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Archive for the ‘from the reading room’ Category

dscn7600

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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There’s a statue of the poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, in the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid which has just become my favourite statue in the world.

He’s standing holding a little bird in his hands and what makes it such a magical piece of art is how children respond to it. They love it! I’ve been sitting in the square these last two evenings, enjoying a glass of wine and delighting in the sheer joy and fascination that this statue inspires. Lots of adults have their photos taken next to him, some take the photos with their own selfie sticks, but it’s the little children who really caught my attention. They gaze up at him and the bird. They ask to be picked up so they can touch him, or they climb up and hold his hands or stroke the bird. It’s beautiful.

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It’s obvious why his hands and sleeves are so shiny…..so many little hands have held them.

“I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace” Lorca

 

 

 

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two

In the Spring of 1784, Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, marquis of Puységur, discovered that Victor Race, one of the peasants who worked on the marquis’ land, had pneumonia. The marquis had become interested in the work of Mesmer and “animal magnetism” so decided to see if he could help Victor back to health using this new method.

Victor fell into a trance and began to speak. But to the astonishment of his master, he didn’t speak in his usual patois, but in perfect learned French instead. Not only that but he talked about subjects that an illiterate peasant couldn’t have known about.

What happened next is even more astonishing. The marquis and Victor became a therapeutic couple. The marquis would ask an ill person about their symptoms….he’d “take the history of the patient”, and, in trance, Victor would pronounce the diagnosis and prescribe treatments.

Neither of these men were able to carry out the acts of healing by themselves, but together, they could.

This was one of the first recorded episodes of “lay mediumship” in Western civilisation.

I think that’s a remarkable story and I know of other instances from within my own lifetime where such astonishing collaborations occurred.

But even setting aside the somewhat “supernatural” aspect of these tales, isn’t there something like this going on in every therapeutic act? Isn’t every therapeutic act a collaboration between the patient and the therapist. Without each other they can’t achieve healing, but together, they have the chance to become something unique and greater than either of them. Together they can gain a greater understanding, and together they can find answers they couldn’t find alone.

I think we forget that in modern medicine, thinking that the doctor can do it all by him, or her, self. Thinking that one person has all the answers, ready made, so to speak.

There can be some of the most astonishing examples of magic happening when two people form a bond and work together for a common purpose.

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better before

I came across this article in the French “Philosophie” magazine this month. Translated into English, the headline says “It was better before”, and the article goes on to explore this particular, common, state of mind.

It begins with a dissatisfaction with the present, but instead of that stimulating creative thinking motivating people to turn that dissatisfaction into positive action, the mind turns backwards to think back to a past which quickly becomes a utopian illusion.

When Donald Trump says “Let’s Make America Great Again” – what previous time is he referring to? When the UK Leave campaigners said “I want my country back”, which country were they referring to? A country of the past, but an illusory one. When they said “Let’s take back control”, when did we ever have it? Which controls are they referring to?

The fabulous Woody Allen movie, “Midnight in Paris”, beautifully plays with this way of approaching the world –

When was that time? The time of Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast“, or the time of the “Belle Epoque“…..or just when exactly?

The article argues that older people are more likely to think this way because they have less life left to look forward to. A young person might look at the future and see it full of potential, where an older person might look at it and see illness, decline and death.

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Maybe that partly explains one of the voting patterns seen in the EU referendum, where older people voted Leave, and younger ones, Remain.

I saw one elderly Englishman struggling to hold back tears as he said “I’ve got my country back”…..and I wondered, what country is that then? And how, exactly, have you got it back? But the emotional power of his view was clear.

I think there are many other factors at play in what’s happening in the UK just now, but I’ll leave them for other posts in the days ahead…..meantime, I think it’s worth asking people who have been seduced by the illusion of the utopian past to say more clearly what they intend to do now. Now that they have voted to go back to wherever they think it was, what do they want to do today?

In fact, I think that’s a question for all of us, because illusory past utopia or not, the present has changed for us all.

Let me modify my question so we can all join in…..what are YOU going to do today? Now that we are where we are? (And, yes, I’m asking myself for an answer too!)

 

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night sky flower.jpg

I’ve just finished reading Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature” which is her biography of Alexander von Humboldt. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a big read but a great one. I must confess I’m one of the apparently many who has never heard of Humboldt but am I glad I know something about him now.

One of the most amazing things about Humboldt is how he saw, described and wrote about Nature as a complete interconnected web, and he did this at the end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th centuries. What an insight! What a vision! What an understanding! His enthusiasm for Nature and his insatiable curiosity are infectious, even now. But it’s his underlying fundamental insight which thrills me most. He describes ecology before the word was even invented. He sees the damage caused by short term economic greed and, more than that, he describes the environmental consequences of these short sighted actions. He demonstrates how the interconnected web of Nature means that these simple minded grabs for wealth will produce long term, far reaching negative consequences for many.

Seeing our world and everything in it as intimately, inextricably interconnected is the basis of holistic science. This is a science of wonder, exploration and discovery. He uses the best scientific instruments of the time to measure whatever he can measure, but he does something which scientists today so often fail to do. He uses the measurements to discover the connections. He puts things together rather than dividing them up. He sees nothing as existing in isolation. In other words he uses reductionist methods in a holistic way.

Reading about him is one of the clearest examples ever of integration. The two halves of his brain both worked brilliantly together. He pursued the new and climbed the highest mountains to see the world as a whole (right cerebral hemisphere). He measured, analysed and categorised (left cerebral hemisphere). Then he put it altogether in a vast web of contexts (right cerebral hemisphere again). What a great demonstration of using the whole brain. Of course I’m simplifying here. I’m sure he didn’t use his brain in such a linear fashion, but, still, I think it’s magnificent.

I thought about him again as I looked at this wonderful flower (see the image above). It’s called “Night sky”. Isn’t it stunning? Doesn’t it immediately show you how the human brain both discovers and creates connections?

That we can see the starry heavens in the soft purple petals of an earthy flower…….


 

Here’s a short video clip of Andrea Wulf talking about her book –

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seedweb

In “Deux Idées de Bonheur”, Luis Sepúlveda says that he’s come to understand that happiness and wellbeing are a web or network of relationships, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and what is around us, between ourselves and Nature.

I like that. It seems very true to me. We all exist with an intricate and infinite web of connections. None of us exist without any relationships. We all have, or have had parents, we’ve all encountered many, many others over the course of our lives, people we’ve been taught by, looked after by, friends, rivals, people we are related to through genes and marriages. We all live our every day lives in a web of others who produce, transport, prepare and sell the food we eat. Others who make the clothes we wear, who make every object we handle in an ordinary day. We live with others with whom we share our stories, co-create our values, our purposes, our reasons to get up every morning.

And we are in an intimate and unceasing relationship of exchange of energy, information and substances with the natural environment. The air, the water, the soil, the way we work the land, change the landscapes, warm the atmosphere around the Earth.

The other dimension of these vast webs is time. Our lives are all like stories….we are continually describing and telling the present as it emerges from our personal and our shared past, and which, moment by moment, is already in the process of becoming the future.

Happiness and wellbeing are not states, not independent, self-sustaining, isolated characteristics or “data points” to be measured. They are experiences which emerge out of a web of moments, within a network of connected people and events.

They are qualities of life, not permanently present, but always in the process of creation, like an intricate cloth of threads woven across lifetimes.

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two lights.jpg

Just after the sun set I saw this moment – where the moonlight meets the twilight. Knowing, of course, that these are both the light of the same sun.

I watched a fascinating and moving documentary on French TV on Sunday. It was about a French family, a father, mother, teenage son and two younger daughters sailing a boat up the east coast of Canada to Greenland and as far north as they could go.

The further north they sailed the less they encountered towns and villages, but when they did stop, they’d be welcomed by local Inuit people. Although they couldn’t speak to each other in a common language, their interactions were friendly and curious. There were lots of smiles and a welcoming into homes to share some food.

I was reminded of holidays in Brittany many, many years ago, where our little son, probably only about 5 years old at the time, would spend all day playing on the beach with another child who was there. The children didn’t speak the same language but they had fun for hours. When we asked him what the little girl’s name was he replied “I don’t know” with an expression which suggested he didn’t even understand the need to ask the question.

It’s been my experience as I’ve travelled in other countries that strangers are helpful and friendly. There is some fundamental affinity between human beings.

I know all that can go very wrong very quickly however. A few days ago I was reading one of Montaigne’s essays (On coaches), where he described the reports of the “New World” which were just becoming known at the time (he lived in the 16th century). The tales he told were of the Spanish greeting the native peoples of Mexico and other “New World” countries, presenting themselves as peaceful and friendly, then deceiving and tricking them….slaughtering, capturing and torturing them. Demanding gold from them. The descriptions of the violence are as awful as anything you’d see in “Game of Thrones”! Montaigne was shocked by it –

Who ever set the utility of commerce and trading at such a price? So many cities razed, so many nations exterminated, so many millions of people put to the sword and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down for the traffic in pearls and pepper!

He mused about how things could have been so different –

What an amelioration for the entire globe, if the first examples of our conduct that were offered over there had called those peoples to the admiration and imitation of virtue and had set up between them and us a brotherly fellowship and understanding?

In other words, what if the explorers had presented the best of themselves instead of the worst? What if they had behaved in such ways that the native peoples had admired them and wanted to imitate them instead of fearing them? What if the whole goal of the exploration had been an increase in “brotherly fellowship and understanding” instead of exploitation and theft?

Makes you wonder, huh?

 

These tales of violence seem both far away and disturbingly close. We certainly haven’t evolved to a better way. There are still wars of religion, torture, exploitation and even domestic violence. However, I do think there is a glimmer at least of hope because there is something I can do. And that you can do. Every day.

We can tune in to our natural human attraction for other humans and approach them with our best selves rather than our worst. I can, and you can, meet others with a desire to “increase brotherly fellowship and understanding” (that’d be sisterly too by the way!!)

Can’t we?

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