Paradigm Shifts

Scientific dogma in all disciplines is slow to change.

I am again reminded of this by the recent publication of a book by Dava Sobel, “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos” about the life and times of Nicolaus Copernicus. I use the term “dogma” intentionally, for Copernicus lived in the tumultuous times of the Protestant religious movement. Thus, his revolutionary concept of a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system clashed with both scientific and religious dogmas.

Copernicus himself, a polymath, was a linguist, astronomer and a physician. His original observations in 1514 so conflicted with existing thinking regarding the geocentric solar system, that his treatise on the topic wasn’t published until 1543 – just a year before he died.

Copernicus, Galileo and Giordano Bruno — who himself was burned at the stake in 1600 for having the temerity to suggest that there might be other solar systems in the universe — were all victims of prevailing thinking that would not and could not yield to the burgeoning new understanding contained within Copernicus’s carefully constructed view of the cosmos.

These experiences are instructive, for they shine the light of day upon dogma in contemporary science and medicine. Failed attempts to utilize human tissue for the study of tumor biology led to an entire generation of cancer researchers to erroneously dismiss this profoundly important field of endeavor. No amount of data or cogent scientific argument could dissuade these authorities from their “dogmatic” position that human tissue could not predict cancer response. When one colleague in the field compiled all of the existing data and showed in an analysis that patients who received assay-sensitive drugs responded statistically, significantly more often than those who received assay-resistant drugs (p= 0.00000001) it had absolutely no impact on the “experts” opinions.

Perhaps today, 500 years later, we can learn something from Copernicus and his experience with scientific dogma.