The Return of a Romantic Age of Science

by Siegfried Othmer | August 6th, 2009

The recent death of Joel Weisman, MD, presents another occasion to reflect upon the process of scientific research at its very early stages, where the usual rules by which knowledge is enshrined are not yet in place.The recent death of Joel Weisman, MD, presents another occasion to reflect upon the process of scientific research at its very early stages, where the usual rules by which knowledge is enshrined are not yet in place. Weisman was a general practitioner in our home town of Sherman Oaks in 1980 when he noticed three patients with a common set of symptoms—fevers, rashes, weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes. An immune deficiency was indicated, so Weisman referred his patients to immunologist Martin Gottlieb at UCLA, who at that moment was treating a patient with the same set of symptoms. All were gay men. Said Gottlieb of Weisman: “In his practice he was alert to unusual symptoms in his patients. He had a sense that something out of the ordinary was happening.” This was, of course, the beginning of the discovery of AIDS. Weisman was never a scientist, but he could serve the process of scientific advance simply through good observation of those who in his own seasoned clinical judgment were outliers. He was in a much better position to do that than most closeted researchers doing formal studies. These fortuitous discoveries are an essential part of the scientific process. But because such anecdotal observations do not by themselves rise to the level of scientifically valid evidence, they are often disparaged, particularly when the data do not fit the prevailing paradigm. As a result, mature scientific disciplines eventually acquire some of the characteristics of a mature religion. They protect themselves against heresy just as religions do. This is no knock on religion. That’s where heresy can be well-defined with respect to established tenets of belief, and that’s where it belongs. The scientific process is supposed to be more open. Heresy should have no place there.

This flaw is most evident in those sciences that inform the practice of medicine and psychology. That is no surprise, because in the practicing disciplines there is indeed a virtue in stability, just as there is in religion. But the fealty to established dogma afflicts all of the sciences, even my own field of physics. Paul Lauterbur, who pioneered magnetic resonance imaging, had his first paper rejected by the Journal Nature. Lauterbur’s proposal was just too pedestrian for its august pages, or perhaps Nature was just the wrong medium for the message. A better example is the following: The key project in elementary particle physics these days is the hunt for the Higgs boson. It seems hard to believe now that Higgs’ first submittal to Physics Letters was rejected.

Such errors are often benignly remedied with publication in another journal. On the other hand, in my own graduate study the “big questions” in quantum mechanics were usually sloughed over. Only now, a hundred years after the discovery of quantum mechanics, are some of the most basic questions being seriously addressed broadly within the field. Controversies are buried in other fields as well. One can have the greatest fun observing the foibles of self-important evolutionary theorists. For example, Elaine Morgan (an amateur biologist) took it upon herself to promulgate the theory of an aquatic period in our evolution in which we lost the fur of our primate ancestors. This theory had been devised by marine biologist Alister Hardy, who kept it to himself for thirty years precisely because he feared the torrent of derision which in fact ensued in 1960 when his proposal was finally published. The theory was basically quashed as a topic for learned discussion among evolutionary theorists. It is only being seriously considered now, some fifty years after it was first proposed.

Something similar has occurred much closer to home, and here again it is the obituary pages that remind us. Mark Rosenzweig has just died. He was the UC Berkeley psychologist who picked up on Donald Hebb's initial finding that giving rats an enriched environment improved their performance in mazes.Something similar has occurred much closer to home, and here again it is the obituary pages that remind us. Mark Rosenzweig has just died. He was the UC Berkeley psychologist who picked up on Donald Hebb’s initial finding that giving rats an enriched environment improved their performance in mazes. The evidence for organic change in the brain was later furnished by anatomist Marian Diamond. Her first report at a conference was met with the rejoinder. “Young lady, the brain cannot change.” And that was essentially that. The findings were solid, however, and over time the work was not so much formally dismissed as neglected. The world just went on as if nothing had happened, and decades later there could still be objections to the findings of neurofeedback because “the brain cannot change.” As it happens, in the sixties Sue and I also offered her phlegmatic lab rats an enriched environment in our basement in Ithaca, New York. The experiment did not last long. It turns out to be a lot more difficult to rat-proof a basement than to child-proof a house.

There is entirely too much hostility to unconventional ideas in the modern practice of science. We install peer review as a bulwark against publishing what does not measure up, but peers will typically acknowledge only those advances that make sense in their own paradigm. Peer review is nearly fatal to new initiatives in science, and instead route it along existing lines that are already well-trod.

We are in the phase now where the enterprise of science rests comfortably within the bosom of government and industry. This is analogous to the time of Constantine, when Church power and civic power first became joined at the hip. This was in the same time frame in which Christian doctrine was formalized for all time by the Council of Nicea. Something was lost when Christianity moved out of the catacombs and into the councils of government, and something is being lost now when scientific activity is directed largely from the top, and when nothing is acknowledged to be scientific unless it appears in Scripture, i.e. the published literature. How faithful and devout we scientists have become over the years. Only the infallibility of the Pope has been replaced by the inerrancy of scientific doctrine.

A New Romantic Age?
I was delighted to see Freeman Dyson’s review of the book “The Age of Wonder,” by Richard Holmes, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. The book covers the Romantic Period between 1770 and 1830, an age of poetry which also saw the kindling of scientific inquiry by brilliant, inquisitive, self-taught amateurs such as the astronomer William Herschel. Hershel even postulated that the nebulae he was seeing likely represented other galaxies like our own Milky Way, and that we were seeing them well in the past. This incredibly insightful conjecture was not confirmed until more than a hundred years later through the work of Edwin Hubble at the Wilson observatory.

I was delighted to see Freeman Dyson's review of the book 'The Age of Wonder,' by Richard Holmes, in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.Dyson then asks: “Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the 21st century, with the technological billionaires today playing the roles of the enlightened aristocrats of the 18th century?” “The evidence for a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art.” It is somewhat breath-taking for me to see these ideas coming from a physicist, since physics is the most solidly established of the physical sciences, the most dependent on government largesse, and in its most visible activities, the most oriented toward group research. On the other hand, physics is closest to mathematics, which has always been led forward by very independent, individual initiative. Witness Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Ken Wilson (whose pioneering work in phase transitions is probably relevant to our understanding of brain functional organization and hence neurofeedback).

Arnold J. Toynbee once suggested that the 21st century would likely see a corrective to the left-brained, rational preoccupation of the 20th century (my characterization). Our extra-ordinary emotional capacities would finally be given their due, and space might even be found in our scientific world view for a vibrant spirituality and our yearning for the transcendent. But let’s keep our feet on the ground for the moment.

“If the Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers,” says Dyson. Well, that’s just where we are with neurofeedback. And true to the form that Dyson anticipates, our field has been dominated by individuals who plowed their own paths: Elmer Green, Adam Crane, Lester Fehmi, Jim Hardt, and more recently Michael Tansey, David Joffe, Valdeane Brown, Chuck Davis, Len Ochs, and David Kaiser. They are examples of Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers. As soon as a niche opens up technologically, it begins to be populated by such pioneers.

Readers may wonder: Why are Barry Sterman and Joel Lubar not on this list? Well, they were never innovators. After making entirely fortuitous observations (for which we are very grateful), they were the ones who stuck by the rules, step by careful step, doing exactly what the science of the day asked of them to solidify their findings. The fact that they did so makes it particularly galling that they were not recognized for their efforts by the system that set up those rules in the first place. But that also explains why it is easy for both of them now to lob incessant criticisms at the true innovators that have since come into this field. For them, the research agenda has not fundamentally changed. For the rest of us, it had to change.

But back to the theme: We observe that the American Association for the Advancement of Science occasionally sponsors a “visualization challenge.” So here is where art enters the picture. This is likewise the challenge for us: How do we best make the brain’s activity visible and recognizable to itself? And now that we are involved with the infra-low frequencies, how do we get the brain engaged with activity that moves as slowly as lava on Kilauea?

Even more fundamentally, it is the clinical practice of neurofeedback that brings the art of the matter center-stage. The clinician must bring to bear a comprehensive and integrative perspective on the client, and must take all relevant skills into the triangular relationship between client, the clinician, and the feedback process. But because the art of neurofeedback is seen as contaminating the science, clinicians have never to date been allowed into the conversation on an even footing. The consequences for our field have been highly adverse. It will be a signature of our entry into the new age that this will change. The title of Dyson’s article is “When Science and Poetry Were Friends.” That’s a model for what needs to happen in our own field.

Sources and Additional Information:

1. Re. Joel Weisman, Obituary by Elaine Woo, The Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2009, p. A 26
2. Re. Lauterbur and Higgs, The Economist, August 1, 2009, p. 69
3. Re. Mark Rosenzweig, Obituary by Thomas Maugh, The Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2009
4. Re. Freeman Dyson: “When Science and Poetry Were Friends,” The New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009, p. 15-18
5. Re. Elaine Morgan, see “The Descent of Woman.” Also, see a recent interview with Elaine Morgan:
6. “The Role of Amateurs in Science,” Siegfried Othmer, EEG Info Newsletter, November 19, 2007

Siegfried Othmer, Ph.D.

2 Responses to “The Return of a Romantic Age of Science”

  1. Another area where group research has taken over is astronomy. The change is lamented by Simon White of the Max Planck Institute, who reflects that during most of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, most scientific progress was traceable to brilliant individual scientists testing their hypotheses with modest means.

    Another astronomer, Robert Williams of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, wants to recover some of that individuality in research by formally reallocating telescope time. “High risk, high reward projects require hard decisions that are best made by individuals, not committees.”

    He himself benefited from just such an opportunity years ago, when in 1995 he was given 10 days on the Hubble telescope, and decided to fix it on one tiny, unremarkable patch of sky for the entire ten days without a predetermined objective. The resulting image revealed some 3,000 galaxies, a simply staggering density, which took us back to the early history of the universe.

    Source: The Economist, August 15 issue, p. 73

  2. Further on the issue of greater reliance on individual creativity in the sciences:
    Roald Hoffman, Professor of Chemistry at Cornell and 1981 Nobelist, has recommended shifting the funding of science graduate students toward a fellowship grant model and away from the current model in which graduate students are loaded into the professors’ existing grants.

    The proposal, although clearly controversial, received support from Thomas Cech, who until recently was head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Said Cech: “The real power of an individual fellowship is that it empowers a young scientist to act in a more independent manner, on something creative and for which they have a passion.”

    Neurofeedback offers an object lesson here. Over the past two decades, graduate students interested in doing their dissertation work on neurofeedback were almost invariably ahead of their major advisers in their thinking. Their favored research path depended in nearly all cases on persuading their own major adviser in first instance. With a fellowship under their arm, all that would be a lot easier.

    Source: Science, 325, p 528, 31 July 2009

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