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If Science Were Settled

By Kate Tietje

The phrase “the science is settled” is incredibly dangerous. Once upon a time, “the science was settled” and lack of hand-washing had nothing to do with the spread of disease. A Hungarian physician who dared go against the science of the day, Ignaz Semmelweis, suggested that “pieces of disease” from corpses during autopsy might have been transferring to laboring women and killing them. He had just discovered germ theory!

He was scoffed at and ridiculed by the other doctors. Semmelweis wasn’t one to give up, and begged them to try it. They begrudgingly agreed, and subsequently watched death rates plummet! Somehow, other doctors still weren’t convinced, and went back to their old ways. Women began to die in high numbers again.

What about Semmelweis himself? For his discovery and insistence that he’d found something important, he was considered “crazy,” and institutionalized until he died.

This is hardly the only story like this in medical history. Scientists have been extremely resistant to truly new and radical ideas that overturned what they had been taught and believed. Many scientists were branded as “crazy” and were ousted from the scientific community for daring to share— and keep talking about—their new ideas. Yet, after decades, many were eventually proven right. Over and over, “the science was settled”…until it wasn’t.

Science was never meant to be a belief system, or a passing on of established ideas. Science is a method of inquiry, of asking questions to learn new things, of rethinking everything we think we know about the world. If it’s “settled,” it’s not science.