The furthest I studied science was to Sixth Form Chemistry, that was so long ago that these days they don’t even call it “Sixth Form” anymore. Science didn’t feature much in my tertiary studies; the closest I got was courses on the history and philosophy of science, and a couple of courses in psychology. I had little meaningful or thoughtful interaction with it as a topic for many years, besides what the mainstream media felt it worth sharing.
And then my son got a diagnosis that further changed my already unstable world, and I did what most parents in my situation do: I started looking for answers to what had caused, and what would fix autism. The answers belonged in a field I felt little prepared for: Science. Of course the first suggested cause I encountered was also the most controversial: Vaccines. But it quickly became apparent that even though this proffered answer supposedly came from science, it was also scientists who were most vocal against the claim. This necessarily required me to confront and attempt to come to terms with the very nature of scientific controversy and what it means to make a scientific claim.
I came to autism claims with an open mind; back in the year of my son’s diagnosis the vaccine debate hadn’t been enlightened yet by the revelations that would later ruin Wakefield. I had to figure out why disagreement existed, and how and whether the disagreement could be resolved in such a way as to access “truth.”
Years later, my search for understanding of where scientific controversy comes from, has reached the point where I now find the very topic in itself – quite apart from the initial autism concern – a personal passion that I pursue by regularly reading entire books dedicated to the topic.
The books I get excited about these days are non-fiction ones that don’t just teach me new information, but specifically address how we learn, incorporate, and make sense of information; where that process can go wrong, why, and how to be alert to those errors. This venture has refined my own thinking processes and given me a much heightened awareness of how my brain will naturally seek out patterns and meaning where there is none, and how the scientific process is the best system we have at this point for trying to counter those quite natural inclinations and short-cuts; how the scientific process can be perverted and misused, and the role media in particular can play in the sharing and furtherance of misinformation at the societal level.
I have become enamoured with reality. With the search for truth, and the tools we use to access that truth. I take joy in reading about how magic tricks play on the shortcomings of our senses and preconceptions; more joy in that than I ever found from simply watching and being confounded by magic tricks themselves. More joy from the complicated beauty of evolution, than from any elaborate creation story. I openly stare at and acknowledge the huge abyss of the unknown, and no longer cling to some more reassuring version of false certainty. Coming to terms with science, is a matter of facing what we don’t know, just as much as what we do know. Before autism and my search for its answers, I did not appreciate any of this.
And now I have an autistic son with an astounding mind, that thirsts for knowledge and has an almost pathological craving for utter certainty in all matters, a certainty that reality and life can’t realistically meet. But because of my growing passion in understanding science and how we perceive and make sense of reality, I feel that I am better placed than I ever was to help him make sense of the world, in a way that acknowledges its uncertainty but also offers him a foundation for attaining and using knowledge to be successful in his life. That is a topic I will expand on in Part 2.