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Science is great…but it isn’t enough


Tod Worner - published on 11/21/17

Several years ago, a good friend pointed me to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s Frankie Fell in Love.

Einstein and ShakespeareSitting having a beerEinstein trying to figure out the number that adds up to thisShakespeare said, “Man it all starts with a kiss”
Einstein is scratchingNumbers on his napkinShakespeare said, “Man, it’s just one and one make threeAh, that’s why it’s poetry”
No matter how hard we try to understand, no matter how bright the analyst, there is inescapable, indescribable mystery in being human. The deep substance of man and woman is ineffable. Oh, the advocates of Scientism breathlessly describe the incandescent glow of brain PET scans or the chemical interplay of neurotransmitters between neural synapses as the keys that unlock the mystery of love and loyalty, happiness and misery. And some Enlightenment thinkers, in a fit of scientific exuberance, believed that morality could be boiled down to something as simple as mathematical equations.
To be sure, modern randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trials in medicine or longitudinal observational studies in sociology or  prospective cohort studies in psychology can provide useful data regarding the narrow question they address. But scientists are ambitious. They want the studies and their outcomes to mean so much more. And so, in the name of pride, ambition, sloppiness or simply the earnest fallibility of being human, studies are nudged to mean just a bit more than they actually do. Confounding variables are overlooked. Weak, surrogate end points are sold as equivalent to strong, hard end points. Statistical significance is conflated with clinical significance. Reproducibility is taken for granted. Skewed populations are studied. In the brave new world of scientific critical thinking, we have a hard enough time agreeing on the nuances of breast cancer screening, the optimal social interventions to curb poverty, and the proper therapeutic school of thought for counseling depression. Hmm, But we’re going to map out the science of love.
In teaching medical students and residents, I like to remind them that not everything they bring into the patient encounter is going to be rooted in a study from the New England Journal of Medicine or Up To Date. As a matter of fact, they will be struck by how much common sense and wisdom they will call upon from previous encounters and experiences. In a field increasingly dominated by algorithms, I like to ask them what algorithm they followed to be a best friend, fall in love, or raise their children. What study guided them to hold that tearful patient’s hand? What algorithm mapped out their decision to forego that procedure because it would sharply curtail this patient’s quality of life?  Which consensus statement helped them finesse the opposing opinions in that tense family conference? They smile and raise their eyebrows. And then they nod: of course, there is no study, algorithm or consensus statement for this. This is the wisdom of being human. It is mysterious, ineffable. And it works.
Recently, in reading G.K. Chesterton’s brilliant book St. Thomas Aquinas, I came across this penetrating insight,
Now the modern Anthropologists, who called themselves Agnostics, completely failed to be Anthropologists at all. Under their limitations, they could not get a complete theory of Man, let alone a complete theory of nature. They began by ruling out something which they called the Unknowable. The incomprehensibility was almost comprehensible, if we could really understand the Unknowable in the sense of the Ultimate. But it rapidly became apparent that all sorts of things were Unknowable, which were exactly the things that a man has got to know. It is necessary to know whether he is responsible or irresponsible, perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal, doomed or free, not in order to understand God, but in order to understand Man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man; it shrinks from anthropology as completely as from theology.
For what it is designed for, science is a wonderful tool. For what it is not designed for (the deeper purposes of man, the profound nature of love, the inexhaustible bonds of family and friendship, the nature of beauty, the value for dignity), science should be content to offer no opinion. Theology, philosophy and the humanities are not to be subordinated to science but to be respected counterparts to it. There is the science of being human…but there is also the inexhaustible mystery of being human. Do we really believe that unfathomable human nature will be totally and completely answered by the Human Genome Project, PET scans and neurotransmitters?
Not me.
“Man, it’s just one and one make threeAh, that’s why it’s poetry”
Photo credit: Pixabay
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