I've been camping in the Welsh hills, to the gentle sound of sheep baa-ing and rain pattering on the flysheet. Plenty of opportunity to catch up on some reading. One book I particularly enjoyed was Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science - a topic that anyone who knows about psi-research should find interesting.
Brooks is a science writer whose previous book, 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, argued that a lot of what is taken for granted in cosmology and biology is open to doubt. (He raised eyebrows by including homeopathy - but that's another story). This new book aims to dispel the public myth that science is an orderly and polite business. It may be so in China, which runs to Confucian principles of harmony, but that could be one reason why groundbreaking discoveries tend not to come from China. It's the adversarial system, that first emerged in ancient Greece, that produces the best ideas.
The book is entertaining, covers a lot of ground, and, speaking for myself, added to my knowledge of contemporary science. It's also a rather extraordinary story. Looked at closely, scientific skullduggery is not a pretty sight. Brooks quotes Carl Sagan:
Anyone who witnesses the advance of science first-hand sees an intensely personal undertaking. A few saintly personalities stand out amidst a roiling sea of jealousies, ambition, backbiting, suppression of dissent, and absurd conceits. In some fields, highly productive fields, such behavior is almost the norm.
Take the case of Arthur Eddington and Chandrasekhar Subrahmanyan. As a young physics graduate, Chandra was the first to realise that the heaviest stars would eventually 'disappear', collapsing into black holes under the immense pressure of gravity. This flash of insight came while he was making the sea voyage to England to study at Cambridge, and five years later he revealed his theory at the Royal Astronomical Society. In this he was helped by Eddington, then the grand old man of British astrononomy. But Eddington was setting him up. Immediately after Chandra's talk he stood up and ridiculed the idea that a star could disappear, calling it "stellar buffoonery", and adding, 'I think there should be a law of Nature to prevent a star behaving in this absurd way'.
Eddington was so respected that, since he thought Chandra's idea was rubbish, so did everyone else. At least they did in public: some RAS members privately told Chandra they thought he had a case, but lacked the gumption to dissent openly.
Why did Eddington behave like this? One possible reason is that Chandra's maths interfered with his own attempts to discover a Grand Unified Theory. Chandra himself thought it was racism, pure and simple, and in the context of the times that does seem likely. For Eddington, Chandra was a jumped-up darkie from the colonies, not one of us. Years later he got a Nobel prize for the discovery, but by that time had gone to work in the US, and avoided sticking his neck out ever again.
Free Radicals describes a lot of this sort of thing. In 1956 three men were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for the invention of the transistor. In fact the achievement belonged to two of them, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen. The third, William Shockley, was their boss. When Shockley realised that his underlings had pipped him to the post he used his authority to redirect all the lab's resources to develop his rival device. But Brattain and Bardeen still managed to write the substance of the paper, later described as 'ageless classics', while Shockley merely tacked on a 'forgettable' supplement. He then furiously lobbied his superiors to ensure that he, Shockley, would get most of the glory, fielding the press's questions and ensuring that no pictures of the pair were taken without him in the frame.
A forceful personality can sometimes push through an idea even if proof is lacking. That's the case with the discovery of the 'prion' by Stanley Prusiner in the course of research into Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) and 'scrapie' that affects sheep and goats. The infectious material didn't seem to be a virus or a bacterium, the two known agents of infection. So what could it be? A mathmetician, unconstrained by biological limitations, suggested it might be a protein, disregarding the fact that a protein can't reproduce. Prusiner jumped on this and proposed a third agent of infection, a self-replicating protein which he dubbed the prion. It's never been experimentally proven, and to this day no one apart from Prusiner can be sure it exists. But Prusiner's loud insistence, backed up by clever rhetorical tricks, has simply worn down the opposition.
I was also struck by the case of Lynn Margulis, Carl Sagan's first wife. She proposed the idea now known as endosymbiosis that genetic mutations were caused not by environmental factors, the orthodox view, but by two or more organisms co-operating together for mutual advantage. Endosymbiosis was eventually found to be richly supported by the fossil record and has become the new orthodoxy, taught in universities. But Margulis had to fight dirty to get it accepted, playing fast and loose with the peer-review system and creating a lot of hostility in the process.
Margulis's willingness to use her position as a member of the National Academy of Sciences to get round the peer-review system helped other scientists to publish seemingly crazy theories. One such tackles the odd fact of caterpillars turning into butterflies, and other similar transformations of creatures from a larval stage to a completely different form. On the face of it, caterpillars and butterflies do look like different species, and according to this idea, that's exactly what they are. The hybridization would have come about at some point in the far distant past, when the sperm of one species accidentally fertilized the eggs of another. Biologists aren't keen on the idea, and the theory may never gain acceptance. But the point is, if the rules weren't sometimes broken, radical new ideas like this might never see the light of day.
Against this, Margulis also champions the notion that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS, for which there is little or no evidence. One should be careful, Brooks warns, before assuming that everything a brilliant scientist thinks of is likely to be true. But then again, perhaps we should also be cautious about such cautions. In this context Brooks briefly mentions Brian Josephson, who won a Nobel prize for his insights into the properties of superconductors, but whose 'current ravings about the plausibility of extra-sensory perception seem less well thought through'.
Brooks talks about non-rational insight as a source of scientific discoveries. Einstein, according to his biographer, made his profound discoveries 'in the manner of a mystic'. For him, working everything out logically, by deduction, was 'far beyond the capacity of human thinking'. Brooks also pursues the possible benefit to science of psychedelic visions, much prized by Apple's Steve Jobs and other ground-breaking computer geeks, apparently. Francis Crick was said to have been fascinated by the effects of LSD, although, Brooks rather sadly concedes, there is no evidence it helped him towards the ground-breaking discovery of DNA. He goes on to relate famous examples of discoveries based on dreams and visions, such as the one that provided the blueprint for Nikola Tesla to construct the self-starting alternating current motor.
As for the rough-and-tumble and rule-breaking, Brooks thinks that's essential to a healthy pursuit of scientific discovery. He approves of Crick's response to complaints about his appalling treatment of fellow researcher Rosalind Franklin, whose data he and Watson liberally helped themselves to without acknowledging her contribution. Franklin didn't have what it takes, Cricks sniffed - too cautious, too determined to be scientifically sound and avoid short cuts.
Science changed, Brooks argues, after World War II, when large numbers of unimaginative drone researchers entered the field. Specialisation has become a curse, with people pursuing smaller and smaller concerns that are of little interest and relevance. The peer-review system, widely considered to be a bedrock of science and a reason for its effectiveness, is really a drag, he considers. It was brought in to help manage the sheer quantity of articles submitted for publication, not all of which can be accommodated. But reviewers can be tempted to delay acceptance of an article, if it makes theirs redundant, or they don't like the theory. Considering how easily affronted scientists can be when an orthodoxy is challenged the system seems positively designed to stifle innovation.
I have heard researchers moan, for instance, about a reviewer who couldn't find flaws in their work, but told the journal editor that the work should be published only if accompanied by this disclaimer: 'The most plausible explanation of these results is that they are somehow wrong'.
As we know, this is a common fate of psi-research papers that are proposed for publication in mainstream publications.
So what's the lesson here? In a general sense, Free Radicals hammers the point that hostility to radical new ideas is absolutely normal. The road to Stockholm is lined with jeering scientists, as Brooks puts it. So the 'intellectual dishonesty' psi researchers complain of - often with justification - is only to be expected. However outrageous it seems, that's science.
But if radical new ideas need forceful personalities to push them through, how does parapsychology score in that regard? Who, in this field, could be characterised as possessing the lust for glory and sheer bloody-minded egotism to make their ideas accepted?
I don't think that describes any of the first psychic researchers, like Myers, Sidgwick, Gurney - however dedicated and effective they undoubtedly were. It might apply to Joseph Rhine. In the modern day, scientists like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake are certainly persistent, and face down their critics robustly, but I don't see them engaging in skullduggery to advance their agendas (of course they would say they don't have to). Some psi-researchers, in the process of trying to win mainstream acceptance, seem almost self-effacing, bending backwards to be conciliatory to their critics. (I'm thinking for instance of the late Bob Morris and John Beloff at Edinburgh's Koestler Parapsychology Unit.)
Charles Honorton perhaps comes close, in terms of force of personality. He put the ganzfeld procedure on the map. But the only person I can think of who really matches the profile is Harry Price, the wealthy British businessman-turned- researcher of the inter-war period. Price was hugely ambitious and egotistical, desperate for big cases that would bring him public glory and willing to indulge in skullduggery to advance his career. These days he's viewed in parapsychological circles as a slightly risible figure, but perhaps a nascent discipline struggling to win acceptance needs peoople with his sort of ambition and chutzpah.
The professional sceptics, now - another matter altogether. Plenty of skullduggery there.