A friend wrote recently, asking about some new ideas in neurophysiology: theories by a semi-famous scientist (or maybe a famous semi-scientist, who in either case shall herein remain nameless) that certain electromagnetic stimulation of the brain can cause people to have religious visions, see UFOs, or experience other unconventional perceptions, both individually and at times en masse.

I reacted with serious doubt --- the reasons for which perhaps merit explanation for the record here because they apply quite generally. How should one respond to headlines about a major discovery? In particular, what's the proper attitude toward something which purports to be a revolutionary explanation of hitherto mysterious phenomena?

First of all, be skeptical. Most good science is evolutionary, not revolutionary; most attempts at scientific revolution fail. Over the years I've matured (or ossified, some might say) into taking quite a conservative attitude about new findings, until they make it over a series of rather high hurdles. In spite of the Thomas Kuhn paradigm-shift paradigm (!) not all significant progress comes from a sudden leap. More important are gradual clarification of understanding, slow sharpening of theoretical concepts, and steady improvement of experimental measurements.

So, when you hear about the Newest New Thing:

Hypothetical discoveries that don't answer the above critical questions should be viewed with extremely jaundiced eyes. Sure, there are occasionally new things under the sun --- yep, the universe is stranger than we can imagine --- but that's not the norm.

Apologies now if I offend by mentioning concepts close to the heart ... but my severest skepticism surfaces when I read about psi (aka ESP), homeopathy, alien abduction, or countless subtle diseases and syndromes --- e.g., from silicone breast-implants, Vietnam or Gulf War chemical exposure, low-frequency electromagnetic radiation, and so forth. These fail far too many of the above tests.

On the other hand, when there's a physical reason to expect an effect, and when the size of the effect depends on the size of the cause via some plausible relationship, then sure! I'm willing to take a hypothesis seriously even if it's unconventional and even if the evidence is scanty. Heavy-metal poisoning can accumulate from tiny doses over long periods of time; so can (ionizing) radiation damage to the genes in a cell's nucleus. Greenhouse gases take decades to accumulate and change global temperatures, but there's a reasonable theory about how they might do so and how much they may heat things up. These are phenomena worth taking seriously.

And human minds-and-bodies are extraordinarily complex systems, so it's quite easy for me to accept that, for instance, when people really believe in something then it can have major effects on their health. If, for instance, someone prays for hospital patients and the patients know it, they may feel better and actually recover more quickly. On the other hand, if they don't know that they're being prayed for I have a hard time understanding how the patients get well faster without regard to distance from the praying person, or amount of prayer, or number of praying persons, etc. There should be some kind of proportionality between cause and effect, or some reason for there not to be. Re mysterious medical syndrome victims, I accept that their suffering is genuine --- and I sympathize --- but the best explanation may be that their problems are psychosomatic or coincidental, caused by belief in a phenomenon or by something entirely different.

How to improve the situation with respect to new discoveries and the media? Scientists and reporters both need to draw a clearer line between science and speculation. Of course, folks who draw that clear line don't get mega-press coverage ... they're not newsworthy.

Countless popularizations of science (which I won't mention here, to protect the less-than-innocent) share this problem. In order to sell books, capture headlines, and get quoted, too many otherwise-honest people blur the distinction between widely-accepted theories versus personal hunches about what might some day be proved. Others exaggerate their certainty in the hope of causing a good social result --- prevention of nuclear war, promotion of democracy and freedom, whatever. Yes, scientists are human beings; so are reporters.

A final Personal Disclaimer: just because I don't accept something as science doesn't mean that I can't fervently believe in it for personal, pleasurable, social, mystical, humanistic, or other reasons. I am blissful in my inconsistency! (^_^)

TopicScience - 2001-10-06

(correlates: OneThingAfterAnother, ArgumentByItalics, HiddenKnowledge, ...)