I enjoy listening to Radiolab, a podcast about science, philosophy, and human experience. In the episode “Fetal Consequences” (which can also be read on the NPR blog), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss how fetal cells remain in the mother for decades, possibly having effects on her body. Originially it seemed that that fetal cells were solely beneficial to the mother. The hosts shared a story about sheets of fetal cells turning into healthy liver cells and healing the mother’s damaged liver. It was later proposed that perhaps fetal cells might actually be harmful to the mother in some cases due to a variety of causal factors.
I found the study about fetal cells fascinating, but what I thought was especially significant was what Tufts University professor and scientist Kirby Johnson said regarding his personal stake in the work:
Of course I wanted to help out, but if I find out that’s not the case [that my fetal cells made no difference when my mother was ill], well, that’s the truth. And as a scientist, I want to find out the truth; whether or not the truth is wonderful or the truth is horrible…at least I know what the truth is, and both as a son and as a scientist, that would be of value to me.
This is true science. The scientific method can, and should, be applied to all aspects of life. Too often people stop asking the questions when they find the answers they are looking for. Any new evidence or ideas that challenge one’s beliefs, or cause discomfort or uncertainty are discounted or completely dismissed. As skeptics, scientists base their opinions on good evidence, and are not afraid to have that evidence challenged.
The strength of the scientific method is found in its ability to detect error as well as its ability to detect truth. It describes a way of obtaining knowledge that is based on observation, repetition, transparency and correction. It would behoove everyone–individually and as a society–to value and engage in scientific thinking: Deep curiosity about the world, rigorous and critical examination and testing, unbiased and objective scrutiny, and openness to new ideas and perspectives–regardless of the palatability of the outcome.