‘Science for Heretics’ by Barrie Condon (2016), reviewed by Robert M Ellis
This courageous book is an encyclopedia of scientific limitations, spanning quantum physics, cosmology, neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, social science, evolutionary biology and climate science. It’s written by a scientist who obviously has a range of knowledge and experience, but in a generally accessible (sometimes amusing) style for non-specialists. Its achievement is to remind us, in a broad, synthetic way, of how little we know – and also to some extent how dangerous that little knowledge may be. I can’t possibly do justice to the breadth of scientific topics covered in this book in a review, but I shall mention a few examples that stuck out for me.
First there is the hubris of physicists. The theory of dark energy and dark matter, devised by physicists “to make the equations fit”, accounts for 96% of the matter and energy in the universe but is wholly invisible. This is only one of many apparently highly speculative constructs of theoretical physics such as alternative universes, black holes, wormholes, string theory, singularities, and zero point energy. But it is not only speculation that physicists might be accused of, but also dangerous activity of a very practical kind. The safety committee of the Large Hadron Collider seemed to be willing to gamble the entire safety of the earth on the basis only of a lack of positive evidence (or counter-arguments based on debatable assumptions) for any of a range of potential phenomena that might have been side effects of the collider (mini black holes, strangelets, magnetic monopoles or vacuum bubbles), which might possibly destroy everything. Is physics really worth such risks?
Then there is biology. The sequencing of the human genome was hailed as a massive breakthrough, enabling the widespread manipulation of genes for medical or other human purposes. However, it has rather revealed how unutterably complex the relationship of genes is to their expression. Much of the DNA of an organism has no evident function. Genes do not simply determine the physical structure of an organism, but are subject to epigenetic forces, selecting genes for expression in ways that are still not well understood. The proteins created by genes are also subject to billions of different variants, the transcriptions of it made by RNA subject to errors and unexpected changes, and the interactions of genes with drugs also immensely complex and poorly understood. Thus, not only does experimentation with genetic engineering seem distinctly premature, but Darwinian evolutionary theory too greatly relied upon. Condon also points out that neo-Darwinian theory has great difficulty explaining the uneven speed of evolutionary change, with apparent sudden leaps from one species to another.
Medicine gets similar treatment, with a preliminary history of medicine reminding us of just how long physicians have remained attached in the past to completely useless or even harmful treatments such as blood-letting. Whilst modern medicine has made great strides through development of surgery, antibiotics, and a range of other drugs, surgery has often developed more through practical experimentation than theory, antibiotic resistance is a huge problem now awaiting us, and the useful applications of some of the most helpful drugs have been found accidentally. Medicine offers a good illustration of Condon’s wider point (echoing that of Nassim Nicholas Taleb) that much of our technological progress owes far less to theoretical science than is normally assumed, and much more to a hit-or-miss process of practical tinkering.
This is just a sampling of a wide range of material, including some striking examples. Condon is not afraid to take on issues like evolution and climate change, despite the danger that he will be misinterpreted in the light of the entrenched political oppositions to which these areas are subject. He says he has no axe to grind, and I believe him. He should certainly not be assumed to be supporting any of the pseudoscientific alternatives with which criticism of mainstream science is often associated. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Condon’s book is likely to provoke many defensive reactions from scientific specialists. No doubt it has its limitations in terms of technical detail, but in my view its value should be seen as a catalogue of questions and limitations that need to be raised from an important synthetic viewpoint. Interpreted carefully, awareness of such limitations can be taken as a stimulus to greater provisionality rather than as a threat to science as a whole.
However, I must now come to some of the limitations of Condon’s book itself. I think the biggest of these is that he does not much facilitate this kind of response due to the whole way he has framed the book. The title ‘Science for Heretics’ itself suggests an alternative ‘heretical’ position, but Condon does not really offer such a positive position, only a negative denial of established ones. Despite the breadth of his approach in terms of different branches of science, Condon offers little by way of underlying philosophy of science, and particularly says almost nothing about the strengths of scientific method as a way of engaging with the world, as opposed to any other alternative ways of judging. Perhaps revealing one of the limitations of modern scientific education, he seems obsessed with the limitations in the results achieved by science, but says almost nothing about the massive strengths of the process by which those (hopefully provisional) results have been arrived at. Notwithstanding the dogmatism some scientists may be subject to at times, science at its best tries to correct for human biases. A whole set of scientific procedures reflect that objectivity: an expectation of public and reproducible findings, recording of methods, careful measurement, peer review, and double blind trialling in medical research. Perhaps the greatest scientific achievement, even if patchily realised in the actual attitudes of scientists, is the widespread recognition that knowledge is unavoidably imperfect and provisional in nature. Beside this, the limitations of ‘truth’ in scientific results are only to be expected.
Throughout the book, Condon interprets the information he surveys in terms of the attitudes of three notional characters: ‘the believer’, ‘the sceptic’ and ‘the heretic’. The believer naively assumes that science is correct. The so-called sceptic recognises the limitations of current scientific knowledge, but expects that these limitations will ultimately be overcome and scientific knowledge be achieved. This ‘sceptic’ would in my view be better called a soft agnostic, paralleling those who don’t yet know whether God exists but expect to be able to know in the future (presumably by some miraculous means that completely changes the finite nature of human cognition!). I don’t know why Condon bothers with this character, as he or she comes across as just as naïve as the ‘believer’, and is hardly a ‘sceptic’ in any sense that would be recognised by a philosopher given that he/she makes such big assumptions about future breakthroughs. The ‘heretic’, on the other hand, is more genuinely sceptical in recognising the full limitations of all scientific beliefs, but is also epistemologically naïve in drawing negative conclusions about those beliefs. This is again not heresy in any very useful sense. The term comes from a religious context, where heretics question established religious beliefs, but usually by offering a positive alternative that Condon’s ‘heretic’ lacks.
What I found most disappointing about Condon’s book, then, is that it draws on sceptical perspectives without much understanding of them. None of Condon’s three figures actually reflects scepticism of a through-going and balanced kind, suggesting that this is not an option for Condon. A genuine sceptic can recognise all the limitations in scientific belief that Condon points out, but will also recognise that these limitations by themselves do not justify a definite negative position in relation to them. They do justify us in exploring alternatives seriously – and thus that those offered by Rupert Sheldrake, for example, should be researched more thoroughly rather than dismissed in the way Sheldrake’s opponents dismiss him. But I would have liked a much stronger recognition, particularly in the case of climate change, that, despite the complexities and doubts, we are practically required to follow the weight of evidence in the absence of compelling alternatives. Just as when confronted with a cancer patient, a doctor will try to offer the best treatments available regardless of possible doubts about their efficacy, confronted with the likelihood of catastrophic global warming we should be putting the emphasis on the weight of evidence rather than the continuing difficulties created by complexity. We need not just to note the lack of proven truth in the facts assumed on all sides, but also to weigh up the practical effects of one possible course of action compared to another.
Another area of limitation with this book is its production quality. It is evidently self-published, and none the worse for that in its content, but more care could have been taken with its production. The font looks like typescript, the margins are far too narrow and without right hand justification, and there are too many uncorrected typographical errors and ‘widowed’ sub-headings at the bottom of pages.
With books, however, as with scientific theory, we are confronted with different imperfect options. This book is an option well worth exploring, because it is a very stimulating compendium of scientific limitations. It will probably irritate scientists when they read about their own specialism, but they will need to take a few deep breaths and look at the whole book in perspective. From a philosophical point of view it is flawed, but its merits are found in a whole range of specific sceptical points and their relation to each other, through which a big picture of the limitations of science as a whole emerges.