Saturday, June 30, 2012

Numb and Number

"Scientists have finally discovered the secret to...."

A doctor turned mathematician has spent much of his career exposing what has been called "medicine's dark secret". As the doctor puts it, "The problem is we don't know what we're doing." David Eddy, M.D., Ph.D. says further, "The practice of medicine is more guesswork than science."

Figures. But many people without Dr. Eddy's credentials have known this "secret" for some time.

The 2006 story in which Dr. Eddy's comments appeared contained confessions to other well known poorly kept dark secrets, including:
          - the high-tech health care system in the U.S. costs $2 trillion per year (2006) but there is no evidence to show that costlier treatments are more effective than cheaper ones;
          - only 15% of what doctors do is backed by evidence;
          - only 20% to 25% of medical treatments have been proven effective....

"...can't put my finger on it..."

 "The limitation is the human mind...", says Dr. Eddy and, therefore, we need a computer program to decide what treatments are the most effective and cost efficient given a specific diagnosis. His answer to the "limitation" is a computer program he calls "Archimedes". An official with the American Diabetes Association - and apparently a mathematician, too - said that it, Archimedes, "is better than thinking by at least 10 times."


(Another problem, which we might add to Dr. Eddy's list, is that we, people, tend to accept without scrutiny pronouncements made by doctors and mathematicians.)

In his Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan proposes the following:
Just as writing is an extension and separation of our most neutral and objective sense, the sense of sight, number is an extension and separation of our most intimate and interrelating activity, our sense of touch.

The Greek Archimedes (290 B.C. to 210 B.C.) is famous for many things including defining the principle of levers ("...give me a place to stand on and I will move the earth...") and for inventing a method to determine the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Archimedes was profoundly influential in the evolution of science and mathematics in the Western world.

Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642) was so inspired by Archimedes' work that he invented a balance for weighing metals in air and water. Galilei was the first to proclaim that the laws of nature and the universe are mathematical. But mathematician Galilei, referred to by some (Einstein, for example) as "the father of modern science", is most famous for his "affair" with the Catholic Church concerning the structure of the solar system.
("As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." Einstein.)
 I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot pole.

Although we have come to know the Galileo Affair as the unfair and unjust imprisonment of a great scientist by a narrow-minded and anti-science Catholic Church, there are other interpretations. For example, an ex-president of The Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics has explained it succinctly: "Galileo was not condemned for his scientific views but because he wanted to formulate theology."

Got his number.

In any case, Galilei represents the "moment" in Western history when mathematics began to dominate science.

This period in Western history, when the Medieval gave way to the Renaissance and priority was being given to manipulating and controlling nature by translating phenomena into mathematical "language", was one of great change:
  • Speaking of Galilei, he was known also for his perfection of the telescope and microscope, optical devices which had been around for about 100 years and which had their first manifestation as spectacles to facilitate reading. (The telescope makes things that are far away appear close-up, and the microscope makes very small things look big.) (Ironically, Galilei had problems with his eyesight and was totally blind at age 73, four years before his death.)
  • Literacy grew explosively in the 16th century due primarily to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg (1398 to 1468). Gutenberg's Bible, printed in the mid 15th century, was the first book produced in the West on a printing press. The Gutenberg Bible was and still is considered a masterpiece of artistic achievement.
  • Christopher Columbus' (1451-1506) explorations, including the one for which he is most famous in the late 15th century, and the explorations of many others in that time, created a demand for maps. As the stars were used in navigation, flaws in the Ptolemaic system were noticed, causing confidence in the old system to wane.
  • Martin Luther (1483 to 1546) initiated his protest in 1517 with the publication of  95 Theses in which he questioned Church practices that included the sale of "indulgences", that is paying for the forgiveness of sin. (Ironically, one of the first profitable jobs undertaken by Gutenberg and his printing press was the printing of indulgences for the Church.) Luther was the figurehead of the so-called Reformation. His Lutheranism was a rejection of the schoolmen and their scholasticism whose reasoning, he believed, could not develop a theology better than what was contained in Scripture.

  • Give me your number - I'll be in touch.

    Another prominent figure of Western science of this period is Isaac Newton (1643 to 1727), often identified as the most influential scientist of all time, including Einstein. His theory of color, laws of motion and gravitation, and his work with calculus, the telescope, and so on, have established his reputation even though he wrote more on (and was more interested in) metaphysics and the occult sciences such as alchemy. His theory of light and color, though controversial and not accepted universally in his day, and having been proven incorrect since, is still taught as fact in science classes.

    Hands off!

    The German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) contradicted Newton's theory of color and, in general, opposed the trend in science that was moving to quantify all phenomena and nature. But Newton was beloved and revered and Goethe's holism was against the mode. Goethe is considered to have been a great writer and botanist but a confused scientist, though his theory of color has been validated.

    The mathematician may be compared to a designer of garments, who is utterly oblivious of the creatures whom his garments may fit. ...a shape will occasionally appear which will fit the garment as if the garment had been made for it. Then there is no end of surprise and delight. Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science.
    The goal of our official science is the mathematical quantification of nature, as Galilei proposed. However, the undertone of a more holistic, qualitative approach recently has emerged. "The laws of physics and chemistry," says Michael Polanyi, "are transcended by the morphology of living things."
     In the days when an idea could be silenced by showing that it was contrary to religion, theology was the greatest single source of fallacies. Today, when any human thought can be discredited by branding it as unscientific, the power exercised previously by theology has passed over to science; hence science has become in its turn the greatest single source of error. Polanyi, "Life's Irreducible Structure", 1968.
    "I gotta hand it to ya..."

    Morphology, the study of size, shape, and structure in living organisms, originated with Goethe, but Russian embryologist Alexander Gurwitsch (1874-1954) in the 20th century conceived a morphogenetic field theory. He believed that a holistic model was needed to understand the development of an organism from fertilized egg to mature form. In 1944 he wrote "...the field acts on molecules. It creates and supports in living systems a specific molecular orderliness."

    Gurwitsch discovered the biophoton, light emitted from biological systems that appeared to be generated with electromagnetic radiation from living cells. He theorized that this mitogenic radiation guided embryonic development. He observed that "...the individual cell divisions appear to be related to each other more or less randomly and effect their full end result only in relation to a supra-cellular ordering or integrating factor." His work on biophotons was used in Russia to detect cancer.

    Gurwitsch was criticized harshly for his work on biophotons and fields by an influential American industrial chemist who referred to Gurwitsch's work as "pathological science". 
    Following Goethe and Gurwitsch, biologist Rupert Sheldrake proposed the existence of  "morphic fields" in his 1981 publication A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance. Controversial, it was targeted by then editor of Nature John Maddox as "a book for burning".

    From Sheldrake's website:
    "This infuriating tract... is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." In an interview broadcast on BBC television in 1994, [Maddox] said: "Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy."
    Reach out and touch someone.

    Sheldrake explains that his morphic fields are similar to but more general than morphogenetic fields, and he suggests that they may help explain telepathy and other parapsychological phenomena.

    Maddox's review of Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home was equally hostile:
    Rupert Sheldrake is steadfastly incorrigible in the particular sense that he persists in error. That is the chief import of his eighth and latest book. Its main message is that animals, especially dogs, use telepathy in routine communications. The interest of this case is that the author was a regular scientist, with a Cambridge PhD in biochemistry, until he chose pursuits that stand in relation to science as does alternative medicine to medicine proper.
    Maddox's pronouncement that Sheldrake was a heretic, likening this event to the "Galileo affair", gives irony a new high point. And his analogy using alternative medicine, if Dr. Eddy's characterization of "medicine proper" is accurate, creates a very embarrassing moment for science, medicine and... Nature.

    In his most recent book, The Science Delusion, Sheldrake suggests that taboos in science limit authentic scientific inquiry and that scientific dogma has made a religion of it. "Heretic" Sheldrake's reputation as a scientist was severely damaged by Maddox's comments and the piling-on of subsequent reviewers. Sheldrake has been conferred the status of "untouchable" though some think he is more a messenger than a heretic.
    Nature, the journal, took its name from a line of poetry titled "A Volant Tribe of Bards on Earth Are [sic] Found" by William Wordsworth. The first article of the first issue of the journal published in 1869 featured "Nature: Aphorisms by Goethe". The first aphorism is as follows:
    NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.
To some it appears that Nature, the journal, knows not what nature, the reality, is, even as doctors know not what health is. If science is in the state it's in, and medicine is more guesswork than science, then medicine is... out of touch. At least.
     Your number's up.