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Independent “Heretical” Thinking vs. The Dogma of “Settled Science”

It’s the convocation season at universities, which means convocation addresses by those who receive honorary degrees. As a university professor, I have heard many such speeches, but by far the best advice was given this year by Dr. Arnold Aberman, former dean of University of Toronto medical school, in his speech to the graduating class at Lakehead University. Dr. Aberman started by observing the censorship at many North American universities, where convocation speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of Islam and defender of women’s rights, and Condoleezza Rice, the first female African American Secretary of State, were “disinvited” or prevented from speaking because some faculty or students disagreed with their controversial views. Aberman thanked Lakehead for not applying such a repressive policy and not checking his views on any controversial issue such as abortion or global warming upon inviting him to address the graduating class.

Dr. Aberman used the repression of controversial views on university campuses as a springboard for his main message: the importance of debate between different views and independent thinking to assess those views (as opposed to appealing to authority to silence the views with which one disagrees). Why is independent thinking so important? Why not just follow authority?

Dr. Aberman used examples from medical research to support his argument for independent thinking, one of which was the discovery of the cause of and the cure for duodenal ulcers by Robin Warren and Barry Marshall in the early 1980s. Until then, the science on duodenal ulcers was “settled:” they were believed to be caused by excess gastric acid, attributed to stress. Patients were given psychotherapy or pills, but there was no cure and they continued suffering—until Warren and Marshall discovered through their research that bacterial infection was the cause of ulcers and that they could be cured with antibiotics. But since their discovery contradicted “settled science,” Warren and Marshall were ridiculed, they were denied funding, and their manuscripts were rejected for many years. Finally, their evidence gained a hearing, and patients started experiencing the benefits. (Read transcript of Aberman’s address here.)

This example demonstrates the value of independent thinking and of not accepting science as “settled” just because the majority of scientists has concluded that something is true. Unfortunately, at many university campuses today, independent thinking is not encouraged, as those dis-invitations of controversial convocation speakers demonstrate. Instead of welcoming debate between different viewpoints and inviting students (and faculty) evaluate them and the facts supporting or not supporting them, universities tend to shut down—and on some campuses, literally shout down—views that question accepted authorities or majority views, such as those questioning human-caused climate change. But as Dr. Aberman concluded his address, appealing to authority is not a strength but a weakness. It is a weakness of those who are unable or unwilling to put forward a well-reasoned argument based on their independent assessment of facts.

Independent thinking is a crucial value not only medicine and physical sciences but in every realm, including business. The only way we can achieve our values is to adhere to reality by using reason. Blindly following others—whether the majority, our bosses, government authorities, or the majority of scientists—is a hazardous path. It is hazardous because without independent assessment, there is no way for us to know what values (if any) these others are pursuing and whether their arguments are based on facts. Blindly following others’ direction is like randomly following the car in front of you. You may end up somewhere you do not want to be, including places that are hazardous to your well-being, such as by following investment tips based on scams, or by making risky, over-priced acquisitions just because your competitors are.

Without independent thinking, there would have been no Galileo, no Newton, no Einstein, no Robin Warren and Barry Marshall—and no J.P. Morgan, no Sam Walton, no Bill Gates, no Steve Jobs. And without these men and their scientific discoveries and business and technological innovations, our lives would be less comfortable, less healthy, and less prosperous. It is only first-hand adherence to facts that can produce discoveries, inventions, and innovations that benefit our lives. It is only independent thinking that can guide us to our values. Instead of shutting down independent thinking on university campuses and elsewhere, we should defend freedom of thought and expression wherever we can. Most of us will not be invited to give convocation addresses, but we can speak up when freedom of thought and expression is being threatened. And as alumni, we can advocate independent thinking by withdrawing our financial support from repressive universities.

  • writeby

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” –Aristotle

    “For though we love both the truth and our friends, piety requires us to honor the truth first.” –Aristotle

    “Take nobody’s word for it.” — Royal Society motto