Spending a lengthy portion of time without proper internet is, it turns out, an educational experience. Other phrases spring to mind too, but I’m going to focus on ‘educational experience’. Obviously the loss of such a powerful tool for inefficiency had quite an effect on my concentration span – as many have noted, procrastination is the most dangerous of modern addictions (apparently the NHS has long been planning to start up a rehab centre, but they keep getting distracted). But also, having been denied access to various online journals, magazines, blogs and the like, I’ve resorted to getting all my sciencey goodness from books. Actual, real, whole books. I’d forgotten that reading used to have an accompanying smell. And, perhaps hankering for those briefer e-alternatives, I ended up reading chunks of said books all together, interweaved amongst each other… until I found I’d completely finished them in parallel, covers-to-covers. So-called ‘horizontal reading’ (reading different accounts related to the same subject) is a well-established comparative technique in academia. But I’d thoroughly recommend trying it on completely unconnected material without having any directed purpose whatsoever. Listening to your brain creak as it makes increasingly tenuous links is worryingly entertaining. However, a couple of these links did lodge themselves, annoyingly peripherally, in my brain – and the return of the internet* did nothing to dislodge them. Indeed, it made them feel somewhat more prevalent.
But more on that story later. First, let me introduce you to a couple of the paperey wonders I’ve stumbled across. The most intriguing has been David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics. As with a lot of Kaiser works, the title alone is quite a draw (his papers provide a field day for film buffs, including such gems as ‘All Quantum no Solace’ and ‘A Mannheim for All Seasons’). And, probably more importantly, the material itself delivers on this promise – Kaiser deals with a period in American science, beginning towards the end of the Cold War and lasting up until the present day, in which attitudes towards quantum physics changed amongst US physicists. Within a physics profession dominated by a completely nonphilosophical “shut up and calculate” mindset (adopted largely for military purposes), Kaiser charts the increasing influence of the ‘Fundamental Fysiks Group’ at Berkeley. Composed of maverick physicists, many of whom were deeply influenced by New Left philosophy and Eastern mysticism, the group provided a safe after-hours haven for out-of-bounds discussions about what was ‘really happening’ in the quantum world. Through a mixture of discussion, theorisation, and experimentation (in numerous senses of the word), the group produced a mixed bag of results. Some of these were short-lived; an example being the ‘metaphase typewriter’, which rigged up a Geiger counter to a computerized teletype device – the aim being to communicate with the spirit of Harry Houdini (of course). But some of them, such as detailed analysis of ‘Bell’s Theorem’, spread beyond the group (helped by more mainstream scientists such as John Wheeler, as well as extrascientific support from hippies in high places http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erhard_Seminars_Training). Nowadays, discussion of ‘what it all means’ is much more routine in quantum physics classes. Probably the most productive stoner sessions physics has ever experienced**.
As well as comprehensive historical work, the whole book makes a useful point about the place of maverick ideas in science. Einstein’s maverick special relativity was opposed for years before his ‘obvious genius’ was accepted. On the other hand many many forgotten mavericks have been, well, forgotten for good reason (to put it politely). Now the overall impact of the Fundamental Fysiks group led to useful steps forward in understanding quantum physics, and not just philosophically – current ideas on quantum cryptography, a potentially massive boon to unhackable data transmission, owe much to their suggestions. Yet much of their actual output was met with complete scorn, and continues to be. They’re a complicated halfway house on the spectrum of maverickness. (Appropriately, I don’t care whether that’s an accepted word). But another example, less obvious but better well known, is the one and only Carl Sagan – the subject of my book number 2, Keay Davidson’s Carl Sagan: A Life. Much of Sagan’s work, both as a researcher and a popularizer, came from a lifelong drive to communicate with extra-terrestrial life. But even though Sagan’s beliefs often led him to somewhat bizarre (and fruitless) lines of research, it was those selfsame beliefs that drove him into astronomy in the first place, and gave him that enthusiasm which would later be communicated to over 500 million people. Again, the net outcome of this maverickness seems to be positive.
At first sight, such middle-ground maverickness doesn’t seem to be a problem for science: Some of Sagan’s ideas were accepted because Science later showed them to be right, and some of his ideas were rejected because Science showed them to be wrong. Until…. enter book number 3. <Enter Thomas Kuhn’s TheStructure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition, with dramatic music and audience applause>. Kuhn’s SSR is an absolute landmark in history and philosophy of science, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year (I actually made my copy a cake, complete with candles. Then it turned out books are flammable). A useful summary is here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas-kuhn/, but for the sake of upcoming discussion, it’s worth trying a super-summary. Basically, Kuhn argues that scientists work within things called ‘paradigms’, which are community-enforced mindsets comprising basic assumptions about the world, how science works, lots of inter-linked theories etc. So, you’re a late 16th-century mechanical philosopher? Great, well your paradigm includes assumptions like ‘all forces are transmitted by contact’, which allows you to theorise about invisible whirlpools in space pulling planets around orbits. But then this maverick Isaac Newton comes along with his new theory of gravity. It’s a great theory, it explains lots of observations that you’ve been having increasing problems with – but he steps outside your paradigm by saying that gravity isn’t transmitted by anything, it just, well, happens. Which is a pretty pathetic answer. But his theory is really really useful, and more and more young natural philosophers start learning it, and more and more of them start just accepting Newton’s assumptions. And then you die and your objections don’t really carry weight anymore. The new community of philosophers has entered into a new paradigm, the Newtonian paradigm. And that’s how scientific revolutions happen. More changes than a single theory – the entire mindset of a community, all those basic assumptions and all the theories based on them, appear in a completely new light.
Kuhn’s ideas obviously dovetail into the previous two books – to step outside the dominant mindset requires mavericks, some of these mavericks effect successful revolutions, some never gain the acceptance required to cause revolutions and are forgotten, etc. etc. Kuhn throws lots of relevant philosophical spanners into the works, such as how paradigms can change what it means to be ‘right’. But I won’t go into them any more detail – it’s very mind-screwey, and this blog is gentle in intent. The SEP link above has more details for the keen. But a very relevant Kuhnism is the claim that revolutions do not occur for purely ‘scientific’ reasons. Irrational factors, such as a particularly vocal advocate or the conservatism of older scientists, can be crucial deciding factors. Who knows how many potential revolutionaries, despite accumulating good solid evidence for their theories, never got anywhere simply because no one paid them attention? How much more difficult did the Fundamental Fysiks Group find changing the mindset of quantum physicists because of the Group’s ‘hippie’ credentials? How much extra discussion did Sagan’s wackier ideas get amongst astronomers because of his public stardom?
Kuhn’s ideas are most often applied to the shadowy interior of the professional scientific community. But those two other books, plus my book number 4 (the final one, don’t worry) got me thinking that Kuhn’s ideas, or something like them, are important from a more public point of view as well. Book number 4 is Nancy Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. For brevity, I’ll confine my summary to two points: 1) it should be compulsory reading for all human beings and 2) it details how a small group of well-connected American scientists manipulated the US government and the media to advance their maverick (and extremely harmful) views on the ‘non-dangers’ of tobacco smoke, greenhouse gas emissions, and the like – largely in the name of a conservative ideology. Although the huge funding offers from tobacco companies and pollutant-heavy industries might have had something to do with it too. Many of their ideas are still doing the rounds amongst somewhat, well, underinformed members of the public today, to justify cavalier attitudes towards global warming and smoking. So my question to Professor Kuhn is – how effective is a scientific revolution when it doesn’t fully change the mindsets that matter (in this case, the masses of people pumping out pollutants)? Unfortunately he’s dead, so I’ll have to stop that conversation there. But all those books have led us to an interlinked, and worrying, message. Although the vast majority of scientists operate within a ‘help global warming is happening and it’s scary’ paradigm, a few mavericks – who, like Sagan and Kaiser’s hippies, are driven to maverickness by what they want to believe – are acting as counter-revolutionaries. And, although the Science says global warming is happening, all those irrational factors of conservatism and comfortable lifestyles (helped by the ‘evidence’ of the mavericks, however unscientific) are holding back the power of a full revolution.
So I finally got back to the internet. And I started seeing these ideas everywhere. Take the new UK cabinet reshuffle. At first sight this seemed an occasion of mass frustration for scientists, including as it does the replacement of the old Health Secretary by a body of water with the vague memory of a Health Secretary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Hunt_(politician), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy. And although a recent report does give me more confidence in the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19690909 – it did interest me that he claimed most counterproductivity stemmed from uber-Conservative (presumably in both senses of the word) factions and their climate change scepticism. Similarly, in a recent edition of Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’, ethical objections to new mitochondrial treatments (http://mitochondria.hfea.gov.uk/mitochondria/) came mostly from more conservative members of the panel, and were often vague statements about the potential dangers of science-in-general rather than specific counterattacks to the issue at hand. Two potential revolutions rendered ineffectual because public figures, rather than the scientific community, resist the shift into a new paradigm. As Kuhn says, we can’t dismiss the irrational factors of conservatism and its ilk from scientific discussions. We have to understand how to open people’s minds to a paradigm shift, to adopting an entirely new mindset in the face of new ideas. As we’ve seen in Kuhn, and in Kaiser and Keay***, science and irrationality can combine to produce net progress. But we have to also understand how to do that without allowing bad, even harmful, maverick ideas to support counterproductivity, as warned by Oreskes and Conway. As a history-of-science fanboy it pains me to say this, but I think these are problems to be solved by greater awareness of modern philosophy of science – amongst everyone.
Or maybe that’s just the words of a brain tortured by internet deprivation. Although, having said that, this whole hyper-disconnected-horizontal-reading thing has been quite interesting. Maybe being a cyber-hermit is the true route to academic enlightenment. So if you ever stumble across a mountaintop lair, in which a bearded hermit holds a copy of Marxist Thought in Literature in one hand and a Mr. Men anthology in the other, it’ll probably be me. And probably best to leave me in peace.
* which, incidentally, is the title of my upcoming Hollywood blockbuster.
** Although maybe not science in general – http://www.cracked.com/article_16532_the-5-greatest-things-ever-accomplished-while-high_p2.html).
*** It turns out my scattershot reading might have been alphabetically influenced.
The Books. All, especially the Kuhn and the Conway & Oreskes, come highly recommended by a notable authority (me).
And, on a somewhat different note, my title is a homage to this very nice song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rZbvi6Tj6E