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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reading List: Science Set Free

Sheldrake, Rupert. Science Set Free. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7704-3672-8.
In this book, the author argues that science, as it is practiced today, has become prisoner to a collection of dogmas which constrain what should be free inquiry into the phenomena it investigates. These dogmas are not the principal theories of modern science such as the standard models of particle physics and cosmology, quantum mechanics, general relativity, or evolution (scientists work on a broad front to falsify these theories, knowing that any evidence to the contrary will win a ticket to Stockholm), but rather higher-level beliefs, often with remarkably little experimental foundation, which few people are working to test. It isn't so much that questioning these dogmas will result in excommunication from science, but rather that few working scientists ever think seriously about whether they might be wrong.

Suppose an astrophysicist in the 1960s started raving that everything we could see through our telescopes or had experimented with in our laboratories made up less than 5% of the mass of the universe, and the balance was around 27% invisible matter whose composition we knew nothing about at all and that the balance was invisible energy which was causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, defying the universal attraction of gravity. Now, this theorist might not be dragged off in a straitjacket, but he would probably find it very difficult to publish his papers in respectable journals and, if he espoused these notions before obtaining tenure, might find them career-limiting. And yet, this is precisely what most present-day cosmologists consider the “standard model”, and it has been supported by experiments to a high degree of precision.

But even this revolution in our view of the universe and our place within it (95% of everything in the universe is unobserved and unknown!) does not challenge the most fundamental dogmas, ten of which are discussed in this book.

1. Is nature mechanical?

Are there self-organising principles of systems which explain the appearance of order and complexity from simpler systems? Do these same principles apply at levels ranging from formation of superclusters of galaxies to the origin of life and its evolution into ever more complex beings? Is the universe better modelled as a mechanism or an organism?

2. Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?

Conservation of energy is taken almost as an axiom in physics but is now rarely tested. And what about that dark energy? Most cosmologists now believe that it increases without bound as the universe expands. Where does it come from? If we could somehow convert it to useful energy what does this do to the conservation of energy?

3. Are the laws of nature fixed?

If these laws be fixed, where did they come from? Why do the “fundamental constants” have the values they do? Are they, in fact, constants? These constants have varied in published handbooks over the last 50 years by amounts far greater than the error bars published in those handbooks—why? Are the laws simply habits established by the universe as it is tested? Is this why novel experiments produce results all over the map at the start and then settle down on a stable value as they are repeated? Why do crystallographers find it so difficult to initially crystallise a new compound but then find it increasingly easy thereafter?

4. Is matter unconscious?

If you are conscious, and you believe your brain to be purely a material system, then how can matter be unconscious? Is there something apart from the brain in which consciousness is embodied? If so, what is it? If the matter of your brain is conscious, what other matter could be conscious? The Sun is much larger than your brain and pulses with electromagnetic signals. Is it conscious? What does the Sun think about?

5. Is nature purposeless?

Is it plausible that the universe is the product of randomness devoid of purpose? How did a glowing plasma of subatomic particles organise itself into galaxies, solar systems, planets, life, and eventually scientists who would ask how it all came to be? Why does complexity appear to inexorably increase in systems through which energy flows? Why do patterns assert themselves in nature and persist even in the presence of disruptions? Are there limits to reductionism? Is more different?

6. Is all biological inheritance material?

The softer the science, the harder the dogma. Many physical scientists may take the previous questions as legitimate, albeit eccentric, questions amenable to research, but to question part of the dogma of biology is to whack the wasp nest with the mashie niblick. Our astounding success in sequencing the genomes of numerous organisms and understanding how these genomes are translated (including gene regulation) into the proteins which are assembled into those organisms has been enlightening but has explained much less than many enthusiasts expected. Is there something more going on? Is that “junk DNA” really junk, or is it significant? Is genetic transfer between parents and offspring the only means of information transfer?

7. Are memories stored as material traces?

Try to find a neuroscientist who takes seriously the idea that memories are not encoded somehow in the connections and weights of synapses within the brain. And yet, for half a century, every attempt to determine precisely how and where memories are stored has failed. Could there be something more going on? Recent experiments have indicated that Carolina Sphinx moths (Manduca sexta) remember aversions which they have learned as caterpillars, despite their nervous system being mostly dissolved and reconstituted during metamorphosis. How does this work?

8. Are minds confined to brains?

Somewhere between 70 and 97% of people surveyed in Europe and North America report having experienced the sense of being stared at or of having another person they were staring at from behind react to their stare. In experimental tests, involving tens of thousands of trials, some performed over closed circuit television without a direct visual link, 55% of people could detect when they were being stared at, while 50% would be expected by chance. Although the effect size was small, with the number of trials the result was highly significant.

9. Are psychic phenomena illusory?

More than a century of psychical research has produced ever-better controlled experiments which have converged upon results whose significance, while small, is greater than that which has caused clinical drug trials to have approved or rejected pharmaceuticals. Should we reject this evidence because we can't figure out the mechanism by which it works?

10. Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?

We are the descendants of billions of generations of organisms who survived and reproduced before the advent of doctors. Evidently, we have been well-equipped by the ruthless process of evolution to heal ourselves, at least until we've reproduced and raised our offspring. Understanding of the causes of communicable diseases, public health measures, hygiene in hospitals, and surgical and pharmaceutical interventions have dramatically lengthened our lifespans and increased the years in which we are healthy and active. But does this explain everything? Since 2009 in the United States, response to placebos has been increasing: why? Why do we spend more and more on interventions for the gravely ill and little or nothing on research into complementary therapies which have been shown, in the few formal clinical tests performed, to reduce the incidence of these diseases?

This is a challenging book which asks many more questions than the few I've summarised above and provides extensive information, including citations to original sources, on research which challenges these dogmas. The author is not advocating abolishing our current enterprise of scientific investigation. Instead, he suggests, we might allocate a small fraction of the budget (say, between 1% and 5%) to look at wild-card alternatives. Allowing these to be chosen by the public from a list of proposals through a mechanism like crowd-funding Web sites would raise the public profile of science and engage the public (who are, after all, footing the bill) in the endeavour. (Note that “mainstream” research projects, for example extending the mission of a spacecraft, would be welcome to compete.)

Posted at May 17, 2014 22:30