Doing science means exploring
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2009/06/10
End of last month I was at the 28th Annual Meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and enjoyed it thoroughly, as I always do. Partly it’s the intellectual comradeship with so many interesting people from very varied backgrounds; partly it’s hearing about intriguing matters that I knew nothing about before.
For me, two invited speakers, not yet members of the Society, were highlights at this meeting. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study (531 customer reviews on amazon.com with an average rating of 4+/5 stars!), presented stunning evidence of the health benefits of eating less than the amounts of animal fats that are typical in current American diets. It was also interesting to learn that he had successfully received grants throughout his career for cancer-related nutritional studies, when his actual interests and studies and findings had far wider significance for diets and nutrition in general; but “nutrition” is not a highly regarded field by those who distribute research funds. No sooner does one hear that then it becomes obvious enough. Where in the hierarchy within universities, for example, are Departments of Nutrition? So research funds are hard to get if you just want to study what people should eat and why.
A second high point was Jay Gunkelman on electrical measurements of brain activity, Quantitative EEG . Direct (d.c.) voltage levels modify the alternating (a.c.) voltages measured by EEG machines, and combinations of the two measurements permit sensitive and accurate control of anesthesia as well as offering data for intriguing insights into consciousness. For example, there has been some success in diagnosing among patients in a coma which ones might be candidates for successful reviving.
There were other interesting talks too, of course; and some not so interesting ones as well as some bad ones. I always think of it as analogous to the experience of ballet fans or opera buffs or book lovers or playgoers: You take in a lot of ordinary stuff, and put up with a certain amount of bad stuff, because occasionally you have so marvelously irreplaceable an experience.
The Society for Scientific Exploration was founded initially by distinguished astronomers, engineers, physicists and others to provide a disciplined forum for topics that the scientific mainstream ignored totally: UFOs, psychic phenomena, cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness monsters) were the Big Three, but of course there are many others as well. The determination that the discussions be rigorously scientific led to stringent requirements for membership: PhD or equivalent, tenured university position or equivalent, respectable record of peer-reviewed publications in a mainstream field. I liked to joke that these requirements were supposed to keep out the kooks, when I knew quite a few kooks with all these qualifications. But in practice the respect for and insistence on evidence and logic has been very high, particularly in the Society’s Journal. At conferences, as in mainstream conferences, more speculative pieces are welcome. Moreover, membership is actually open to anyone who is interested, the original restrictive criteria having been limited essentially to voting rights, and there are now about 3 times as many Associate and Student members as there are voting ones.
As the years have passed, the Society has been discovered by scientists and others working in mainstream occupations who happened in some way to be so “out-of-the-box” that they could not get useful critiques from the usual mainstream sources. So we heard from Thomas Gold, the distinguished astrophysicist, about his at-last-accepted-after-much-rejection idea that the sense of hearing depends on an active and not a passive process; and about his not-yet-accepted ideas about the non-biological origin of the Earth’s oil and suggesting that life on Earth started deep down, not in the mainstream-accepted warm soupy pools at the surface. Other fascinating topics at conferences and in the Journal include ball lightning, correlations of birth dates with subsequent professional success, biological rhythms, and many more. There have also been discussions of the history and sociology and philosophy of science, especially the role of unorthodox ventures in the progress of science. One of the most appreciated features of the Journal of Scientific Exploration is the Book Review Section which covers an enormous range of intellectually fascinating material.
Of course there have also been many discussions of evidence relating to extrasensory perception, survival after death, the basis for UFO accounts, possibly artificial objects on Mars, and others where my own personal inclination has been to regard the evidence as in some way misleading or misinterpreted. Nevertheless, it has been enlightening, mind-expanding, a wonderful learning experience to find intelligent, sensible people of high conventional accomplishment who take a serious interest in matters that I would never have looked at, had I not come to know and respect these people. It has been a rare and salutary education to recognize that everyone, myself included, may turn out to be mistaken even on something about which they have been very sure. Human beings are fallible, gaining new and deeper understanding of the world is difficult, science can only proceed by trial and error. But unless we explore beyond the boundaries of what is currently believed, we can only remain stuck with what we now understand — which no one, I trust, regards as eternally satisfactory.
Individuals like Colin Campbell or Thomas Gold who happen on the Society by chance often describe it in the most glowing terms, typically as the sort of organization that represents what genuine science ought to be, by contrast to the rather ossified and bureaucratic arrangements that have become the norm in mainstream venues. One of the other aspects that typically charms is the opportunity to interact in a meaningful way with people highly knowledgeable in so wide a variety of fields: such disciplines as sociology, music, history, literature as well as the “harder” scientific and engineering ones.
I look forward eagerly to next year’s meeting, even as it is still 11 months away. In the meantime, I am already relishing the opportunity this November to meet in person so many AIDS Rethinkers whom I have long admired from a distance.