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Of Science and Open Minds

The recent discussion about Lynne McTaggart's TEDxBrussels talk left me with a few unsaid thoughts, but I figured a third post on TEDxBrussels would be, if not beating a dead horse, at least akin to abusing a crippled pony. On the other hand, now that Thomas Goorden has come out against TEDx inviting not only McTaggart but also Frank Tipler and Stuart Hameroff, this post has become necessary.

Sadly I arrived too late to see Frank Tipler's talk and I haven't read his books, so I have no opinion on the guy or what he talked about. I'll only say I'm skeptical of anyone dismissing his work because it "runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics". Mr. Tipler is a tenured professor of mathematical physics, so I'm pretty sure he's heard of that law.

I did however see the other two talks criticized by Mr Goorden, and while I believe Lynne McTaggart is completely wrong for TEDx, I think Stuart Hameroff is absolutely perfect. There is a sometimes small but extremely important distinction between having wild ideas and being pseudoscientific. Progress is made by people thinking out of the box and coming up with stuff that seems crazy at the time but is later proved right. Of course, most wild and crazy ideas turn out to be wrong, but they need to be proven wrong. If one dismisses out of hand every idea that seems outlandish, acquiring meaningful knowledge becomes impossible.

On the surface, Mr Hameroff and Ms Taggart have many things in common. They both espouse theories that stand outside scientific consensus and even seem to defy common sense. Neither of them are physicists, yet they both claim quantum mechanics as a foundation for their theories. Despite these similarities, I'd describe Mr Hameroff as a provocative scientist and researcher, and Ms Taggart as a fraud and a potentially dangerous one at that. Why?

Firstly, it bears mentioning that the work Mr Hameroff talked about at TEDx was done in collaboration with Roger Penrose. You're welcome to call it pseudoscientific, but if you choose to do so, realize you're not only attacking him and the TEDx Brussels organization, but also a Wolf prize-winning mathematician and co-discoverer of Hawking radiation. Of course, that doesn't make Mr Hameroff's theory right, or even scientific — Isaac Newton was a genius scientist, and still he was dead wrong about alchemy — but it should make anyone think twice before dismissing it as worthless rambling.

If all I had to present in Mr Hameroff's defense was his endorsement by a distinguished scientist, my case would be very weak indeed. I'll give three further arguments for Mr Hameroff's scientific credibility: his having submitted his ideas to peer review, his attempts at establishing falsifiability, and his efforts to distinguish between evidence and conjecture.

I won't spend time discussing why the first two points are important and I leave checking their veracity as an exercise to the reader, because to me the last one is the most significant. Is it possible to present highly exotic and speculative ideas while preserving your scientific integrity? Of course it is. The only requirement is that you honestly say this is what you're doing.

Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose are working on a theory of consciousness, i.e. an attempt to explain why it is that we experience life as conscious agents. This is largely an unsolved problem. As far as I know, the only scientific consensus is that consciousness is an emergent property of the material nervous system of humans and a few animals. All that means is that scientists by and large believe consciousness will eventually be explained without appealing to a metaphysical "soul". The phenomenon of consciousness can, in principle, be understood by studying the biological body, without any appeal to the supernatural.

However, as of 2010, nobody really knows what mechanisms in that body bring forth consciousness. All we have are vague and unproven theories, also known as "wild guesses". This is perfectly normal. The surface of the ever-increasing sphere of knowledge is by definition made of questions we don't know the answer of. So we make guesses. We then use reason to infer the consequences of these guesses and see if these consequences fit observed reality. If they do, we slowly gain confidence that we're guessing right. Accepted theories, like evolution or quantum chromodynamics, are those guesses that have been studied so much and have been found to fit reality so closely and so often that they're accepted as "true". Pending further developments, they are our best explanation for how the world works. For a theory to become accepted, however, takes time. Often, a very long time. While this is going on, many different guesses are "outstanding" at the same time, and we're not sure which will turn out right (if any) and which will be proved wrong.

Mr Penrose and Hameroff's theory is just one of many guesses we have at the moment. Its main distinguishing feature is its claim that quantum effects inside the brain play a role in the appearance of consciousness. Is that the case ? We don't know. But neither do we know for sure that quantum effects play no role in consciousness. Up to now the theory has yielded very few testable predictions, but Mr Hameroff is trying to make more. Experiments will be made and we'll see how it pans out. Until then, we have no right to dismiss the theory without proving it wrong. It is thus unfair and fallacious to accuse Mr Hameroff of pseudoscience because his theory is unproven. All theories start out unproven. For as long as a theory remains neither proven nor disproven, no matter how wild it seems, a scientist can discuss it without being pseudoscientific. At least, as long as he's making it clear he's only conjecturing, which Mr. Hameroff does.

Just as unfair is attacking him because his theory has spiritual implications and he's not afraid to talk about them. Many solved and unsolved scientific problems have spiritual, philosophical or moral implications. (Just a select few: the finiteness of our universe ; whether it is time-cyclical, condemned to a heat death, or something else ; the age of our planet ; the moment consciousness appears during a fetus' development ; the relation between cognitive power and the capacity to feel distress and pain.) Can't scientists discuss these issues as well as the underlying science ? Of course they can. They're humans after all, and humans benefit greatly when they exchange their ideas about any great problem. As long as the scientist draws a clear distinction between his science (facts, models, experimental data, etc.) and its philosophical implications, he's faithful to the scientific method. Stuart Hameroff does that. Lynne McTaggart doesn't.

By the way, I would have had no problem at all if Ms McTaggart had given a purely philosophical talk. As I recently learned from Nassim Taleb, the original meaning of "belief" comes from the Latin "credo", meaning "to trust". A "believer" in this sense doesn't necessarily think that the subject of his belief is literally true, but he chooses to live his life as if that was so. Seen in this light, the Field really isn't too bad. Believing that everyone and everything is engulfed in a field that can be influenced by thought seems to me a better foundation for an ethical life than, say, believing Josef Ratzinger is the infallible emissary of God on Earth. Had Lynne McTaggart talked only about the philosophy of the Field without claiming experimental evidence for it, her talk would still have been boring, but at least it would have been harmless.

My rationale against Ms McTaggart speaking at TEDx isn't that New Age philosophy is uninteresting or that TEDx should be more like an academia-style scientific conference. It isn't and shouldn't be. However, the misrepresentation of a collection of meaningless anecdotes as a campaign of scientific experiments does more than insult scientists: it hurts public understanding of science. Lynne McTaggart props up her theory by pretending her observations amount to scientific evidence, and in doing so she sullies the concept of scientific evidence in the mind of everyone who takes her half-seriously. I don't believe it's possible to have an understanding of what hard scientific knowledge is, and yet sit through her talk without tasting vomit. This offense alone should be enough to disqualify her from a forum dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading.

That being said, pseudoscience is not the only thing that harms scientific progress. I'm convinced Thomas Goorden wrote his post with the best intentions at heart. It contains a lot of useful advice on spotting pseudosciences and I must say we seem to agree with each other much more than we disagree. However, I think his post has the potential to do more harm than good. By lumping together pseudoscience with scientifically sound but unusual ideas, he's giving fodder to those who accuse scientists of being close-minded and arrogant and acting like they have all the answers even when they don't.

Good scientists aren't at all like that. They know they have more real answers than the "spiritual" know-nothing pseudoscientists, but they're also aware that scientific progress means knowing less and less about more and more, and they're always looking forward to the next revolution. They know we will eventually find out stuff that will invalidate most of what we think of as true today, and they're okay with that. Actually they're more than ok, they like it. They're even eager for the little revolutions, and thus keep their ears wide open for original ideas. Crazy theories that might just turn out to be right. They don't accept anything uncritically, but they do listen to everything, attentively, and make an effort to put aside all preconceived notions and personal beliefs before they evaluate a theory. In short, they keep their minds open as wide as can be, but they're not letting their brains fall off.

Is Stuart Hameroff's theory right ? Probably not. It is a statistical reality of research that the vast majority of new ideas eventually turn out to be erroneous. However, we don't yet know that it is wrong. It's way too early to cast it out as useless. It is an elegant idea which is endorsed by one of the few people on Earth who have a decent claim at understanding quantum mechanics. I'd say it's likely to be wrong. But I'm still glad TEDx gave me the opportunity to learn about it.

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