Science as Religion? – It bloody well looks like it!

April 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I made the mistake of deciding to listen to this debate. I admit to being shocked by many of the things I heard. And that’s not easy to achieve because people expressing such views are neither thin on the ground nor shrinking violets, and they seem to have somehow managed to take over mainstream media. Even so, some of things I heard here truly shocked me.

As I have mentioned before, I know many scientists. My other half is a scientist. The greatest part of our social circle are scientists. And I am happy to be able to report that these views expressed below are not universally held by scientists. Neither, sadly, is the gentleman here a one-off, or a rarity amongst his peers.

I have transcribed the excerpt in question from the video I link to below. It is by no means his only questionable statement, but it is the most shocking.

This is our Church: Science as Religion

Science is the only way of discovering reliable information about the physical universe. There is nothing other than the physical universe, therefore science is the only and the best way of discovering everything there is about everything there is. And if that includes analysing the works of Shakespeare to understand the workings of his brain, then so be it. If it involves looking at a picture by Turner to understand the way that he perceived light, then so be it. I can see that all the activities of the poets the artists and the hoi polloi are fodder to be poured into sciences’ hopper to be explored and grounded down to Truth. They are aspects of evidence. They are not insights into the world without further analysis. – 30:11—31:12 min. Peter Atkins (Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at the University of Oxford)

I can’t even begin to go into every problem that arises from this string of statements. I probably don’t have to, because they will be obvious to most people. I’ll just list some as examples, without further analysis. I can’t go into further analysis, because I’m not calm enough to do so.

So, a) the entire thing is based on two scientifically unprovable premises. Hence, he already starts off his reasoning by contradicting himself. b) This then becomes a circular argument, which means he doesn’t even realise he’s doing any of this, which in turn proves he has no understanding of what makes a rational argument. But all that is just details. Because, c) He then goes on to describe all of human endeavour and experience outside of modern science as meaningless. I shall just remind everyone that modern science was only developed in the last 300 years. So everything that came before is meaningless and contributes nothing to “Truth”. Whatever that is. He states earlier in the video that he doesn’t care what discussions philosophers have about what truth is. Well, yes, we can see that, because he obviously doesn’t understand any of it. And finally, d) he manages to cap it all off by setting “scientists”, above every other single human being that has come before or will come in the future, and denigrates their work/creation/endeavours/life/experience as pointless and meaningless, by calling them “the masses” (hoi polloi). Though, it’s also possible that he doesn’t actually know what hoi polloi means, not that that would make things any better. The arrogance demonstrated by these statements (and his discussion as a whole) and his sense of superiority is simply colossal and mind-boggling. So is the ignorance.

I should write a concluding paragraph explaining why these above attitudes, which, unfortunately, are widespread but thankfully not universal, in the scientific community, are a problem, both socially and scientifically. But, do I really have to?

On Freedom of Speech

January 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is going to be a very short blog post. I had to wait a while in order to be calm enough to make it short and concise, otherwise, if I’d written it last week it would have been a long, furious rant.

Here’s the thing, and the thing is simple:

If you attach a “but”, any “but” to your sentence supporting freedom of speech, then you don’t get either what freedom of speech is, nor what it is for. If you start talking about “showing respect”, or “being offended”, or demanding any kind of qualification to this freedom, then you simply don’t get it.

Oceans of blood were spilt for this prerogative to be enshrined in law and the reason for this is that freedom of speech is a tool and a weapon for the weak, not for the powerful. The powerful, the mainstream, the status quo, throughout the entirety of history have had the power to censor, to silence certain types of speech that they found inconvenient; more often than not speech that criticised the powerful, the mainstream, the status quo, or that offered alternative view points to the mainstream and the status quo.

By definition, criticism is bound to upset those it is directed against. And satire is one of the most powerful tools of criticism, because satire is a way of viewing things from a distance, a way of criticising in the most focused, sharp, concise manner, in a way that is immediately grasped and understood by all – unlike a long, involved essay with arguments and footnotes that few will read and even fewer truly care about.

Satire has immediate impact. And if it offends you, it is probably saying something true that you do not want to hear. As we all know, truth is very often highly unpleasant.

Being offended, I must point out, is not the same as simply being angered by something. I am angered by statements to the effect that freedom of speech should be qualified in some way in order to defend people’s sensibilities, but I am not offended by these statements. I only disagree with them, vehemently, because I find them dangerous.

So, satire might anger you, you might disagree with some satirical statement or other, and yet not be offended by it. Not that, if you are offended, or I am offended, or the entire group of people it is directed against are offended, should it matter one whit.

Freedom of speech without the freedom to offend is utterly meaningless.

Spam, irritation, and the twitterverse

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m taking the liberty of reblogging my friend Jane’s post, because I agree with every word.

Jane Dougherty Writes

Talking about social media—because we were, weren’t we? Twitter’s a funny thing too. A few minutes ago I saw that a gentleman wearing full Saudi sheik gear was following me. I went to his profile and saw just scrolls and scrolls of arabic script so I didn’t follow back. I mean, why would I? He could be ranting off about anything and I wouldn’t be any the wiser. A minute later he’d gone. He’d given me about two minutes to decide to follow back or he wasn’t playing.

It made me think that I really don’t understand what makes twitter users tick. At first I just watched in consternation as the jumble of ads, spams, and incoherent, meaningless messages scrolled past. Then I discovered twitter poetry prompts and settled into a little backwater of the twitter stream full of little gems of poetic imagery. It’s fun, useful, and entertaining. I…

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The Parnia AWARE study – Take 2

October 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Though I posted about this on Friday, I have to return to this Parnia AWARE study for one more post, because I read a post on it yesterday from a certain Steven Novella MD, which would have been hilarious, had the attitude not been actually dangerous.

This is about Dr Novella from his own website:

“Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society. He is the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He is also a senior fellow and Director of Science-Based Medicine at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and a founding fellow of the Institute for Science in Medicine.”

I think you can see a pattern forming here.

Anyway, the gist of Dr Novella’s post is this: “I and most scientist [sic] favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process.”

He then goes on to quote the paragraph from the AWARE study which says that 78% of cardiac arrest happened in rooms with no hidden images. He then says:

“Well that’s disappointing. However, apparently there were no cases of cardiac arrest patients who were able to see, remember, and report the hidden images.”

Err, yeah. Because he leaves out the part which explains that the only two cases of patients reporting remembering their own resuscitations happened in rooms without any hidden images.

*sigh*

Disinformation, much?

But that’s not why I’m writing this. I covered the issue of disinformation in my previous post on the subject. I’m writing this because I want to address Dr Novella’s favoured explanation for NDEs, which is that the brain confabulates the memories of the experience from other bits and pieces of data and memories collected at other times.

First of all, Dr Novella mistakenly appears to think that the issue is necessarily one of proving the existence of non-materialist phenomena. (Heaven forbid that anyone should attempt such a stupid thing, or challenge Dr Novella’s deeply held philosophical convictions!) But of course it’s not. Parnia never claimed it was, the study doesn’t claim it is, in fact, it doesn’t even remotely hint that it might be. But of course if you haven’t read it and rely instead on Dr Novella’s blog for information, you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s what it was trying to prove. Here’s what he says about it:

“Failing to obtain any actual evidence that NDEs represent non-corporeal cognition, Parnia apparently decided to fall back on the old, let’s just report what people say and present that as if it were actual objective evidence.”

Who the hell said anything about non-corporeal cognition? The study doesn’t. The study is intended to examine whether there’s consciousness where current medical methods are unable to detect any.

Again, disinformation, much? But it’s not actually disinformation; at least not consciously. This is actually what Dr Novella thinks the study is about. Because to him it’s inconceivable that medicine might actually still have something to learn on the subject. Unlike, I must point out Dr Nicholas Schiff, of Weil Cornell Medical College:

“Dr. Nicholas Schiff directs an integrative translational research program with a primary focus on understanding the process of recovery of consciousness following brain injuries. This research program links basic systems and clinical neuroscience with the goal of developing novel neurophysiologic and neuroimaging diagnostics applied to human subjects and therapeutic strategies. Dr. Schiff and his research group have contributed several landmark advances, including the first demonstrations of brain structural alterations occurring in the setting of very late recovery from severe brain injury.

More recently, Dr. Schiff and his colleagues have taken insights into the neurophysiological mechanisms of arousal regulation and of deep brain electrical stimulation techniques to demonstrate evidence that long-lasting, severe cognitive disability may be influenced by electrical stimulation of the human central thalamus. Dr. Schiff received the 2007 Research Award for Innovation in Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience for this research. This work provides an important foundation for developing further understanding of both the mechanisms of recovery of consciousness and basic mechanisms underlying consciousness in the human brain.”

Do you want to hear what Dr Schiff has to say on the subject of detecting consciousness? Go to minute 6:50 here:

(Whilst you’re at it, you may as well listen to the whole discussion, which is fascinating.)

Now, if you’ve listened to that, you’ll know why I said Dr Novella’s attitude is actually dangerous.

It is also dangerous because he is entirely ignoring and flippantly dismissing patients’ reporting of their own condition. He is doing this based on his own prejudices and preconceptions, and what some machines say. These machines, of course, are designed to detect signals based on our current understanding of things, our prejudices and preconceptions. Presumably he is aware, and if not, he should be, of the fact that all NDE-rs report that their memories of their NDEs are more vibrant, sharper, clearer than any other memory they have in their lives, and that these memories do not fade over time. This means that the patients report that these memories are qualitatively different to their other memories.

If you want ,you can hear Dr Mary Neal describing how her own NDE memory is completely qualitatively different to all other experiences in her life, and how it doesn’t fade, and the details of it don’t change, unlike even the memory of the day her son was killed – take a moment to think about that, especially if you have children; her recollections of that day’s details might change, but that of her NDE do not – then go here, to minute: 53:16.

Dr Novella’s post made me angry, because I have had my own reports of my condition flippantly dismissed and ignored by doctors, based on their own preconceptions and the readings on a machine, and their attitude might well have led to my death. In 2012, I got a very bad case of the flu. What kind of virus it was, I don’t know, but it was pretty bad. I got bronchitis and sinusitis, it affected my liver and my spleen – thankfully not permanently – but it also left me with permanent asthma. The first time my husband took me to the hospital, there was blood streaming from my nose (from the inflammation), I was coughing uncontrollably, and I couldn’t breathe. That was the reason he took me to the hospital. I couldn’t breathe. It was at the Marburg University Hospital in Germany, a distinguished institution. A friend drove us there. I managed to tell the receptionist at the A&E, between gasps and coughing bouts, and while woozily swaying on my feet, that I have trouble breathing. An hour and a half later, a harassed looking doctor finally got round to seeing me. He stuck the little reader on my finger which measures pulse and oxygen intake. (He did not check blood gases). By that time, of course, my most violent attack had somehow abated. He saw an oxygen intake of around 86%, and said, “You’re fine.”

I said, “No, I’m not fine. I can’t breathe. “

“No no,” he said, “you’re imagining it.”

NO,” I said, “I am not imagining it. I’m slightly better now, because an hour and a half has gone past, but I have still trouble breathing.”

“No, no,” he said, “you’re just having a panic attack.”

Since the silly woman was being offhandedly dismissed because she was just having a panic attack, apparently, and just imagined she wasn’t able to breathe when in fact she was, my husband and our (male) friend decided it was time to intervene, and both told the doctor in the strongest possible terms that “No, actually, she can’t breathe!

After which, he grudgingly, and with the air of one who was being greatly put upon, decided, sighing, to admit me. Which is lucky, because he might have just sent me home to die of another, uncontrolled asthma attack.

You probably think that was the end of that, and that I was duly diagnosed and prescribed the appropriate medication. Actually, no. For two months, with me coughing constantly and having uncontrollable asthma attacks every second day (sometimes every day), no doctor was able to diagnose asthma in Germany. Because no one happened to do a lung function test at the precise moment when I was having an attack, and the rest of the time, I did very good lung function tests. There was a reason for that. I had had classical singing training for years and I knew how to breathe through the diaphragm and how to belt out all the air I’d stored in to the very last drop. Of course, they didn’t know this, and they never asked. After two months, I said, fuck this, got on a plane, and went to Greece, where our national health service is fucked, but we have excellent doctors. My brother is a psychologist at a hospital and I just decided I’d go private. I got diagnosed practically the moment I walked through the door. Do you know why? Because they didn’t have any machine readings to go on and no preconceptions and personal biases. They just heard me coughing. It’s a very distinctive cough, the asthma cough, which I can now also recognise anywhere. Also, the specialist that now treats me told me, one day, just before giving me one: “Lung function tests don’t mean much. You can have full-blown asthma and still do brilliant lung function tests.”

Presumably the doctors in Germany didn’t believe in this heretical mythology. Because I wasn’t the only one with this experience in the University town of Marburg. I have a friend there, who also has asthma, and one day she ended up at the same hospital with an asthma attack that wasn’t responding to her inhaler. She told the doctor in the A&E: “I have asthma”.

“No, you don’t,” he said.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

“No, no,” said the doctor. “If you had asthma you wouldn’t have been able to breathe out like you do.”

“WTF?” she said. WTF? – I said, when she told me about this. When I have my attacks, just like her, I have trouble breathing in, not out! Luckily for my friend, her sister is also a doctor, and so she was able to prescribe her the medication she needed. Her sister believed her, apparently.

The reason I’ve told you this long story was to highlight how even with something as, theoretically, straightforward as asthma and an asthma attack, preconception, prejudices and machine readings can lead to – in hindsight – ludicrous diagnoses. Let alone with something as complex and as poorly understood as the brain and human consciousness.

But presumably Dr Novella thinks it’s all sorted already, and there’s nothing new we can learn on the subject. So he’ll dismiss patients’ reports of their experiences as imaginary, fanciful, and completely irrelevant, simply because the reports don’t fit in with his preconceived notions of how the world should work. The arrogance is colossal and preposterous. And it is attitudes like this that lead, not only to deaths, but, even worse, to years of suffering.

For the record, this is how Dr Novella presents this interpretation of the AWARE study results:

“What is a little surprising to me is that Parnia could only come up with one case with a memory that can be presented as matching events during cardiac arrest. This does not make that one case ‘verified’, it makes it highly selected and filtered from a larger set of data.”

I personally don’t see why this is surprising. If it happened to everybody we wouldn’t be needing new studies to examine it. We’d probably know much more about the phenomenon already.

It is also not highly selected and filtered from a larger set of data. This actually borders on libel, since there was no selection and no filtering of the data. ALL data was reported and taken into consideration in the statistic analysis. There were only 140 people who survived their cardiac arrest and consented to be interviewed. Of these, 101 completed the second stage of interviews. The rest could not because of fatigue. Of these 101, 85 reported no perception or awareness of memories. That means 55 people reported remembering something from the time they were unconscious. 46 described memories incompatible with NDEs, and 9 described memories compatible with NDEs, all according to the Greyson scale. Finally, 2 reported auditory and visual recollections of events during their cardiac arrest.

Everything one of these two reported was later confirmed and corroborated with his medical records and medical staff, and verified as having actually happened. Hence it was ‘verified’. The reason the other person’s recollection cannot be reported as ‘verified’, is because he was too ill to undergo a third, in-depth interview.

All this means that 2 in 100 people, that is 2% reported remembering actual events from their cardiac arrest. In one of these cases the reports were also verified. A 1% verified awareness during cardiac arrest is not a negligible number. It is not negligible at all. It is 1 in 100 people. And it doesn’t matter whether Dr Novella would like to dismiss it as just “what people say”, something which is not, he persists, verified, even though it was verified. It happened just as the patient said it happened. Dr Novella presumably would like to put this down to coincidence. But just because he’d feel more comfortable doing so, it doesn’t mean it should be. It doesn’t mean that the experiences reported by patients should ever be so cavalierly and flippantly dismissed – even more so if the truth of even one of them has been verified by a documented study – merely because they clash with a doctor’s prejudices and some machine readings.

 

The Parnia AWARE study

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m going to jump on the recently published AWARE study bandwagon, though I’m probably going to regret doing so. It has been widely reported in the media in the last few days, usually under one of two titles: “Study proves life after death”, or “Study does not prove life after death”. Take a moment to laugh and we’ll continue.

Ready?

Right. Here are some links to said reports. 1. 2. 3.

If you took the time to click on the AWARE link above, you’ll have seen that it’s a study published in the journal Resuscitation, and is a huge collaborative study between 18 hospitals in the USA, the UK, and Austria. This is the article abstract:

Background

Cardiac arrest (CA) survivors experience cognitive deficits including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is unclear whether these are related to cognitive/mental experiences and awareness during CPR. Despite anecdotal reports the broad range of cognitive/mental experiences and awareness associated with CPR has not been systematically studied.

Methods

The incidence and validity of awareness together with the range, characteristics and themes relating to memories/cognitive processes during CA was investigated through a 4 year multi-center observational study using a three stage quantitative and qualitative interview system. The feasibility of objectively testing the accuracy of claims of visual and auditory awareness was examined using specific tests. The outcome measures were (1) awareness/memories during CA and (2) objective verification of claims of awareness using specific tests.

Results

Among 2060 CA events, 140 survivors completed stage 1 interviews, while 101 of 140 patients completed stage 2 interviews. 46% had memories with 7 major cognitive themes: fear; animals/plants; bright light; violence/persecution; deja-vu; family; recalling events post-CA and 9% had NDEs, while 2% described awareness with explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation. One had a verifiable period of conscious awareness during which time cerebral function was not expected.

Conclusions

CA survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness. This together with fearful experiences may contribute to PTSD and other cognitive deficits post CA.1

First things first. For those who might not know, an NDE (Tut-tut-tut. The editor should have caught this. It should have been defined in the abstract before being reduced to initials) is a Near Death Experience. Though, if you’ve had a cardiac arrest, your heart isn’t beating, you are not breathing, and your brain isn’t working – which presents as fixed dilated pupils – because it’s not getting any blood, and hence it’s not getting any oxygen. These three things are what a doctor requires to write a death certificate: No heartbeat, no respiration, fixed, dilated pupils. This is what death looks like. And in any one of the cases examined in this study, pre-1960 – which is when the modern resuscitation method was first developed – the doctor would simply have written a death certificate. So, in these cases, really, it’s not a near death experience, but an actual death experience.

What hasn’t yet happened is the brain cells lysing – fancy medical term, from the Greek, to mean, dissolve, or explode. This takes a little while to happen, depending on conditions, from a few minutes to around 3 hours. Of course they don’t all explode at once. It’s a gradual process. So if a patient has been anoxic (without any oxygen) for a short while, he/she might recover without any permanent damage, but the longer a patient remains anoxic, the more chances there are of permanent brain damage, as more and more cells die. Similarly, the cells of all the other organs of the body haven’t yet exploded either. They all die at different rates, the ones in the bones lasting the longest, but generally the cells of the other organs last longer than the brain cells, which is why we can remove a dead person’s heart, fly it across the country, and put it in another individual who will then recover fully to live a long and healthy life. Let me just point out that, when we do that, the dead person’s brain cells haven’t usually died yet. Organs from donors are harvested very very quickly.

So, pre-1960, in the cases examined in this study, as soon as the individuals presented no pulse, no respiration, and fixed, dilated pupils, the doctors would have written a death certificate. Within the next 24 hours after that, all the cells in their bodies would have gradually died due to a lack of oxygen. Death is a process, not a moment, as far as the whole system is concerned. But the first cells to go are the brain cells. Which is where we all assume the person who has just died ‘resides’.

Now, during a cardiac arrest, when the brain is getting no blood and hence no oxygen, it doesn’t function. At all. This includes the brain stem, which controls automotive functions like the gag reflex, which is why doctors can shove tubes down people’s throats without them gagging. To be clear, what is meant by ‘not functioning’ is that if you hook the patient up to an EEG (Electroencephalogram) you will see a flatline – just like you’ll be seeing a flatline on the ECG (Electrocardiogram). There is no detectable electrical activity in the brain. When there is no electrical activity in the brain there should also be no awareness. None. According to our current working model, at least. And here’s the rub.

Typically, cardiac arrest survivors don’t have any memory of events just before, during, and just after their cardiac arrest. Which is as it should be, because the brain isn’t working, and the memory circuits get fucked up by the fact that the brain doesn’t get any oxygen for a certain (variable in each case) length of time. Except that sometimes they do. Around 10% of the time in fact, they report some kind of awareness. Not necessarily of things going on around them, but some awareness, often of feelings or images. And sometimes, they report having seen what was going on when they were having their cardiac arrest, whilst floating in a corner of the room near the ceiling, and can describe what they have seen in minute detail. Detail which is often later corroborated, and in this case their awareness is described as veridical awareness (VA). Veridical because what they saw was true. Except of course that they shouldn’t have been able to see, or hear, or remember any of these things, because their brain was not functioning.

There have been various (desperate) attempts to explain away this phenomenon (whose actual existence no one calls into question, I must point out). One that had some traction for a while was the theory that it’s hypoxia, i.e. not enough oxygen in the brain that was causing these hallucinations. This presents the following problems:

  1. People with hypoxia show up in hospitals in their thousands every day, suffering from any number of conditions that cause hypoxia, asthma not least among them, and they never report similar experiences. In fact, people with hypoxia are typically confused and delirious – not calm and lucid, as the NDE-rs report being (whilst dead).
  2. When you get verifiable information from a VA, then you can’t really call it a hallucination, because a hallucination is images or sound of things that don’t exist and didn’t happen.
  3. The brain isn’t working. It’s in flatline. There is no electrical activity. Hence there should be no awareness, hallucinatory or true, of any kind.

The other explanation was that all this was due to hallucination due to an excess of carbon dioxide in the brain. Well, here are the problems with this explanation:

  1. People with an excess of CO2 show up in hospitals in their thousands every day, suffering from any number of conditions that cause an excess of CO2 and they never report similar experiences.
  2. When you get verifiable information from a VA, then you can’t really call it a hallucination, because a hallucination is images or sounds of things that don’t exist and didn’t happen.
  3. The brain isn’t working. It’s in flatline. There is no electrical activity. Hence there should be no awareness, hallucinatory or true, of any kind.

The most popular one at the moment is this one: It was recently discovered that if you stimulate the “angular gyrus—a region of the brain in the parietal lobe that is thought to integrate sensory information related to vision, touch, and balance to give us a perception of our own bodies—the patient reported seeing herself ‘lying in bed, from above, but I only see my legs and lower trunk.’ She described herself as ‘floating’ near the ceiling. She also reported seeing her legs ‘becoming shorter’.”2

Here’s the problem with this theory:

  1. This description matches not at all the description of what NDE-rs who also report an out of body experience (OBE) describe.
  2. The brain isn’t working. It’s in flatline. There is no electrical activity. Hence there should be no awareness, hallucinatory or true, of any kind.

I don’t know whether I’m getting this across clearly enough yet, so I’ll repeat it:

The brain isn’t working. It’s in flatline. There is no electrical activity. Hence there should be no awareness, hallucinatory or true, of any kind.

This is why this Parnia study is so important. It has focused exclusively on a certain class of patients in order to examine this phenomenon, that is, patients in full cardiac arrest – not patients just undergoing surgery who sometimes report NDEs, not patients in comas, or any other condition in which NDEs are sometimes reported – only patients in full cardiac arrest. The reason for this is because the physiology of a cardiac arrest is very well understood, all the doctors know exactly what is going on physiologically, and they are absolutely confident they can exclude brain activity of any kind during cardiac arrest.

Let’s have another look at the numbers: 140 survivors were interviewed. 10% of these reported some kind of awareness, and 2%, that is, 2 people, reported explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation. The report of one of these people was verified by the team. The report of the other was not verified, not because it could not be verified, but because the patient was too ill to interview a fourth time.

Now, if you read the whole paper, you’ll see that all 18 hospitals had placed hidden images, high up on shelves where the patients could not see them, unless they were “floating up near the ceiling”, as a means of testing whether people claiming to have looked down on their resuscitation attempts had actually seen these hidden images. 1000 images across all 18 hospitals were placed on these high shelves, in areas where patients often tended to have cardiac arrests. And yet, only 22% of cardiac arrests happened in places where there were shelves with hidden images, that is 78% of cardiac arrests happened where there were no hidden images. And funnily enough, both patients who reported explicit events from their resuscitation had their cardiac arrest in an area where there were no shelves and hidden images.

Why is this important, you’re surely wondering. Well, I personally don’t think it’s important, because, frankly, I don’t think anyone is ever going to describe these hidden images, since, when you’re in the middle of a cardiac arrest, floating up near the ceiling, presumably know you are dead and are watching a team of 10-20 people trying to resuscitate you, you’re unlikely to be paying much attention to the décor.

However, other people do think they are important. And this is actually the reason I’m writing this blog post. Because, just after this study was published, and it was still behind a paywall (it’s not any longer), I saw a tweet – well, two tweets – from a distinguished parapsychologist from the University of Edinburgh.

The first one said:

“The Parnia prospective NDE study published in Resuscitation found no objective evidence of awareness during cardiac arrest.”

At the time only the abstract was available (though I can get access to the journal at that moment I didn’t take the time to do that, but only went and read the abstract.) Let me just re-post what the abstract says, here:

“CA survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness.”

Hmm… I thought. Slight difference of opinion? (sarcasm). Then saw the second tweet:

“Parnia: Images hidden on shelves were not perceived by CA patients. Odd no info given on how leakage of image identity was prevented.”

At which point, I thought, well, if they didn’t see the ruddy images, then the question of leakage is completely irrelevant. Not that I actually think the question of leakage is a valid point anyway. I find it extremely, extremely unlikely that doctors or nursing staff in areas where people are likely to have cardiac arrests – because that is where all the images where placed – in intensive care units, in cardiac care units, etc., are likely to let slip to critically ill patients that, you know, there’s a shelf in this room, with a hidden image, just in case you have a heart attack and die, and then come back, to check whether you could actually see it, when you’re floating up near the ceiling.

However, I know that parapsychologists have to be super careful, and make all experiments absolutely water tight – and water tight, in this case, wouldn’t be a bad thing either, so I let it drop. Until I actually read the paper itself. And then I couldn’t let it drop any longer, because these two tweets are actually a beautiful example of how misinformation is spread, and how scientists can interpret hard data in a way to suit them, and simply ignore the bits that they don’t like, for whatever reason.

The images hidden on shelves were not perceived by CA patients. Indeed. That is true. They were not perceived because the patients who reported being able to witness their own resuscitation were not in a room with any hidden images. Perhaps the author of this tweet expected them to float to a room with a hidden image and report what it was from there. Maybe one day someone will do that. Though, I agree that it is disappointing it did not happen in this case.

These tweets, where then picked up by a skeptic news website and reported as factual. The patients did not perceive the images, says the author, nor did they hear the sound of the defibrillator machine.

Hmm … Well, this is what the paper actually says on the subject:

“Both patients had suffered ventricular fibrillation (VF) in non-acute areas where shelves had not been placed. Their descriptions are summarized in Table 2. Both were contacted for further in-depth interviews to verify their experiences against documented CA events. One was unable to follow up due to ill health. The other, a 57 year old man described the perception of observing events from the top corner of the room and continued to experience a sensation of looking down from above. He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation (Table 2 provides quotes from this interview). His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). Based on current AED algorithms, this likely corresponded with up to 3 min of conscious awareness during CA and CPR.”

What they mean by supporting his account of the automated external defibrillator is that the man described hearing an automated voice saying “Shock the patient. Shock the patient.” From that and the machine’s algorithms the team was able to calculate at which point during the procedure the man heard this.

So, pretty much everything in the account of this study on this particular website is simply false, and it is based on the afore-mentioned tweets, of someone who, one assumes, had read the study. The author of the report on this website also claims to have read the study, which leaves me wondering whether we all read the same study.

As for whether the study in question found or didn’t find objective evidence of awareness during cardiac arrest… I’m not even going to comment. You can make up your own minds after reading the paper.3

The only thing I still want to say is this: For me, this isn’t about life after death, though I realise that’s what it will be to most people. For me it’s more general than that, and has to do with the nature of the world we live in. It’s about consciousness, and whether that is synonymous with the brain, or whether it is something irreducible and a fundamental, like time or space, and is separable from the brain. People are reporting awareness at a time when, according to our understanding of the way things work, there should be no awareness, hallucinatory or true, of any kind. Even if it’s just a matter or how we are able to detect consciousness in the brain, it needs to be taken very seriously and looked into with all haste, because this has practical implications to thousands of people round the world. How do doctors decide to withdraw treatment? How are families advised on when to withdraw life support? How do doctors decide when to stop resuscitation attempts? If there’s consciousness in the brain, and we can’t detect it, then we need to find a way of detecting it. If there’s consciousness, and it’s not in the brain, then we need to know that too.

1Parnia S, et al. AWARE—AWAreness during REsuscitation—A prospective study. Resuscitation (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.09.004

2Beauregard, Mario, Brain Wars: The Scientific Battle Over the Existence of the Mind and the Proof That Will Change the Way We Live Our Lives, Harper Collins (2012).

3If for some reason you can’t get hold of it, get in touch with me via the contact form.

Authors Alliance Event at Harvard

September 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

As a member of the Authors’ Alliance, I received this by email and wanted to share it, for those who may be interested. Unfortunately, Harvard’s a touch too far away for me, but maybe someone else can make it.


AA_Harvard_Header

The internet has had disruptive effects on many aspects of the ecosystem in which authors reach readers. The roles of publishers, retailers, libraries, universities, and other participants in this ecosystem are evolving rapidly. Amazon.com, in particular, has been the source of considerable controversy in its dealings with authors and publishers.

In order for authors to navigate these turbulent waters, they need to be strategic in their partnerships and careful in contracting. Copyright is supposed to help even authors with no legal expertise, but how good a job does it do? Could some changes in that law help authors reach readers more effectively? Looking beyond the law, what steps can authors take now to realize the full impact of their writings?

With these questions in mind, we are pleased to announce that, with the generous support of our co-sponsors at at the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Authors Alliance will be hosting a panel discussion at Harvard University this fall, titled “Authorship in a Digital World: How to Make It Thrive.” It will be our first east coast event and an excellent opportunity for the Authors Alliance community in the northeast to come together.

Join us if you can, and please feel free to pass on the invitation to any and all who might be interested.

Details:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

3:30-5:30, with reception to follow

Lamont Library Forum Room

Harvard University

Cambridge, MA

The event is free and open to the public. Full details and registration are available here

Advisory board member Katie Hafner will make the opening remarks and sit on the panel, advisory board member Jonathan Zittrain will moderate, and the panel will feature advisory board member Robert Darnton and co-founder Pamela Samuelson along with:

  • Rachel Cohen, a Cambridge-based author and creative writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College;
  • Ellen Faran, director of MIT Press;
  • Mark Fischer, a copyright lawyer at Duane Morris LLP;
  • Alison Mudditt, director of UC Press; and
  • Sophia Roosth, a Harvard historian of science.

We hope to see you there!

Harvard Poster

New Cover

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, I think it’s time to reveal the new cover of Innocent in the Afterlife, which will be coming to an e-book retailer near you, as soon as I manage to figure out and navigate the maddening waters of U.S. tax bureaucracy, which I have to do if I’d like to claim the benefits of a tax treaty, which basically ensure that I won’t be taxed automatically in the U.S. for every copy of the e-book sold. Which would be nice. If it wasn’t for the forms. Lots and lots of forms. Of the type that require you first to read reams of instructions on how to fill in the forms. Alternatively, apparently, I can call the IRS, in Pennsylvania, and they can do most of this over the phone. Hmm …

Aanyway, back to the cover. And what a cover it is! Fantastic! It’s a fantastic cover produced by Harry Saxon – who is incredible not only as an artist, but also as a chap, because he’s very generously agreed to publish his cover under a Creative Commons licence, since I’m going to be publishing the text under a Creative Commons licence, too.

Specifically, this smashing cover is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence. So, without further ado, *drum roll*, here it is! How fantastic is that!?


Innocent 72 dpi

Changes in the offing

September 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, here’s the official announcement: I have now left my publisher, so if you’re looking to buy Bad Bishop as an e-book, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I still have a number of paperbacks knocking about, though, so if you’re interested in acquiring a (signed, or not-signed) 1st edition, drop me a line, here, or here.

I say “1st edition”, because of course Bad Bishop (and Innocent in the Afterlife) will be re-released soon (ish).

Innocent in the Afterlife already has an incredible new cover, designed by the inimitable Harry Saxon, which I will reveal very soon.

Bad Bishop will also acquire a new cover, which is being designed by the quite incredible Molly Suber Thorpe. It’ll be a wee while before we can unveil this one, but rest assured it’ll be worth the wait!

So, don’t go anywhere. I’ll be keeping you posted.

Scientific Preconceptions, Confirmation Bias, and the Hard Problem

July 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

It is a well-known, and experimentally demonstrated, psychological phenomenon that humans are able to simply ignore all evidence which contradicts a world-view in which they have invested. It is what skeptics charge everyone that doesn’t agree with them with. Funnily enough, though, this never seems to apply to them. They like to suggest that they base their position on scientific ‘fact’. And presumably Science resides in some lofty sphere untainted by human foibles and interests – and pre-existing convictions and theoretical assumptions. To demonstrate the fallacy of this conviction, I’ll briefly pop back to the 17th century. William Harvey was the first to describe in detail the systemic circulation of blood round the body, being pumped by the heart. 1 It didn’t catch on immediately. The prevailing, mainstream view of circulation at the time was based on Galen’s description, which relied on blood passing between the ventricles by means of invisible pores. There was no messing with Galen and the underlying theoretical assumptions on which Galenic medicine relied.

This is what the Venetian physician Parisano wrote about Harvey’s systemic circulation.

We have no problem to admit that if a horse swallows water, we can perceive a movement and we can hear sound. But that a pulse should arise in the breast that can be heard, when the blood is transported from the veins to the arteries, this we certainly can’t perceive and we do not believe that this will ever happen, except Harvey lend us his hearing aid. But above all, we do not admit such a transport of the blood … If blood is transported from the veins of the lung … into the branches of the arteries, how could a pulse be felt in the breast, how a sound? I am completely innocent of such subtle speculations. Above all, Harvey has it that the pulse should arise from the movement of the blood from the heart into the aorta – no matter from which ventricle. He also claims that this movement produces a pulse, and, moreover, a sound: that sound, however, we deaf people cannot hear, and there is no one in Venice who can. If he can, in London, we wish him all the best. But we are writing in Venice.2

Don’t be tempted to think that this only happened because people in the 17th century were somehow more naïve and less sophisticated than they are now. It would be monstrously arrogant, and, in any case, experimental evidence says this isn’t the case and we are still just as susceptible to selective blindness and deafness as Dottore Parisano.

Besides, we rely on our theoretical assumptions to be able to do any science at all, and on these same assumptions to interpret all our data. What skeptics (and sometimes scientists) say is scientific fact is very often nothing more than an interpretation, often based on questionable data. Questionable because anyone doing science is always filtering and adjusting his/her experiments based on theoretical assumptions, constantly rejecting ‘anomalous data’, and selecting data that agrees with these theoretical assumptions. For example, the idea that constants are constant actually relies on a philosophical assumption. Gods forbid you publicly question that idea! You’ll have the full force of the (anonymous) scientific establishment come down on you like a tonne of bricks, like they did last year on Rupert Sheldrake who gave a – now famous – TEDx talk in a round of talks dedicated explicitly to “Challenging Existing Paradigms”. TED bowed to the instruction of their (anonymous) scientific advisory board and relegated Sheldrake’s talk to the naughty corner of their website, with what amounts to a viewer discretion notice, because their board said there is dodgy science in the talk. Sheldrake responded to the (anonymous) scientific board’s accusations, and they were forced to retract their comments. You can see them, retracted, along with Sheldrake’s responses, here.  The talk of course is still in the naughty corner, with a viewer caution notice attached. (If you want to watch just the portion of the talk discussing constants, go to 9:50 min.)

And yet, just the other day, this paper came out: ‘Apparent correction to the speed of light in a gravitational potential’.  And, of course, just a quick search on New Scientist’s website yields these results on the subject.

Now, you might say that it’s in the naughty corner not because of him challenging the idea of constants, but because of his wacky morphic resonance theory. Fine. If you’ve actually read his book, you’ll see that he proposes specific testable predictions, which is what any proper scientific theory must offer. Predictions that can be tested experimentally and falsified. So, you don’t like his theory? You think it’s rubbish? No problem at all. Do the (extremely cheap and easy) experiments and blow it out of the water. That’s what a scientist is supposed to do. Not reject it out of hand because it contradicts mainstream, long-accepted ways of thinking about things. The history of science has shown us that these have always been proved either completely or partially wrong. And we don’t have to go back to the 17th century again to show that.

Until very recently, and I mean very recently, if you had the terrible idea to publicly express a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, quantum mechanics could indeed function in biological systems (and hence explain all sorts of anomalous data not easily explainable otherwise) and that the Copenhagen Interpretation and the ever beloved instrumentalist interpretation – which we can nicely summarize as ‘Shut up and calculate!’ – didn’t quite cut the mustard, you’d be branded a kook, a heretic, and a pseudoscientist, and you’d be marginalized and reviled. Well, guess what

This, obviously, isn’t the only 180 degree turn scientists have been forced to make on previous, unshakeably held convictions, nor is it going to be the last one.

Just this month, we have had these articles appear in the bastion of mainstream popular science magazine, New Scientist, this one, as a summary/editorial on this one, which is behind a paywall.

There are two bottom lines: The first is that we’re basing all our science on philosophical assumptions which in turn determine both the way we do science, and the results we get – and it is absolutely normal and inevitable that we do so. We just need to always remember that that’s how we do science. The second is that we are here:

milky-way-you-are-here

and we still don’t really know what the fuck is going on. And it’s worth remembering that too. Because all we have are models. Models that seem to work, under certain conditions.

Also, everything we grasp, everything we purport to understand, we do with our poor little human minds and our consciousness. Which makes it quite ironic that the dominant paradigm amongst mainstream science on consciousness is that it’s an illusion. Unfortunately, this is the only way consciousness can be explained by philosophical materialism without leaving logical gaps big enough to drive a tractor through. According to this position, you are effectively an amoeba with an illusion of consciousness, personal experience, and free will; these things arise as an epiphenomenological illusion out of the matter that constitutes your brain. Why the hell that should happen in the first place, of course, no one has managed to explain yet. Amoebas, bacteria and viruses get along swimmingly without any. Or maybe they too have consciousness, or some form thereof. How would we know? Also, there are all sorts of further philosophical – and scientific – problems with consciousness as an emergent property (of complex systems, as it’s usually considered).

Consider emergence itself, for one. There’s weak emergence: for example, the ripples that arise on the surface of sand dunes from sand and wind. They can be deduced from their basic component parts, i.e. grains of sand and wind, and can be produced using computer simulations. Then there’s strong emergence, which is an effect or phenomenon that can’t be deduced from its constituent parts. You cannot deduce consciousness from subatomic particles, from spin, or mass, or potential. Subjective experience, the ‘what it’s like to be in pain’, the ‘what red is like’, the ‘what it’s like to grieve’, the ‘what seeing is like’ (the phenomenal visual field) cannot be deduced from fundamental physics. And that is a problem. Simply asserting that it isn’t, or shifting perspective to the third-person, and hence avoiding the entire problem of the first-person perspective that needs explaining, like Dennet does, doesn’t quite cut it.

So, I have rejected philosophical materialism and I’m now with David Chalmers on this one. (If you’re interested, on his website you can find a great deal more on both sides of the philosophical argument between materialism and panpsychism. ) Funnily enough, my new position (which is actually reverting to a revised older one, before the materialist rhetoric convinced me that I can only reject reductionist materialism if I am stupid) tallies much better with my experience of the world. So I encourage you, if nothing else, to consider it. If after due consideration you reject it, that’s fair enough, and we can engage in philosophical debate about it until the cows come home. But remember, you are only rejecting a philosophical position and espousing another philosophical position. Either position will affect, if not determine, the way you approach reality, and hence the way you approach any scientific endeavour, and of course any interpretation you attempt of experimental data of any description. Everything we do passes through our minds and hence our consciousness. We simply cannot consider the world and reality without first addressing the problem of consciousness. And it is a Hard Problem

1Actually, the first to do so was Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century. That didn’t catch on, either.

2Quoted in Hyland, Michael E., The Origins of Health and Disease, Cambridge University Press: 2011, p. 6.

The Milky Way

July 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Why the hell is it called that? And where the hell is it, anyway? I invite you to just pop outside for a brief moment tonight, and look up. What do you see?

This, I wager:

Night_Sky_Light

If not, you can count yourself very lucky, and it probably looks something like this:

Some_Stars

(from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22437365)

When I was thirteen, we went with my family to Crete for the entire summer. It was a working holiday for my parents, who were part of an international team involved in a large-scale archaeological/historical survey. We were staying in a small village in southern Crete, but drove around quite a lot. One night, I don’t even remember why, or where we were returning from, we found ourselves up a remote mountain. My father stopped the car somewhere and killed the lights., and we stepped outside. The reason none of the other details of the mountain, where it was, why we found ourselves there, or where we were heading have stayed with me, was this (click on image):

Night_Sky_Crete

(from: http://stargazerslounge.com)

I had never before seen this, and have not seen it since, either. But I remember it. I remember it so clearly. It literally took my breath away. It wasn’t just up. It curved round, embracing you in every direction from where you stood. You stood in the inside of a vast dome. It was also the time of year of the Perseid meteor showers, so the effect was even more impressive, not entirely unlike this:

perseids_shower

(from: http://imgarcade.com/1/summer-night-sky/)

I will be going to Crete again in a few weeks, and I will try very hard to find a location up a mountain where I can see this again. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Milky Way. You don’t need a telescope to see it, you don’t even need binoculars to see it. If there’s no light pollution, it’s just there. It’s called the Milky Way because it’s kind of milky white. It’s the galaxy we live in. By the way, the word galaxy comes from the Greek word for ‘milk’. But you probably knew all this already. You see all those stars? Those are just a very few of the stars in our galaxy.

There used to be a time when, every night, whenever people looked up, this is what they would have seen. The moon would obscure some of this when it was in the sky, but there would always be some days every month where this would be what you would see when you looked up. What we have managed to do with our immoderate use of artificial light – aside from the waste of energy, the effects on animal and human health and psychology, and the disruption of ecosystems – has been to create the illusion that we live inside a small yellowy-black bubble, beyond which there is nothing.

Oh, we might know, in theory, that there is a whole universe out there, but if you don’t ever see it, that knowledge is entirely theoretical. Something entirely theoretical very quickly becomes completely irrelevant, and from completely irrelevant it is not long before you start forgetting it is actually there. All you remember exists are those things within your little yellowy-black fish bowl. All we remember exists are things within our little yellow-black fish bowl; I include myself in this. It struck me very recently that that’s what I’ve been doing for a very long time. For years.

What this does, I submit to you, is to distort our relationship with reality. With the world. And with each other. We have nothing to remind us of the vastness of the world, and our place in it. To remind us how significant we are, just by virtue of being able to contemplate this vastness, and at the same time how utterly insignificant. (It is possible to be both!) We don’t have this sense of awe any more. And when we don’t have that it’s very easy to look at our few achievements and grow even more arrogant, to develop absolute certainties and illusions of being in possession of the one single Truth, as well as an exaggerated sense of our own importance – and even worse, the importance of our opinions. Look at that, ladies and gents! In fact, don’t just look at that image. Go and try to find a moor, a hilltop, a mountain, the middle of the sea … One of the few places left where you can experience this. And then, the next time someone attempts to convince you that either science or any one religion has sorted out all there is to know about the true nature of the universe and reality – (or at least ‘all the really important bits, and we’re sure we’ll have the rest any day now’) – think of this and go, ‘Hmm …’

And the next time you feel overwhelmed by everyday problems, the next time you find yourself caught up in an internet argument, with your blood pressure spiralling out of control, the next time you read a news item that makes you fume with rage and think about getting violent, take a deep breath, pop outside if it’s possible, look up and try and imagine what is there beyond the isolation of our self-created fish bowl, and remember:

milky-way-you-are-here

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