Why Curiosity Is The Key To Both Science And Medicine, According To A Cancer Surgeon

"Join the conversation."

When you hear the word "science," you may think of the litany of dates and minor historic accomplishments too often associated with high school physics classes. But as surgeon Kevin B. Jones explained in a September, 2015 Ted Talk in Salt Lake City, those dates and accomplishments are the what of science — and what's truly exciting is the how.

"Science is knowledge in process," Jones tells the audience in a video captured at the event, posted yesterday on YouTube. "We make an observation, guess an explanation for that observation, and then make a prediction that we can test with an experiment or other observation... The test failures, the exceptions, the outliers teach us what we don't know and lead us to something new. This is how science moves forward. This is how science learns."

But, of course, he adds, referencing an earlier anecdote about Galileo's use of Jupiter's moons to disprove the geocentric model of the universe, science's lessons are never permanent. They are constantly being built upon, with the help of failed predictions, outliers and exceptions.

"Hopefully science remains curious enough to look for and humble enough to recognize when we have found the next outlier, the next exception, which, like Jupiter's moons, teaches us what we don't actually know."

Curiosity is important to medicine as well. As a surgeon, Jones works with patients who have sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Every patient, he says, is an outlier and an exception, and so he has worked to stay humble and curious. When a patient asks him a question he doesn't know the answer to, he reaches out to colleagues for help. Sometimes, he says, it is his patients' questions and curiosity, not his own, that matter most. That curiosity, he says, makes them partners in the experiment. That curiosity makes them scientists.

"Seek humility and curiosity in your physicians," he says towards the end of the talk. "Almost 20 billion times each year, a person walks into a doctor's office, and that person becomes a patient. You or someone you love will be that patient sometime very soon. How will you talk to your doctors? What will you tell them? What will they tell you? They cannot tell you what they do not know, but they can tell you when they don't know if only you'll ask. So please, join the conversation."

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