Book of the week: 13 Things That Don't Make Sense

This study suggests that science has lost its way, says Robert Matthews

February 19, 2009

Do you remember the days when science was truly exciting? If so, you're probably well over 30. For several decades, it has ceased to make serious headway with the kind of questions that once captured the public imagination. How did our Universe begin? Will genetic medicine cure common diseases? Can Einstein's quest for a unifying "theory of everything" be fulfilled?

This may come as a surprise to anyone whose view of scientific progress comes via the dutiful reports in the media that cosmology is going through a "golden age" of discovery, that genetic insights have "revolutionised" medicine and that theoretical physicists will sum up the cosmos "in a single equation".

The reality could hardly be more different. Cosmology is indeed going through a golden age of observational studies, but its principal achievement so far has been to reveal that our Universe is filled with a form of matter no one has ever seen and is propelled by a force no one understands.

Meanwhile, genetic medicine has yet to cure a single person of any major inherited illness, and the links between genes and common diseases are becoming ever hazier. As for the quest for the theory of everything, one of its most distinguished participants told a meeting of experts in 2005 that "we don't know what we are talking about".

That, at least, was how New Scientist reported the closing remarks of the Nobel prize-winning American theorist David Gross at the prestigious Solvay Conference in physics, held annually in Brussels. He later insisted the remarks had been taken out of context.

Whatever the truth, they seem to have had a profound effect on the science writer who reported them, Michael Brooks. That may have something to do with the fact that Brooks, a former University of Cambridge and New York University lecturer, holds a PhD in quantum theory and is thus familiar with the notoriously gung-ho attitude of theoretical particle physicists. If they are proclaiming anything less than their imminent cosmic omniscience, things must be bad.

As a staffer on New Scientist, Brooks would have been well placed to note the yawning gap (in every sense) between the supposed achievements of other areas of science and the reality. He may even have recalled the time before the late 1980s when his own magazine had no need for weasel phrases such as "could soon", "may one day" and "within five years" that are now routinely used to turn scientific dross into journalistic gold.

Whatever the reasons, Brooks quit his full-time post with New Scientist to ponder the sorry state of contemporary science. The outcome is 13 Things That Don't Make Sense, which will fascinate, entertain and outrage anyone who hankers for the glory days when science was getting somewhere.

You may not agree with the book's subtitle, The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time. Indeed, the mere mention of some of Brooks' baker's dozen, such as homoeopathy and cold fusion, will probably lose him many scientifically qualified readers.

This would be a shame, as Brooks is not seeking to convince anyone that water has a medicinally useful "memory" or could be a source of nuclear energy. He includes them only to show what he believes has gone wrong with science - or, to be more precise, with scientists.

The picture that emerges is one of a quasi-religious sect whose members have renounced intellectual courage in favour of self-perpetuation. Anomalies that may once have been considered potential glimpses of a greater reality are now seen as threats, while those who pursue them are regarded as troublemakers to be ignored, ridiculed or persecuted.

This is most vividly illustrated by the story of the late Jacques Benveniste, recounted in Brooks' chapter on homoeopathy. In the early 1980s, Benveniste was a highly regarded immunologist working at the Institut national de la sante et de la recherche medicale (Inserm) in France.

He believed his reputation was robust enough to take on the controversy surrounding homoeopathy, a system of complementary medicine based on the theory that water acquires curative properties after exposure to specific compounds.

Initially sceptical, Benveniste believed he had found positive evidence for the "memory of water" effect, and succeeded in publishing his results in Nature in June 1988 - at a price. The journal added a disclaimer that there was "no physical basis" for the memory of water, and then launched an investigation in which Benveniste's lab was visited by a team including the journal's editor Sir John Maddox and conjurer James Randi. It concluded that Benveniste's results were flawed and not reproducible.

Benveniste was hardly the first to publish questionable research in the pages of Nature, nor the last. Yet what happened next served notice on those thinking of studying phenomena regarded as beyond the scientific pale, lest they come up with the "wrong" answer. Benveniste was put under investigation by Inserm, lost his research funding and ended up an academic outcast.

His fate is far from unique: Brooks tells of how one US defence scientist who took cold fusion seriously found himself demoted to stockroom clerk. Such cases highlight a paradox: why does a community supposedly dedicated to the scientific process persecute respected researchers for applying it to phenomena that, whatever their real explanation, are unquestionably intriguing?

But perhaps we are wrong to look for rational reasons. Brooks quotes one physicist's risible claim that the existence of the memory of water "would force a re-examination of the very foundations of science".

On the whole, Brooks succeeds in maintaining an even-handed treatment in the face of such nonsense. Sometimes, however, his frustration with the attitude of scientists to anomalies is misplaced. When Nasa's Viking probes landed on Mars in 1976, on-board experiments gave results consistent with the presence of life on the planet. To the astonishment of Gilbert Levin, the designer of the principal experiment, Nasa's scientific panel insisted on ascribing the results to the hypothetical presence of hydrogen peroxide on Mars. "Thirty years on," Brooks ruefully observes, "the argument would still benefit from someone actually finding some." In fact, a team led by Todd Clancy at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado did precisely that, back in 2003.

What would be achieved if the kind of anomalies examined by Brooks were taken seriously? One possibility is the emergence of insights that are now patently necessary if science is to make further progress with the Big Questions. For example, the Universe may not be filled with the enigmatic "dark matter" that now perplexes astronomers. It may instead be an illusion created by a tweak to the law of gravity known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics - a possibility that is now being taken seriously by some scientists who, as a result, have braved so much flak that, according to Brooks, they should be "issued with a Kevlar jacket".

Nasa's Viking experiments may hold vital clues to the still-unsolved mystery of the origin of life, while homoeopathy may show how to make conventional drugs more effective via placebo effects. Science is no longer progressing at breakneck speed because the low-hanging fruit of discovery has gone. Brooks makes a compelling case that if we want to get to the rest of the crop, we must start looking for ladders. Sadly, too many of today's scientists get a panic attack at the mere sight of a footstool.


Michael Brooks has lectured on science, religion and journalism at the University of Cambridge, and is a consultant to New Scientist, where he writes about anything from cosmology to robots that do maths. This is his second book; he has also written a thriller, Entanglement.

He took up writing shortly after finishing his PhD in quantum physics. "My most significant discovery was that I had a short attention span," he says. "Journalism was an obvious career choice."

His most daunting assignment to date was becoming the first person in the UK to take a hit from a Taser gun. The 50,000-volt electric shock might have something to do with his subsequent role as the magazine's unofficial handicrafts correspondent.

"I've written about scientists knitting models of the universe, crocheting coral reefs and making collages of the brain. The great thing was that none of it involved getting shot."

13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time

By Michael Brooks

Profile, 256pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781861978172

Published 5 February 2009

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