Nothing induces more incoherent reactions than science. People applauded when Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the Moon. We heave a sigh of relief when cure for a life-threatening disease is identified. More and more people are getting flu shots and adopting scientifically proven diets to stay healthy. And yet, science is increasingly failing to influence public policy. Facts, statistics and data appear insufficient to change highly politicized minds, according to Chris Mooney, author of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future”.

I’ve been reading Eric Kandel’s “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind”. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, “If you want to understand the brain you’re going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.” Kandel spent decades forming hypotheses and designing experiments that would give predicable results if the hypothesis were true. He wisely selected a very simple animal, Aplysia, a sea slug with very large nerve cells for the reductionist approach. Kandel was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons.

Reading through the book, I was amazed by Kandel’s logical thinking and his love and dedication towards his work. A less curious mind might say, “Well, it is what it is.” But scientists like Kendal are not satisfied until they understand how and why it is so. For example, we all accept that one plus one equals to two. But it takes an unusual mind to prove this simplest equation.

When it comes to neuroscience, most of us freely accept the fruits of experimental scientific research as they apply to other parts of the body. Yet the idea that human mind and spirituality originate in a physical organ, the brain, is new and startling for some people. They find it hard to believe that the brain is an information-processing computational organ made marvelously powerful not by its mystery, by its complexity – by the enormous number, variety and interactions of its nerve cells**.

“Scientific consensus” is often used as a convenient button-phrase to attack scientists by proclaiming that they aren’t objective, voting on what is true, or meekly accepting a single paradigm in any field, or even persecuting any who question or disagree with the standard theory.

Although there have been cases where it happened, scientists in fact are the most competitive and creative our species ever produced. They go at each other like fierce predators, constantly sniffing for the slightest weakness. Science is not a company, or a country, or even an idea. It’s a process. Where “consensus” applies in science is not in the determination of absolute, unassailable truth, but in rank-ordering models of the world. These models compete and destroy each other, a process in which “truth” retains fuzzy boundaries, even while it continually grows. No scientist expects the current model or paradigm in his or her field to last forever… or even beyond the next conference. Ninety-five percent of the time, the next model will be an iteration of the current one…though sometimes the iteration is a big one, as Einsteinian gravity added whole layers to Newton’s mechanistic models, without removing a scintilla of their earlier and ongoing usefulness*.

Science denial has grave consequences. The MMR vaccine controversy centered around the 1998 publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal The Lancet that lent support to the subsequently discredited theory that colitis and autism spectrum disorders could be caused by the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Some people choose to ignore the scientific evidence and cling to their own facts and therefore refuse to have their children vaccinated. Approximately 158,000 people died from measles in 2011 – mostly children under the age of five. As the rate of vaccinations goes down, some of these diseases are coming back.

The current science breakthroughs include a vaccine for Dengue fever that effects over 200 million people every year in the developing countries, a Breathalyzer that detects lung cancer, a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii that may unlock the secret of immortality, and gene therapy.

Knowing doesn’t take away the wonder of life but rather makes it more wondrous. Science isn’t the god-level truth and yet it brings us closer to the truth.

*Unscientific America – Denying Sicence At Our Peril by David Brin
** In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel