As I’ve listened to “This I Believe” over the past several weeks, I’ve been struck by how hard it is to define what I believe in. I find that especially disturbing because there’s plenty I believe in – fair play, honesty, simple courtesy and respect – but the minute those come to mind, I’m forced to confront the well of cynicism that six years of the Bush administration and six years in a difficult corporate culture have drilled into my psyche.
I work for a state agency that funds applied academic research for the purpose of accelerating the commercialization of university-generated intellectual property. I’m a social, not a physical or life scientist, but work and life have provided ample opportunity to interact with “real” scientists. Our programs have spawned the world’s first college of nanotechnology and a laundry list of other impressive things. Recently, after a business event at a dazzling, world-class high-tech research center, I realized what I can still believe in.
I believe in crop circles – those astonishing, elegant, confoundingly mysterious formations that appear overnight, most in Southern England, and that have as yet eluded all attempts at understanding. Multiple Julia sets spiraling for hundreds of feet, braided and swirled mats of bent but not broken grain, genetically changed seeds – indeed, maybe we can’t understand them. I have my own ideas, some based on lectures or books, some based on my own hodge-podge and cobbled cosmology. Ultimately of course, I don’t know. But I certainly believe in them, and why shouldn’t I ? They exist. They are real. And human inability to define, analyze, or categorize – does not make them not real.
But to “believe” in crop circles – these tangible things with an existence oblivious to any opinion – is to invite dismissive sneers from many “real” scientists. To “believe” in crop circles makes one suspect. No doubt I also “believe” in flying saucers, and aliens from outer space. Have I ever actually seen a crop circle – all those pictures look just like computer generated graphics. And everyone knows that two guys admitted to making them, after a few pints at the local pub, out in the wheat fields with a board. Yet those same two guys admitted on British TV they’d never heard of fractal geometry. And what of the logistics necessary to produce intricate, exquisite, perfectly executed patterns, hundreds of feet in scale, thirty to forty per growing season, for over a decade, in a relatively small, densely settled area of Southern England. How many people would that take? How much time? What’s the probability of never getting caught, everyone keeping the secret?
But my infatuation with the inexplicable brands me as too unreasonable to merit consideration, so my line of inquiry is never taken seriously. And that bothers me, but not because of the personal affront. It bothers me because it suggests that the person I’m talking with, this person who’s invested so much time, energy, and money into becoming a scientist – and who may go on to teach others to be scientists – may be missing the very heart and soul of science.
If you call yourself a scientist, yet are stubbornly dismissive of elegant, compelling mystery – if you call yourself a scientist, yet reflexively ridicule whatever can’t be neatly stowed into the dominant existing paradigm – if you call yourself a scientist, yet do not recognize when to say “I don’t know” – maybe you’re in the wrong profession.
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