Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Scientists have also sometimes forgotten they are the Elephant’s Child

From The Elephant's Child by Cedar Sanderson.
Science is the field of the Elephant’s Child. “He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curiosity!” Scientists everywhere, for time immemorial, must read this tale of the small bundle of curiosity who got in trouble with everyone for the questions they asked. ‘Why? How?’ and so on and so forth. Just like the baby elephant, we want to know what makes things tick, and sometimes, like the small creature, we get in over our heads. Which is, perhaps, why we have a reputation for speaking like the Python who lent his help to the Elephant’s Child in trouble: “‘Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck’ (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), ‘will permanently vitiate your future career.” But in spite of the near brush with death, the Elephant’s Child not only satisfied his ‘satiable curiosity, he learned what his answers were good for, and he went home to live a very long and wise life… but not before rubbing his new knowledge in his family’s face a bit.


I have a deep attachment to the pursuit of truth, and I find it satisfying to be able to ask questions, seek out answers, and come to a better understanding of it. There are days it’s like the other elephant proverb – the blind men inspecting the creature and coming to wildly different and incorrect conclusions – but if you keep seeking, and adding to your knowledge, the reality of the beast begins to emerge from the fog, entirely magnificent. Which is why the science is never settled, and replication of observations or experiments is always the gold standard, with controls and blinds to further reduce the variables. Scientists have also sometimes forgotten they are the Elephant’s Child, and in their quest to make their family happy and not to be spanked any more for their curiosity, they have left off their questions and grazed meekly with the others. There are even scientists who have joined in the administration of spankings to prevent the children from asking inconvenient questions and uncovering inconvenient truths. ‘Deniers!’ they scold, you ‘skeptics’ need to shut up and stop riling the limpid crocodiles up! Which is the perfect time for the Elephant’s Children to wander down by the bank and learn the painful truths that lead to the useful answers.

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