Thursday, December 10, 2009

Headline of the Week


The Huffington Post: "Does Death Exist? New Theory Says 'No'" by Robert Lanza, M.D./12.8.09

Dr. Robert Lanza humbly refers to himself as "one of the leading scientists in the world" in his HuffPo bio, and while that amusingly sweeping designation may read like something from a bad 50s sci-fi movie he actually is smarter than all of us put together. That said, the "new theory" that Lanza is trumpeting -- something called "Biocentrism" -- was actually his own creation, something he neglects to directly mention in the piece this headline links to. As it turns out, his theory that death doesn't exist first came to him in the moments after seeing his sister laid out in a morgue, the victim of a car accident. He took one look at her and apparently reached the conclusion that she wasn't actually dead. I don't pretend to be a scientist or even have the IQ required to become one, but that sounds like an incredibly suspect way to come up with a scientific theory negating death that you'd like others to take seriously -- when your judgment is unquestionably compromised by your emotions.

As much as I love the Huffington Post and respect the opinions of its staff and management -- I do write for them after all -- there's no doubt that a lot of what passes for science on the site's "Living" page is basically celebrity-advocated, philosophy-meets-pseudo-science. Arianna buys heavily into this kind of thing and, once again, there's nothing especially wrong with that, as long as you recognize going into it that Deepak Chopra isn't really an expert on anything other than his own self-promotion.

Case in point: Robert Lanza is obviously a brilliant man, but from a common sense perspective you'd be a fool not to at least question the somewhat arrogantly obstinate theory he's offering -- one which seems to be borne more from grief and a lack of acceptance of the inevitable than anything else. Like a lot of holistic pseudo-science, it traffics in what we'd all like to believe -- hormones stave off menopause, properly expressing yourself alleviates thyroid issues, vitamins stop post-partum depression, Jenny McCarthy can cure autism -- but not necessarily what we should believe. Yes, Lanza's theory is just that -- a theory and nothing more -- but it's one I'd imagine you really need to take with a grain of salt and a whole lot of "second opinions."

24 comments:

SteveR said...

When it comes to that kind of thing, my reaction is "maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. I don't know. What's for lunch?"

Dustin said...

Wow, that is some grade A horse-shit. As someone who actually has a degree in physics, there are few things more annoying than someone with a little knowledge of quantum mechanics or string theory.

Jeni said...

Maybe she was only mostly dead?

Jester said...

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Put another way: we didn't know everything 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 500 years ago, or a thousand. Hell, what we "knew" 200 years ago is mostly considered laughable now.

What makes you think that what we "know" today is any different?

What makes you think that 200 years from now, people won't be laughing about how stupidly ignorant we are today? I pretty much guarantee you they will be.

I therefore tend to step pretty carefully around what other people call "pseudoscience." Alexander Fleming (to name just one example) was sloppy, and his judgments were ignored or even considered questionable... right up until a lot of his theories and experiments turned out to be right.

And so today, every time you take an antibiotic, you're benefiting from 1920s pseudoscience.

This guy could be a nut. Or he could be absolutely right. Who are you to judge, based on one 10-paragraph article?

Vermillion said...

Hmmm, yeah. I don't se anything really revolutionary about his theory. Unless there is a way to restore that 20-watt charge (or "life"), then maybe we have something. It is a nice thought experiment though.

It is disingenuous that he presents the article as if he stumbled on it, when he is pretty much the main proponent.

See yoU Next Tuesday said...

You were awfully kind, and I understand why, but I'm glad you addressed this.

The hokum that fills the pages of that section indeed make me shudder. As I watch the most positive, wonderful friend I have fighting off stage 3 cancer, I cannot tell you how puzzling it is to see comments and articles there saying that if only he'd been less angry and more expressive.....

SavageAphid said...

I like the Huffington Post, but the subject of science it does not do well at all. I've seen articles ranging from harmless Deepak Chopra silliness to weird magical medical devices to dangerously uninformed notions about vaccination.

This death is not the end as science is par for the course.

Anonymous said...

Huff post is just the sort of place I would expect to find crap like this. It's not a scientific journal you know Chaz :P

Luke Weiss said...

i think it is important to note that his science is interesting and germane to his thesis. but, what on earth is he doing with this stuff? What is the result? I think you are on to something in characterizing it as an attempt to cope with his sister's death. Sadly, it is being presented as an important frontier of scientific theory - biocentrism -

I think this is simply another fine example of what happens when highly rational and intelligent people who have a poor grasp on their emotional structures attempt to grasp their emotional structures.

It reminds me of Jill bolte Taylor's current work - except that she is inspiring and does not really attempt to attach scientific theories to her self discovery. This dude on the other hand is simply depressing.

dr. pisaster said...

Oh I hate it so very much when people who don't understand quantum physics try to use it to justify something they want to believe. It looks like this guy has a specialty in one area (medicine) and is trying to parlay that into seeming expertise in a completely different area (theoretical physics). I doubt the guy's taken a single course on quantum in his life. I have a doctorate in biophysics* for crissakes and I only ever took two quantum courses. Which is still enough to know that this guy is an idiot.
*I'm sorry, it's a week old, so I can't help waving it around.

noxiousnan said...

there is mention of this in almost identical form in either Conversations with God I or II, which I read several years ago - the part about oneself existing in every possible outcome and how quantum physics? mechanics? backs that up.

The Huff article had some interesting comments, mostly skeptical, but the one I think most resonated with me was asking why people connect energy with life as though they were one and the same thing. I personally have never come across anything that made sense wherein human energy would maintain consciousness after the body dies.

Anyway, back to the every possible outcome thing, when I read the article I had the same reaction as when I read Conv w/God - UGH! Give me heaven and hell over that or sweet oblivion. Because if true, that would mean there are many, perhaps an infinate number, of NoxiousNan's living horrible, violent, poverty stricken lives. You get the picture, for every good thing, there's a wealth of bad. And the fact that people don't consider that when they consider theories like biocentrism just shows me that emotions are most likely the driving force behind the theory.

Luke Weiss said...

i also think that MD's who think they are scientists should stay away from physics, but where are the religionists in this discussion?? It's all physicists saying "lay off what you don't understand" - well what about the religio-metaphysicist buddha dharma dao proponents? Where is their ire??

I will happily take up the mantle - STOP FUCKING WITH ONTOLOGY - you have no training in the subject!

Brenda said...

Ridiculous. Good rebuttal of the "theory" here: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2007-03-09-lanza-response_N.htm

karen said...

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/the_dead_are_dead.php

Regarding the same article; well worth the read, imho.

David said...

Jester said:

"This guy could be a nut. Or he could be absolutely right. Who are you to judge, based on one 10-paragraph article?"

It's easy to judge. The "scientist" does such a piss-poor job of maintaining even the illusion of objectivity, that when we read his words, we can't take him seriously.

Sure, he may be right and he may be wrong, but given what we know about people and logic and emotion, it is *extremely* likely that he's just thinking out loud about some internal issues he's got around the concept of death.

We don't reject it simply because it's "pseudo-science", but because it's coming from a scientist who appears to be totally compromised, that's all.

Jester said...

@David: I'm not defending this particular guy.

What I *am* saying is don't let yourself be blinded by how foolish something any particular guy says might sound, or how compromised his opinions might be because of some personal situation or belief system.

Read about the battle between AC and DC current sometime (the so-called War of Currents). All three of the key people involved were arguably nuts (one was certifiably so). All three cheerfully tossed aside logic and reason to get their views established as the "right" ones. Guess who won? Yep, the one that was the most nuts and emotionally compromised of the three.

That individual -- Nikola Tesla -- proved (and demonstrated!) some things about wireless electricity that we're still trying to figure out and make practical today, *120 years* after he did it.

When you hear the phrase "mad scientist"? Yeah, Tesla was the prototype. And yet, the computer you're reading this on is powered by his theories.

So, like I said, I'm not defending this particular guy, but people should be VERY careful about what they apply the tag "pseudoscience" to. There are quotes databases full of really smart people saying this or that is completely impossible... about two minutes before they were proven totally wrong.

Deacon Blue said...

@ Jeni

Have fun storming the castle!

Eric said...

Jester, I realize you're not defending Lanza, but you're committing some logical fallacies. First, the fact that some people have made strange claims and been proven correct has absolutely no bearing on how you evaluate other people who make strange claims. Second, your reference to the "War Of Currents" is comparing apples and oranges--I can't even tell what you're trying to support there, you're simply pointing out an instance in which some brilliant but erratic personalities vigorously disagreed about something; meanwhile AC and DC continue to have respective applications and situations in which one is preferable to the other, or not.

Furthermore, Lanza's hypothesis (it's certainly not a "theory," except in the vernacular, non-scientific sense) absolutely is pseudoscience. Why? Because Lanza is ultimately making an untestable and inherently useless claim about the world. The situation is not the least bit comparable, say, to Alexander Flemming's accidental discovery of penicillin, because Flemming's claims about penicillin could be tested in various ways: you can design an experiment in which you see how microbial cultures react to the mold, experiments that exclude other variables (say moisture, for instance), and you can put the hypothesis to the test.

There's no way to test a claim that the universe has no objective existence, since any "fail" result can be rationalized as the experimenter's personal perception of a universe in which a fail state is reality. A multiple-worlds hypothesis doesn't readily lend itself to experimentation, either. What's more, Lanza's subjectivity claims aren't merely untestable, they're actually intellectually useless, since they posit a universe in which no experimental result may be excluded since all experimental results are equally possible in some universe or subjective reference point--e.g. in the Lanzaverse you can't disprove the claim that the world is merely 6,000 years old, because in some universes and/or perceptual "realities" it really is only 6,000 years old. So even if Lanza's metaphysical construct is right you couldn't prove it, particularly since in some subjectivities it isn't, exclusive of the ones in which it is.

If that's not "pseudoscience," I have no idea what is.

Respectfully, I'd suggest saving the "I'm not defending him, but maybe he's right like other crazy people have been" arguments for somebody who's actually making a testable claim, not someone who's engaging in a highfalutin' version of a college freshman late night bull session over a joint after his mind was just blown by his trippy Phil 101 prof.

And Chez: just because someone's a brilliant microbiologist doesn't mean he's smart in every other regard. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but your post sounds like your bullshit detector went off but you didn't want to just go ahead and explicitly say so because Dr. Lanza's a smart guy in his field and you're not a scientist by trade. Have faith: your B.S. detector is not on the fritz or leading you astray--Lanza's full of it on this one.

Anonymous said...

OMG, I had no idea that my inability to express myself is the reason I'm now married to Synthroid?

Jester said...

@Eric: ::shrugs:: I see what you're saying. I just disagree.

We don't have an answer to this problem:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_mind

And it's a damned big problem. Huge. It's quite possibly the biggest unsolved problem in all of science.

And one of these pseudoscience wackos is gonna solve it, probably in this new century. I'm going to give every one of them a fair hearing.

(The tiniest breakthrough that would come from solving this problem? Download your brain into your iPod, as long as your iPod has a couple of petabytes of storage. That isn't defeating death, but it's damned close.)

C Riedel-de Haen said...

@ Jester - You are still not making sense. Nothing personal, just a fact.

C Riedel-de Haen said...

@ Eric - Love the way you present your thoughts. Very elegantly, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, he's writing out of grief and lack of acceptance of his sister's death.

It kind of reminds me of the when you announced your divorce and within the week, you wrote an article about how marriage is an antiquated practice anyway.

Chez said...

It was a lot longer than a week between those pieces. And the two situations are nothing alike (not that you're not proud that you managed to reach that conclusion). I said that marriage seems outdated because I know very, very few couples who are happy in it. I know many more -- and we see many more on TV and in the media in general -- who just can't seem to make it work. I said that as a culture we might have evolved beyond it -- not that the idea of being happily married for a lifetime never existed in the first place.