One of the great things about blogging is the encounter of new ideas and voices—new, at least, in the sense that they were new to me, and I might not have found them otherwise. Recently I’ve been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast Waking Up, and been very much enjoying it. I’ve listened to about eight episodes now, and have begun to hear recurring themes and arguments, so I think I’ve started to grasp where Sam is coming from. What I enjoy most about the show is the opportunity to listen to brilliant, articulate people—albeit from a limited range of focus at times—discuss interesting ideas. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.
A concept that comes up from time to time is intellectual honesty. It’s one with which I resonate, and which I believe is profoundly important, but it’s not one that I find is particularly well-applied in all of the arguments I’ve heard. I’m not certain the breaches I find are intentional or not, or that those to whom I’ve listened would even agree with me that they have omitted plausible positions from their conversations, but it seems to me that people of the cognitive caliber as appear on this show would be capable of discerning these additional plausible vantages and at least discussing them. It is thus remarkable to me that they do not. I am left to conclude that Sam and certain of his guests do not consider these positions at all relevant, and therefore there would be no intellectual dishonesty from their perspective: these positions are, in their minds, simply not worth discussing. But from my perspective that is not always so. And I think it matters, because it leaves potentially interesting opportunities for dialogue and frank discussion unexplored. So I want to think out loud about a few of these instances in a series of posts.
(I apologize in advance for the length of this first post, and will shorten them moving forward!)
The first example of intellectual dishonesty to which I’ll point is a simple one, and it is not taken from the podcast. I’m beginning with this merely to give an example of what I’m speaking about when I say intellectual dishonesty. There is a video Richard Dawkins made—and Richard was one of the guests on Sam’s podcast to whom I’ve enjoyed listening—that is available on YouTube in which he takes a run at homeopathy. This is only two minutes long, and admittedly stripped of its context, which was a two-part show Dawkins aired called Enemies of Reason. I watched a portion of the larger episode to see if I’d missed something that this shorter segment did not discuss, but didn’t find anything to sway my opinion. That said, I’m certainly open to feedback if I missed a mitigating segment somewhere.
The premise of the video is that a medicine cannot work if the active ingredient of the medicine is not chemically present in the dosing mechanism. He makes the rib-hurting argument that mathematically speaking, to “imbibe even one molecule of the active substance [of a homeopathic preparation], you’d need to imbibe all the atoms in the solar system…” Then he suggests that homeopaths have known all along their formulations are “just water” and goes on to suggest that if the notion water has any active information properties—e.g. “memory”, the posited mechanism of homeopathy—that would require that we concede we’re all drinking a homeopathic preparation of Oliver Cromwell’s urine when we enjoy a glass of water. It’s brilliant theater, of course, but I find it to be intellectually dishonest.
To begin with, I don’t believe proponents of homeopathy suggest it is a chemical medicine, like aspirin or Crestor, but rather one based on the premise that water can be a carrier of biologically active information. So the entire opening argument is based on a misrepresentation of homeopathy, which Dawkins knows. He starts there anyway, which is basically the rousing defeat of an argument the counter party hasn’t even made, then proceeds to suggest the notion that water could store or transmit information signals is obviously ludicrous, because if it were true we’d be drinking a medicinal preparation of the urine of everyone who has ever lived. This latter point is itself misleading on at least three counts, which I’ll attempt to describe. I’ll ignore the obvious fallacy, which is that if something can be rendered in profound hyperbole, it must be wrong.
First, homeopathy does actually have protocols for the preparation and storage of the medications, which differ from the conditions and energetic transformations water undergoes in the natural environment. So there could be a way in which the environment is not a homeopathic preparation of all that has ever been. To ignore this is to suggest that either there is no protocol to homeopathy whatsoever (which is obviously false), or to presume the protocols simply don’t matter. Assuming the latter, Dawkins thus begins with the unstated supposition that homeopathic preparations make zero difference to water as compared to its original state in the natural environment. This approach is intellectually dishonest because the starting premise—that the mechanism of homeopathy simply doesn’t work—is also his conclusion.
Second, I’m not expert in homeopathy but it requires no effort on my part to wonder if there might not be mechanisms of removing stored information from water and purifying it at that level (so that we’re not all drinking medicinal preparations of urine). Turns out there probably is, and that evaporation by sunlight—the key driver of the water cycle—works by literally overcoming the weak electromagnetic bonds between water molecules in the liquid state, thus destroying (in all likelihood) any stored energetic patterns within a volume of water. I don’t know what a homeopath would think of this–it’s just an example of one idea a person might consider–but obviously Dawkins doesn’t either.
And thirdly, while the science of water physics has advanced tremendously since the time Richard crafted this presentation, even at the time he gave it the scientific community had begun to explore the admittedly controversial idea that water might, in fact, be capable of storing and transmitting biologically active information. Dawkins’ video aired almost ten years after the work of Jacques Benveniste, which was published in Nature, in which Benveniste reported that white blood cells could be incited to produce an immune response when exposed to dilutions of antibodies so dilute they did not contain any of the antibodies themselves.
Benveniste’s work, the ensuing criticism, and his response to it, is uniquely interesting theater of its own–and it is worth noting that I believe the scientific community would have cited a replication failure of Benveniste’s work at the time Dawkins’ video was aired–but there are two issues at play here. One is the notion, which under girds Dawkins’ argument in the video, that phenomenal observations should not be scientifically reported without the supply of a theoretical explanation as to how they occurred. This was I believe a large argument against Benveniste’s work: the observation can’t be true because there’s no known mechanism for it to occur. This makes no sense to me as an argument, since new theories are often based on observations that cannot be explained, at least at face value, from known theories. This idea that nothing can be reported as observed without being explained at the same time is a ridiculous standard. How could science progress without admitting both novel predictions from new theories, and novel observations that require those theories?
But the even greater issue is that at the time of Dawkins’ video, Benveniste’s work was not the only purported incidence of new science or technology involving water memory effects. The Austrian naturalist Johann Grander received an award from the Russian Academy of Natural Science in 2001 for his work on this subject. Grander was not a scientist, and his proposed mechanisms do not use the vocabulary of science and thus were easily dismissed by those who wished to do so. But the Russian Academy of Natural Science gave its award only after conducting laboratory work. I know because I traveled to Austria, met with members of Grander’s family and organization, and was shown the results. (I was working at the time with their US-based representatives, interested to see if the technology could reduce the need for toxic chemistries in industrial cooling systems.) When I asked them why they were not published, the answer was that it was impossible to publish research on a commercial technology in a scientific journal when the operating principle of the technology was not well understood. This does actually make sense to me, because it is not just a novel observation in nature, but the observation of a device present in the laboratory at the time of the experiment whose influence on the experiment is claimed to be decisive to the outcome, but which is not understood by the scientists in the least. How could that fly? I wouldn’t attempt to publish that paper either. And since Grander felt protective of his intellectual property, the systems of science and commerce did not align to incent the best possible outcome.
Dawkins conceivably did not know about Grander’s work, or the award from the Russian academy, but I believe it is reasonable to assume that if you or I, as a scientist, were going to air a program to millions of people and make a few sweeping declarations on a subject, the onus would be on us to take stock of not only what is known in a field, but also to take stock of where it might be going. Which doors are appearing? Which are open and which are closed? Is it even a legitimate field of inquiry? Why or why not? There were, in fact, a fair amount of ideas percolating at the time.
Many years prior to the airing of Dawkins’ video, a paper was published by the Italian scientist Emilio del Guidice (in conjunction with other authors) in which water’s novel heat storage capability was explained using the properties of quantum coherence, which are derived from the application of quantum physics to solid state systems. Basically, the value for the specific heat of water (the scientific term for the quantity of energy a substance can store per unit of mass) as well as a prediction of how that value changed with water’s temperature, was derived in this paper from the mathematical theories of quantum physics. The purported reason water stores more energy per unit mass than it otherwise ought to—being made of relatively light gases, hydrogen and oxygen—is that it spontaneously forms resonant volumes involving many molecules at once. If water was a chest of drawers, these vibrational modes essentially represent drawers you could use for storage that other liquids generally do not possess. It turns out that water, compared to other materials, has a lot more drawers you can hide energy inside.
Related, at least in hindsight, the German physicist Herbert Frohlich had also made some ground in the several decades preceding Dawkins’ video in which he posited that part of what makes living systems possible, and unique, are long-range electromagnetic interactions, or coherence, and the associated energy storages such coherence enables within the organism. Meaning what? Meaning that in living organisms, which are predominately water, considerable energy is stored in non-thermal mechanisms which are highly ordered, and insulated from degradation. We’re not just thermal baths in other words, but liquid crystals. These ideas have led today to really interesting breakthroughs in our understanding of the role of water in the organism, and also to our understanding of water in general. And in hindsight it is not too difficult to see how del Giudice’s work and Frohlich’s work relate. I only know because they were both referenced in other books I’ve read on the subject, and I looked them up. Dawkins’ argument hinges, in part, on the notion that medicine can only be chemical in nature, not electronic (or information-based), yet evidence of the importance of electronic states to the viability of living tissue was already gaining considerable traction. At the time the video aired, important relationships between biology and quantum physics had already become increasingly mainstream, and water was related to much of this research.
Could Dawkins’ have been ignorant to all of this? Perhaps. But he knew enough to know that the proposed mechanism for homeopathy was information storage within water systems. He certainly knew about Benveniste’s work. And he easily could have known about the other work I’ve mentioned as well. I did, after all, and my time for pursuing such diversions was quite limited. I had a full-time job (my work with the Grander organization was a sideline) and was simply an interested person exploring the world via dial-up internet.
So Richard Dawkins needn’t like these ideas, or admit them into the canon of his personal philosophy. But I do think the video is a straightforward example of intellectual dishonesty because it makes fallacious arguments, and because it takes advantage of the ignorance of the audience for which it was intended. But it is certainly great fodder for the home team.
(To Be Continued…)