Denial and Science

Denial is a common defense mechanism used to shield oneself from a painful truth.  If you are an alcoholic, and making your family miserable, you will deny that it’s drinking that’s the problem.  If you hurt your 3-year-old child, that child, whose life depends on her parents, can’t afford to know that someone they have to depend on is hurting them, so they make it be that “it wasn’t so bad” and often “I deserved it.” If you are a wife whose husband is having an affair, you won’t see what is obvious to everyone around you, and if a good friend tries to warn you, you won’t listen.
I remember the first time I was faced with having to give up a comfortable old truth for a new one.  Since it was in the realm of science it was easy to accept.  When I was a child, I learned that the solar system came about because another star had passed close to our sun and pulled out a long swath of material which then became the planets.  In my first astronomy course at college, I was told that as the sun condensed out of the original cloud of matter, a disk formed, somewhat like the rings of Saturn.  From this disk came the material for the planets.  I remember my resistance to this idea, but as a scientist I could see that the new theory was much better, and found my reluctance an interesting phenomenon.
At that time I was still in denial of my parents’ alcoholism.  After I had graduated from college I lived at home for a year.  One day an old school friend came by for lunch.  My mother drifted into the room and wafted out again.  As soon as she was out of the room, Susan looked at me and said “How long has your mother had a drinking problem?” BLAM!  The lights went on.  I had known something was wrong, but had never been able to name it.

All my life I’ve been committed to the truth.  I was very fortunate to go to Wellesley College and major in astronomy which was taught by Miss Hill (more formally known as Dr. Sarah J. Hill). She is easily the best teacher I’ve ever had.  She taught astronomy as process, as a history of ideas.  My physics teachers said “This is how it is.” But Miss Hill would say “ten years ago we thought…..  But then new data came in and now we think this….” She used to refer to the “doubling of the universe in 1952.” Of course the real universe didn’t suddenly grow in size, instead it was found that the variable stars we had been using as distance indicators actually came in two classes, one of which was twice as bright.  So all the distances had to be recalibrated.  For a discussion of Cepheid see link

Whenever Miss Hill introduced a new topic, she went through this process.  First: what assumptions are we making?  Second: what are the data?  Third: what hypothesis can we frame to explain the data?  And finally, can we find new data, hopefully from some different area of study, that will confirm or disprove our hypothesis?  The most important steps are the first and the last.  I had never had another teacher talk about assumptions and yet they will constrain what we are willing to accept as “facts.” And too often, people get enamored of their hypothesis and refuse to see, or accept facts that contradict it.  So by the time I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I knew very well the process he was talking about.  And by the way, all of astronomy is founded on one huge whopping assumption: that the “laws” of physics as we have discovered them in our laboratories here on the planet earth in the last 400 years — that these “laws” hold true through out time and space.  Think about it.  Are you feeling some resistance?

I have been able to use this process in struggling with depression and PTSD. More later.

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