Archive for June, 2013

Origin of Life and Philosophical Outlook

June 28, 2013

In Signature in the Cell, Dr. Stephen Meyer presented a comprehensive and accessible history of research into the origin of life. In this post, we take a bird’s eye view of research into this area over the past three-quarters of a century. We shall also digress in order to get a snapshot of how ideological commitments shape the views of many scientists.

***

Let’s begin with Dr. Ernst Chain. Chain won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the development of penicillin. I mentioned him in Genesis and Genes, in the context of the discussion about whether evolutionary theory is relevant to nuts-and-bolts research in biology. I cited an article by Philip Skell (1918-2010), who was a distinguished professor of chemistry and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and a prominent Darwin sceptic. In a 2009 article in Forbes.com entitled The Dangers of Overselling Evolution, he made the point that evolutionary theory makes no contribution to actual research:

In 1942, Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain wrote that his discovery of penicillin (with Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming) and the development of bacterial resistance to that antibiotic owed nothing to Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s evolutionary theories.[1]

Chain understood the immensity of the task of trying to explain life in naturalistic terms. In The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond, we read that:

I have said for years that speculations about the origin of life lead to no useful purpose as even the simplest living system is far too complex to be understood in terms of the extremely primitive chemistry scientists have used in their attempts to explain the unexplainable that happened billions of years ago.[2]

In August 1954, Dr. George Wald, another Nobel Laureate, wrote in Scientific American:

There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility… a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God, therefore I choose to believe that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to Evolution.

 This statement may seem astonishingly frank to many members of the public. Informed consumers of science, in contrast, are aware that much of the debate around the origin of life and biological evolution has precious little to do with drawing inevitable conclusions from straightforward evidence. It is far more about worldviews and ideologies, and only extremely naive observers assume that this does not apply to scientists who participate in the debate. Wald makes it perfectly clear that his direction was dictated by his philosophical leanings, and that is true of many scientists and Western intellectuals. Consider the views of Thomas Nagel. Nagel is a courageous thinker whose latest book, Mind and Cosmos, is a fierce demolition of Darwinian evolution.[3] But Nagel will only go so far. In The Last Word, which appeared in 1997, he offered a candid account of his philosophical inclinations:

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers… It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.[4]

 The fact that faith – the faith of many scientists in the ability of unguided matter and energy to create life – drives much of the discussion about evolution, was underscored by Dr. Gerald Kerkut, Professor  Emeritus of Neuroscience at the University of Southampton, who wrote in 1960 that: 

The first assumption was that non-living things gave rise to living material. This is still just an assumption… There is, however, little evidence in favor of abiogenesis and as yet we have no indication that it can be performed… it is therefore a matter of faith on the part of the biologist that abiogenesis did occur and he can choose whatever method… happens to suit him personally; the evidence for what did happen is not available.

 Harold Urey won a Nobel Prize for chemistry, but is probably more famous for participating, with his graduate student Stanley Miller, in what became known as the Miller-Urey experiment. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor on 4th January 1962, Urey wrote: 

All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.

 Hubert Yockey, the renowned information theorist, wrote in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1977 that:

One must conclude that… a scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written.

Richard Dickerson, a molecular biologist at UCLA, wrote in 1978 in Scientific American that: 

The evolution of the genetic machinery is the step for which there are no laboratory models; hence one can speculate endlessly, unfettered by inconvenient facts. The complex genetic apparatus in present-day organisms is so universal that one has few clues as to what the apparatus may have looked like in its most primitive form.[5]

 Francis Crick needs no introduction. In Life Itself, published in 1981, he wrote that: 

Every time I write a paper on the origin of life, I determine I will never write another one, because there is too much speculation running after too few facts.

 Crick’s conclusion is that:

The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.[6]

 Prominent origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel wrote in New Scientist in 1982 that:

Prebiotic soup is easy to obtain. We must next explain how a prebiotic soup of organic molecules, including amino acids and the organic constituents of nucleotides evolved into a self-replicating organism. While some suggestive evidence has been obtained, I must admit that attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary process are extremely tentative.[7]

 The views of Nobel Prize winner Fred Hoyle are particularly interesting. He struggled with the conflict between his ardent atheism and his knowledge of the excruciating difficulty of positing a naturalistic start to life. Writing in 1984, Hoyle stated that: 

From my earliest training as a scientist I was very strongly brain-washed to believe that science cannot be consistent with any kind of deliberate creation. That notion has had to be very painfully shed. I am quite uncomfortable in the situation, the state of mind I now find myself in. But there is no logical way out of it; it is just not possible that life could have originated from a chemical accident.[8]

 The writer Andrew Scott hit the nail on the head when he wrote, in 1986, that most scientists’ adherence to naturalistic accounts of the origin of life owed little to the evidence and much to ideological commitments:

But what if the vast majority of scientists all have faith in the one unverified idea? The modern ‘standard’ scientific version of the origin of life on earth is one such idea, and we would be wise to check its real merit with great care. Has the cold blade of reason been applied with sufficient vigor in this case? Most scientists want to believe that life could have emerged spontaneously from the primeval waters, because it would confirm their belief in the explicability of Nature – the belief that all could be explained in terms of particles and energy and forces if only we had the time and the necessary intellect.[9]

 This conclusion is mirrored in the words of Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and authority on origin-of-life studies. Writing in 2002, Davies affirms that it is scientists’ adherence to methodological naturalism that drives their agenda and conclusions:

First, I should like to say that the scientific attempt to explain the origin of life proceeds from the assumption that whatever it was that happened was a natural process: no miracles, no supernatural intervention. It was by ordinary atoms doing extraordinary things that life was brought into existence. Scientists have to start with that assumption.[10]

 In 1988, Klaus Dose, another prominent origin-of-life theorist, summed up the situation nicely when he wrote that: 

More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.[11]

 Carl Woese was a pioneer in taxonomy, and one of the major figures in 20th century microbiology. His view of the origin of life: 

In one sense the origin of life remains what it was in the time of Darwin – one of the great unsolved riddles of science. Yet we have made progress…many of the early naïve assumptions have fallen or have fallen aside…while we do not have a solution, we now have an inkling of the magnitude of the problem.[12]

 Paul Davies, too, writes that no substantive progress has been made in this area since Darwin’s time. In a recent short paper suggesting that life be viewed as a software package, Davies writes:

Darwin pointedly left out an account of how life first emerged, “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. A century and a half later, scientists still remain largely in the dark about life’s origins. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions in science.[13]

 Readers of Genesis and Genes will recall Richard Lewontin’s admission that his mathematical models of evolutionary mechanisms are a sham – they do not correspond to reality. The biologist Lynn Margulis reminisced:

Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass [University of Massachusetts] Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it – changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.

 Lewontin, who is one of the most prominent geneticists in the world and a protégé of one of the founders of neo-Darwinism, Theodosius Dobzhansky, was equally forthright about the role that faith plays in moulding scientists’ approach to important issues. In his review of a book by Carl Sagan, Lewontin wrote in 1997 that:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.[14]

 Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute is one of the world’s leading origin-of-life researchers and a leading expert on self-organisational systems. He writes:

Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the earth some 3.45 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows.[15]

 In Genesis and Genes, I also quoted the biochemist Franklin Harold. In his book The Way of the Cell, Harold frankly acknowledged that “We must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”[16] Regarding the origin of life, Harold writes that:

It would be agreeable to conclude this book with a cheery fanfare about science closing in, slowly but surely, on the ultimate mystery; but the time for rosy rhetoric is not yet at hand. The origin of life appears to me as incomprehensible as ever, a matter for wonder but not for explication.[17]

 Massimo Pigliucci was formerly a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and holds doctorates in genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science. He is currently the chairman of the department of philosophy at City University of New York. He is a prominent international proponent of evolution and the author of several books. Writing in 2003, Pigliucci writes that “[I]t has to be true that we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”[18]

In 2007, we find science writer Gregg Easterbrook writing in Wired: “What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint. If anything, the mystery has deepened over time.”[19]

 Also in 2007, Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides, in accepting the highest award of the American Chemical Society, wrote: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea… On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.”[20] 

As recently as 2011, Scientific American acknowledged that origin-of-life research has gotten nowhere in the last century. In an article by John Horgan, we read that:

Dennis Overbye just wrote a status report for the New York Times on research into life’s origin, based on a conference on the topic at Arizona State University. Geologists, chemists, astronomers, and biologists are as stumped as ever by the riddle of life.[21]

 Also writing in 2011, Dr. Eugene Koonin provided a neat summary of the utter failure of this endeavour: 

The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science… Origin of Life research has evolved into a lively, interdisciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the “dirty” rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin of life field is a failure – we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is due not to a lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life… these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.[22]

***

The area of origin-of-life research is fascinating not only for its own sake, but also in the way that it exposes what many uninformed members of the public take for granted, namely, that scientists are driven by data, and data alone. I elaborated on this misconception in Genesis and Genes, demonstrating that the commitment of many scientists to methodological naturalism is a far more important factor than the scientific evidence in reaching conclusions about life on Earth.

***

 See Also:

The post Certitude and Bluff:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/01/15/certitude-and-bluff/

References:

Some of the quotations in this post come from an article by Rabbi Moshe Averick, published in The Algemeiner. The article can be read here:

http://www.algemeiner.com/2012/09/27/speculation-faith-and-unproven-assumptions-the-history-of-origin-of-life-research-in-scientists-own-words/

Retrieved 26th June 2013.

[1] The article can be read here:

http://www.forbes.com/2009/02/23/evolution-creation-debate-biology-opinions-contributors_darwin.html.

Retrieved 2nd November 2010.

[2] R.W. Clark, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London (1985), page 148.

[3] To read more about Nagel and his latest book, see these reviews:

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112481/darwinist-mob-goes-after-serious-philosopher

http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/heretic_707692.html

[4] See http://www.jidaily.com/914e2?utm_source=Jewish+Ideas+Daily+Insider

Retrieved 27th June 2013.

[5] Richard E. Dickerson, “Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life”, Scientific American, Vol. 239, No. 3, September 1978, page77.

[6] Life Itself, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981, page 88.

[7] Leslie E. Orgel, “Darwinism at the very beginning of life”, New Scientist, Vol. 94, 15 April 1982, page 150.

[8] Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space, New York, Simon and Shuster, 1984, page 53.

[9] Andrew Scott, “The Creation of Life: Past, Future, Alien”, Basil Blackwell, 1986, page 111.

[10] Paul Davies, “In Search of Eden, Conversations with Paul Davies and Phillip Adams”.

[11] Klaus Dose, “The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988, page 348.

[12] Carl Woese, Gunter Wachtershauser, “Origin of Life” in Paleobiology: A Synthesis, Briggs and Crowther – Editors (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1989.

[13] See: http://arxiv.org/abs/1207.4803.

Retrieved 27th June 2013.

[14] “Billions and Billions of Demons”, Richard Lewontin, 9th January 1997, New York Times Book Review.

[15] At Home in the Universe, London, Viking, 1995, page 31.

[16] Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life, Oxford University Press, 2001, page 205.

[17] Ibid. page 251.

[18] Massimo Pigliucci, “Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life’s Origin,” in Darwin, Design and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), page 196.

[19] Gregg Easterbrook, “Where did life come from?” Wired, page 108, February, 2007.

[20] George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry: Priestly Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address”, Chemical and Engineering News, 85 (March 26, 2007): p. 12-17. See http://ismagilovlab.uchicago.edu/GMW_address_priestley_medal.pdf.

Retrieved 22nd April 2012.

[21] John Horgan, Scientific American, 28th February 2011.

[22] Eugene Koonin, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River, NJ, FT Press, 2011, page 391.

Genesis and Genes on Television

June 15, 2013

A local television station, SABC 2, recently featured Genesis and Genes. The segment, which is about 7-minutes long, is now available on YouTube. Here is the link:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiqEDnN0aM8

Science as a Self-Correcting Mechanism

June 9, 2013

Writing in the Huffington Post recently, Karl Giberson, a prominent proponent of theistic evolution, appealed to the well-known argument that science is a self-correcting mechanism.[1] He writes,

Science – and this includes evolution – is a self-correcting enterprise. I know little of psychiatry, but I am not shocked to discover that critical voices have emerged and are being heard. This is the norm for science. Seemingly secure science is often modified – think Newtonian physics – and entire fields even disappear, like phrenology (studying personality via bumps on the skull). Anyone who understands the scientific community knows it to be full of renegade individualists only too eager to overturn the status quo. This aggressive self-examination is the reason why we now understand the world so well…

The reality is different from this idyllic description, and informed consumers of science know that, public relations aside, there are serious doubts as to the extent to which science is a self-correcting enterprise. For example, the epidemiologist John Ioannidis wrote a paper in 2012 entitled Why Science Is Not Necessarily Self-Correcting.[2] The abstract begins as follows:

The ability to self-correct is considered a hallmark of science. However, self-correction does not always happen to scientific evidence by default. The trajectory of scientific credibility can fluctuate over time, both for defined scientific fields and for science at-large. History suggests that major catastrophes in scientific credibility are unfortunately possible and the argument that “it is obvious that progress is made” is weak.

 Ioannidis proceeds to mention one mechanism which renders self-correction less than perfect:

 Efficient and unbiased replication mechanisms are essential for maintaining high levels of scientific credibility. Depending on the types of results obtained in the discovery and replication phases, there are different paradigms of research: optimal, self-correcting, false nonreplication, and perpetuated fallacy. In the absence of replication efforts, one is left with unconfirmed (genuine) discoveries and unchallenged fallacies.

 What the last sentence means is that, if replication of research results is not a ubiquitous feature of science, there will be unchallenged fallacies. They will not be corrected. And, as we have discussed several times in this forum, replicability of research is a major weakness in contemporary science.

 Ioannidis is too savvy about problems with contemporary science to swallow Karl Giberson-type propaganda:

The self-correction principle does not mean that all science is correct and credible. A more interesting issue than this eschatological promise is to understand what proportion of scientific findings are correct (i.e., the credibility of available scientific results).

 And:

 Even if we believe that properly conducted science will asymptotically trend towards perfect credibility, there is no guarantee that scientific credibility continuously improves and that there are no gap periods during which scientific credibility drops or sinks (slightly or dramatically). The credibility of new findings and the total evidence is in continuous flux. It may get better or worse.

 The paper by Ioannidis is enlightening. I was particularly pleased to discover that arguments I made in Genesis and Genes mirrored those made by Ioannidis. So I reproduce here the section of the book which deals with the issue of science as a self-correcting mechanism:

Jonathan: I’ve heard it said that the fact that new theories replace old theories only proves that science is a self-correcting enterprise. Do you agree?

YB: That’s a nice way to put a happy face on it. But there are two serious problems with this suggestion. Firstly, even if science were this gigantic super-tanker that eventually turns around, it might be too slow for the individual who lived while the old paradigm prevailed. Let’s consider the demise of the eternal universe paradigm. Until 1965, most scientists believed that the universe had never been created – it was eternal. This stood in total contrast to the Torah view that the universe was created at a specific point. By 1965, the old paradigm had collapsed, and was replaced by the Big Bang model, according to which the universe came into existence, apparently ex nihilo. Now imagine a person who died in 1950. Does it help him that science is a self-correcting mechanism? His entire life was spent in the shadow of the monolithic scientific consensus that the universe is eternal. Since he, like all of us, was not a prophet, he could not foresee that some time after his death, the scientific paradigm that dominated his life would crumble and be replaced with a radically different picture. If this person had been a Jew, he would have lived his entire life with unresolved tension between the scientific paradigm that the universe is eternal, and Jewish belief in the creation of the universe. So this business of self-correction, even if it were true, is only good for historians. It won’t help your average individual struggling with a particular issue and having only one lifetime.

 Jonathan: I see. But you mentioned that there were two problems with this suggestion.

YB: Yes. The second problem is this: Why do you believe that science is a self-correcting mechanism? It is because we know that in specific cases, certain beliefs that the scientific community subscribed to turned out to be wrong and were discarded. But there is no way to estimate in what percentage of all cases science indeed reverses its course. Oh, I know the party line about how scientists constantly scrutinise the evidence, compare their hypotheses to experimental results and the rest of it. But we saw enough in the previous chapters to appreciate that in real life, it hardly ever reaches this ideal. I described some stories that had happy endings, like the one involving Dr. Robin Warren, who established that bacteria cause some ulcers. But do you know how many stories had a sad ending? Can you estimate how often in the past a researcher had a hunch but abandoned his line of research when he was subjected to ridicule? Do you have any way of estimating which ending happens more frequently, the sad or the happy? What if for every case like Dr. Warren’s, there were a hundred scientists who had a promising insight or idea, but were deterred by the initial rejection they experienced? We only hear the stories with a happy ending. But scientists are human beings, and most human beings don’t have a thick skin.

See Also:

The post Dr. John Ioannidis and the Reality of Research:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/05/05/dr-john-ioannidis-and-the-reality-of-research/

The post Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Reproducibility of Research:

https://torahexplorer.com/2013/04/10/dr-ben-goldacre-and-the-reproducibility-of-research/

 

References:

[1] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/evolutions-refusal-to-die_b_3292734.html.

Retrieved 9th June 2013.

[2] See http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/6/645.

Retrieved 9th June 2013.

Brain Scam

June 3, 2013

Imagine that Tom is analysing a work of literature – The Grapes of Wrath, say. He looks at the plot, characterisation, historical context, and uses the various tools of literary analysis. But now Tom takes the study further, and begins to examine the type of paper that the book was printed on. Next, he looks at the ink used, employing gas chromatography to elucidate the chemical makeup of its ingredients. What if at some point Tom insists that the book can be fully understood through this latter, scientific methodology, and that The Grapes is nothing more than the sum of its parts – the molecular interactions between ink droplets and the cellulose in the paper?

Science has made great progress in the last three centuries by pressing the cause of reductionism. The idea is that underneath complex phenomena and entities are simpler, more fundamental layers that can be studied in order to fully elucidate the complex conglomerate. For example, biology has benefited by exploiting the reductionist tools of biochemistry – reducing complex biological phenomena to the level of chemistry. But, as in our example above, the process can go haywire, as when claims are made that human beings are no more than a collection of biochemical responses to stimuli and neuronal interactions. [Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality (2012) disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.]

Informed consumers of science need to be aware of reductio ad absurdum in the realm of brain scans. The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And in The Invisible Gorilla (2010), Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”. But popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers of- and proselytisers for these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The genre is inexhaustible: “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on. The attempt to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies is nothing less than an intellectual pestilence, a plague of neuroscientism, also known as neurobabkes. For years, the uninformed public has been deluged by references to innumerable studies that “explain” the most complex, subtle and ethereal phenomena on the basis of some colour-drenched picture of a sliced brain. The accompanying report, which purports to explain why human beings love, or envy, or believe in God, or prefer Coke to Pepsi, is heavy on neuro-babble. This is reductionist science run amok. The ubiquity of headlines containing phrases like brain scans show is matched only by the confusion they create in the minds of the public, uninformed about science as it is. So let’s revise some basics.

The human brain is, so far as we know, the most complex object in the universe. That a part of it “lights up” on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan does not mean that the rest is inactive; it means that certain areas in the brain have an elevated oxygen consumption when a subject performs a task such as reading or reacting to stimuli such as pictures or sounds. The significance of this is not necessarily obvious. Technicolor brain scans are not anything remotely like photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists cannot “read” minds. Paul Fletcher, Professor of health neuroscience at Cambridge University, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he says, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

In fact, a new branch of the neuroscience-explains-everything genre may be created at any time by simply attaching the prefix “neuro” to whatever. So “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”, and there is “neurotheology”, “neuromarketing” and other assorted neurononsense.

When the media conjure up stories with titles like “Brain Scans Show Vegetarians and Vegans More Empathic than Omnivores”, the content is almost entirely fictitious. It would be hilarious if not for the fact that the masses out there take this as Science – magisterial, peremptory, authoritative. Examples of this pop-science abound. Marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom tells us that people “love” their iPhones. This conclusion is based on the fact that brain scans of telephone users listening to their personal ring tones showed a “flurry of activation” in the insula, a prune-sized area of the brain. But researchers at UCLA claimed that photos of former presidential candidate John Edwards provoked feelings of “disgust” in subjects because they “lit up” the… insula. Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine (2012)? Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), meanwhile, calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it. Other stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy.

***

Informed consumers of science are aware that just about any conclusion in science – but especially in psychiatry, neurology and psychology – is possible, if you pick your evidence carefully. “Having outlined your theory,” says Professor Fletcher, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula… You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.” The insula plays a role in a broad range of psychological experiences, including empathy and disgust, but also sudden insight, uncertainty, and the awareness of bodily sensations, such as pain, hunger, and thirst. With such a broad physiological portfolio, it is no surprise that the insula is activated in many fMRI studies.

Even more versatile than the insula is the infamous amygdala. Invariably described as “primitive” or even “reptilian”, the amygdala shows increased activation when one experiences fear, but it also springs to life when one encounters novel or unexpected stimuli. The multi-functionality of most brain areas renders reasoning backwards from neural activation depicted by a scan to the subjective experience of the brain’s owner a dubious strategy. This approach – formally referred to as “reverse inference,” – is nothing but a high-tech and expensive Rorschach test, inviting interpreters to read whatever they wish into ambiguous findings.  There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.)

Brain imaging is ubiquitous in pop science mostly because the images are mediagenic. The technology lulls the hoi-polloi into thinking that the most complex entities and phenomena are reducible to simple images on a screen, a perfect fit for a generation hooked on iGadgets. Pretty pictures of the brain can seduce us into drawing simplistic conclusions, leading us to ask more of these images than they can possibly deliver. And the pictures inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, notes Fletcher, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

Even if brain scans were reliable indicators of brain activity, it is not straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Furthermore, let’s remember that we do not have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how a lump of grey matter produces the conscious experience we take for granted.

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Brain scams are not the only area where scientists and science reporters overreach. The same is true of gene studies that purport to pin down the most intricate human characteristics and behaviours to this or that gene, reducing human beings to nothing but a collection of amino acids.

And the same is true of evolutionary biology, which purports to reduce human beings to the sum total of random mutations. Any claim about diffuse phenomena that is made on the basis of reductionism should be treated with suspicion.

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References:

See the following two articles:

http://ideas.time.com/2013/05/30/dont-read-too-much-into-brain-scans/

Retrieved 3rd June 2013.

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2012/09/your-brain-pseudoscience

Retrieved 3rd June 2013.