Tuesday, April 9, 2013

They's All Full Of Shit

Over the years, I've obviously become even more of a curmudgeon than when I was younger. That's almost a law of Nature, I think. So, in my youth, I was pretty open-minded about a lot of things, especially New Age Hippie Stuff. But over time, you find out it's about 99% horse-shit, just scams put out by charlatans to separate you from your monies.That other 1$% though? That's where the interesting stuff is, and even though I now work under the operating principle of being closed-minded until convinced otherwise, that leaves a large area open to inquiry. One thing, though, is I will always treat the theoretical explanations as suspect and contingent.

(I'll give you an example. Back in my teens, my brother and I became familiar with Wilhelm Reich's cloudbusters. At a friend's girlfriend's house, we made use of their pool and an elongated aluminum pool cleaner pole to attempt to bust up some clouds. (This was contrary to Reich's advice that a series of parallel copper tubes connected to a body of water were necessary and that one aluminum tube, according to my brother "probably wouldn't work").  That day, there was a whole herd of nice fat puffy cumulus clouds up in the an otherwise blue sky. We pointed the "device" at a cloud, and, I swear, a giant circular hole appeared in it. We next pointed the device at the edge of another cloud, and it grew towards where the tube was directed. We freaked. Since we didn't know what was causing it, and didn't know what other effects might be taking place, we left it alone. Years later, I asked my brother and my friend if they remembered what happened that day. My friend did not, but my brother did. I wondered if, since we directed the device, rather than their being any ionization laser effect or orgone, or whatever the hell it was, if it was simply observer dependent, or just a hallucination. Since we did not have access to videotape, we didn't know. But a quick search of youtube yields nothing even close to what we did. I swear, a circular hole of sky in the middle of the cloud within about sixty seconds).

So, to the point. Regarding a (really, actually) tiny kerfuffle involving two players arguing over a TED entertainment moment, my final comment was "They's all full of shit".

Which is true, but I think I owe a fuller explanation. I think the two gentlemen in question, Jerry Coyne and Rupert Sheldrake are both just entertainers pushing their own little extravaganza. And both operate under a primitive metaphysics - the former relying on materialism, the latter on mentation. Neither metaphysical explanation offers any real explanation, and few people seem to understand that.

I've nothing against showmanship. Science, going all the way back to the beginning, back when natural philosophy and sorcery were almost indistinguishable, has made use of showmanship and attention-grabbing spectacles. The first official demonstrator to the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, comes to mind. Before him, there was Cornelius van Drebbel, who chose not to disabuse his audience of dabbling in the black arts where it suited the presentation of his spectacles, most notably presented to his patron King James I. Demonstration being the keyword here. I don't really give a crap about your theoretical just-so story, because they are contingent upon prior knowledge and so often open to revision. I would instead rely upon (as has been so successful these past 300 years) repeatable demonstration. Do that for me, and I will have no choice but to pay attention. Start in on gene-centric biology or morphic fields or The Secret, and you've got to put a lot of convincing in to win me over.

So, forward to Coyne and Sheldrake. Coyne, I think, is a preformationist. He believes, along with many fundamentalist Darwinists like Richard Dawkins that that pretty much explains everything. I can't help but think that explanation is not only too pat, but fails to explain a lot of what we see. And that's fine, as long they think they can explain an RNA world, protein synthesis, epigenetic tags, and whole plethora of demonstrations that show that DNA is not entirely the software running the show. Wrong. Bad metaphor, anyway. Life is not machines or computers, certainly not a vonNeumann architecture machine or computer. True DNA is hardware, to some extent, cobbled together semi-randomly, certainly, but there's a ratchet, a strange attractor that looks like a goal-oriented process. But DNA is not software tape running the cell like some old IBM computer. DNA is the cell's books, the library. Books where it is easier to store shit than out in the hustle bustle of proteins, enzymes, and RNA.

Coyne, you and your boys have had a good run, but the buildup of strange biological facts is starting to overwhelm the old gene-centric models, and your increasingly livid protests suggest you are just not intellectually curious enough to look further. No problem there. There are plenty of non-entertainer scientists getting Nobel prizes looking at that stuff. After all, that's one of the best ways to get a Nobel prize, is to overturn existing "orthodoxy".

And no, I don't buy into the plaintive whine about scientific dogma and persecuted heretics. Which brings us to Sheldrake. Sheldrake has had thirty years to come up with a really elegant experiment proving or disproving his theory of morphogenic fields. He has come up with some interesting results, such as dogs that know masters are coming home, or that people can sense being stared at, or possibly a few valid statistical tests suggesting something like telepathy (albeit, such an awful and unreliable sense as to be practically worthless as a survival mechanism). All interesting stuff, but not a single experiment that definitively rules (pro or con) on morphogenic fields or what have you.

No, seriously. These are all very sloppy, very messy, very noisy, poorly thought out experiments he has done. (When in comparison to, say, Lavoisier's Demolishing of Phlogiston, or Michaelson and Morley's Nondetection of Luminiferous Aether, or Aspect's testing of John Bell's theorem, which destroyed utterly the prospect of Bohm's localized implicate order).

Sheldrake, baby, you've way, way too many variables to account for. Why not simplify? Put giraffe fetuses (at later and later stages of development) in a blender, and see if or when the giraffe morphic attribute ceases to produce a giraffe?

Why start with animals? You are an accomplished biochemist. Surely there are experiments involving protein chirality and abiogenesis to do. Borrow some moon dust, extract the carbon and introduce it into viruses to see if there is any in performance. Still too messy? True. After all, a size comparison of a water molecule to a small piece of viral RNA is about the same as the size of a man to the Empire State Building. Even folded proteins of enzymes are gigantic siege engines in comparison to the amino acids - the simplest building blocks for proteins - that comprise them. Organic molecules are very large and very complex. Maybe try something smaller. How about a chlorophyll vehicle for a photosynthetic Wheeler's delayed choice experiment? How about spontaneous arrangement of plasmonic metasurfaces using carbon, something that has never, as far as we know, existed before? In other words, Dr. Sheldrake, give up on the Vegas magic spectaculars, and try thinking harder for proof one way or the other.

In any case, I've hopefully constructively expanded upon my "full of shit" statement.

But I do stand by my continual sneers at TED. Ideas worth spreading according to whom. Big Ideas? Or still more of the standard technocratic engineer's quick fix of a pitch, usually an additional step to burrow even further into the situational cul-de-sac that prior fixes got us into, TED?

Well, you known how the old saying goes "Everything looks like a nail to an idiot with a hammer".

TED says: "Here you go, have a hammer."

1 comment:

  1. You'll get no argument from me. Have you ever heard of the James-Lange theory of emotion?

    I tend to cut Sheldrake a little slack because I was introduced to him by my faculty advisor at MIT 30 years ago, so long before modern genomics and the Coyne-confounding complications it's brought with it, that it wasn't dismissed out of hand as silly or unfalsifiable at that time.