science


Gone is the time when people believed that medicine could cure all known illnesses and the doctor was the high priest of the arcane rites. The advent of the internet has meant that patients may be as informed about their diseases as their doctor and the medical consultation is more a dialogue between experts than a trip to the Oracle. It’s more about containment and management than cure. Popular acceptance of the healing arts practiced by alternative and complementary therapists has led to a greater understanding of the core relationship between mind and body in the achievement of well being. 

By far the greatest demand for gastroenterological services comes from patients with recurrent or chronic symptoms of dyspepsia, abdominal discomfort and bowel upset and long term conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Chronic Liver Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Coeliac Disease and Barrett’s Oesophagitis. A modern GI service will not only need to respond rapidly to gastrointestinal emergencies, but also to monitor and facilitate  the self care of long term gastrointestinal conditions. 

In the future, more patients will be encouraged to care for themselves while their condition is monitored with simple blood and stool tests in their local health centre. There will be greater emphasis of self help groups, which could  be facilitated by specially trained health care professionals; practice nurses, dietitians and counsellors, and resourced by the third sector; the patient charities (e.g., Core, Coeliac UK, CC(UK) and The IBS Network). The IBS Network, for example, publishes its own self management plan, operates a telephone helpline and offers medical advice by email.

Patients with long term gastrointestinal conditions crave the confidence of a consistent, responsive and reliable service. This may well be better supplied within the patients’ locality, avoiding unnecessary referrals to hospital and allowing gastroenterologists to focus on the increasingly sophisticated and complex diagnostic and therapeutic procedures required for the more life threatening and complicated conditions. 

Freed up from day to day management of chronic conditions, it could be that specialists will adopt a more supervisory and educational role, monitoring the test results of patients with chronic life threatening GI illness through shared websites, responding to email enquiries from local health services, training local health care professionals, advising patient charities, and  preparing educational videos to be disseminated via local television services.

There will be less separation between primary and secondary care in future.  It seems likely that the bulk of gastroenterological services, including diagnostic endoscopy, will be conducted within local hospitals and health centres, which specialists will visit to advise and consult. For example, dyspepsia could be managed in the community with a test and treat approach to H. Pylori, while health teams will be set up to tackle major public health issues such as chronic alcoholic liver disease and obesity.

Population screening will be increasingly important.  It is already here for bowel cancer and it is likely that simple, sensitive and specific biomarkers will become available for other abdominal cancers; pancreas, ovary, liver, stomach and oesophagus as well as coeliac disease, IBD and viral hepatitis.

And as always, the focus of gastrointestinal research will continue to shift with fashion, establishing evidence for changes in health care, improving outcomes, eliciting patient experience, estimating the nature of well being, developing appropriate biomarkers for screening tests, and seeking insight into the relationship between the gut, the mind and the alien within, the all consuming intestinal microbiome. The future may well be not so much orange but beige or brown!

This was the piece I was asked to write to celebrate Core’s 40th anniversary.  Core, previously the Digestive Diseases Foundation, is the charitable limb of the British Society of Gstroenterology.  

Jules Henri Poincare (1854 – 1912) was in trouble.  The most famous mathematician of his generation,  he set himself the task of predicting accurately the orbits of the earth, moon and sun.  His solution was brilliant. It was nominated for a prestigious international prize, but just before he was due to present his theory and collect his award, he found he had made a mistake.  If he had used different assumptions at the outset, he would get very different results.  Mortified, he wrote a follow up paper explaining his mistake, but in so doing, made the first mathematical contribution to what became known as chaos theory,  though this aspect of his work was largely ignored until the 1970s when ‘chaos’ became the rule for many systems.    

Chaos is evident in all aspects of life.  Weather forecasting is an exercise in probabilities because we can never be sure of the starting conditions.  We can’t factor in  all the variables.  This is why it is said that a butterfly flapping its wings in West Africa will result in a typhoon is south- east Asia.  It’s not meant to be taken literally, just a mathematical possibility to illustrate how small unconsidered variations can cause enormous effects.   

And take sport.  They said England had a good chance of winning The World Cup this year, but what went wrong?  Could a glance across the table by a teammate’s wife have set in train a sequence of events that unsettled the captain, led to a players revolt against the coach and culminated in a catastrophic collapse of confidence?

And what about politics, computing, and the stock market?  Somebody can’t sell his house in Wisconsin and we end up with a global recession.   Or the rail network.  The wrong leaves on the line in the Home Counties and business in the City of London slithers to a halt. Small variations can have massive effects.  A tiny wobble in the orbit of an asteroid could destroy all life on earth. 

And in medicine, a small change in environmental conditions, a particular event, can so easily bring about illness.   Perhaps a tune on the radio could revoke a memory that could upset the gut and result in an argument that ends a marriage.  With no chance at resolution the gut upset persists as unresolved IBS.   When scientists do trials of treatment, they try to hold all the conditions constant.  This is what is called a controlled study.   It relies on certain  assumptions about which factors are important.  Age and gender may be controlled,  diet might be in a few studies, emotional factors almost never and yet these may be crucial.  So they can never really control the outcome.  If they make the same measurements 100 times in the same patient and they will come up with a hundred different results.  So what do they do?  Employ a statistician to tell them an answer they might (or might not) be able to rely on!  But  they still might be ignoring certain crucial factors because they don’t think they count or they are impossible to control.  As Albert Einstein declared, ‘Not everything that counts can be counted.  And not everything that can be counted, counts.’  

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is an idiosyncratic disease.  It is more an expression of the personality, life experience and life style than those variables that can be easily measured.  Moreover it can’t be easily defined because there is no identifiable change in body structure or chemistry.  It is whatever doctors say it is.  No wonder treatment is so variable and so personal.  It’s an exercise in chaos; a bit of a lottery.  What works for one person may not necessarily work for another.  But you can cut down the variability by reading the self management programme and getting to know about your illness, yourself and with some guidance managing your own symptoms.

There is so much we do not know.  There is so much we take for granted.  There is so much that we think we know but we cannot prove.   How did stars form out of gases?  Where did the gases come from?  Was there really a big bang?   If so why?  Did life really start because of chemical coincidence,  a freak combination of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon in a cooling world?  Did these chemicals arrange themselves to create molecules that could replicate themselves and encode for every other protein in the body?  How was the first unicellular organism created?  How did these develop into more complex organisms; plants, animals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and finally man? Why is man able to reflect on things and create meaning? How can such phenomena as thought transference, dreams, synchronicity and distance healing be explained?    

Cosmology and evolution seem so far- fetched; a series of lucky accidents.  Left to itself, matter tends to disintegrate by processes of inertia and decay. So why doesn’t it?  For most of the world’s population, the answer is simple. God created the world and everything in it.  And he created man in his own image. 

Yoga, while believing in a super-intelligent design, is not against evolution or science or psychology.  All are  part of the divine plan. Everything that we perceive to exist contains the essence of the divine, the vibration in stones, the way a plant bends towards the light, the way a beautiful lotus flower will blossom in the mire. Divinity, it asserts, pervades the whole universe from the stars to the smallest cell in our body.  God creates life out of Himself, like a divine spider weaving a world wide web.  Scientists may claim to have created life,  but they had to rely on the forces and raw materials that God provided in order to do it.     

Just as a tiny seed has the potential of a tree inside it, just as a grain of sand can be made into a silicon chip, so the potential for humanity was there from the beginning in the DNA of the smallest organism.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  The human embryo starts as a simple unicellular organism and from there develops through fish stages with gill arches, amphibians, mammals and man.  The philosophy of yoga acknowledges evolution as one aspect of a divine plan that conceived humanity from the start. ‘Karma’ embraces past and future lives and the ultimate purpose of our multiple lives is to merge with this divine being.   Thus yogis believe that man’s destiny is to evolve into a state of superbeings  at one with the divine.   

But hang on a minute, belief is one thing, but when faiths apply science to support their convictions, it doesn’t quite work.  Take the inertia argument. Things only disintegrate when you don’t apply energy to them.  If you apply the enormous energies generated by the birth of stars and locked up within the universe, then synthesis is not only possible but obligatory and there are an infinite number of chemical combinations to choose from, many of which may ‘work’.  But, we might ask, where does all that energy come from?   What caused the big bang?  Or is that just another act of faith?     

And is evolution evidence of divine plan or a wonderful genetic system through which life adapts to environmental change?   Did God really look at a chimpanzee, scratch his beard and say,  ‘Hmmm, there are capabilities there’.  Would an intelligent designer have built in so much junk DNA?  And why should a race of superbeings develop?  We might equally argue that we are in danger of generating a race of sickly degenerate beings only able to exist in our artificial environment. 

Karl Popper’s dictat that we can only accept hypotheses that are capable of being disproved  indicates that the creationist’s position is, by the rules we adopt to establish our universe, antiscientific.

The other argument for the divine is collectivism. All cultures on earth; Indian Yogis, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, the ancient Greeks as well as primitive peoples such as the aborigines, American Indians and African bushmen, have at one stage or another believed in an all powerful divine presence, who created the world, watches over it and requires appeasement.  Certain truths seem to exist in all religions;  so many people seem to have independently experienced a similar concept of divinity.  In his book, The Perennial Philosophy,  Aldous Huxley describes how leaders of religions throughout the world  claim remarkably similar expressions of the divine.  But that does not constitute evidence of the divine existence, just a collective culture of meaning.   Millions of people believed the earth was flat.  That didn’t mean it was!  We are all of us driven to find meaning in our existence and God is the simplest and mast lazy answer.  We have a template.  Weren’t our parents originally our Gods?   So is it surprising that our Gods exist in their idealised image.  Life can be so lonely without anybody powerful to look up to.         

Many would see intimations of the divine in thought transference, synchronicity, dreams, premonitions, faith healing, fate, love, but can we always be sure that there is not a more grounded explanation?   Very sensitive people can ‘read’ subliminal signals in much the same way as aboriginal trackers can read the landscape.  They are very suggestible.  People, who know each other well tune into those signals and each other and think the same thought, do the same thing.   Hope and faith alter the function of the immune system and are the essence of healing.  Dreams, as Freud commented are often wish fulfilment or the enactment of dread and we can all have an unerring tendency to bring about what we most want or fear or to re-enact the conditions of trauma.  This is not fate; it’s more about the way experience wires our nervous system.  .    

Some people even claim to have had encounters with the divine being, but there is a rational explanation for this too.   Just as traumatic events can make us ill, they can also make us cleave to the idea of redemption by divine grace, the perfect love by an all caring deity.  This desire can be so powerful, it can create delusions, even generate hallucinations.  And because there is a collective impression of God,  then these hallucinations will appear similar.

We cannot know everything, but  is that justification to invent a divinity?      

And then there’s fate.  A person’s life can tend to run according to a script.  People do tend to make the same choices, make the same mistakes.  It’s what is called character or personality.  But that  isn’t evidence for the divine, merely that our personality is forged by the influences on us early in life and given the same set of circumstances, we will make the same decisions.  Change often requires a crisis.   Yogis also do not believe that fate is ineluctable.  Man does have choice.  He can change fate, but the pull to the divine is inexorable and the path is rarely direct and may take many lifetimes. 

If there really is a God, why did he create such an imperfect world?   Yogis would say that the divine plan does not exist to give comfort to human beings.  Sometimes it is necessary to create tragedies, disasters because these manifestations of the divine will are opportunities for spiritual growth.  How many people have come to terms with the reversals in their lives by being more reflective, more spiritual?   Don’t we all need grief to appreciate joy?  Don’t we need darkness to appreciate the light.  This argument has always seemed to me somewhat contrived.

And what about emotions?  Are not love, fear, shame, remorse and guilt, manifestations of the divine?  Or can they be simply explained by neurochemistry?  I define emotion as ‘feeling put into context’.  Many feelings have a chemical signature.  Hormones, a class of chemicals named after the Greek word ‘eremonos’, literally, messengers from the Gods, are quite heavily implicated;  adrenalin – fear and anger, cortisol – depression,  thyroxine – agitation, oxytocin – love.   They help to define the subjective self and underline such phenomena as awareness, experience, memory, meaning, metaphor and attitudes.

The other area in which people perceive the existence of the divine is morals and ethics.  It is the influence of the divine grace, the religious argue, that encourages us to live a good and honourable life.  I cannot agree.  It’s not God that encourages us to be good but the mores of the community.  God, I believe, is a human projection; the embodiment of an inner authority.  If God didn’t exist, then we would have to invent him. Instead of God creating man in his own image, it seems more likely that we created God in our image? The social argument of a man made God seems very powerful to me.  Gods are necessary to provide a moral and ethical framework for communities, to provide structure and security and belief, hope and meaning.  Without the belief in God, the world could descent into chaos. To my mind, whether God exists does not exist in reality does not matter.  It’s the fact that most people believe in a divinity and that that divinity represents a moral code that is important.   

To my mind, concepts such as soul and spirit represent the meaning we ascribe to life’s deeper issues .  And  thoughts and  meanings the generated by the activation of neural networks, established by experience.   Believers state that faith is the starting point of knowledge.  No.  Imagination is.  Imagination is a predictive construct based on previous experiential associations.  Discovery favours the prepared mind.  As King Christian X of Denmark said many years ago, we console ourselves with our imaginings and delusions.  A meaningful life can be so beautiful; it doesn’t have to be divine. 

Proponents of any a belief system, whether this be a religion, a cult, psychoanalysis or aspects of neurochemistry and cosmology,  insist that we suspend and ultimately surrender disbelief for the security of faith.  It is true that for a full life, we must liberate our slavish dependence on evidence and let our imagination free in much the same way as the artist, the poet, and the composer, but that shouldn’t mean adhering  to a particular faith because we have been told to.  We are all seekers, but our quest should be generated by our own observations and meanings and not by obligations to science or God.

‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, so they say.  They are our companions. They are, like us,  social carnivores that hunt in the daylight. We were made to collaborate. How much more effective we would have been as hunters with dogs to detect and chase our prey.  And dogs would have played a crucial role in the development of civilization by protecting our crops and home and herding our animals. 

But there’s more to it than that.  Dogs offer us their devotion.  To them we  are the pack leaders – to be appeased and served. Dogs are attuned to us, they obey our commands, respond appropriately when we point; they can be trained. Chimpanzees, although they have 99% of  our genetic code, tend to do their own thing, albeit intelligently. There is even a dog who has learnt 300 words and can fetch an object from another room, having only just seen a picture of it.  And think of how working dogs can be trained to herd sheep, to retrieve an animal that been shot, to sniff out drugs or explosives.   

Dogs make a deep emotional bond with us.  Studies have shown that when dogs look at images of humans, they are drawn to the left side of the face which expresses emotion more eloquently and has a direct connection with the emotional right side of the brain.  They tune into our emotions and can respond to our feelings.  They know when we are upset or angry. They feel it. And dogs are good for us.  We are more likely to survive a myocardial infarction if we have a dog and less likely to have another heart attack.  

Dogs have evolved an elaborate vocal repertoire to communicate with us.  Most dog owners can recognize at least six types of bark.  These are emotional signals; excitement, anger, aggression, hurt, fear, playfulness.  Brains scans have shown that the same area of orbito-frontal cortex lights up and we release the bonding hormone, oxytocin, when we look at pictures of dogs as when we look at images of children.  Our need to nurture runs deep. Dogs induce the nurturing behaviour in us they need for survival, and they also release oxytocin when they look at their owners and are fondled.  Dogs not only give but they induce unconditional love. 

DNA data has established that our domestic dog is descended from the grey wolf and came into existence about 100,000 years.  But wolves or wild dogs do not acclimatize to humans naturally. They cannot read our emotions and they don’t have the same vocal repertoire.  When wolf puppies are brought up with humans, they revert to wolves at about 8 weeks and become dangerous.  It takes many generations of selective breeding to get an animal that behaves like a dog.  Long term experiments conducted on Silver Foxes in Eastern Siberia has shown that domesticity can only be induced after 50 generations.  Only then do they behave like dogs. The strange thing is that in breeding out aggression, other characteristics change too, like the colour of their coats and the shape of their heads, their ears and their tails.  In fact, they become like puppies.  Selective breeding for domesticity favours juvenile characteristics.

This makes me wonder whether sexual selection in human societies over the many generations since civilization began has also succeeded in breeding out aggressive characteristics?   Are we just all big babies?   Have we bred domesticity in ourselves and with this passivity, laziness, neediness and a predisposition to obesity, heart attacks and diseases related to anxiety, such as Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?    

Contrast our open faced, needy population with the hard bitten images of tribal chieftains, warlords who seize and impregnate their women by force.  Such brutal sexual acquisition might perpetuate a much more ruthless typology until such time as civilization suppresses the behaviour that has induced it?  The aggressive no longer rule the earth,  at least outside the strongholds of Afghanistan, but have we become too tame, like the dogs?

This article was inspired by this month’s BBC Horizon programme.

Time flies, the old man cried, as the alarm clock struck him on the back of the head.  For the elderly, time does indeed fly; not just the clock but the days, the weeks, the years.  Time seems to shorten, to press in on itself, as we get older.

But for the young, a week can last forever.  Remember how we measured our age in fractions of years.  ‘I’m seven and a quarter’, I’d reply if asked.  And that 13 weeks I boarded at school felt like 13 years.  Mathematicians have suggested that our perception of time is relative to the duration of life.  A year is 10% of our life when we are 10, but only 1% when we are 100. 

Personal time is perceived according to what new happens.  For children, the milestones are much closer. Their days are so packed with novelty, life is a constant stream of stimulation; their attention span so short that expectation seems endless.  As we get older, and accumulate responsibilities, the thrill of anticipation is replaced by the burden of obligation. There is little novelty, just more associations to work through, organise and file away. Too much to do; too little time!  With the end on the horizon, there is neither time nor inclination to look forward, so we tend to look back, reminisce, regret a bit and try to put it right. Events and thoughts collapse in on each other until time itself is confused. 

Although our perception of time passing can alter through life, our body has a remarkable ability to mark time. It knows exactly when it’s time to go to sleep, time to eat and time to defaecate, and when we change time zones, it is some time before this body clock can be reset.  So.do we have some kind of accumulator in our brain that records the oscillations of temporal neurones, or the beats of the heart?  Probably not!  Nobody has identified a cerebral clock, but neuronal and hormonal activity is responsive to environmental cues or zietgebers like day/night cycle, day length and temperature.  So while real time is relatively static in our bodies, our perception of time is elastic.  When I am running, the same route goes much more rapidly if I am in a relaxed meditative state than if I aware of my performance, even though my pulse rate is much the same.  Time is like a river; the flow may be constant, but the calms, rapids and waterfalls of our thoughts can make seem to slow it down or speed it up.   

It has been suggested that our perception of time depends on our degree of arousal.    During extreme arousal, time slows down and intensity of experience is magnified, our memory expanded.  The more energy the brain spends in representing an event, the longer it lasts.  We can get more done in the morning when our level of arousal is at its optimum.

Think of how slowly time goes during a crisis. If we are going to crash, everything seems to go into slow motion. You have an argument with your lover and then part; you remember every word, every gesture, every look. Time dilates  Psychologists call this amydala memory.  When the panic button is pressed, the brains cine film speeds up.  If you’re laying down a lot of memory, time goes by a lot more slowly, but does it just seem that way in retrospect because there’s more to play back? 

Generally time passes much more slowly if you are waiting for something, but that too depends on your perspective. Take two men at a football match. The score is 1-0. There are ten minutes to go.  To the one whose team is ahead, that ten minutes is an eternity of dread, but to the others desperation to score accelerates the final whistle.

It would seem that our perception of time is an emotional quality.  Time is suspended when you are in the thrall of love, but if you know you must part, then it speeds up alarmingly.  Samuel Johnson said that there is nothing like a hanging to concentrate the mind, but he could have equally transposed ‘time’ for ‘mind’. 

So is our perception of time a factor of the emotional energy of our thoughts?  The more energy we devote to things, the more we are conscious of time. Take boredom, for example, or depression.  Boredom is not passive or boring. Far from it, boredom is an active state of anticipation and frustration; an urgent need for something to happen, a  desire to kill time and attack your situation. Similarly most depression is a highly aroused state of anxiety and despair.  Driving my car down the motorway is the most boring thing I do. A journey to London is like a trip to the moon.  But if I listen to an audio-book at the same time, then I hardly notice it.  Children (of any age) who can lose themselves in creative play are rarely bored.  Boredom more usually applies to administrative tasks that I resent, like writing a grant application, filing a report or completing the tax return. Such a waste of time! But if I am preoccupied by some concern, that anything that takes me away from it, becomes boring. Perhaps time passes so slowly for the young because their lives are so occupied by the anxious frisson of change, that for nothing to happen is intolerable.       

Time races by if we’re absorbed in a task.  It’s a form of meditation. I have spent two hours writing this article and yet it seems I have only just started. The same phenomenon occurs if we watch a good film or when we’re relaxed at a dinner party, talking to friends.  This acceleration of time is enhanced by alcohol and recreational drugs.  I can lose time having a good time. During therapy, the 50 minute hour goes very quickly when the client is engaged and relaxed, but if he’s defensive and resistant, it drags.  We can spend seven hours asleep completely unaware of time yet if anxiety keeps us awake all night,  the slow blind slither of night-time is exquisite torture.  

So how should we spend time?  Should we seek solace in creative activity and allow time to speed by unnoticed?  Or should we seek to extend it with stimulus and novelty in an accelerating desperation to avoid the end?   What is the bigger waste of time?

Time is the measure of things moving.  It’s like history; one bloody thing after another, but if nothing happens there is no time, ho history, nothing.  We know by determining the rate of decay of radioactivity in rocks that the earth came into being 4,558 million years ago.  This sounds a bit like Archbishop Usher, who calculated that the world was created 4,404 years ago. 

 Time cannot be thought about with considering space as well.  Time is the fourth dimension.  We only need to go out and look at the night sky to see it happening.   The light that reaches us tonight set out from the nearest star 5 years ago and from the most distant galaxy, many thousand years ago.    

Isaac Newton thought time was always there; a God given fact, space was the constant stage upon which things happened, and light always travelled in straight lines. It was not until Albert Einstein that anyone dared to question these ‘facts’.  Einstein deduced that things that seemed to take place at the same time from an observer on earth, would occur at a different time if you were passing in a rocket. Events are perceived at the speed of light and if we were to pass through space near or at the speed of light, time would slow and stop.  Both time and space are relative to the observer.  Moreover light could ‘bend’.  The sun, 8 light minutes away probably did not exert an attraction on the earth but it warped space so that objects had to move in a fixed trajectory around the sun and light had a trajectory too. But it was Arthur Eddington that came up with the ‘proof’ by studying the light from stars behind a solar eclipse that light could appear to bend around massive objects  Eddington illustrated this by throwing a melon into the middle of a tautly held tablecloth and then rolling a walnut around the depression created.  Eureka!

If things are completely inert and nothing changes, then there is no time.  As soon as things change, there is time. So time and space are a continuum.  The approved wisdom states that time started with The Big Bang some 5000 billion years ago.  Since then matter, galaxies, stars, planets are speeding apart and getting colder and colder.  At one time, it was thought there would be a limit to the expansion and as mass  decelerated, gravitational forces would cause it to start to implode and then time would run backwards.  That’s what the equations would predict.  And how can we begin to understand what caused the big bang originally is it wasn’t some coalescence of mass and energy.  Nevertheless, physicists now seem convinced that there was a big bang and everything sped apart and is still accelerating and must eventually disappear.  Then nothing will change and time will cease again. Part of the evidence of the big bang came from the analysis of interference or white noise on television monitors.  I maybe an old cynic, but in astronomical physics as with everything else, what value evidence?              

So do we move through time or does time move through us?  We may be able to see time past, both in cosmological terms and what is fixed in memory, but we cannot see what is to come.  And there’s a problem, if time passes through us, then everything is preordained.  There is no free will.  To a certain extent that is true.  After the first few years of life, we create for ourselves a template for the way we will react, the choices we are likely to make, how our future is likely to be.  As the Jesuits said, give me the child at 7 years of age and I will show you the man.      

But doesn’t this all depend on the assumptions we make.  How do we know?  Physicists talk confidently about the distance of stars, how far galaxies are away, but how do they know?  Is there any independent measure of this that doesn’t depend on assumptions about time and space?   If space is curved like a doughnut,  could we not be looking at ourselves coming back?   Does Einsteinian geometry predict astronomical observations or does it just explain them?  Just as the design of a camera, the curvature of the lens, the shape of the aperture, determines our perception of the object, so image we have of our universe depends on the instruments by which we observe it, the assumptions of our  computers and the conceptual limits of our frontal cortices. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun travelled across the sky every day and the moon did the same every night.  How much more satisfying life must have been then.

Ida1,property=Galeriebild__gross (Large)Ida was no more than two feet in length, she had a cat-like face, a long tail and judging from the shape of her ankle, walked upright.   Cladistic analysis might have suggested she was probably related to lemurs, but she was heralded as a missing link between other mammals to primates.   

The issue raised by Dr Martin Whyte’s paper, entitled ‘Ida; new light on Palaentology,’ was not so much about the validity of these claims as by how scientific discovery should be publicized. 

Ida was extracted from the Messl Lakes, fossil rich deposits of brown coal in Germany, and sold to a collector, who kept her in his private collection before selling her on to the Museum of Oslo for a very large sum of money.  To recoup their investment, the museum engaged a team of scientists to investigate her.  They published their ‘findings’ in an on-line journal at the same time as the film and the book were released.    

The publicity of findings in other sciences;  physics, medicine and zoology, for example, depends on peer review and publication in reputable scientific journals. Some scientists and indeed some journals may wish to issue a press release on discoveries they think are particularly important, but for the most part, whether a finding is publicized is a matter of luck.  Somehow, publicity is seen as pandering to commercialism.  Science, like religion, is above all of that . 

Palaentology is different. The commercial opportunities are too great.  Fossils all too often find their way into the hands of illegal entrepreneurs who will prepare the specimens for collectors, who purchase them for large sums of money and may then, like the Oslo Museum, seek to recoup the scientific capital of the discovery.  With so much money involved, there is too much temptation for fraudulent claims, like the Piltdown hoax of the thirties. 

But publicity occurs in other branches of science too.  How pervasive would the philosophy of Sigmund Freud had been without the efforts of his publicist, Dr Ernest Jones?  And would we have been celebrating the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth this year were it not for his champion, Dr Thomas Huxley?  All great discoveries need to be discovered by somebody who can get them into the public arena.  Some scientists are also great self publicists.  Among contemporary examples are Baroness Susan Greenfield, Lord Winston and Richard Dawkins.  Never discount the role of PR and commerce in science, even though many scientists regard self publicists with envy and disdain and put their faith in peer review.

But peer review is not a council of truth.  Think of Dr Andrew Wakefield’s proposal of a link between MMR vaccine and autism.  The data was seriously flawed but The Lancet still published it. 

And peer review can be quite corrupt.  Journals often ask authors to suggest their reviewers and, of course, they volunteer their friends, who reciprocate the favour.  You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.  There are often just a few people around the world working on a given research topic.  They have a self interest to ensure that their work is kept in the public eye and continues to raise funds.  Scientists often come of unspoken agreement to support each other.  Any interloper whose work threatens to undermine this cosy arrangement, is likely to see their papers rejected for publication.  Drug companies recruit teams of ‘independent’ opinion leaders to investigate their products.  The results are nearly always presented in the best light for the company and supported through the peer review system by other scientists working on the same drug.  Nobody is keen to bite the hand that feeds them grants, sponsors their journals,  underwrites their academic positions and arranges and pays for their attendance at key conferences.  Having been invited on the international merry go round, scientists would do almost anything not to fall off it. 

A few years ago, an eminent colleague of mine, Professor Juan Malagelada from Barcelona, proposed that given the exponential expansion of papers, everything should be published on the internet.  Peer review by friends and other ‘interested’ groups, would be abolished and replaced by a much more open public review, similar to the reviews and critiques of new artistic works.  In this way, he concluded, only the genuine and valuable would be quoted and rise to the surface – a kind of populist peer review.  This system is would have its abuses, of course, the publicists would continue to push their own finds.  Money would change hands as scientists would try to ensure their work gets maximum exposure.      

So maybe it’s Palaentology that’s the missing link, sitting awkwardly between arts and sciences.  As a science, Palaentology is underfunded; it needs museums and private investors to fund the field work and the high tech scientific analysis.  New findings need hyperbole to excite interest in the area.  In that regard, the subject is not unlike art critique. Indeed, many fossils are very beautiful. If Van Gogh had had to rely on peer review, his work would never had been discovered.  He needed the support of his brother and friends to bring his paintings to public attention.  In a similar way, The Museum of Oslo had to hype up Ida to get visitors though its doors and encourage other museums to spend large sums of money to loan the specimen.  Peer review is too cautious and unlikely to excite public interest.  On the other hand, the more the hype, the greater the risk of exposure.  Public appraisal can turn on a sixpence!          

 

The problem of Ida was the topic of a talk given by Dr Martin Whyte of Sheffield University at the Chapel Allerton Cafe Scientifique on June 22nd. 

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