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Snake Oil

Sounding Like Deepak Chopra

This paper has gotten a good amount of attention lately, as one might expect. It’s a social-science study, designed to try to understand the traits of people who are (more) susceptible to impressive-sounding empty phrases, but it wouldn’t have gotten as much notice if it hadn’t been titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”. (I have no problem with the title – the marketplace of ideas is noisy and crowded, and you do have to cry your wares). Of particular note are the test sentences the authors chose – one batch was Markov-chain-like strings of buzzwords, grammatically sound but guaranteed devoid of any deliberate sense, and the other was a collection from Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed. Perhaps a followup study can test the null hypothesis as to whether anyone can tell which of those is which – in this one, at any rate, the two tracked each other with alarming fidelity. (I am not going to link to Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed; if you want that fountain of wisdom to splash on you, you’re going to have to seek it out yourself).

The paper is open access, and here’s a piece by Emily Willingham at Forbes on it. The authors find that the set of people who are more receptive to this sort of thing do differ from those who aren’t. As you might expect, they tend to score lower on tests of verbal intelligence and fluency, and they are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena and in conspiracy theories, among other things. The latter tendencies, as the authors note, are well-recognized signs of a BS detector whose batteries need changing. I should note that they controlled for both fluency in English and for familiarity with Deepak Chopra – a study of his biggest fans, though, would be instructive, although I (for one) would have to be paid generously to spend the necessary time in their company.

The topic is an interesting one, and has some bearing on the scientific literature in general. It’s fair to say that to someone without any training or background, a paragraph from the Journal of the American Chemical Society might well sound even less sensible than a paragraph of Chopra’s Delphic doo-dah. So how is one to know that the JACS paper is potentially useful, while the Chopra article can only attain utility by being printed on something that composts well? One possible answer is that a person can study in a direction that will progressively allow the chemistry paper to become more and more meaningful – anyone who’s picked up a new field of knowledge (or a new language) will be familiar with the sensation of going back over material as it begins to make sense. My own examples are seeing tables of integrals in my father’s old CRC Handbook as a child, and seeing them again after learning calculus and, in a different but equally arresting way, seeing footage of a Hitler speech in a documentary after speaking some degree of German for a year. Seeing a Deepak Chopra speech after learning English does not, in all likelihood, have that effect. Hitler talked rot, but it was direct and vigorous rot for the most part: after hearing him, you were not left in much doubt about what he was trying to convey.

Chopra’s customers would object to that JACS analogy by saying that his work, too, repays study with further understanding. But here we get down to the real difference: technical vocabulary. A scientific paper is written with compressed meaning, because it has to be. Concepts are referenced that require study of their own (the most highly distilled form of this sort of thing is mathematical notation). If I write, or if you read, that “the NMR indicated the presence of aromatic protons”, that is a perfectly intelligible statement if you’re an organic chemist. But to unpack those eight words in detail for an intelligent lay reader would take a while, especially if I were to really go into detail on nuclear magnetic resonance and the idea of aromaticity. The vernacular meaning of “aromatic”, just to pick one thing, would do nothing but confuse anyone who’s never studied any chemistry.

Now, philosophy has the same problem, compounded by the way that it can appear to be written with fairly normal-sounding words. No one who comes unprepared to the phrase “a proton-promoted two-step polyolefin cyclization to first furnish tricyclic hapalindoles” (that’s from a current JACS paper) will be under any illusion of understanding it. But you can read a sentence from many a philosopher and think that you’ve grasped its meaning (or been equally sure that there’s no such meaning to grasp), but be wrong on either count because you didn’t realize that words such as “statement” or “value” have actually been given specific technical meanings, just like “aromatic” in the sentence given above.

That has unfortunately confused a lot of readers over the years. The situation is made still worse by suspicions that even once unpacked, not all philosophy contains useful amounts of meaning. Heidegger and Sartre are notorious examples, as witness this from Being and Nothingness:

The Cogito never delivers anything except what we ask it to deliver. Descartes never interrogated it concerning its functional aspect: “I doubt, I think,” and by having wanted to proceed without a guiding thread from this functional aspect to its existential dialectic, he fell into the substantialist error. Husserl, instructed by this error, remained fearfully on the place of functional description. By that fact, he never superseded the pure description of appearance as such; he remained on the Cogito; he merits being called, despite his denials, a phenomenist rather than a phenomenologue; and his phenomenism borders at all times on Kantian idealism. Heidegger, wanting to avoid the phenomenism of description that leads to the megatic and antidialectic isolation of essence, directly tackles the existential analytic without passing through the Cogito….

It’s just as opaque in the original French; there is no human language in which this is not a rough ride. I can (just) see how this might be unfolded into coherent meaning, although when you have to do that word by word it can get exhausting. But I do wonder if the distinction between a phenomenist and a phenomenologue, or the border between the former and Kantian idealism, are concepts as graspable as they would need to be for this to work. If I asked ten philosophers for guidance, or ten philosophy students, how similar would their answers be? If I ask ten organic chemists what an aromatic proton is, though, they’ll converge pretty well. Some very intelligent people love Sartre – well, his writings, because the man himself was not lovable in the least – but some other very intelligent people (Clive James, for one) find his philosophy almost totally fraudulent. (As for Heidegger, James says that “Hegel was trying to get something awkward out into the open. Heidegger was straining every nerve of the German language to do exactly the opposite.”)

So just because something appears difficult or unclear does not mean that it is meaningless, but it doesn’t mean that it’s profound, either. The sciences have the advantage of being able to coin their own technical vocabulary, and mathematics has been able to go even further and produce its own language of symbols for the purpose, but if you’re working with a more normal human idiom, you will find that there are ideas that are extremely hard to express. Some of them, in fact, may turn out to be inexpressible, in which case Wittgenstein advised shutting up about them. Although he did not actually use the phrase “halt die Klappe“, that was the message he was trying to get across to some of his philosophical colleagues.

The direct overlap of these fields occurs when philosophers start talking about science, and when that happens, sometimes the house lights come up and you can see the rickety stage sets and the cheap makeup. The place to go for this is Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense, which is full of truly nonsensical appropriations of scientific language and concepts by various modern literary theorists and philosophers. The implication has to be that if their usages in this area are so much hot air, then the rest of their output might well be more of the same. That’s the same Sokal who famously hoaxed a journal of literary and social theory into printing a mass of superficially passable word salad, just to see if they would. They did.

This situation, then, gives plenty of working room for the Deepak Chopras of the world. He can make a fortune talking about quantum this and transformative that, and tweet things like “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation“. (That’s authentic Chopra, I believe, but if you told me that I’d misquoted it, and that it was really “Manifestation and intention are the mechanics of attention“, how the hell would I know?) We scientists have to make sure that we don’t fall into the same swamp. We have to say what we believe to be the case, in as clear a way as we can, and when we’re talking to lay people who are totally outside our fields, we must, at all cost, make sure that we don’t end up sounding to them like Deepak Chopra.

67 comments on “Sounding Like Deepak Chopra”

  1. Sam Adams the Dog says:

    In order to understand that Sartre quote, you have to understand the principles of Nuclear Megatic Resonance.

    1. Martin says:

      I do, and I don’t. Not necessarily in that order!

  2. Lars says:

    We have a proverb in Danish, saying roughly “muddled speech = muddled thought”. Not always the case, but useful to keep in mind.

    1. Techexo says:

      Funny, we have a famous quote in French, by Nicolas Boileau, that says “Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement / Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.”, which translates approximately to “What we clearly understand is well said / And the words to say it are easy to find.” (If anyone can propose a better translation, do not hesitate !)

  3. Am I Lloyd says:

    I bet they would reach the same conclusions if they were to analyze press releases and CEO statements from Big Pharma.

    1. quantum reality says:

      Deepak clearly possesses the communication skills needed for a lucrative career as a pharma executive; he may have even be writing their scripts.

  4. Kent G. b udge says:

    “I am not going to link to Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed; if you want that fountain of wisdom to splash on you, you’re going to have to seek it out yourself”

    I’m melting …. melting …

    “The vernacular meaning of “aromatic”, just to pick one thing, would do nothing but confuse anyone who’s never studied any chemistry.”

    I don’t know how common aromatic rings are in pharmaceutical molecules, but it does suggest a double meaning to the term “aromatherapy.”

    1. JAB says:

      A bath in benzene?

  5. Anon says:

    Our commitment to verbal transparency shall commence henceforth.

    1. Andy says:

      Eschew obfuscation!

      1. Lane Simonian says:

        Regarding aromatherapy, language can work in curious ways. Aromatherapy consists of a series of aromatic compounds that act as antioxidants and as antinflammatory agents in the brain. It is one of the few ways in which compounds with medicinal properties can reach the brain intranasally. Yet the language applied to it is pseudoscience, woo, new age, voodoo, etc., etc., etc.

        To communicate the science behind these compounds to non-scientists is difficult. To communicate it to scientists seems to be a waste of time in most cases because there is a disconnect between the science and their belief system. Eugenol in various essential oils (such as clove, bay laurel, lemon balm, rosemary, etc.), for instance, can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system increasing alertness, cognition, and anxiety, it can inhibit and partially reverse tyrosine nitration restoring partial function to various transport systems and enzyme in the brain, it can partially reverse cysteine oxidation which leads to the re-activation of g protein-coupled receptors involved in short-term memory, smell, mood, sleep, social recognition, and alertness, it can inhibit NMDA receptor activity protecting neurons from apoptosis. What does any of this mean to the lay person? Nothing. What does it mean to a scientist? Technically it must mean something, but intellectually it means nothing. So if you are caught between two worlds like I am the communication of information becomes problematical so that the two most common response are: that is way above my head or you are an idiot.

        1. Oblarg says:

          Perhaps you should consider the possibility that the reason scientists don’t take you seriously is more indicative of problems with your ideas than with their reasoning.

          1. Lane Simonian says:

            I don’t rule out that possibility. Nor do I rule out the possibility that I am well-intentioned but wrong. I provide the evidence and others provide their interpretation of me (I only really object to the accusations that I am a fraud, selling something, or an idiot). To really engage the evidence is much more difficult–it takes time to point out the flaws and to judge whether those flaws are sufficient to negate the primary findings of a study. And it is even more difficult to realize what someone thought was snake oil might not always be so.

        2. Alex Monras says:

          I am sorry, but to my best of my knowledge the mechanisms of olfaction are still to be well understood. Hence, I fail to believe that there is any scientific understanding supporting the so-called “aromatherapy”, beyond what Feynman used to call “cargo cult science”.

      2. NC says:

        You’re a Disciple?

  6. anon the II says:

    Seems like there should have been some mention of Jackson Pollock in this post. Or at least something about atomic force microscopy.

  7. milkshake says:

    Not just humanities – the infamous Bogdanov brothers doctorate affair and strange El Nashie bogus Elsevier math journal…

  8. Algirdas says:

    @ Anon 10:53

    Eschew Obfuscation!

  9. bigsur says:

    Based on my experience, today’s pharma is a breading ground for managers and scientists just like Deepak Chopra.

  10. Ryan says:

    Never fear big long words
    Big long words name little things
    All big things have little names
    Such as life and death, peace and war or dawn, day,
    night, hope, love, home.
    Learn to use little words in a big way.
    It is hard to do.
    But they say what you mean.
    When you don’t know what you mean, use big words.
    That often fools little people.
    — Arthur Kudner

    1. Miles Peters says:

      Meteorology notoriously uses long compounded words to conceal a complete lack of knowledge…..before you even start on climate!

  11. Mark Thorson says:

    A useful tool is learning how to translate obscure text into B.A.S.I.C. English, the complete language of 850 English words. Any thing you say in Standard English may be said in Basic. Putting hard words into Basic forces makes ideas simple.

    It works well with the U.S. Constitution. Oh, so that’s what it means! Less well with the words of Deepak Chopra.

    1. RM says:

      This is more or less the idea behind “Thing Explainer“, the book from the man who makes the words and pictures things that people like to point to a lot. There are a number of stories written close to now which show parts of the book, and things which are like things in the book – like “The Space Doctor’s Big Idea” and the hand computer explained.

      While making such stories about things you know may help with understanding them better, I do not think reading such things helps much with thing understanding, unless the person writing them is very good at it. If you don’t understand things, making them too simple actually makes them less simple, as the person writing has to use a lot of words to say thoughts that harder words can say easily. Then you have to make the large number of words into a smaller number of thoughts in your head, which can be hard.

      1. bad wolf says:

        re: the “thing explainer”–apparently Basic English was a thing (now with its own wikipedia site) almost a century before Randall Monroe came along to reinvent the wheel for us.

  12. anon says:

    Such a waste of time, brain cells and money for “research”. I guess the authors didn’t have anything better to do.

  13. crh says:

    I don’t think they controlled for fluency very well, at least not in their second study, where they recruited subjects from Mechanical Turk and relied on them to self-identify as fluent english speakers. I suspect a large percentage of MT users are not native english speakers, and an even larger percentage are willing to tell you whatever they think you want to hear if it means more compensation.

  14. Sigivald says:

    If it helps, as someone with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, that bit from Heidegger is:

    A) About as clear as he ever gets.
    B) Actually comprehensible, if you have the background – but you need the background, and a lot of it.
    C) Not incompatible with his philosophy being fraudulent [which claim was applied to Sartre, but has also been applied to Heidegger], though I have a lot of sympathy with the idea – fraudulent isn’t the same as meaningless.

    If you want really incomprehensible, you have to go past even Derrida [who occasionally makes a little, in a way like “one page of overwrought babble distills into one not very interesting statement] into people like Baudrillard.

    Anyone tells me Baudrillard makes sense to them, I assume they’re lying, crazy, or selling me something.

    (Contra above advice, which might work well in many areas, it’s difficult in the extreme to use little words or basic English to talk about serious philosophy, because half of it is figuring out what those basic concepts mean in the first place, and the rest is talking about ideas that basic English literally has no words for.

    While one can – and should – try to define core concepts in such language, once you’ve done so once, use a term of art – because otherwise every time you talk about “Phenomena” you’re going to have to use a paragraph of basic English, and after the tenth time this is not helping anyone.

    Every complex field of thought or endeavor has terms of art for precisely this reason, from chemistry to computer science to philosophy to plumbing.)

    1. Martin says:

      The technical language of plastering (career before science):

      Skim, float, render, old english, trowel-up, polish, dash, bead, cove, scrim (was dying out when i started in the profession), tronk (ok, so that’s probably colloquial rather than technical)…

    2. David says:

      This is why I prefer the math terms “cohomology” and “homeomorphic” to “group” and “ring.” (Those aren’t even nearly equivalent, just examples). I kind of prefer invented words to co-opted ones, since I don’t have to immediately clear up misconceptions of anyone who overhears me talk about a group of rotations or a ring of integers.

  15. East McCarty says:

    Nice to see experimental verification for the guidance at my company that presentation language should be simplified if V.P. level folks are expected to be present.

  16. Derek Freyberg says:

    @Mark Thorson (12:34):
    Randall Munroe (of xkcd fame) has a new book out: “Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words”, in which he describes the Saturn rocket, a nuclear submarine, etc. in the most common 1000 English words. He was recently interviewed on NPR, and said that deciding what “the most common 1000 English words” are was one of the more difficult tasks, as what is the most common depends so much on the source you are scraping (assuming computer scraping of a body of text and then sorting by frequency).

  17. Me says:

    @Lane: It’s because your understanding of what you speak of, and your mixing of solid science, pseudoscience and your own prejudices creates, to the serious scientist, an image of what Paracelsus called ‘a well-intentioned madman’.

    @Kent G Budge: Nearly all of them have aromatic rings in them.

  18. Alex says:

    I’m reminded of this quote from Paul Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!”

  19. Nick K says:

    I perpetrated a nasty little trick on two friends who were into turgid Postmodernist dross like Derrida and Baudrillard. I took a typical passage out of Derrida and inverted every sentence so it meant the exact opposite. I then sent them the original and the inverted version and asked them which was which.

      1. Nick K says:

        Thanks, Sili. I did this trick a long time ago (about 1982), well before the Internet allowed us to find such things. I was completely unaware that it was unoriginal.

  20. Ken says:

    So has anyone ever seen Deepak Chopra and a Markov chain buzzword generator in the same room? Maybe one of them is the other’s secret identity.

  21. dp says:

    Derek – thank you for this thoughtful article. The one minor irritation of it is that you managed to pick out an example of a sensible Chopra statement. On the plus side, it is one of the many Chopra statements that are not “original Chopra” (so our logic holds fast, at least): “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation” is a poor way of expressing that one has to both pay attention and know what one wants (i.e. have a goal) in order to call things (i.e. the future or “potential”) into being – an idea that is not original Chopra because it is as old as the Mesopotamian creation myth (Enuma Elish) and codified in all mythological narratives since (including, of course, the bible).

  22. Hobbes says:

    So, I just fired up Deepak’s twitter up…

    I came into this thread with a masters in comp science. I have this overwhelming urge to tender it in, even the few minutes exposure to the feed has caused my IQ to take a dip. For anyone who hasn’t had the … joy… don’t go there. It’s a special place, a place where your braincells will charge, lemminglike for the exits.

  23. CS says:

    Philosophers (proper ones) are far better at talking science than scientists are at talking philosophy. This is a shame, because science is meaningless without philosophy.

    1. Oblarg says:

      Pretty sure scientists can get on just fine without philosophers, thank you very much. Somehow I doubt that my understanding of the law of gravity, for instance, requires some deep insight into the nature of truth or whatever the fuck. Or maybe if I subscribe to the wrong metaphysics I’ll float away?

      1. Gil Lawton says:

        With utmost respect for your opnion, let me offer that if we were to define science on the one hand as dealing only with hypotheses than can be physically tested, together with explanations that rule out any and every alternative interpretation, and philosophy on the other hand as dealing with questions scientists cannot test, then we would have no science at all.

        If you doubt it, tell me what determines why — not what you think, but clearly and unquestionably why — the nuclei of atoms would be sucked into a black hole, while the so-called “lighter” particles (or whatever they are) remain outside and are spun around and cast outward from the black holes’ poles.

        Take care now to be precise, to speak in definitions that leave no dangling subsumptives, and to tell only what can be tested and established as sufficient, necessary and certain.

        Please understand that I bear you no malice and have no desire to appear to outsmart you.

        I merely pose this as something for you to think about.

        1. z says:

          That question neither helps answer why scientist need philosophers (the people) nor why science is meaningless without philosophy.

          As for the answer – it’s a copout, but science does not have a “clearly and unquestionably why”. Period.
          At best you can say is “based on the current best-regarded theories of ___”.

          Science can be used as a predictor of what happens (from what we can measure), without knowing why or how or anything. This can be useful though perhaps not illuminating.

          1. Gil Lawton says:

            This exchange could go on forever.

            The only cop out in your reply is the assertion that the proposal for you to think deeply and widely on what amounts to a critical lack of distinction between most of what scientists do, when they interpret what they can only observe and measure and analyze and what philosophers do.

            I totally concur that each is influenced in beneficial ways by the other.

            To know the limits of the one is to know the limits of the other. It is, particularly, that none can observe, measure or analyze or take into account everything. We all are bound by the limits of our access to all that exists and occurs.

            Far be it from me to fault those who do science — in all the ways it is done — by doing the best they/we can with less than a full deck of facts.

  24. Trevor Hayton says:

    “The NMR *spectrum* indicated the presence of aromatic protons”. Now it makes sense.

  25. Gil Lawton says:

    I am a person who has read widely and deeply into science subjects and into philosophical writings, although I have had little formal education in them. So please forgive me if what I say here is naive.

    It seems to me that there are some highly touted theoretical constructs in publications about physics (and more so in biology subjects) that fit the evidence but which, in doing so, do not lend themselves to being tested. And, while I am convinced that there is much benefit in dreaming up the best possible working hypotheses, and refining them to allow for a steady inflow of new data, much pressure brought in forums of the present kind, against any narrative that does not conform to what currently is the vogue, or consensus, of the majority in a field. And this, despite the fact that problems with current theories abound.

    Recently, in reading about entropy — not as a “Law” of science, but as a phenomenon which design engineers most certainly do well to factor into their trials of new and different hard models — I have encountered assertions about reversibility of “the laws of science.”

    It strikes me as odd that examples of such reversibility are a ball that has been tossed into the air. If the resistance of air were not a factor, the ball would climb with decreasing acceleration for as far as its momentum would take it away from the epicenter of gravity in that space-time frame, and then would begin to descend, such that its momentum prior to being interrupted would match in increase the speed at each level of its downward trajectory, accordant with its decrease at same level on its way upward.

    Indeed, I have no problem with that example, within its described limits.

    However, when it is argued — based upon such narrowly spun examples == that THEREFORE physicists are able to see (by mind experimentation) that all of history could be reversed without violating the “laws of physics,” that strikes me as absurd.

    Instead of the narrow, simplistic example of a ball going up and then falling down, what if we imagine a high wire walker in a circus, who falls to his death in the arena, with an audience of one-thousand persons watching. For that to reverse, the dead performer not only resurrects but, also, ascends up to the wire, and rebalances himself up there. That entails that reversing the situation also reverses the direction of gravity (whether it be an attracting force or a warpage of space-time as Einstein proposed). All well and good, but in reversing the action of gravity, what happens to all clusters of atoms in that universe? Surely the audience, the clowns, the elephants, Earth, planets, stars… would also respond to the reverse.

    Now, I am not arguing against entropy, the so-called zeroth law of thermodynamics, nor the other three laws… nor well-reasoned arguments that some if not all so-called “laws of science” could be not laws at all, but results of statistics and probabilities which render certain outcomes so highly unlikely as to be treated as impossible in the course of research and theorizing about results thereof.

    All I take exception to is the claim that no law of science would be violated if history as an entirety were to occur in reverse.

    That assertion is not merely frequently made in texts and in classrooms and in discussions among physicists, but gets repeated by non-scientists all over the world.

    But all this is said merely to make a point, namely: there are untestible (untestible?) assertions made by many who work in physics, as well as many science academicians, that rely heavily on “examples” that are eclectic.

    My take on all this is that — as viewed by scientists, teachers, bloggers, or whomever, a couple of hundred years after today — much that goes unchallenged today may well be laughed as as bullshit. Likewise, if we look back at what, according to recorded history of science (and philosophy), the most brilliant (and arrogant) of scientists believed at that juncture, they would have laughed and scoffed if told some of the things scientists and teachers of today believe.

    Bullshit is as bullshit does. And what is “in” in science or “out” in science has at least some characteristics of coming and going like fads.

    Could it not be that even the most brilliant and most productive in science are — to a large extent — constrained in their thinking by the milieu in which they find themselves and, also, much constrained by the envelope of experience to which they are confined.

    1. Phil says:

      Gil: I may be wrong about this, but I think you assume that some ideas will never be testable.

      Many breakthroughs in scientific understanding have come from technological advances (often in completely different fields of science) which suddenly make possible all sorts of new experiments. It’s a slow process, but it never stops.

      Once they’ve exhausted what they can test experimentally, scientists might put forward a couple of possible explanations, but other scientists rightfully take those explanations as suggestions, not fact. They are that person’s best guesses as to where to look for the answer, if and when looking there is possible.

      And yes, it’s easy to look back and pick out some silly things that scientists believed 100 or 200 years ago and laugh. 100 years from now, people will look at some of the things we believe and laugh, too. But then again, a lot of it (like the Laws of Thermodynamics you cite) will hold true, and any further understanding that is gained will be gained because we uncovered that truth.

      And to answer your question about black holes, I haven’t got a clue. I’m not that kind of scientist. But I’m sure an astrophysicist is going to figure it out someday, and I’m ok not knowing for now. I’d rather not know than spend time cooking up explanations that can’t be tested.

      1. Gil Lawton says:

        In response to Phil,

        Thank you for bringing that point up, Phil. Yes, i expect that those who do research in the sciences will come up with much additional information, and much more knowledge. And let me be quick to include along with those who nominally engage in “science” many who are not even known as “scientists” per se: those who do development in science, which includes many engineers, and intellectuals, and philosophers, and mathematicians who focus mostly on finding the briefest possible ways to express and apply rigorous symbolic models to fit the knowns (and the supposed), and philosophers whose contributions over the course of the centuries have come up with ideas that scientists could expand their horizons to examine…

        I do, indeed, believe that science, or “scientists” as the broader meaning implied in the preceding paragraph, will discover and adapt old paradigms, and that new synthesists will come along who will virtually overturn and replace older ones that become overladen with too heavy a load of evidence of anomolies. That is, in fact, what has been going on these past many centuries, and with increasing speed… to the point that today just learning about what already is know can be compared to taking a sip from a fire hose.

        But we humans cannot be everywhere in this universe (or these multiverses, as the case might be), nor can we participate in the whole of time of this universe, much less beyond it. I doubt we ever shall find ways to observe, measure and interpret everything. But, when I think about it, I’m glad it is so (of that I believe it is so.)

        Why am I glad?

        Well, because if “science” were to exhaust the observing, measuring and interpreting of everything, in all of time (or times) and scenarios, then all scientists would be, from that moment forward, out of a job.

        We would not want that, now, would we ( : > )?

        1. Phil says:


          Preface: I have not studied philosophy beyond Intro to Logic in college. Logical reasoning certainly brings value to science and engineering, and the pursuit of philosophy can be thanked for it.

          I am sincerely interested in an example where philosophers “have come up with ideas that scientists could expand their horizons to examine…” To me, it seems scientists (and engineers, and mathematicians – I share your inclusive view of those intent on studying the laws of nature) typically challenge each other with ideas to expand their horizons.

          I can’t help but think of the infamous chemistry story wherein one renowned Harvard professor claims to have given a legendary Harvard professor the idea for a set of rules regarding the stereochemical outcome of pericyclic reactions. The set of rules bears only one of these professors’ names (and that professor’s student). Why? Because ideas are cheap, and it’s impossible to say who came up with an idea first. In fact, many people come up with the same ideas independently. Furthermore, an idea isn’t useful until it has been reduced to practice, and only then can you say it was a good idea and take credit for the rewards of exploring it.

          If the currency of philosophy is ideas, I’ll pass.

        2. Phil says:

          Further comments: Having edified myself slightly, I can put my views into philosophical context somewhat. I am a pragmatist, or more specifically an instrumentalist. I would wager that most scientists are the same. Does naming my style of rational thought make it more useful? It’s nice to have shorthands for specific sets of ideas so they can be communicated more quickly, but that requires a common understanding of meaning that is missing for most philosophical jargon. And getting most scientists to learn that jargon will take some convincing.

          So convince me. How does knowing this or deliberately studying the these philosophical schools (which I have inadvertently “studied” extensively in my training as a scientist) make me a better scientist as measured by my ability to extend to frontiers of human knowledge? Will it make me a better communicator of science to my peers, scientists in other fields, or the public? What practical advantage will my engagement in philosophical study grant?

          1. Gil Lawton says:

            I approve of your pragmatic stance, Phil.

            As for me, I’ve spent many, many an impractical or unpragmatic hour studyiing what others think, and seeking intellectual satisfaction with answers meaningful to me.

            Just as lots of people argue (and write in physics books) that there is no special space-time frame of reference in the universe, I believe there is no special opinion as to what is the truth about what lies beyond unexhausted and unexhaustable human experience insofar as its ability to extrapolate beyond it — nor, for that matter, even within any one person’s experience.

            If you are absolutely pragmatic, then you have no time for, nor appreciation of, anything that would be called science, that you cannot utilize to immediate advantage.

            Is it pragmatic to spend any time reading what anybody has to say about the possibility any subject, or seeking to come to any studied opinion of your own, such that the result would be unuseful to you?

            A friend of mine who retired from position of head of the mathematics department of a highly touted university, once told me that learning to operate a computer or speak a foreign language was of no use to him, so he did not waste time on those things.

            I asked, not judgmentally, but in effort to examine for my own curiosity only, how he “knew” he would not have benefited from learning to operate a computer or speak a foreign language.

            He responded, “Look at me. Do I look like a person who has failed to attain success, fulfillment, satisfaction…”

            I offered to teach him to operate a computer.

            He declined.

            Is it pragmatic to think in terms of what benefits other people?

            On the other hand, for a person to say, and mean, “I am a pragmatist,” may mean that he thinks in terms of what others who are pragmatists need (want?)

            I do not judge your opinions nor your choices of belief.

            I merely maintain that I do not believe any human knows everything, or finds useful to himself/herself the same things as others find — or make — useful to themselves.

            You may agree that there are problems with being a pragmatist, just as there are problems with “knowledge.”

            None of us has knowledge of the universe, such that we could not be wrong, I do not think.

            And much in science is “interpretation,” and therefore opinion.

            Useful? Yes. the whole truth and nothing but?

            Not in my opinion.

      2. Gil Lawton says:

        In response to MK,

        Dr, Einstein is quoted as having said words to the effect that if one understands something, one would be able to explain it to a barmaid.

        According to many students who enrolled in classes taught by Dr. Einstein, in university, complained that, at the end of a lecture, they were unable even to figure out what the lecture had been about.

        Some very brilliant individuals worked with Dr. Feynman, who is responsibly reported to have been brilliant in physics, but quite weak in grammar and syntax. And even among other brilliant physicists he worked with, he was perceived as speaking “like a bum.” He relied heavily upon transforms to explain things he obviously understood, about phenomena that “are,” but which cannot be grasped on basis of knowing precisely what is happening, or why, but outcomes of which can be — statistically, at least — predicted.

        Often quotes — even quotes of some very famous people — are best taken in the fullest possible context of their lives, their work, their frustrations, their personal dilemmas of various sorts and, perhaps most important of all, their sense of humor.

        Out of such broad contexts, quotes can be misleading for most readers.

        A brilliant man I know likes to critique famous quotes. For example, as to Dr. Einstein’s notorious definition of “insanity” (doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result), “Dr. Einstein evidently failed to take even an entry level course in probability and statistics for, if he had, he would know why most highly successful athletes keep on training after coming in second.”

        “Training, and learning and carrying out a business,” my friend says, ” are additive. They must be stuck with, and done over and over again, before they are achieved.”

        He knows full well that is not what Dr. Einstein was referring to. But many who quote such individuals do not.

    2. passerby says:

      “That entails that reversing the situation also reverses the direction of gravity […]”

      This is flatly incorrect.

      In the situation you describe, tiny vibrations coalesce from across the Earth and atmosphere at the speed of sound (as sound is exactly what they are), each and all coming together at exactly the right time and angle to launch the scattered pieces of the performer’s corpse up into the air in a coherent and (reverse-)homeostatic whole. Momentum is transferred from the Earth to the body, exactly in the way that momentum is transferred from the body to the Earth in the forward-time view of the event.

      Gravity works identically in this scenario, causing the launched performer to slow to a stop as he nears the apex of his rise, coming to a precarious balance on his tightrope, just as it causes a ball to slow to a stop as it nears the apex of its flight, whether forwards or backwards. (If gravity truly *were* reversed, the performer would accelerate upwards during his rise, instead of only at his launch. Also the audience would fly away and the Earth would fly apart.)

      The fact that this coalescence of momentum from the microscale to the macroscale is impossibly unlikely, while its decoherence in the opposite fashion is normal, is precisely the second law of thermodynamics.

      1. Gil Lawton says:

        To passerby,

        If you are not intending this as rich humor, forgive me, but taking it as humor, I enjoyed reading this entry immensely. But after further reflection, some of what you said here bears some echos of Nassim Haramein.

        Even if you have, you do not connect — I do not think — the in-the-grid assertion in some texts with Haramein’s off-the-grid offerings on his model of quantum gravity.

        If you would seriously bridge a gap between the standard model of physics and Einstein’s general relativity and Haramein’s attribution of gravity to the infinite vibration energy he references, you left lots of explanatory chasms.

        But, if you were not meaning to be funny, please forgive me for deeming it so. ( : > )

        (Oh, and hey, I’m not knocking Harramein, and I’m not supporting him. Your vibrations stuff just reminded me of some things he has said, that’s all.)

  26. Hap says:

    And look who’s got a book selling in the banner ads….I guess there’s really no such thing as bad publicity.

  27. MK says:

    What can be said at all can be said clearly (Wittgenstein)

  28. Gil Lawton says:

    Speaking to the the entirety of what is “scientific,” surely it is fair and accurate to observe and say that
    much advanced knowledge is of a nature comparable to mathematics, in which many observed phenomena, and interpretations of phenomena, are not communicable as a single concept.

    Although some highly complex conceptual models for explaining and utilizing scientifically advanced concepts are based upon many preliminary simple concepts, explaining them in the briefest manner required talking over the heads of any who have not yet learned, or have not yet attempted to combine those simpler concepts.

    The barriers that prevent a coming to a grasp some complex models for thought and comparison and analysis can be found in teaching a child to swim.

    Providing the child with even an abundant amount of information about what it feels like to be immersed in water, while it may do no harm to the process, fails to prepare the child for the natural physical and emotional reactions he/she will experience when first persuaded (or forced) to duck his/her head under the surface. This is not to say a child must have an instructor to learn to swim, but a proficient instructor mixes explanation with demonstration, with emotional support, with necessarily delayed and repeated exposure that provides emotional learning, kinetic learning, acquaintance with technique…

    The same is true of teaching (including self-teaching) to play a musical instrument.

    To put the burden of communicating some things in this world upon spoken or written language alone — whereby the student or audience does not participate in the “motivated work” element in the teaching/learning process — is to designate to words (also abstract symbols) an impossible task.

    Yes, it is quite true that the best explanation of a process in science is the most clearly and most simply put. But the audience member or student has to put forth motivated effort to grasp even that.

    A many a student, and a many a blogger, engage in knee jerk responses, based upon having memorized, or merely read or heard something explained, and assumes he/she knows enough to grasp the jist of it. But that can also be the case with some highly educated individuals… and, no doubt, there will be some who will object to this observation.

    Alas, in today’s science, it’s a challenge even for those inside a given field to assimilate all that is known and asserted by others of the same specialty, right up to the frontiers of where that field is headed. Most of us focus in upon one small segment of a single field, and can make progress there, without mastering all that is known even about that. And, if that person makes a discovery, or chances upon some serendipitous giant step forward, he is likely to be able to communicate his progress — even to others in his specialty — to those sufficiently motivated to dig into what he/she can, only in that kind of dialogue, convey understanding to.

  29. Gil Lawton says:

    Communication is a bi-participant phenomenon.

    Some, it would seem from how many bloggers “discuss” an idea, a phenomenon, an interpretation…, seem to view communication as an antagonistic game. (One contributor to this forum quoted Wittgenstein, but did not mention what Wittgenstein referred to as “word games.”)

    I strongly support the contention that progress in science benefits from a kind of competition. I strongly support, also, the assertion that much motivation in science derives from what some thinkers (including Sigmund Freud, Petrovich Pavlov, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even those who study the workings of the human brain today… have sought to interpret as how and why humans tend to (in addition to cooperating in socio-econo-political systems) seem to need to act adversarially toward others and others’ ideas, opinions, values…

    The ideal teacher-learner mode surely would not omit some adversarial motive influence, because motivation (a highly complex thing in and of itself) is one of the prime motivators. Even so, science, does profit from some thinkers pronouncing one another “wrong,” or “naive,” or “unreasonable.” However, what we see in blogs, in many but not all exchanges, has all the earmarks of two or more locked-brained individuals each trying to veritably body slam the other, or, seeming to seek to impress all third parties that themselves are more correct and more sound in their reasoning than whichever other contributor they choose to pounce on verbally.

    It seems to me to make sense believing that more is attained in science through cooperation than through mutual strivings of individuals to put down any ideas other than their own. The history of the attainment of knowledge (actually what often is considered to be the given wisdom du jour) contains many examples of organizations of elite knowledge-havers or knowledge seekers who take great pains to prevent their “secret knowledge” from leaking out to others. In today’s worldview some of the greatest financing sources are governments that wish to keep secret any knowledge or technique that could be used against them in war. But, aside from that, there is a great scientific community of will to “get any and all information out there,” so that the progress of one or a few can be made available to all others.

    If i were to want to be quoted in anything out of context (which I don’t) it might be for saying something like this: “The single best attitude leading to one’s being right about very many things is the attitude of seeking continually to correct the things one is mistaken about.”

    Far too much energy, it seems to me, is spent on pronouncing and trying to persuade others to believe that whomever disagrees with moi, always is the one in need of correction.

    If anyone would be my friend intellectually, tell me as best you can, your facts and reasons whereby you perceive me to be wrong.

    Some bloggers actually do disagree in that way, and let me commend them for it.

    If each of us could avoid taking a stance and focusing more on putting down anyone who takes another — especially in pronouncing the other as “wrong,” or “stupid,” or “duped,” or some such derogatory declaration — not much is gained from that.

    Emotions do affect motivation. And declarations that disrespect and insult others tend to arouse emotions that prevent, rather than conduce to, productive communication and mutual learning.

    Unfortunately even a wrong idea can be “sold” by one who seeks to create in others a motivation to see one’s meaning. But it may well be that a many a “right” idea is caged in an antagonistic, and hence, self-defeating way.

  30. Gil Lawton says:

    To Derek Lowe,

    In the preface to a book written on the subject of the art of literary criticism, (its progeny has escaped this old man’s recall) it is observed that some playwrights present tortured plots that cause their audience to hear, as it were, the author “…muttering to himself in the wings,” as the play progresses.

    What I am about to say is not about you, as an author, but about that special kind of author who is unable to “subjugate” his/her personality to the presentation of the material he/she seeks to publish.

    Not only are much talent and much practice necessary for an author (including an author of a peer review article) to open up the minds of his/her reader but, also, any author surely stands to benefit from the author must also strive to present his/her subject without interposing his or her ambition between the lines.

    Emily Post, who wrote about etiquette during the 20th century, opined that good manners, if exercised for any other reason than to aid one’s guest in feeling at ease and confident that they are accepted as they are, are exercised for improper reasons. And, in making that point, she commented in her column on at least one occasion that, “When we seek to make an impression on others, that is exactly the impression we make.

    That surely must be true of any author, even one wishing to make a name for himself or herself among scientists or among those who merely enjoy reading about science.

    The author of any writing, or prepared public speech, does well to avoid trying to impress a reader with his or her profundity, or expertise, or importance and seek to deliver the message in such a way as to give wings to the message itself.

    The author whose main intent is to draw attention to self in the body of a written work, may be said to clip the wings of the message, while the author who feels, and hence demonstrates in his/her style that the two most important things in the world are the message and the reader, is likely to generate goodwill in his/her readers.

    Clarity can be one of the first casualties of the work of an overly self-centered author, or an author who feels so insecure in his/her message as to wish to puff it up with unnecessary and inflated vocabulary, or pompous phrasing.

    Sincerity and real humility, if they are not genuinely felt and implied by the authors style and vocabulary, can sometimes be faked by excellent editing. But it helps if they are actually internalized.

    One of the most poignant of humble understatements of any scientists of the 20th century, I would venture, is that of Watson and Crick who, in the paper that led to their being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, began the most poignant of statements in that paper with the words, “It does not escape us that…”

  31. Old Timer says:

    Chopra’s response to it all? He tweeted, “I thank the authors for the study. Their # bullshit is getting me more speaking engagements & new book offers.”

    What a hypocrite 🙁

    1. Gil Lawton says:

      But if he agreed with you and got paid to make speeches, then he would not be a hypocrite?

      If all humans are ignorant, and must rely upon interpretation of each his/her own experience and thinking and feeling, than any who have an opinion and profit by voicing it, are hypocrites.

  32. Gordonjcp says:

    “No one who comes unprepared to the phrase “a proton-promoted two-step polyolefin cyclization to first furnish tricyclic hapalindoles” (that’s from a current JACS paper) will be under any illusion of understanding it.”

    Oh, go on then. Speaking as an electronic engineer who last did any “proper” chemistry (beyond mixing up etchant baths) over 20 years ago in high school, I’ll take a crack at it.

    “Polyolefin” – big oily molecules

    “Proton-promoted” – no real idea, lack of electrons maybe? Would that help it form double bonds in those big oily molecules?

    “Cyclization” – aha, forming aromatics maybe from a “straight” molecule?

    “tricyclic hapalindoles” – indoles, they’re the kind of figure-8 shaped ones, tricyclic so they’ve got three loops, sounds like a drug, possibly? Alkaloids have aromatic structures, don’t they?

    So from the title alone I’m going to guess it’s about drug synthesis by turning oily goop into something more complicated, maybe resembling nicotine or morphine, one of the more twisty alkaloids. Feel free to explain every single error.

    By contrast I wouldn’t know where to start with some of the “philosophical” titles. They all sound a bit like the “deep” things my old flatmates at college used to come out with, frequently after being exposed to twisty alkaloids.

    1. alchemist says:

      Actually, not that bad at all… Certianly a better interprea-tation than what I would do in front of a circuit diagram 😉

    2. Phil says:

      Gordon: well done! Your guess about proton-promoted was pretty close. Protons (or positively ionized hydrogen atoms coming from Bronsted acids) do indeed activate double bonds for rearrangement in this case.

      The cyclization in this case is not to an aromatic ring, but to give the “twisty” part of the alkaloid (aromatics are flat and not twisty).

  33. Me says:


    I think the issue here is a presumption you are making about ‘philosophy’ as a ‘subject you have read widely on’.

    ‘Reading widely’ on science does not make you a scientist. so why does ‘reading widely’ on philosophy make you a philosopher?

    I had a friend who was studying philosophy at the same time I was studying for my post-doc. There was very little difference between what he did and what I did: he was diving into mathematical models and looking for gaps and flaws in them. It was as alien to what you call ‘philosophy’ as you seem to believe science is.

    1. Gil says:

      You accuse me of claiming something here that I did not claim.

      All philosophers are opinionated, as are all scientists.

      None of us has knowledge if defined as “that about which we could not be wrong.”

      None of is entitled by nature, nor by whoever or whatever may extend beyond nature, to be its sole spokesperson.

      I am an avid skeptic of those who pretend to know more than they can test empirically or otherwise.

      Humans all have neither exhaustive experience nor exhausted experience.

      If anybody wishes to contest these things, as if having earned the right to know “truth” from interpretation, let him or her go for it.

      I say they do, if you wish. I say thay do not.

      I call it the way I see it, and I welcome you, or anyone else to do likewise.

      1. Gil Lawton says:


        Phil, where I wrote: “I say they do, if you wish. I say thay do not. ”

        What I MEANT to write was, “You may say scientists do, if you wish. I say they do not.”

        My intended meaning is that, while I have no objection to the assertion that the teleology of science is the search for as near truth as it can get, it is (as the famous aphorism goes) nothing but a collection of facts, in absence of interpretation. Due to the phenomenon of what philosophers refer to as the logical problem that confirming the consequent does not prove anything, science is so-far hamstrung by never having experiencd, observed, measured… “everything, in all time or times, and everywhere.”

        We never know for sure what we don’t know, and therefore do not know what we don’t know.

        Some view our less-than-sufficient, necessary or certain interpretations of “the evidence so far,” as being, as it were, good enough to distinguish the stereotype scientist from all lesser thinkers, as dealing with “reality.”

        To the extent scientists (the stereotype) DO deal with “reality,” they also rely heavily on extrapolations from what the partial evidence they have, to arrive at a “knowing” of things they cannot put to the test. Who is to say what does NOT exist or apply, beyond what we CANNOT test, or interpret with the certainty that there is NO OTHER interpretation but the present paradigm.

        Who is to say that they KNOW what gravity is, or what banged our universe into becoming, or whether there are multiverses, or how a life form came to be which can, and does, INTERCEDE in statistical probability…

        Who can prove that he/sge is entitled, or licensed, or qualified to say that it is “wrong” for someone else to believe something he/she cannot prove, instead of what the “scientist,” believes, or disbelieves and cannot prove nor disprove.

        If everything were only about what “works,” then scientists and philosophers would take a back seat to engineers. Engineers test things by coming up with things that work and are pragmatic. So if whether or not things “work” were the ultimate test of human knowledge, why would we not opine that engineers are the only ones dealing with reality, or the PRACTICAL application of “knowledge.”

        What do I opine? I opine that philosophers, scientists, engineers, politicians and other players in this human comedy try to avoid pretending to be king of the mountain.

        Einstein once said, “We all are in this together, and therefore should try to make things as easy for one another as we can.”

        Makes sense to me.

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