Dr. Farooq's Study Resource Page
 

What happened to
Scientific Method?

Kary Mullis

 

[The following is the Chapter 11 from the author's book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. Here are the outrageous ideas and extraordinary adventures of the world's most eccentric and outspoken Noble Prize-winning scientist. Awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, Kary Mullis has frequently been at odds with the scientific establishment. Legendary for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR}, which redefined the world of DNA and genetics, Mullis is also an accomplished surfer, a veteran of Berkeley in the sixties, and perhaps the only Nobel laureate to describe a possible encounter with aliens. A scientist of boundless curiosity who refuses to accept any proposition based on secondhand or hearsay evidence, he is brilliant, funny, provocative, and charismatic.

In Dancing Naked in the Mind Field Mullis writes with passion and humor about a wide range of subjects: from the scientific method to parapsychology, from poisonous spiders to the HIV virus and AIDS, from global warming to astrology, from the 0. J. Simpson trial to how you can turn a light bulb on with your mind. A multidimensional playland of ideas, this book challenges us to question the authority of scientific dogma even as it reveals the workings of an uncanny original scientific mind.]


James Buchanan advanced an ugly idea that got him a Nobel Prize in 1986. Buchanan cannot be held responsible for the ugliness; we can't blame the messenger. It came to be known as public choice theory. You will recognize it and wonder why people get Nobel Prizes for pointing out such simple things. The answer is that most people can't see the simple things and the simple things are always the most important.

Buchanan divided the world into four groups-voters, politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups. Everyone in each of these groups wants something from the System, and everyone but the voters are organized professionals. The voters have to go to work every day. They cannot concentrate from nine to five on how to get something from the System. Most of us fall into the voter category.

The chairman of the Federal Atmospheric Commission is having dinner tonight with his secretary and some expert they flew in from Cal Tech. He just announced tonight on CNN that his lab needed another $50 million dollars to study ozone depletion. Over swordfish, with the new science correspondent from CNN, they are congratulating themselves on what a smooth job they did today on the news. Creme caramel and B&Bs and cappuccinos later they promise to meet again Oslo at the Envirocon World 2000 meeting next fall.

The ozone story is on NPR as you drive home from work. You feel terrible about all those years that your shaving cream came from an aerosol can, and your wife was using aerosol hairspray. You seem to be feeling guilty a lot these day almost every time you turn on the news and hear about environment.

You stop by Walgreen's to get some shaving gel without CFCs. The large pepperoni pizza in the back seat stinks up car and it's getting cold, but you've done your best for planet. The family isn't impressed when you get home. Maybe you think it would be nice to have some B&B of your own tonight, but it's April. Taxes are due, and your wife, watching Seinfeld, doesn't want to talk about it and wouldn't think it safe for you to go down to the liquor store this time of night anyhow. Your daughter reminds you that you haven't sent the check to Greenpeace, and by the way, she's definitely going up the coast this weekend to the protest over the Marin Headlands Interior Department deal, and your wife says she canít and "Would you please talk to her, Dad. She acts like going up there for fun."

Is this you? Or were you the one with the mushrooms red peppers?

Who are these people who make comfortable salaries arranging scientific symposia and stories for the media? They aren't politicians. Politicians don't know anything about scientific things. They just want to look like they do. Somebody has to advise them. Who are those advisors? It's an important question because those people--who are always having to come up with the imminent disasters that can be prevented by governmental projects, sponsored by informed and well meaning politicians-are manipulating you. They are parasites with degrees in economics or sociology who couldn't get a good job in the legitimate advertising industry. They are responsible for a lot of the things that you accept year after year as your problems. The problems they imagine for you are as imaginary as the commercials during Seinfeld about some Australian outback macho guy, with a Hollywood model by his side, driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle, with pathetic halfwits in pursuit due to a misunderstanding about the relative merits of the vehicles.

Who pays these experts? Is it the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the United Nations is supporting with our money? Or is it the Environmental Protection Agency, which you were bitching about today because your company was having to close down one of its plants due to some fish that might go extinct, and you might get transferred in the shuffle? Is it the Tropical Oceans and Global Atmosphere Group? Is it the Arctic Climate System Study? Is it the Marlowe Walker Eternity Endowment? Is it the World Ocean Circulation Experiment? Is it the World Bank's Global Environment Facility? Is it Greenpeace? The Sierra Club? You are too tired from your day at work to try to figure it out. That's what James Buchanan predicted. But the sun never sets on the British Empire or bureaucrats--environmentalists, as many of them are called today. Sleep soundly. Your planet is in well-fed hands.

Now, I like to hear a good story. I like to tell one. But when my car isn't working, I want to know why-in terms that I can understand. I don't want to fix it myself, but I'm more comfortable if I understand what the problem is. I donít like it when some mechanic, looking at my cleaning fingernails, thinks he can entertain me for a minute with conversation about the modern features of my car and then sock it to me. I feel the same way about our planet and my food.

If there is something in my food that somebody says is a poison, I want to have the chemistry explained and decide for myself whether or not I want to eat it. Science is a method whereby a notion proffered by anyone must be supported by experimental data. This means that if somebody else in interest in checking up on the notion presented, that person must be allowed access to instructions as to how the original experiments were done. Then he can check things out for himself. It is not allowable in science to make a statement of fact based solely on your own opinion.

Claims made by scientists, in contrast to claims made by movie critics or theologians, can be separated from the scientists who make them. It isnít important to know who Isaac Newton was. He discovered that force is equal to mass times acceleration. He was an antisocial, crazy bastard who wanted to burn down his parentsí house. But force is still equal to mass times acceleration. It can be demonstrated by anybody with a pool table and familiar with Newtonís concepts.

Science appeared in the seventeenth century.

It was not the first time that humans had ever done science. The pyramids at Giza in Egypt strongly suggest an earlier scientific age. There are manuscripts, for instance, the texts of Euclid, which were translated into Arabic by clever Arab scholars while ignorant Arab soldiers were destroying the greats library in the ancient world at Alexandria. Some of the translations luckily ended up in Toledo, Spain, where they sat on top of a steep, defensible hill awaiting the eventual liberation of Spain and the reclamation of some of the glory of early Mediterranean culture by the French, who were some of the descendants of the poor people who had fled when the whole early Western thing had collapsed in Italy hundreds of years earlier. Or something like that. The details are mostly lost. But eventually science did reappear.

Robert Boyle, who was a Christian and a friend of the English monarch Charles II, made a vacuum pump in the seventeenth century and showed that he could extinguish a candle by pumping the air out of the jar wherein the candle was burning. According to Boyle, whatever was left in the jar after the candle went out constituted a vacuum. In the common vernacular, it meant that absolutely nothing was there. Whether God was in there or not was not something Boyle addressed. He didn't know how to measure the existence of God. The religious issue was not as interesting as the issue of what he could measure. The Catholics seriously disagreed. They had documents which clearly stated that God was everywhere. Even some garbage from mistranslations of Aristotle that said "Nature abhorred a vacuum" was taken to mean that Nature just fucking wouldn't allow one at all and that Boyle was an idiot. But the candle went out. Boyle didn't care whether God was there or not because he couldn't measure God. That's when science started to take off.

Computer modelers of the ozone layer and the next thou- sand years of climate could take a lesson from Sir Robert Boyle and his Royal Society. H you can't actually measure something, or make an accurate prediction from a theory, and present it to a group of your fellows, be good enough not to disturb us about it.

Boyle realized that we're living in a fluid. Fish probably don't realize they are living in a thick, viscous fluid. They're born in water, it's a constant in their habitat, so they aren't aware of it. They might call it nothing, and if they started ascribing philosophic or religious properties to their misconception they would run into problems. We thought we lived in nothing, but Boyle showed that we live in air and what is left when we pump it out is a vacuum and that is something different from air--even though it looks the same.

People who accepted the existence of a vacuum gave their allegiance to the king; people who believed the creation of a vacuum was impossible supported the pope. In 1662, Charles II chartered the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Boyle was one of the founding members. Those interested in scientific discovery were invited to the Royal Society to demonstrate how things worked. It was through use of this scientific method that science was separated from religion and philosophy, and that included morality. Science freed of morality began to shine.

The laws of science are demonstrable. They are not beliefs. When experiments in our century showed that Newton's gravitational laws were not quite accurate, we changed the laws- despite Newton's good name and holy grave in Cambridge. Relativity fit the facts better. This is the way science has been done now for almost four centuries, and because of science-- not religion or politics--even people like you and me can have possessions that only a hundred years ago kings would have gone to war to own. Scientific method should not be taken lightly.

The walls of the ivory tower of science collapsed when bureaucrats realized that there were jobs to be had and money to be made in the administration and promotion of science. Governments began making big investments just prior to World War II. Scientists and engineers invented new firearms, sharper things, better engines, harder things, airplanes that could fly faster, radar to detect them, antiaircraft guns to shoot them down, antibiotics for the pilots who got shot down, amphetamines to keep everybody awake long hours, daylight savings time to lengthen the hours, and finally one big bomb that in a shocking finale brought World War II to a breathtaking and hideous end.

Scientists had revealed that they weren't just a bunch of screwballs who had nothing to do with the world. They were not, and never had been, useless little guys sitting in ivory towers playing with slide rules. Just a few of them, with motivation and some tools, could make a bomb that would have put the fear of the Christian God into Attila the Hun.

Science was going to determine the balance or power in the postwar world. Governments went into the science business big time.

Scientists became administrators of programs that had a mission. Probably the most important scientific development of the twentieth century is that economics replaced curiosity as the driving force behind research. Academic, government, and industrial laboratories need money for salaried for staff: the primary investigator and his technician, postdocs, graduate students, and secretaries. They need lab space, equipment, travel expenses, overhead payments to the institution, including the salaries and expenses of administrators, financial officers, more secretaries, maintenance of grounds around the institution, security officers, publication costs for scientific reports in scientific journals, librarians, janitors, and so on. It's expensive, and there is a lot of pressure on a professional scientist trying to maintain or expand a laboratory domain. Most of the money comes from institutions like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, and the Department of Energy. There is serious competition for these funds. And the question we should ask is, "What the hell are you doing with our money that is so important to us?"

Imagine two hypothetical labs competing for public funds. One of those labs announces in a series of scientific papers that they have found some unexpected and very interesting phenomena in the upper atmosphere that contradict the currently accepted theories on the radiogenic formation of carbon-14. This could have a dramatic impact on the radio isotopic dating of fossils. The time frame for human evolution might be a tenth of what has previously been concluded. We may have evolved from the fossils in the Oldavai Gorge in only a couple of hundred thousand years. All of biology may be much younger than we think. More research would be required to confirm this. Biologists allover the world are curious and very excited. The lab is requesting a million dollars from the National Science Foundation to conduct a more detailed study.

A second lab working on upper atmospheric physics calls a press conference to report preliminary data on what appears to be a giant hole in the ozone layer and warns the reporters that if something isn't done about it-including millions of dollars in grants to study it further-the world as we know it will be coming to a tragic end. Skin cancer is epidemic, and there are reports of sheep going blind from looking up to the sky. People are starting to worry about having sunglasses that shield their eyes from ultraviolet light. Children begin to learn about it in school, and they are taught to notice the intensity of the UV light when they get off the bus.

Which one of these two laboratories will get funding? Follow the money trail from your pocket to the laboratories and notice that it passes through politicians who need you and by the interest groups who with the media train you. James Buchanan noted thirty years ago--and he is still correct- that, as a rule, there is no vested interest in seeing a fair evaluation of a public scientific issue.

Very little experimental verification has been done to sup- port important societal issues in the closing years of this century. Nor does it have to be done before public policy decisions are made. It only needs to be convincing to the misinformed voter. Some of the big truths voters have accepted have little or no scientific basis. And these include the belief that AIDS is caused by human immunodeficiency virus, the belief that fossil fuel emissions are causing global warming, and the belief that the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer. The illusions go even deeper into our everyday lives when they follow us to the grocery store.

People believe these things, and a slew of others, not because they have seen proof but because they are ingenuous: they have faith. These issues don't have to be on faith. They are not transcendental. Some of them are hard to investigate, because you can't do experiments easily with people's daily lives, but they can be investigated, then confirmed or dismissed. If not, scientists should not be talking about them. Newton would not have allowed someone to carry on about saturated fats and heart attacks inside the Royal Society because like so much of the nutritional garbage that we are assaulted with daily, it is all conjectural, awaiting further study that will probably not be done.

Scientists who speak out strongly about future ecological disaster and promote the notion that humans are responsible for any changes going on are highly suspect. Turn off the TV. Read your elementary science textbooks. You need to know what they are up to. It's every man for himself as usual, and you are on your own. Thank your lucky stars that they didn't bother to change their clothes or their habits. They still wear priestly white robes and they don't do heavy labor. It makes them easier to spot.

"Ecological" is a word like "universe." It doesn't mean anything really. It is relevant because relevance is totally subjective, totally subject to public whim, and everybody now thinks ecology has ultimate relevance. Taken out of the con- text of conservation of the present situation, what does "ecological" really mean? It collapses back to the politically less-motivating Smokey the Bear. Emotionally it loses its hold on us if we are willing to look honestly at the history of the planet we so love and notice that the thing that is absolutely constant here is serious change-uncomfortable, sudden, cataclysmic change. What is the trouble with something being out of balance if the natural state of that thing is change? Who came up with this hallowed idea of ecological balance?

I couldn't help but notice the amazing coincidence that the American patent on the production of freon, the principle chlorofluorocarbon used in refrigerators and air conditioners, expired at just about the same time freon was banned. Those countries that had begun producing freon without paying for the privilege were asked to stop. And a new chemical com- pound, a commercial product that would be protected by patent, would soon be substituted and make a lot of money for the company that produced it.

Indirect evidence pointing to a decrease in the ozone layer is absurd. There has been an increase in reported skin cancers. Reports of skin cancer may be increasing, but that isn't a good indication of UV levels. Increased skin cancer might have been caused by people moving to sunnier climates. People from America's North and Northeast have moved to the South and Southwest in the last forty years. During this same period, suntans became a fashion statement. Why not blame the increase in skin cancers on golf? It also might be that doctors and their patients have learned recently to look for those little fast-growing dark spots on the skin and have simply gotten better at diagnosing and reporting skin cancer. To measure the amount of UV reaching the Earth unambiguously, you would not measure cancer, you would measure the UV light reaching the earth. Just put a $6,000 UV measuring instrument on the ground at one of those stations in Antarctica and check it for a few years. Couldn't somebody do this and report it? If they have, I haven't heard about it.

Beyond the lack of scientific evidence, it makes no sense anyhow that we could destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere. If a hole in the ozone layer appeared somehow, here's what would happen: The UV rays from the sun would come through that hole and strike the Earth's atmosphere, where they would be absorbed by the miles-thick layer of oxygen surrounding the Earth. Then it would make more ozone. When the UV rays from the sun combine with oxygen, they form ozone. The ozone thus formed absorbs UV light, which continues to come from the sun, and prevents it from penetrating any farther into the oxygen below that has not been converted to ozone. That is why we have oxygen to breathe down here and ozone in the upper atmosphere. If all the nations in the world agreed to spend all of their money to eliminate the ozone layer- they couldn't do it. It can't go away unless all the oxygen in the atmosphere were to go away, and then, guess what-we couldn't breathe, until the green plants made some more. The ozone in the upper atmosphere regulates itself. H you measure a drop in some variable like ozone, it doesn't mean it is going or gone. Put a stick on the beach marking the edge of the last wave while the tide is coming in, then come back in an hour with another stick. You'll notice that the tide has come in ten feet in an hour, but if you predict that in a year the tide would have come in 87,000 feet, you'd be dead wrong.

The concept that human beings are capable of causing the planet to overheat or lose its ozone seems about as ridiculous as blaming the Magdalenian paintings for the last ice age. There is a notion that our emissions are causing the temperature of the planet to go up, even though the temperature is not going up. Even if the temperature were going up, we would be foolish to think we caused it. We could just as reasonably blame it on cows. In the nineteenth century the temperature went down. In this century it's gone up only about half a degree. The trend over the last two centuries is down. Down is not warmer. So if you like to worry, worry that we might be moving into a new ice age. We could be.

Would that be something we would want to stop? We didn't cause the last ice ages and we didn't cause them to go away. We benefited from them. We don't cause thunderstorms and lightning either. We don't cause the El Nino years anymore than we cause the other years. We don't cause floods. We live on a planet that has many mysteries, including the patterns of its changing climate. We are the children of those changes, and we derive from those mysteries.

We accept the proclamations of scientists in their lab coats with the same faith once reserved for priests. We have asked them to commit the same atrocities that the priests did when they were in charge. We have forced this situation by requiring that they bring us relevant innovations. We have turned them into something almost as bad as lawyers. Something to toy with us and our strange needs. Scientists could be something to entertain us and invent nice things for us. They don't have to be justifying their existence by scaring us out of our wits. Can't they be comforting? It's up to us, not them, because they depend on us for support. We have to arrange them in such a way that they and we benefit from the arrangement.

Hundreds of years after Boyle's experiments, we still haven't learned to separate matters of fact from our beliefs. We have accepted as true the belief that we are responsible for global warming and a growing hole in the ozone layer-with- out scientific evidence. We have faith in disaster. Scientists have a considerable financial stake in our continuing to believe that these problems threaten our lives and must be solved. They get paid for it. What do we get out of it? Is it a feeling of comfort, of knowing that our lives are being protected?

Perhaps the best solution for our anxiety is to do exactly what our ancestors did. Build some churches in the Gothic style. Fill them with nice are. I like pictures in bright colors of stern-looking people with halos, but whatever works is okay. Bring artisans from Sweden to build pipe organs and sponsor composers from Germany, Poland, England, and New Orleans to write some hymns, castrate some young boys from the descant parts, and some every Sunday to sing together and pray for our souls. Keep the Freon. Weíll need the churches to be air conditioned in the summer.

Courtesy: Kary Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), pp. 106-120.


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