Mythic Physics: How We See the World Changes the World

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By Madronna Holden

Our Goldilocks Planet

In The Universe is a Green Dragon physicist Brian Swimme asserts that physics needs a story large enough to encompass the meaning of the natural world and our place within it. Physics at least needs a story large enough to embrace its own puzzles. Ninety-six per cent of our universe, as New Scientist writer Michael Brooks puts it in 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense is “missing” – made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that physics is unable to describe in spite of its wide scale effects. As our measurements grow more precise, science has also learned that those numbers once considered constants in the physical world vary in different places and likely in different times as well.

Such variability has spurred some physicists to suggest that our universe is actually a “multiverse” bubbling up fountains of “baby universes”, each with the potential to become a universe with its own variants of space and time—and laws of nature. Though, of course, we don’t know how or why this might happen.

For over a hundred years physics has been grappling with the fact that its theories describing the smallest and largest parts of the natural world do not fit together—they are off by a factor of millions. Relativity theory describing the behavior of the stars is wildly inaccurate when applied to the subatomic level, just as the quantum theory accurate at the subatomic level is wildly inaccurate with anything much larger.

Physicists are, however, sure of one thing. Whatever our ability to measure, predict and understand the laws of nature, here on our home planet earth, those laws pertain precisely as needed for us to exist. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, who found a place “just right” for her, the physicist’s “Goldilocks zone” refers to the “just rightness” of our own place in the cosmos. It is here we have come to life as if it everything has been prepared to us.

Astrophysicists searching for extraterrestrial life debate standards for locating other potential “Goldilocks” planets. But there is good deal more to our own “just right” planet than such things as being the right distance from a proper star.

In the eloquent words of native writer and naturalist Linda Hogan each of our lives is “the result of the love of thousands.”

Physics does not dwell on the poetry or ethics of our coming to life but it does count the odds—and they are literally astronomical. The Big Bang originating our universe took place with a temperature so precise that had it been off by a fraction of a degree so tiny as to be unimaginable all the matter in the universe would either have been instantly incinerated or condensed forever into a cold immobile point.

Instead it spread out to create galaxies like our own, in which stars spun off in the universe-making extravaganza, one of which was a sun like ours which broke off a piece of itself to become earth—a piece just the right size at the right time with the right orbit, with the right size moon itself breaking off from earth in a meteor strike—and as time went on, the right proportions of land and liquid water, as well as the right geological history under our blanket of air yielding breath, protection from most asteroid strikes, and warming us with just the right amount of solar heat while radiating the rest off into space. Thus physicists term ours the “Goldilocks planet” in a “Goldilocks universe”.

But we should perhaps take our analogy with the Goldilocks story further. Finding a planet so wondrously suited to our lives is not all there is to the story. There is a family of bears that created the home Goldilocks finds “just right” for herself. In like fashion, nature’s more than human lives prepared the way for our own.

And nature’s bears will also give us feedback if we don’t treat the home lavishly prepared for us properly—feedback such as the current cancer epidemic, the loss of our domestic honeybees and so many wild species that, as native writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it, no longer wish to be our companions here.

And increasingly tragic weather disasters and rising oceans are coming with climate change.

Just as the immature Goldilocks recklessly used whatever she found without any heed to its builders, we post-industrial humans have some growing up to do with respect to our treatment of our “just right’ planet.

Marrying the Bear: The limits of human thought

One hallmark of maturation is self-understanding.

It is not only physics’ mysteries that teach us humility with respect to our knowledge—but the limits of our own thinking. As Nobel Laureate Kurt Gödel’s theorem illustrates, our knowledge can go no further than its initial assumptions. Within any system of thinking, that is, the most elaborate findings can only be variations on the assumptions with which we start.

Thus if we build our society on the assumptions of a hierarchical worldview which places some humans over others and all humans over the natural world, for instance, we will be stuck with a society of winners and losers, of rich and poor– and a denigrated natural world.

Gödel’s conclusion that we can only properly assess any system of thought if we see it as a whole—from without—is supported by physicist Michio Kaku’s analogy of fish swimming in their small pond in his Physics of the Impossible. Such fish will know only the water in their pond—until the day it rains and stirs them to notice there is another dimension to their water: something from without.

In like manner, we need to get out of ourselves—and our worldviews– to understand our own world. Kaku uses his fish pond to discuss a many-dimensioned world like the one with the ten or eleven dimensions necessary for the string theory bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into alignment.

But stepping out of the human-centered worldview as a method for making choices is a practice of long-lived indigenous cultures—whose stories and rituals prompted perceptions from a more than human perspective. The Rose Red tale from Europe as well as numerous tales throughout Native America relate how the bear who appears dangerous and savage in one human view can in another view be seen to be so much like us that we fall in love with its distinction and spirit. Unlike the immature Goldilocks who treats the bear’s home with such abandon, these stories sport brave and compassionate heroes who marry the bear –who in turn becomes an ally essential to survival.

Discovering and honoring how the lives of others contribute to our own is science’s way of “marrying the bear” today, when expanding our limited worldviews is more important than ever.

It is especially important to protect remaining global biological and cultural diversity as the library of our own expanded consciousness.

How We Perceive the World Changes the World

Changing our perceptions of the world changes the world. Quantum theory tells us that the building blocks of the physical world go in and out of existence as waves and particles. In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg tells us more: if an observer sees these quanta as waves, they become waves, and if that same observer sees them as particles, they become particles.

To change our perception of the world is to change the world.

This is very different, however, from controlling the world. That would only work if we were alone in it—if there were no other lives here with their own perceptions and purposes. We are instead in intimate and inescapable relationship with others in our world in the way of any two atoms that once touched. Move them to the opposite ends of the earth and what happens to one is registered in the response of the other. This “action at a distance” is another of contemporary physics’ mysteries.

This is also how intimately connected our world is: our gaze upon it changes it—as in the traditional belief that directing an appreciative gaze on a plant helps it grow. As we direct our gaze upon the earth we create a wave-or-particle-world by turn certain and visionary: as solid and sure as the earth beneath our feet and as fraught with possibility as the seed pressed into that earth.

Thus the world turns in our eyes—as it also turns in the eyes of others. His Lower Chehalis ancestors told Henry Culture, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, explaining that it is before those eyes that human understanding of right action emerges. The Chehalis also believed those eyes of the earth judged human longevity as surely physicists believe that our observations of them construct waves and particles.

As I write this in January of 2015, I cannot predict what waits for us in the year ahead. But I can predict this much: the way we perceive our “just right” home planet will change the world. And if we shape our perceptions with respect, gratefulness and care, this will be a very good year indeed.

Science is Never Certain (and Lichens Don’t Cure Cancer Either)

By Madronna Holden

updated 12.11.2013

Lichens don’t cure cancer, or rather, we don’t know whether they do — in spite of the article accepted for publication by over one hundred scientific journals touting the lichen cure.  The article  is a fake created by the journal Science, and it has some large bloopers, including the assertion of findings not related to its research, and promises to forge ahead with human testing without any safety protocols.

This bogus study is meant to demonstrate the importance of peer review and prestigious “first tier” journals as against “open access” journals. But not all “first tier” journals like Science caught the problems in the fake, whereas the open access journal PLoS ONE did. According to an analysis published on October 19, 2013, contemporary scientific work in general is riddled with errors.

Indeed, the larger issue in need of discussion here is the intersection of science and culture—and science and profit.

Science itself recently published a research paper that has since been widely discredited– and it is not the only prestigious scientific journal with such problems.  Of 73 articles recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine, 50 were co-authored by drug company ghostwriters. 

Rather than tightening their peer review process in light of this, the Journal decided to de-emphasize the critical assessment of industry funding   Lest we think industry funding has little impact on research results, we should note that research sponsored by drug companies portrays drugs as positive 3.6 times more than the same research funded by government or non-profits.

Notably, certain journals have taken a more proactive stand in this respect.  The British Medical Journal  (as they write in an editorial just this month) have joined PLoS Medicine, PLos One, PloS Biology, The Journal of Health Psychology, as well as journals published by the American Thoracic Society, in the refusal to publish research funded in whole or part by the tobacco industry.

Such a stand acknowledges the ways that industry shapes knowledge to amplify profit as in the cases of those  who hid health effects of lead on children,  of plastics manufacture on workers—and of heart irregularities in those taking Vioxx and Avandia–and the company who launched a secret research program to vindicate asbestos.

By burying and tinkering with scientific data, companies postponed the loss of profit resulting from making good data public.

The profit motive calls into question the work of the American Council on Science and Health, an advocacy group that is a self-proclaimed attacker of “junk science” — going after environmental and health legislation and defending the likes of fracking, BPA, and pesticides.  Secret documents recently made public indicate that that group is directly funded by industries selling the products it defends.

Gilbert Ross, the research group’s director, previously had his medical license pulled while he served time in prison for defrauding the New York State Medicaid program to the tune of 8 million dollars.

And even if we take the profit motive out of the equation, cultural values play a large part in scientific findings.   Peer reviewers for instance, may unwittingly add to social prejudice.  Social psychologist Laura Purdy makes a case for hiring seemingly less qualified women in order to give women an equal chance, since not only do scientific discoveries take longer to be accepted if made by women, but both men and women in the contemporary US evaluate the very same resumes and articles as “better” if attributed to a man rather than a woman.

Respected scientist Shirley Strum relates how her own groundbreaking research on baboons was at first locked out of regular academic and publishing channels. The “old boy” scholars did not want to give up their position on innate baboon aggressiveness and male dominance in spite of Strum’s research, which was more meticulous than their own.  She was the first to actually follow baboons on their daily rounds in the field, as well as to record  social interactions of particular troops and individual baboons.

Geneticist Barbara McClintock was forced to finance her own work when universities and research institutions refused to hire her.  Her breakthroughs eventually won her the Nobel Prize, but in the context of Western science, her method of “listening to the corn” traveled a hard road to acceptance.

Eileen Pollock’s recent New York Times essay outlines the ongoing problems of gender prejudice in evaluating scientific work—as well as in assessing potentials of students going into science.

Such prejudice effects acceptance of knowledge from non-mainstream cultures as well.  I am old enough to remember the dismissal of indigenous ecological knowledge by mainstream peer reviewers. Today the burgeoning of ecological science and the number of indigenous individuals earning advanced degrees has created a social context in which such knowledge can take its rightful place in scientific understanding.

Predisposition shades our scientific observations in purely physical ways as well. Purdy also cites an experiment in which observers recorded the performance of one group of rats in a maze as better than another—even though the groups were in fact entirely equal.  The difference?  The observers were told beforehand that one group was smarter.

Maintaining that “objective” science circumvents social and personal values only makes such values unconscious. Goethe once observed, “all fact is really theory”.  A presumed “fact”, that is, exists in the context of a particular worldview  which is itself a theory of the world entailing assumptions, perceptions, and choices. As Thomas Kuhn’s history of Western science details, science has persistently ignored data that does not fit the worldview of its time—only accepting such data after a shift in worldview.

This history provides a solid case for the critical assessment of scientific values. What we are conscious of, we can compensate for.  What we don’t recognize, on the other hand, we can’t fix—as in the tragic medical errors that kill at least 98,000 annually in the context of a culture within medical schools that encourages doctors to ignore mistakes—since it teaches that doctors don’t make them.

It is this same culture that causes scientific errors in general to be denied-– and problems of data fraud to be passed on to “others”.  A compilation of twenty-one surveys of researchers in various scientific disciplines shows that whereas only 2 per cent admitted fudging their data, 28 per cent claimed to know colleagues who did.

Science will never live up to its claims of being self-correcting until scientists are able to admit their mistakes:  as Bruce Alberts, then editor of Science, recently testified before Congress, scientists  “need to develop a value system where simply moving on from one’s mistakes without publicly acknowledging them severely damages, rather than protects, a scientific reputation.”

But the idea that scientists don’t make mistakes is part of the arrogance endemic to the Western worldview– expressed by DNA co-discoverer James Watson’s question, “If we do not play God, who will?” This question has nothing to do with science and everything to do with cultural values that cast humans as dominators of the natural world—a trend in Western thought longstanding as it is unfortunate.  Ancient Greeks termed unwarranted human arrogance hubris –and their literature is full of examples in which hubris fated human downfall.

“Playing God” with the natural world has brought us to our current condition—in which every natural system on earth is in decline. It is neither science nor wisdom to cling to a worldview with such results.

Other values inherited from our current culture contribute to the ineffectiveness of science’s self-correcting mechanisms.   Studies replicating previous work are rarely funded. Researchers generally assume that replication is done with those with a “bone to pick”– the characteristic interpretation in a culture based on the value of competition rather than cooperation.

Paul Woodruff’s Reverence offers an alternative to the arrogance that closes scientific minds– and the competitive stance that stops scientists from admitting and learning from their own mistakes.  He details how wise historical traditions have cultivated reverence toward other lives as a means of combating  tyranny and authoritarianism.  Reverence facilitates the opening to the world essential to good science expressed by McClintock’s “listening to the corn” and Strum’s getting to know baboons as individuals making their own choices.

The indigenous value of acknowledgement discussed by Oneida elder Joanne Shenandoah, also pays homage to the value of other lives:  “We acknowledge their worth, acknowledge that we are equal with the woodland, the trees, the berries, the two-legged and the four-legged. We share the same air, space, and water.”

I can only imagine how our science might evolve if it held such acknowledgement of the world it hopes to know.

This would certainly prompt us to replace human arrogance with an appropriate dose of humility—and to make self-reflection an essential part of good science. After all, if science is based on observation, shouldn’t we know as much as possible about the observer?  Indeed, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, indicates that a physicist’s expectations change the physical outcome of an experiment.

Heisenberg ‘s observations were focused on the arena of quantum dynamics, but philosopher David Hume, termed by the Stanford philosophy site “the most important philosopher ever to write in English”,  argues that there is no such thing as scientific certainty period.

Hume notes that scientific methodology develops its theories from observed experience.  Such theories can only be only our best guess at the way the world works—that is, they are hypotheses that give us probability rather than certainty. As in a coin toss, we can predict the chance that heads rather than tails will come up. We can elaborate the things impinging on the outcome.  We can even assign a statistic to that outcome.

But no matter how many times we toss the coin, we cannot say for certain that heads will be our next result. The issue of significance in scientific research is intimately intertwined with judging probability.

Unfortunately, this is not something with which enough scientists are familiar.  In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University showed why, as a matter of statistical analysis, “most published research findings are probably false.”

In other ways, as well, science is constitutionally incapable of knowing everything about our world.  But if we base our science on careful observation, along with a critical assessment of our perceptions and values and an understanding of the limits of our knowledge, we can do good science.

However, if we skip such critical self-assessment, we have the type of Monsanto-science that asserts that its genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically engineered soy seed actually produces less than its traditional counterpart.  The Monsanto claim also ignores the key issue of food distribution.  Indeed, Monsanto’s activities occasion the consolidation of small farms taken out of the hands of the hungry.

In general cultivation techniques in industrial agriculture that many term “progress” without evaluating what progress actually is– lead to the deterioration of global farmland in escalating use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and water.

In assessing the scientific claims for such agriculture, we might well consider Mark Twain’s caution:  “It’s not what he doesn’t know that worries me. It’s what he knows for certain that just ain’t so.”

Keeping our minds open to what we don’t “know for certain” helps compensate for our selective perception– illustrated by a video in which a group of students play basketball while a man in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Viewers told beforehand to count the number of times the basketball bounces miss the presence of the gorilla entirely– as I myself did the first time I saw the film.

Distraction works.

Enough of the TV audience viewing drug ads fix their attention on people depicted in healthy poses to miss the voice-over rattling off a drug’s sometimes fatal side effects. And thus drug ads are commercially profitable despite the side effect listing.

We see what we expect to see. We also see what we are rewarded for seeing.  If we keep our eyes on the ball of career success, on corporate profits, on the prestige of science—or simply on the habits of our modern lifestyle—we easily miss the side effects of our choices.

Just as we need humility that honors the limits of our knowledge, we need a perspective that takes our whole interdependent world into account.

Assessing our values is the first step in doing good science.

Choosing our values is the next one.

We have considerable historical precedent to help us in making such choices. We can choose values that have accompanied human survival over thousands of years:  values such as humility, care, reverence, and thanksgiving– and get to know our world as a friend rather than a dominator.


See also

Why Science will Never Know Everything.


And for a profile of scientists who have done the right thing, working to share accurate information, see these personal profiles of of science “champions”.

This essay is copyright, 2013 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to share. These are important issues to discuss.