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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Saint Faraday

"When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time."  

— Physicist Ernest Rutherford on Michael Faraday

No honor too great? None? How about sainthood?

One bright saffron California morning when I was a college freshman, sitting through a chemistry lecture, Professor F. Koenig got off on a bit of a tangent about Michael Faraday and his contributions to electro-magnetism and electro-chemistry. Amongst chemists and physicists, Koenig informed the class, Faraday was seen as practically a saint.

The venue for Koenig’s lecture was an amphitheater in a large red brick Romanesque building set off to one side of the campus. The room contained tiers of wooden desks that fanned up from an arena backed by two green chalkboards on trollies.

Directly on the heels of Koenig’s remark, from high up in the back of the room, there came a sudden, impulsive guffaw.

“Ha, ha! Saint Faraday!”

Half annoyed, half nonplused, Professor K. glanced up in the direction of the outburst, then wordlessly wheeled about and began to scribble chemical formulas on the chalkboards.

I’d pretty much forgotten about this incident until an article in the New Yorker, The Mistrust of Science by Atul Gawande, somehow brought it to mind and got me to wondering if Michael Faraday might actually be a saint. For, to say the least, he apparently inspire trust.

According to Gawande, people are prone to resist scientific claims when the latter clash with their intuitive beliefs. What’s more, folks today – especially the educated, it seems – are becoming increasingly distrustful of establishment science,  placing their confidence instead in fake experts and pseudoscience (e.g., creation science, climate change denial, alternative medicine).

The solution to this problem, says Gawande, is to assert “the true facts of good science” and expose the “bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people.” Clean up the muddled peer review process for scientific journals while you’re at it, he goes on, and good science will prevail, advancing “knowledge in almost every realm of existence – even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.”

Well, its certainly good to be optimistic, but I suspect mistrust of science may be a bit more complicated than Gawande lets on. If the public has lost faith, it’s not just on account of lax communication by scientists or lazy journal editors. It’s because so much mainstream research is proving to be counterfeit, spurious, and in some cases downright ridiculous.

Indeed, the edifice of science today is afflicted by a litany of woes. In October, 2011, the journal Nature reported that published retractions of science articles had increased tenfold over the previous decade. According to a May, 2015, piece in the New York Times, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct on average every single day. Two percent of scientists – out of 2 million published articles per year, so the 2 percent figure is quite substantial – admit to improperly fudging data.

But why would this be? Isn’t professional integrity a sine qua non for the conduct of science?

Perhaps it was in the past, but these days scientists seem to have more pressing concerns. In order to secure funding and safeguard their academic jobs, they feel compelled to publish regularly in high-profile journals at any cost. So sometimes they “massage” (see P-hacking) or even fabricate experimental results in order to keep up the pace, especially in the area of biomedical research where an ever-larger share of government spending is being allocated. Thus it’s perhaps not surprising that attempts to replicate the findings of several recent studies in psychology, genetics, nutrition, and oncology have failed.

fMRI scanner. By means of complex 
computer algorithms, this device can 
render the human brain as lucent as an 
elementary particle, revealing charge, 
spin, and even emergent thought during 
collapse of the quantum wave function. 
The presence of an attractive X-ray tech-
nician, however, can be a confounding 

Yet even in the absence of malfeasance, credibility issues in some areas of research remain. For example, many neuroscience investigators nowadays employ a technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at brain function as it applies to the humanities, philosophy, art, literature, aesthetics, religion, hypnosis, etc. Indeed, such use of fMRI has practically become a fad that at times can strain common sense to the point of hilarity, especially if you include neuropornography (1, 2) (which is probably the kissing cousin of MRI coital imaging).

A single “cut” from an fMRI scan
showing “lit up” regions of the brain. A
dim or completely dark image portends
lackluster results.
fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow to the brain’s various regions.  When an area of the brain is in use, flow to that region increases, and it “lights up” on the scan. (Standard MRI simply produces anatomical images without reference to blood flow.) So, for example, a researcher might image a subject’s cerebral blood flow before and after the subject looks at da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Playboy magazine, and then draw inferences based on changes in patterns of brain perfusion.

This, however, seems a bit like observing the lighted windows of an office building after dark in hopes of determining what’s going on inside. Even if the corner office is brightly lit, you still don’t know whether it’s the CEO or the cleaning lady who’s at work in there. By the same token, the presumption that simple fluxes in cerebral blood flow can yield specific insights into the inner workings of consciousness seems quite a stretch. What’s coming next? Neuroastrology? Neuro-oneiromancy?

In addition, there’re assorted definitional pitfalls. If philosophers can’t agree on the meaning of free will, what can cerebral blood flow tell you about it? Similarly, for compulsive sexual behavior disorder (addiction to pornography), another focus of fMRI study, even the investigators concede there’s no precise definition.

And finally there’s the startling technical glitch brought to light by a UCSB study, an anomaly that may have affected most fMRI neuroscience research to date. Bennett and colleagues did fMRI scans of a dead (d-e-a-d) salmon (f-i-s-h) and found neural activity in its brain when it was “shown” photographs of humans in social situations. This was because the computer software failed to carry out “multiple comparison correction,” a shortcoming that could call into question the findings of much of the work in the field.

No wonder fMRI neuroscience smells fishy!

If all of the foregoing isn’t barrier enough to trust in science, a 1995 analysis of standard statistical methodologies used for the majority of scientific research came as a real shocker. Simulations done by John Ioannidis, now at Stanford, showed that for most study designs and settings, it was more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, claimed research findings were likely to be little more than accurate measures of prevailing bias.

Well, land sakes alive! Don’t even try to pass Go, you rascals, or collect that $200. Forfeit those NIH grants forthwith and hie thee to the Federal Scientist Protection Program. They’re coming for you with torches and pitchforks – or at least a fraud-o-meter and a research misconduct review board.

Which brings me back to Michael Faraday and sainthood. Halleluiah for Faraday, for physics, and for their guardian angel, mathematics!

M-Theory – the big tent theory of everything –
comprised of five string theories (Type I, Type IIA,
Type IIB, SO(32) Heterotopic, E8 X E8 Herotopic)
plus 11-Dimentional Supergravity (Supersymmetry).
But where’s Waldo? T
he construct has yet to result 
in a tested hypothesis.
From Newton to Einstein to contemporary quantum mechanics, physics, underpinned by the elegance and legitimacy of mathematics, has been pretty much free of the stickiness of biology and fuzziness of the social sciences.  NASA engineers used Newtonian mechanics to land vehicles on the moon and Mars. The predictions of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the Standard Model of quantum mechanics have proven amazingly accurate – and for better or worse, gave us atomic energy. Today, M-Theory, which resolves seemingly intractable issues with string theory, shows promise of settling one of physics’ central conundrums, the reconciliation of Einsteinian spacetime (gravity) with the forces of quantum mechanics.

String theory comes in five different flavors,
all of which can be reconciled under M-theory.
What the “M” in M-theory stands for remains
unspecified, but some see it a stealthy
upside-down “W” for Edward Witten,
M-theory’s inventor. 
Of course, like all science, physics has its problems. M-theory, thus far only a mathematical construct, has yet to result in a tested hypothesis. And some discoveries in physics have had to be qualified or retracted.

But fraud and deception have been remarkably rare. When retractions come – and they do – they’re typically the result of honest mistakes that are part and parcel of the scientific process, and they follow soon after the original announcements. In other words, they’re not due to whistle-blowers or the findings of a research misconduct investigation.

For example, following reports in March and June, 2014, of the possible discovery of primordial gravity waves left over from the Big Bang, a more thorough analysis of data from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite and the ground-based BICEP2 and Keck Array experiments found that the data were inconclusive.  And by December, 2015, a correction had been issued. The primary investigators may have been in too big a hurry to announce their initial findings, but no one believes they were guilty of fraud. Moreover, the existence of gravity waves (though not from the Big Bang) was subsequently confirmed.

Premature claims that neutrinos might have broken the cosmic speed barrier, the speed of light, played out in a similar fashion – from the initial announcement in September, 2011, to the retraction in February, 2012. To date, neutrinos continue to observe the cosmic speed limit.

In the mid-2000s, several physics experiments claimed to reveal so-called pentaquark states of elementary particles. By 2008, however, the journal Review of Particle Physics cited overwhelming evidence that pentaquarks did not exist and stated that the whole story – the discoveries themselves, the tidal wave of publications that followed, and the eventual "undiscovery” – was a “curious episode in the history of science.” Yet, in 2015 during matter-antimatter experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, researchers “stumbled across” pentaquarks quite by “accident." So perhaps these ephemeral subatomic particles exist after all, and in a backhanded way, all those wrong publications were actually right.

So it goes in science. Even when you haven't loaded the dice, today’s heresy may turn out to be tomorrow’s gospel.

Michael Faraday, 1791 – 1867
And what about Michael Faraday? Was he really a saint?

Faraday was a man of humble origins with very little formal education. Apprenticed to a bookseller, however, he gained the opportunity of reading widely. Later in life, when offered a knighthood in recognition for his services to science, he demurred, stating that he preferred to remain "plain Mr. Faraday to the end." Twice he declined the presidency of the Royal Society of London and also turned down an offer of burial at Westminster Abbey upon his death. When the British government requested that he advise on the production of chemical weapons for the Crimean War, he refused on ethical grounds.

Try finding a scientist that saintly today.

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