Archive for September, 2016


Barrie Condon, a retired Professor of Physics, generously shared his new book, “Science for Heretics” with me. He thought I’d like it. He was right. The subtitle of the book is “Why so much of science is wrong” and his aim is to provoke the reader into questioning both the claims of science and its methods. He uses the device of three characters, The Believer, The Sceptic and The Heretic, throughout the book as he considers several fields of science including mathematics, physics, and medicine.

The Believer is one who science reveals the Truth and will one day enable us to understand everything in the universe. The Sceptic accepts the basic tenets of science but retains some doubts about whether of not we will ever be able to understand everything. The Heretic doesn’t buy the whole project. He thinks the universe is not completely knowable and that our scientific theories which shape our views what we see are simply the projections of our human brains.

He particularly attacks the use of theory in science which tends to be translated into “laws”. He clarifies that no such “laws” exist and sets out the case for a return to observation and experimentation instead. I really enjoy his writing style and some passages particularly stood out for me.

For centuries we have been measuring all sorts of things but generally only recording the results we expected and ignoring the rest.

This captures two of my main objections to so much of medical practice – the reduction of human beings to measurements and the belief that the particular measurements which are made allow us to completely understand a patient and their illness. Although I have heard of a medical teacher say “Don’t listen to patients. They lie all the time. You can only trust the results.”, my own experience of doctoring couldn’t more diametrically opposed from that view. ONLY the patient’s experience can be trusted. Measurements, sadly, frequently mislead, and ALWAYS need to be set in the context of this individual patient.

Life saving claims for medicines need careful examination. Drugs do certain things which are beneficial to the human body in disease, but they inevitably have other effects which can be deleterious or even fatal.

I wish more doctors made that more clear every time they write out a prescription.

He’s even better on physics and cosmology.

For me, the two most important things he has to say are, firstly –

Science gives us theories that purport to explain how the universe works. This breeds confidence in scientists who then go on to do things that carry certain risks. These risks are rationalised away on the basis of existing theory. Even if our Heretic is wrong in saying that all theory is actually erroneous, history shows us that most or perhaps all theories ultimately prove incorrect. Our perceptions and calculations of risk are therefore also likely to be erroneous. Science generally also assumes a high degree of control over experimental conditions and again this faith seems misplaced. While we may routinely underestimate risk, we also routinely overestimate our ability to control it.

This is SUCH an important point. He’s arguing for a greater use of the “precautionary principle”. Instead of assuming that everything we produce, all our chemicals, all our technologies are safe until proven otherwise, we should be more wary. What we need is a whole lot more humility and the ability to confess that we really don’t know very much at all. And we certainly way overestimate our ability to control things. It’s the arrogance of believers which frightens me most – people who are so sure that they, and only they are right – I’m on the side of the Heretics in Barrie’s terms. It’s likely that what we think we know at any point will be proven not to be quite right in a few years time (or, indeed, to be completely wrong).

The second important conclusion he reaches is that there are no fundamental laws of the universe…..apart from, maybe, two –

As well as a possible law for uniqueness, the Heretic is open to the possibility of a second law governing complexity, namely that it increases with time.

Well, there he puts his finger on what I’ve written about many times on this blog – that the most important characteristics of the universe are its tendency to create uniqueness and its trend of ever increasing complexity.

Take those two undeniable features on board and try and practice science or medicine by measuring, generalising and trying to control the future! Good luck with that.

Thank you, Barrie Condon, for your delightful, humorous, thought-provoking, paradigm-challenging book. If it was an integral part of science education we might be able to look forward to a better world.

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gate to cloister toledo cloister small cloister alhambra cloister simple cloister

I can’t remember when I first encountered a cloister or an inner courtyard. Part of me thinks it was in Marrakech where I stayed in a restored ryad. I loved how you could walk around the sheltered edges of the square, how there were places to sit, and how there were two other, what I think are essential, features – trees and water (either a fountain, or a well).

So, here are a number of photos from my trip to Spain last week. There are three kinds of courtyard/cloister here – very Christian, very secular, and very Islamic. Isn’t it interesting how these three different traditions have the same core features whilst they are distinctly different?

I think one of the reasons I adore these spaces so much is that induce a desire to slow down, pause for a while, and turn within.

Of course we don’t need these types of spaces to do that. I often recommended Julia Cameron’s “artist’s date” practice to patients – scheduling some time to spend by yourself doing something you don’t have to do.

When I came back home I listened to the latest episode of Onbeing, an interview with Mirabai Bush, about the importance of contemplative practice. During that interview there was a mention of the “tree of contemplative practices” which brilliantly illustrates the diversity of contemplative practices through the varied traditions in the world. I hadn’t realised there were so many.

We all need to find some way to be still and become aware. Maybe you have your own favourite ways, favourite places, or practices. Or maybe you’d like to explore some by clicking through on the links in this post……or maybe you’d just like to sit and gaze at one of these photos for a while and see where that takes you?

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I stepped out through the back door of the cathedral in Segovia and onto a large paved terrace surrounded by stone lions. When I turned to look back to the tall arched doorway I noticed that the plain glass doors which hung in the doorway perfectly reflected the buildings across the street. I took a photo.

When I loaded up the photo later I noticed that there were some strange lights above and on the roofs and when I zoomed in I saw more clearly that behind the reflection of the tiles and the satellite dishes some of the cathedral’s stained glass windows shone through the glass door.

That got me thinking……

Here in this one photo is an interesting idea. For centuries the church has created the images and the stories to tell people what the world is like, what life is like, and how they should live. With captivating art and gripping stories it presented a particular view of the world. More than that, really, because in presenting that view and spreading it so widely, it created a reality for the people who lived in it.

But look at those satellite dishes.

Who is creating the images and the stories now? Who is telling people what the world is like? What life is like? And how they should live?

Who is presenting a view, and spreading it so widely, that it’s creating the reality for those who live in it?

With the rapid development in communications technology, with powerful mobile phones, connected computers, the internet, social media, memes, images and videos which “go viral”, some writers say we have created a whole new layer of the environment in which we live – the “noosphere” (the sphere of human thought). The truth is we’ve always had a noosphere. We’ve always lived, we humans, within this environment of human thought.

There are the image creators and the story tellers who fashion the patterns in this environment, and in so doing, they influence many others.

We have a choice. We can be the image creators and the story tellers, or we can be passive consumers. If we choose to be passive consumers, whose world, whose idea of the world, are we choosing to live in?

If we choose to be the image creators and the story tellers, what images shall we share? What stories shall we tell?

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