?”
And yet, it seems that much of our knowledge is incomplete and that our deeply held beliefs may be more fragile than we imagine.
I was thinking about this recently when I listened to a podcast about evolution. It was a discussion about some events that happened last November at the venerable Royal Society in London. It turns out that some well-respected scientists think that perhaps evolution isn’t just due to “random mutation and natural selection over time.”
According to some researchers at the meeting, our DNA is even more amazing than previously believed. It appears that external stressors change the way plant and animal DNA works so that creatures adapt much more rapidly than we thought. This doesn’t necessarily mean evolution is wrong; but certainly, our understanding of it is probably incomplete.
This poses a challenge to some beliefs that have been held in exactly the same way by scientists, and the lay public, for a very, very long time. Can we handle the change in paradigm? Could we “adapt” if we suddenly found out that evolution is a bit off? After saying for years that it was a not a theory but a hard fact?
The science of medicine changes all the time. For the past 20 years, physicians in training were taught that they should never hesitate to boldly give narcotic pain medication to patients who asked for them. Because after all, “why would anyone mislead their doctor?” And who were physicians to judge? We were told, “You can’t create an addict in the ER.”
Except, according to some pesky researchers, it appears you can. Some people can become addicted after a very short course of pain medication. They’re just wired that way. And now pain pills and heroin are killing people in staggering numbers. Our venerable, white-coat-clad instructors were wrong. (What? Physicians and professors wrong? Perish the thought.) And now, we have to face the facts and change our behaviors as doctors.
New, intriguing information presents itself all the time in many areas of study. The bacteria in our guts may have to do with obesity and mental health. Litter boxes may contribute to human mental illness due to a parasite cats sometimes carry. Socialism in Venezuela is a disaster. Foreign aid sometimes worsens international crises. Who knows what’s next?
But what if we discovered a slam-dunk gene for religious faith that was so powerful that those who had it couldn’t help but believe? Could their detractors still regard them as simpletons or haters? What if we learned that the absence of that gene made for equally solid atheists? How would we believers treat them? What if some transgender people really have a body dysmorphic problem like anorexia? Or that there is a genetic marker that indeed makes them identify with another gender? What if discussing it isn’t hatred, bigotry or compromise, but compassion? What if we find, someday, that the science of climate change isn’t settled?
Obviously, science advances. We love that idea until it bumps into us. What would we do when science, or new historical information, or some other new finding puts our personal beliefs in question? Can we let go of our political correctness? Or religious rigidity? Can we stop calling our opponents rude names? Are we OK with new facts when they contradict ideas dear to us?
It’s hard to let go. But just as we look back on our ancestors and smile about their quaint beliefs, someone will eventually do the same to ours. It will likely be the case that we were wrong about many things in ways we could never have imagined.
As times change and knowledge grows, we should all be a lot kinder in the way we view the opinions of others and cautious in the way we view our own. Today’s unassailable fact could become tomorrow’s flat earth. A little humility, a little willingness to open our eyes and the courage change our minds, are probably in order all around.
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