Sunday, February 17, 2013

I ran across this quote

and I was struck by how similar the sentiment being expressed by Dr. Sagan was to something that happened to me years ago while still in graduate school.

In my program each student selected one of the faculty members to be their major professor...this was the person who oversees their journey through academia that culminates with the granting of the Doctor of Philosophy degree. Everyone had their own theories about which professor to select and mine was that I wanted someone who seemed to combine academic prowess along with some...for want of a better word...wisdom. So I chose mine.

After awhile in any prolonged period of work and study in the department you get to know the professors fairly well. One of the drawbacks to becoming familiar with anyone or several anyones or even becoming knowledgeable about topics is that you begin to see the flaws or drawbacks in addition to the positives or the strengths.

I was as full of myself and as self-righteous as any semi-educated young male human and began to be put-off by my dawning awareness that some of the professors were not all graced with benign intent and dripping with accurate knowledge and scintillating insights and profound vision (such expectations coming from my own flawed notions).

I went to my major Professor with my distress and he heard me out and even agreed with some of my observations and grumpings. I said something goofy alluding to how disillusioned I was with academia in general and psychology in particular. That was when he evinced a bit of fire and let me know that while it was true that there are a number of goobers and flawed folks in the field...he assured me that on a statical basis I would be likely to encounter many more instances of serious ignorance and blindness, especially about what made humans tick, in any area outside of psychology.  He said if I really wanted to see profound examples of reasons for disillusion and dismay, I ought to go hang around, for instance, some business type folks.

He pointed out that science as a profession offered no guarantee that foolishness wouldn't exist and maybe even persist but no other organized human endeavor had a self-correcting mechanism built into it quite like the one in science...the notion that one should and must change their position and/or viewpoint when presented with arguments and facts that dictated doing so.

I was able to hear him, partially because I trusted him, and had lived long enough to suspicion that he was correct. And the years since have borne out his accuracy. I spent many years in the field of the "helping professions". I met many people, some wise and insightful, some not so much. But I would be willing to bet that if you threw together 100 human animals who were thoroughly trained in science and a scientific approach to the world and knowledge and matched them up with 100 from politics or business or religion (or many other approaches) you would come away probably wanting to hang out with more of the science folks than you would with the other folks. At least I probably would...especially if they weren't seriously ignorant about human emotions and psychology (which, by the way, is similar to the emotions and psychology of all animals). (my apologies to all the wise ones and the perceptive ones and the caring ones who can and do exist is other academic areas...I know you're there...and my apologies to all the wise one and caring ones and perceptive ones who don't have anything to do with any academic area...I know you are there too. I'm just writing about this one small thing right now and while it might sound like I'm ignoring and/or dismissing you...I'm really not.)

I was whisked back to graduate school when I saw that graphic showing the quote attributed to Carl Sagan and I was reminded of how grateful I was, and am, that I had the opportunity to hang around with and learn from that now long dead Professor. I miss him a lot.

What does this have to do with veganism? Well, it sort of looks like nothing at all...but actually I think it has quite a bit to do with it. "...scientists are human and change is sometimes painful." That is a truth. We human animals often have difficulty with change, not always, but often. For those of us not lucky enough to have grown up with an ethical vegan approach to the world around get to that position we had to change. We had to change our viewpoint, we had to change our behavior...and that can be difficult and even painful. But...making a change when new information is encountered is exactly what a good scientist must do....even in the face of resistance from those around us...even in the face of resistance from the culture or from society.

I've admired a fellow named Ignaz Semmelweis for years and years, ever since I ran across information about him while I was in graduate school. Few people have ever heard of his name yet he should be very very well known. He was an obstetrician in Vienna in the mid 1800s and figured out that the reason the death rate during childbirth was so high was because the physicians weren't washing their hands before assisting in the labor process. He was ridiculed and ostracized by his colleagues. Here's a part of the wikipedia entry about him:
 Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind, and in 1865 he was committed to an asylum. In an ironic twist of fate, he died there of septicaemia only 14 days later, possibly as the result of being severely beaten by guards. Semmelweis's practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, offering a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis's findings. He is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.
Many who have become enlightened enough and courageous enough to transition to ethical veganism can identify with Dr. Semmelweis. I can only thank you for your stance and remind you that you are saving lives and you are reducing suffering and that you are not alone and that we human animals have a long history of avoiding truths that are right in front of us.



Have Gone Vegan said...

I like that quote. And it's so true that changing our viewpoint is hard to do. Especially with confirmation bias and all that. But it makes me wonder if any of the vegan beliefs I hold today will have to be changed if I encounter new information. And how difficult that might be in the face of resistance from others. ;)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Admitting to myself that all beings want to live was pretty much what it took for me to go vegan. Evidence contrary to that would be impressive indeed. :-)

Bea Elliott said...

How tragic for Dr. Semmelweis! Still he must have planted a seed of knowledge for Pasteur to proceed along to his discoveries.

I agree that I'd much rather confront a scientific mind - One that seeks evidence based reality than one who has their feet firmly planted in what they already think they know. For most - They are stuck in petrified concrete. It's impossible to budge them out...

But a discovering, inquisitive kind of mind is a joy - Especially when it's your own! To see or experience that "Ah-Ha!" moment inspired by a previously illusive fact is a thrill! None of us is infallible - We all learn different things in stages --- Actually the saddest thing is when one stops being proven wrong. It just means they've stopped questioning.

Off topic maybe... But I have an acquaintance who prides herself in the way she's held on to everything she was originally taught and learned as a child... Meaning who she was when she was 10 is who she is at 50. And I think --- How sad... No corrected mistakes = No life. :/

Great post! I'm raising my glass to all the scientific minds that love truth before ego! ;)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Bea. I agree, the "Ah-Ha" moment is hard to beat...and folks willing to see and learn something new and/or different...they are the most enjoyable to be around.

It is sad when someone remains stuck in the past. Being childlike in terms of being open to new things isn't the same thing as remaining a child like your acquaintance. That old saw about living the same year over 20 times is not the same thing as having 20 years of experience has some truth to it.

Laloofah said...

I love that quote, and think it applies very well to the challenge of becoming aware and acting on that awareness as it applies to veganism. In fact, that's the first thing that occurred to me when I read it!

I really enjoyed reading this post, and about your experience in grad school. And your story of Dr. Semmelweis reminds me a great deal of the same thing Dr. Lister's discovery of antiseptics went through in the US. I was reminded of it recently when I read the fascinating book,Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard. It's a pretty quick read and I highly recommend it. And this entire post makes me think of an unattributed quote I found recently that said, "People can't change the truth, but the truth can change people." :-)

Laloofah said...

P.S. Saw this this morning and thought of this post. :-)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Laloofah (and my apologies for taking so long to issues). Thank you for the book recommendation...I will read it...thanks for the link too.