Sounds like science, but it ain’t …

we are increasingly assailed with science-related “news” – stories that too often involve hype and attempts to garner attention (and no, half-baked ideas are not theories, they are often non-scientific speculation or unconstrained fantasies).

The other day, as is my addiction, I turned to the “Real Clear Science” website to look for novel science-based stories (distractions from the more horrifying news of the day). I discovered two links that seduced me into clicking: “Atheism is not as rare or as rational as you think” by Will Gervais and Peter Sjöstedt-H’s “Consciousness and higher spatial dimensions“.  A few days later I encountered “Consciousness Is the Collapse of the Wave Function” by Stuart Hameroff. On reading them (more below), I faced the realization that science itself, and its distorted popularization by both institutional PR departments and increasingly by scientists and science writers, may be partially responsible for the absurdification of public discourse on scientific topics [1].  In part the problem arises from the assumption that science is capable of “explaining” much more than is actually the case. This insight is neither new nor novel. Timothy Caulfield’s essay Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already focuses on the fact that various, presumably objective data-based, medical institutions have encouraged the public’s thirst for easy cures for serious, and often incurable diseases.  As an example, “If a respected institution, such as the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, offers reiki — a science-free practice that involves using your hands, without even touching the patient, to balance the “vital life force energy that flows through all living things” — is it any surprise that some people will think that the technique could boost their immune systems and make them less susceptible to the virus?” That public figures and trusted institutions provide platforms for such silliness [see Did Columbia University cut ties with Dr. Oz?] means that there is little to distinguish data-based treatments from faith- and magical-thinking based placebos. The ideal of disinterested science, while tempered by common human frailties, is further eroded by the lure of profit and/or hope of enhanced public / professional status and notoriety.  As noted by Pennock‘ “Science never guarantees absolute truth, but it aims to seek better ways to assess empirical claims and to attain higher degrees of certainty and trust in scientific conclusions“. Most importantly, “Science is a set of rules that keep the scientists from lying to each other. [2]

It should surprise no one that the failure to explicitly recognize the limits, and evolving nature of scientific knowledge, opens the door to self-interested hucksterism at both individual and institutional levels. Just consider the number of complementary/alternative non-scientific “medical” programs run by prestigious institutions. The proliferation of pundits, speaking outside of their areas of established expertise, and often beyond what is scientifically knowable (e.g. historical events such as the origin of life or the challenges of living in the multiverse which are, by their very nature, unobservable) speaks to the increasingly unconstrained growth of pathological, bogus, and corrupted science  which, while certainly not new [3], has been facilitated by the proliferation of public, no-barrier, no-critical feedback platforms [1,4].  Ignoring the real limits of scientific knowledge and rejecting, or ignoring, the expertise of established authorities, rejects the ideals that have led to science that “works”.  

Of course, we cannot blame the distortion of science for every wacky idea; crazy, conspiratorial and magical thinking may well be linked to the cognitive “features” (or are they bugs) of the human brain. Norman Cohn describes the depressing, and repeated pattern behind the construction of dehumanizing libels used to justify murderous behaviors towards certain groups [5].  Recent studies indicate that brains, whether complex or simple neural networks, appear to construct emergent models of the world, models they use to coordinate internal perceptions with external realities [6].  My own (out of my area of expertise) guess is that the complexity of the human brain is associated with, and leads to the emergence of internal “working models” that attempt to make sense of what is happening to us, in part to answer questions such as why the good die young and the wicked go unpunished. It seems likely that our social nature (and our increasing social isolation) influences these models, models that are “checked” or “validated” against our experiences. 

It was in this context that Gervais’s essay on atheism caught my attention. He approaches two questions: “how Homo sapiens — and Homo sapiens alone — came to be a religious species” and “how disbelief in gods can exist within an otherwise religious species?”  But is Homo sapiens really a religious species and what exactly is a religion? Is it a tool that binds social groups of organisms together, a way of coping with, and giving meaning to, the (apparent) capriciousness of existence and experience, both, or something else again?  And how are we to know what is going on inside other brains, including the brains of chimps, whales, or cephalopods? In this light I was struck by an essay by Sofia Deleniv “The ‘me’ illusion: How your brain conjures up your sense of self” that considers the number of species that appear to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Turns out, this is not nearly as short a list as was previously thought, and it seems likely that self-consciousness, the ability to recognize yourself as you, may be a feature of many such systems.  Do other organisms possess emergent “belief systems” that help process incoming and internal signals, including their own neural noise? When the author says, “We then subtly gauge participants’ intuitions” by using “a clever experiment to see how people mentally represent atheists” one is left to wonder whether there are direct and objective measures of “intuitions” or “mental representations”?   Then the shocker, after publishing a paper claiming that “Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief“, the authors state that “the experiments in our initial Science paper were fatally flawed, the results no more than false positives.’ One is left to wonder did the questions asked make sense in the first place. While it initially seemed scientific (after all it was accepted and published in a premiere scientific journal), was it ever really science? 

Both “Consciousness and Higher Spatial Dimensions” and “Consciousness Is the Collapse of the Wave Function”, sound very scientific. Some physicists (the most sciencey of scientists, right?) have been speculating via “string theory” and “multiverses”, a series of unverified (and likely unverifiable) speculations, that they universe we inhabit has many many more than the three spatial dimensions we experience.  But how consciousness, an emergent property of biological (cellular) networks, is related to speculative physics is not clear, no matter what Nobel laureates in physics may say.  Should we, the people, take these remarks seriously?  After all these are the same folks who question the reality of time (for no good reason, as far as I can tell, as I watch my new grandchild and myself grow older rather than younger). 

Part of the issue involves what has been called “the hard problem of consciousness”, but as far as I can tell, consciousness is not a hard problem, but a process that emerges from systems of neural cells, interacting with one another and their environment in complex ways, not unlike the underlying processes of embryonic development, in which a new macroscopic organism composed of thousands to billions of cells emerges from a single cell.  And if the brain and body are generating signals (thoughts) then in makes sense these in turn feed back into the system, and as consciousness becomes increasingly complex, these thoughts need to be “understood” by the system that produced them.  The system may be forced to make sense of itself (perhaps that is how religions and other explanatory beliefs come into being, settling the brain so that it can cope with the material world, whether a nematode worm, an internet pundit, a QAnon wack-o, a religious fanatic, or a simple citizen, trying to make sense of things.

Thanks to Melanie Cooper for editorial advice and Steve Pollock for checking my understanding of physics; all remaining errors are mine alone!

  1. Scheufele, D. A. and Krause, N. M. (2019). Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, 7662-7669
  2. Kenneth S. Norris, cited in False Prophet by Alexander Kohn (and cited by John Grant in Corrupted Science. 
  3.  See Langmuir, I. (1953, recovered and published in 1989). “Pathological science.” Research-Technology Management 32: 11-17; “Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science” and “Bogus Science: or, Some people really believe these things” by John Grant (2007 and 2009)
  4.  And while I personally think Sabine Hossenfelder makes great explanatory videos, even she is occasionally tempted to go beyond the scientifically demonstrable: e.g. You don’t have free will, but don’t worry and An update on the status of superdeterminism with some personal notes  
  5.  Norman Cohn’s (1975) “Europe’s Inner Demons” will reveal.
  6. Kaplan, H. S. and Zimmer, M. (2020). Brain-wide representations of ongoing behavior: a universal principle? Current opinion in neurobiology 64, 60-69.

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder (http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5816-9771). I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see http://klymkowskylab.colorado.edu).

8 thoughts on “Sounds like science, but it ain’t …”

  1. Good essay here. But I was struck by an issue that is of special relevance to my dual roles as anthropologist and lawyer working on international human rights issues:

    “and what exactly is a religion? Is it a tool that binds social groups of organisms together, a way of coping with, and giving meaning to, the (apparent) capriciousness of existence and experience, both, or something else again? ”

    Your answer to the question focuses on the role that “religion” can play, without addressing the question of what religion is, exactly. As if, in answer to the question “what, exactly, is sugar?” the answer is “a sweet thing that makes your coffee drinkable.” I mention this since, in our current judicial climate, courts have been wildly generous in allowing the label “religion” or “religious” to serve as a pretext for decisions that might fall somewhat short of a real standard, and instead fall into the realm of “sincere belief.” As in: it is my sincere belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, a sincere belief which probably would not count as “religious.” Yet the Supreme Court allowed the “sincere belief” that IUDs are abortifacients to be considered part of a “religious” belief in its Hobby Lobby decision.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the essay here and apologize for the ramble….

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  2. “After all these are the same folks who question the reality of time”…
    Funny enough, this post currently appears in RealClearScience directly above a post titled “What is time?”

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  3. Is the claim that consciousness is an “emergent property” of brains a scientific claim? How are the terms “consciousness” and “emergent property” being used here?

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    1. Emergent properties are (as I understand it) properties that “arise from the collaborative functioning of a system,, but do not belong to any one part of that system. In other words, emergent properties are properties of a group of items.” An ant colony or a bee hive is a good example of an emerging system. [https://sciencing.com/emergent-properties-8232868.html and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/ ]. Consciousness (awareness of self) would appear to be behaviors that emerge from networks of neurons (and their associated cells) and influenced, but that is just a working hypothesis on my part.

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  4. “And if the brain and body are generating signals (thoughts) then in makes sense these in turn feed back into the system, and as consciousness becomes increasingly complex, these thoughts need to be “understood” by the system that produced them. ”

    These are the “easy” problems: the functional correlates of conscious activity. But they don’t explain why subjective experience would accompany such processes. A computer generates signals, those signals involve feedback loops, they are highly complex and they need be integrated at a high level by a system that “understands” and coordinates the processing. We can even create computers that learn things we haven’t taught them explicitly. But is there a subjective experience of this activity?

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