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Entries in pseudoscience (2)


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.


Lynne McTaggart

Sitting through 18 minutes of Lynne McTaggart's inane drivel was only a minor annoyance. However, now that an unnamed TEDxBrussels organizer went out of his (or her) way to defend their decision to invite her, I think I'm genuinely pissed. This avowed non-scientist's post (the only one published on TEDxBrussels blog since the event) is wrong in every possible way, completely misunderstands the criticism it purports to answer, and is frankly insulting to those of us who voiced said criticism.

Firstly, if your honest goal is to "join and extend the conversation" in an adult way, you really, really shouldn't open by drawing a parallel between the audience reaction to Mrs. McTaggart's talk and the campaign against WikiLeaks. No-one suggested Lynne McTaggart be silenced. You're welcome to "defiantly reserve the right" to invite her, if mindless posturing happens to be your thing that's entirely fine with me, but no-one's attempting to deny you that right. I and others have said that inviting her was a mistake, but we all agree it's a mistake you're fully entitled to make. Anyway, exposing and denouncing quackery is not an assault on free speech. On the contrary, it is one of the main reasons we need free speech.

By the way, I resent your assumption that I merely "disagree" with Mrs. McTaggart. I'm calling her a fraud. Big difference. I disagree with Republicans who say lower taxes are needed to stimulate the economy. I think they're wrong, but I'll admit that their theory is not a fully disprovable one. On the other hand, Birthers, who maintain the lunacy that Obama wasn't born in the United States, are simply paranoid and delusional, and I won't dignify their position by saying I'm just disagreeing with them.

So what's my beef with Lynne McTaggart? You assert "The charge is that her brand of science is not valid[…]", but no, that's not the charge at all. There are no "brands" in science. There is science, and there is pseudo-science. Spotting the difference between the two is not always easy, especially if, like most people, you only have a vague and second-hand understanding of what science is. It's not just a collection of disciplines, and it certainly has nothing to do with the person practicing it or the institution he belongs to. (After all, the most acclaimed scientist of all time changed our understanding of the universe while working as an obscure patent clerk.)

Science is a set of practices and techniques that enables mere humans to infer objective knowledge about the universe. To me, it is mind-boggling that this is even possible. Our brain evolved to help us evade lions on the plains of East Africa. Whenever it's used to ponder the fabric of the universe it unsurprisingly betrays severe shortcomings. All humans are prone to emotional outbursts, confirmation bias, and a flurry of logical fallacies. The scientific method is the best way we've found yet to avoid these trappings.

Contrary to popular belief, science isn't all that complicated to learn. Humanity's body of scientific knowledge is, of course, huge and always expanding, but the basic method is simple enough. You certainly don't need to go to college to learn it, although that is one popular option. What you definitely need, however, is to want to learn and practice it. You need the willingness to constantly put your beliefs and worldview to the test, and risk seeing the evidence expose them as fraudulent. You need the discipline to, whenever you get a new idea about anything, immediately assume the role of Devil's Advocate, and attack the idea from all possible sides to see if it survives the pummeling. You need, in the words of Richard Feynman, to always be ready to "bend over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong".

Lynne McTaggart is unwilling to even glance back over her shoulder. She throws around anecdotes about jars of water and peas sitting in laboratories and rambles about how they "noticed an effect". What effect ? How about all the experiments where they didn't notice an effect ? What controls were used to make sure the "effect" couldn't be explained without positing a parapsychological "field" ? By the way, I haven't read Mrs. McTaggart's book, and I don't intend to. (I'm busy.) Nor do I need to to know she's not interested in real knowledge. She proved that at TEDx, by closing her talk with a faith-healing session for a woman with a bacterial infection. This was not an experiment, although that's what she called it. Real experiments are designed to provide evidence that put theories to the test. Whatever happens to that women, it won't be evidence of anything. Bacterial infections have widely diverging effects and remission patterns. They occur all the time and usually go away within a few days. Sometimes they linger and no-one really knows why, and sometimes they go away unexpectedly fast, simply because that's what sometimes happen. (Judging by the throbbing in my throat, I've got a bacterial infection right now. I'm not overly worried.)

I bet Lynne McTaggart performs that same "experiment" every time she gives a talk. Actually, I know she does, she even bragged about it. But she could do it thousands of times and compile testimonies from all her subjects and they could all be ecstatic about how well the chanting worked and it still wouldn't be evidence of anything. The scientific method is simple enough, but the human body is complicated, thus evaluating the efficacy of a treatment is notoriously hard. Lynne's "experiment" doesn't even attempt to control for cognitive bias nor the placebo effect. These effects are so well-known that she can't possibly be unaware of them. Since she obviously decides to ignore them, I conclude she's not really interested in finding anything out. It's just show-biz. And there's nothing wrong with show-biz, until it starts masquerading as scientific inquiry. (By the way, I again find exception in your claim that "[scientists] present at TEDx Brussels, […] all participated in the experiment, all closed their eyes and linked hands with their neighbours. They were relaxed and enjoyed the moment. It was entertaining." — I didn't and it wasn't.)

You end your post saying TED should be about presenting challenging ideas. I fully agree, and this is my one reason why Lynne McTaggart shouldn't have been there. Never mind that her scientific posturing might fool some people and actually hurt public understanding of science. Never mind that her mere presence at TEDx is an insult to the brilliant scientists who also took the stage that day. Never mind that her books and websites are transparent fronts to tempt the sick into buying shiny baubles that at best won't do them any good. Never mind that, as part of the anti-vaccine movement, she can be said to have blood on her hands. The real case against her speaking at TEDx is that her ideas are not new, and certainly not challenging. For decades people have been saying we're all in a mystical field that interconnects all things and our thoughts can act on it and it's all because of quantum. It is entirely unsurprising that someone foolish enough to believe she understood quantum theory, and who didn't know (or didn't care) about confirmation bias and the placebo effect, would promote such theories and try to make money doing so. I like nothing more than being challenged, but you'll have to try harder.