The Science that Science Ignores

“The plural of anecdote is not data.”
— [source in dispute]

Science aspires to be an all-encompassing way of looking at the world.  Some scientists are Christians or Buddhists, but for many, science is their religion.  Many people who are not professional scientists have also taken the scientific worldview to heart, as an overarching paradigm of how the world works that leaves little wiggle room for an omnipotent deity to hurl his Olympian thunderbolts.  We don’t believe in miracles.

I say “we” because I am a scientist, and I number myself in this group.  Science is the foundation of my worldview, but…

But does the community of professional scientists authentically embody the scientific worldview?

But has science, as it is practiced today, retreteated from the aspiration to explain all that can be explained?

But has our common notion of the scientific worldview become identified with a kind of mechanistic reductionism, even as quantum mechanics — which is the deepest and most successful scientific theory in history — is holistic at its core?

Modern science is a career for a select few million people around the world.  To an extent we don’t like to recognize, our research projects are driven by business considerations.  Can we get funding to do this? Does our lab have the resources to address this question? Can this question be encapsulated in a project with an endpoint clear enough to make a suitable dissertation topic for a grad student?

At the center of my concerns is the computer revolution.  Computers have made possible some kinds of science that were not possible as recently as fifty years ago.  We routinely sift through vast amounts of data to find an outlier, and we imbue it with meaning. A hundred years ago, physicists focused their attention on the small subset of simple equations with analytic solutions.  When I went to school in the 1960s, there were entire courses on the tricks that could be used to solve differential equations in a long list of special cases. Now we solve systems of equations numerically and plot the results in a few minutes, not even bothering to check whether any of these tricks are applicable.  Even in pure mathematics, computers are performing proofs that involve checking out more cases and more bookkeeping and more symbolic manipulation than any mortal human could perform without succumbing to boredom and its consequence, error.

The danger now is that the tools have begun to direct the science.  We collect data not because we think it will help to answer a question of vital interest, but because we can.  We have stopped asking the questions that cannot be addressed by collecting more data.

The greatest loss, in my opinion, is that we have dismissed whole classes of observations  as “anecdotal evidence” and refused to take their message to heart. Among these stories and one-off observations, there are many that call our fundamental assumptions into question, and scientists, like most humans, become uncomfortable when it appears that their fundamental assumptions may need to change.  We are committed to our research agendas and don”t like distractions.  “Damn the torpedos — full speed ahead.” becomes “Please don’t confuse me with the facts.” We don’t want to look down to notice that the reasoning on which our science is based has cracks in the foundation.

We have become reluctant to ask the kinds of questions that computers cannot help to answer.  Too many scientists have developed a contempt for what they call “anecdotal evidence” — the compelling stories that are the driving force behind our curiosity.  The believe that sets of numerical data are the only kind of observations that science should consider.  What would they have made of the one-off observation of Michelson and Morley in 1887 that gave Einstein the idea for relativity?

Humans set our roots in stories, and these usually take their force precisely from their unique, irreproducible nature.  My first kiss. A July snowstorm during my honeymoon in the Alps. Trying to calm the tears of my younger daughter by the side of a pool, oblivious to the fact my older daughter lay unconscious at the pool bottom.  A 1979 scientific meeting at which I was taken under the wing of a Sufi master…

Many scientists and more administrators have come to believe that “if it can’t be reproduced, science can’t study it.”  Indeed, if a surprising new result is reported in a journal, other labs will try to reproduce the experiment, and if their results differ, the new result is dismissed as a mistake.  Many journal editors have the idea that it is more conservative to avoid printing something that turns out to be wrong than to allow open discussion of speculative new science. Hence, if a submitted manuscript goes against what they believe to be true, they will refuse even it the space in the journal (and the opportunity for discussion that this provides) until the result has been replicated by more than one lab.

You can’t do science if you’re afraid to be wrong.  The business model of maximizing prospects for success is fundamentally incompatible with the conduct of science.

All this is insidious because it looks from the outside as though science is thriving. It’s not just more and more articles in more and more journals.  Technological breakthroughs are coming along at a pace faster than society can accommodate them. The number of things we can do now that we couldn’t do twenty years ago is truly dizzying.

But this success at the top blinds us to a void at the bottom.  There have been no fundamental new discoveries in science since I was a child.  The first half of the 20th century brought us relativity, quantum mechanics, the new synthesis of Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics, the expanding universe, the double helix, the incompleteness theorem of Godel, the 3 degree microwave background and the Big Bang.  The last of these was 1964. Has there been any comparable discovery in the last fifty years?

The biggest danger is that we take this lack of fundamental new discoveries as evidence that our basic understanding is now correct, that we have discovered the large principles that govern life and the universe, and it remains for us now to build on this solid foundation and fill in the details. This attitude could spell the death of science.

So what exactly am I talking about?  Where is the glaring evidence that science is ignoring, to its peril?  Here is my list of 10 areas of reported observation that will change the face of biology once they are addressed:

  1. The origin of life: We are accustomed to think that 4 billion years ago, somewhere on earth, a set of chemicals appeared by chance that just happened to be able to create copies of itself.  But decades of trying to find such a combination points to an un-bridgeable gap between the most complex system that could have arisen by chance and the simplest system capable of auto-catalysis.
  2. The Anthropic Principle: We think of such numbers as the gravitational constant and the mass of the electron as fundamental constants of nature that just happen to be what they are.  But since the 1960s it is clear that these numbers are very special, and if any of them were just a little bit different, the universe would be a dull place indeed.
  3. Evolvability: Evolutionary biologists now accept that not just any self-reproducing system is capable of evolving.  So how did life get to be evolvable? Evolvability must have evolved, but this requires a mechanism not encompassed by “survival of the fittest”.
  4. Lamarckian Inheritance: Does the giraffe who stretches to reach the uppermost leaves have children with longer necks?  Evolutionary biologists have rejected this idea since the government-tainted “research” of Trofim Lysenko in the 1930s.  But Lamarckian epigenetic inheritance has now been well-established, and all the pieces are in place to support the plausibility of the thesis that plants and animals can alter their genetic legacy as well.
  5. Where is memory? The conventional answer is that memory dwells in the brain, specifically in synapses that connect neurons.  But one-celled ciliates demonstrate learning. Plants have memories but no neurons. Monarch butterflies somehow pass the memory of their overwinter location through six generations of offspring each summer.  And some heart transplant recipients have been reported to acquire the memories of the deceased donors.
  6. Plant communication: The forest is not just a free-for-all of individual trees each trying to outdo its neighbors in height so it can grab a bigger share of the sunlight.  Trees send pheromonal signals to warn of invading browsers and insect pests. These signals are picked up and acted upon by trees of other species and by birds.  Trees pass nutrients to each other through fungal filaments underground, and take turns nourishing one another through years of sickness.
  7. Animal migration:  A homing pigeon depends on the earth’s magnetic field for part of its navigational ability.  But a pigeon can be put in dark, magnetically-shielded box and carried a thousand miles from its home, and within minutes after its release, it will begin flying toward home.  Whales and some ocean fish navigate over thousands of miles to a specific destination, though they can’t see more than a few feet in front of them. Crabs and turtles and butterflies congregate in swarms at times and places that they are somehow able to agree upon, though they are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.
  8. Telepathy, telekinesis and precognition: There is a credible science of parapsychology that has been pushed to the fringes by well-meaning realists whose theories have made them arrogant.  Robert Jahn, Dean Radin, Daryl Bem, Julia Mossbridge and Jessica Utts are among the most careful and meticulous of the researchers in these phenomena, and all of them have experienced ridicule and ostracism from the scientific community.
  9. The “hard problem”: What is the relationship between the brain and our consciousness?  The conventional view is that brains produce consciousness. “The mind is what the brain does.”  But already 120 years ago, William James taught us there is another alternative that is less consistent with our paradigms but more consistent with the facts.  Maybe the brain is a transmission organ that connects the world of thoughts, feelings and intentions to the material world of molecules, cells and bodies.
  10. Visitors from other worlds:  There are so many stories of sighting UFOs that these people can’t all be nuts.  In 1997 over Phoenix AZ, a hundred thousand people saw an object the size of a battleship hovering in the air for hours.  Many government insiders tell stories that the US military has been hoarding reverse-engineered alien technology since 1947, while using disinformation, ridicule and murder to keep their secret intact.

 

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The Importance of Being Stupid in Science

Science articles give the impression that the research is laid out in a logical order and that all the data fit neatly to confirm a hypothesis.  All the false starts are left out by convention.  All the embarrassing lab errors and the data that don’t fit are

The truth is, scientists really don’t know what we’re doing.  We’re wallowing in the unknown, flailing, trying to keep our heads above the muck and trying to find some clear message from the morass.

Most scientists feel stupid most of the time.  It comes with the territory.  The exceptions are people who aren’t really trying to do science, but are engaged in the vast enterprise of collecting the data on which modern science is built.

(This is summarized (with editorial freedom) from an article by Martin Schwartz in the Journal of Cell Science, The Importance of Being Stupid.)

High Quality Stupid Scientist Blank Meme Template

One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time…The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

 

Controlling Computers with our Thoughts

Keyboards and mice are convenient and precise, but slow and especially difficult for people with some kinds of disabilities.  Voice control of computers has advanced greatly in the last decade, but we’re still nowhere near the place where we can talk to Hal the way Dave did.

Most convenient of all would be if we can control computers with our thoughts, the same way we decide to reach out a hand or a foot and our bodies comply with our wishes.  Control of our bodies is mediated by a network of nerves that connect our brains to the extremities and everywhere in between.  Computers don’t have that kind of access to details of the neural activity in our brains.  Most of us would rather not have electrodes implanted in our skulls.  So work has proceeded on how to decode voltage signals on the scalp.

This has been surprisingly effective.  The key to success has been that the brain is wired in a flexible way that facilitates learning.  With feedback from the computer, people learn to create just the electric patterns that the computer is programmed to look for, and to control the computer with their thoughts.

This week there is a report of a more efficient control system that requires no training.  A multinational team based in Japan has been working to get the computer trained how to read the human brain rather than having the human learn how to control the computer.  Preliminary success is encouraging.  The first applications will involve wheelchair control by quadriplegics.

Univ of S Calif Press Release                                             Article in Science Advances

A Rational Approach to Science Funding

The problem with science research today is that everyone wants to fund the next Einstein, and no one wants to fund a thousand crackpots whose ideas will lead only to dead ends—but none among us is smart enough to tell the difference.

We have to give up on the idea that we can manage research the way we manage an efficient business.

We have to give up on the idea that we have a solid foundation or understanding nature’s workings, and the job of scientists is to fill in the details.

— Josh Mitteldorf

image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/20/Nikola_Tesla%2C_with_his_equipment_Wellcome_M0014782.jpg/318px-Nikola_Tesla%2C_with_his_equipment_Wellcome_M0014782.jpg

Nikola Tesla, with his equipment

Biodegrading Plastic Bottles

About 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute.  Only 14% of these are recycled worldwide.  The rest end up in landfills or, worse, pollute the ocean.  PET is inert by design, and lasts millions of years.

In 2016, a species of bacteria was genetically engineered to eat plastic.  The bacteria use an enzyme (a biochemical catalyst) that breaks down the plastic and turns it into liquids that can be used like kerosene or gas.

Tweaking the enzyme, a group of University of Portsmouth scientists stumbled on a form that is more efficient than what the bacteria used.  It can break down PET in just a few days.

“It is a modest improvement – 20% better – but that is not the point,” said McGeehan. “It’s incredible because it tells us that the enzyme is not yet optimised. It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme.”

Guardian article

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Sentience of Trees

Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.

 

 

— Barbara Kingsolver, writing in the NYTimes,
reviewing The Overstory by Richard Powers

 

Bacteria can Learn

Bacteria have individual lives, and also collective lives. They can form films that support a communal existence, protecting one another at a cost in individual autonomy.

UCLA press release

In this study published last month, bacteria remember the surface they were attached to and pass this information along to their offspring. This is learning, combined with inter-generational memory. Bacteria are the smaller kind of one-celled orgnisms, and science has no understanding of how memory is stored. The article doesn’t describe a mechanism. The most likely candidate would be epigenetic. In other words, markers on the DNA that tell what genes to turn on and off are persistent, and can be passed to offsring when the DNA is copied.

James Shapiro has written a book describing how bacteria modify their own DNA. This is full Lamarckian adaptation.