05 September 2010

No turning back for science

An article with a title like “Science’s dead end” seems like an active effort to troll the science blogosphere. Maybe author James Le Fanu has a point, but a quick search raise doubts as fast as you can type. He’s trained as a medical doctor, not a researcher. And he seems to be a cynical one, having written a piece with a similarly apocalyptic title, “The fall of medicine,” for the same magazine over ten years ago.

The outsider’s perspective is apparent in his first paragraph.

For science this is both the best and the worst of times. The best because its research institutions have never been so impressive, its funding never more lavish.

Yes, it’s so incredibly lavish that funding rates for most American federal agencies are way less than one funded proposal out of ten applications, so that good researchers devote weeks on end to revising and resubmitting in hopes of finding the resources to carry out their research.

Biomedical research alone received $62bn and over the last ten years that figure has almost doubled again, soaring past the hundred billion dollar mark and dwarfing the GDP of a dozen countries.

The National Institutes of Health budget did indeed double in the late 1990s and early part of the decade, but has been slightly declining for most of the decade. Meanwhile, applications have increased substantially over the same period.

From here.

Pose the question, What does it all add up to? and the answer, on reflection, seems surprisingly little—certainly compared to a century ago, when funding was an infinitesimal fraction of what it has become.

Ah, yes, the good ol’ days. The great thing about nostalgia is that there is no clear basis for comparison. I can just as easily bemoan how much manpower and money are poured into making a contemporary Hollywood movie compared to early in the last century, and make similar sighing sounds.

“The original King Kong was made with the special effects being the handiwork of only one talented animator, Willis O’Brien, and is widely regarded as a classic of cinema. The remake a few year ago involved a veritable army of special effects technicians, but is it better?”

Le Fanu spends several paragraphs recapping arguments made by John Horgan, saying that science must reach a point of diminishing returns.

It is difficult, even impossible, to imagine how so comprehensive an achievement can be surpassed. Once it is possible to say “this is how the universe came into being,” and so on, anything that comes after is likely to be something of an anticlimax.

But not everything in research is about surpassing what came before. It’s about contributing. I doubt few budding physicists have career plans that look like this:

  1. Finish doctorate.
  2. Get tenure.
  3. Surpass Isaac Newton.

Science usually advances incrementally. It’s slow and painful, and it’s a tribute to the increasing numbers of scientists that we made the progress that Le Fanu acknowledges we have made.

Le Fanu’s bemoans that genetics can’t tell us why organisms are different – a claim I’ll leave to better geneticists than myself to dissect. He then goes on to the neuroscience, and doesn’t see much progress there, either.

While it might be possible to know everything about the physical materiality of the brain down to the last atom, its “product,” the five cardinal mysteries of the non-material mind are still unaccounted for: subjective awareness; free will; how memories are stored and retrieved; the “higher” faculties of reason and imagination; and that unique sense of personal identity that changes and matures over time but remains the same.

Le Fanu mixes claims of what science could achieve in the future (“it might be possible”) with what we know now (“are still unaccounted for”).

But Le Fanu retorts that we know the answer already.

The usual response is to acknowledge that perhaps things have turned out to be more complex than originally presumed, but to insist these are still “early days” to predict what might yet emerge. ... (B)ut it is possible, in broad outline, to anticipate what they will reveal. ... (A) a million scans of subjects watching a bouncing red ball would not progress understanding any further of how those neuronal circuits experience the ball as being round and red and bouncing.

It would, indeed, be quite sad if the best science could do would be do the same simple experiment a million times. Fortunately, this is not what we do. Problems get tackled from many sides, at many different levels. Some work at the level of networks of cells. Others work at the level of cells and molecules.

But I think Le Fanu is more likely to reject answers as unsatisfactory. Brass and Haggard (2007) have empirical data that certainly seems relevant to the question of free will. One particular brain region, the fronto-median cortex, is a critical point in the decision making process to do something or not.

Think answers along those line would satisfy Le Fanu?

At a time when cosmologists can reliably infer what happened in the first few minutes of the birth of the universe, and geologists can measure the movements of continents to the nearest centimetre, it seems extraordinary that geneticists can’t tell us why humans are so different from flies, and neuroscientists are unable to clarify how we recall a telephone number.

We may not be able to say why a human can remember a phone number, but we can discuss why other kinds of organisms are able to remember certain kinds of information. But again, does Le Fanu really care that we have good explanations of how NMDA receptors can help create long lasting changes in synaptic strength in a variety of organisms in ways that are consistent with memory?

No. Because, near the end, we arrive at the logical conclusion: Mysticism.

(T)he distinctive feature of both the form and “organisation” of life (as opposed to its materiality) and the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the mind is that they are unequivocally non-material in that they cannot be quantified, weighed or measured. And thus, strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain.

Wow. Not only a Cartesian dualist, but a vitalist as well. That’s some seriously hard core rejection of science you’ve got right there. There are some dualists out there (for instance, see Hinson 2010 and Anckarsäter 2010 responding to Cashmore 2010), but vitalists are an fairly endangered species.

If Le Fanu lived at the turn of the last century instead of this one, he would have poo-poohed that DNA could tell us anything about inheritance across generations, or that action potentials and neurotransmitters could tell us anything about memory, or that electrical activity would reveal anything about states of consciousness. Because, after all, life and mind can’t be investigated by science. He would have written all of that off as a waste of time. And he would have been wrong.

It is Le Fanu, not science, that has reached a dead end.

Hat tip to PolymerPhD for spotting the article that just killed any chance of Sunday morning fun for me.


Anckarsäter H (2010). Has biology disproved free will and moral responsibility? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(27): E114. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1006466107

Brass M, Haggard P (2007). To do or not to do: The neural signature of self-control The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(34): 9141-9145. DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.0924-07.2007

Cashmore AR. 2010. The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(10): 4499-4504. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0915161107

Hinsen K. 2010. A scientific model for free will is impossible. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: In press. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1010609107

Photo by bennylin0724 on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

proximity1 said...

I think that the more you look, the more you'll notice that Cartesian dualism and vitalism are extremely common--if unrecognized or unacknowledged--among scientists. That means life science scientists, too, and "good ones" by all of the standard criteria. Sure, climate-change deniers and supporters of any "Intelligent Design" theory of biological evolution, are requied to go in for some form of vitalism. But, really, it is the mainstream opinion and I found your post refreshing precisely because you can apparently spot vitalism when you see it and you can object to it.

Believe it or not, those qualities put you in a minority--even among scientists. That's a shame, or it ought to be. But it's a fact.

See, for example, my experiences here, which exemplifies what for me is the worst in science-forulmin a thread I opened, called,

"On Ontophylogenesis or 'Cellular Darwinism' "

with a bunch of totalitarian self-described "moderators" who are only moderate when it comes to their fans, their pet ideas, and their cronies who play log-rolling games of mutual support and gangland censorship, these "Keepers of the Flame of Science (As We Say It's Gotta Be)" here:


Then, try this, as my current favorite example of what a those who want to host a science blog ought to strive for:


in each case, I am a disinterested observer-&-sometime-participant with no personal connection to either blog or the people behind them.