Finding a Cure for Cancer — or Why Physicists May Have the Upper Hand


Outside Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon — March 2010

Well, I’ve had a modestly stressful couple of days writing about the Parkland School Shootings.  Of course, the primary driver for the shootings is empathy, or rather, a lack of it.  But explaining that to people is challenging, especially how scaffolding matters, and solutions will have a number of timescales in order to fix the problem.  I have lots of friends from all over the political spectrum, and those with good information all have a piece of the solution.  But getting divergent viewpoints to coalesce around a comprehensive solution inevitably involves v-Meme conflicts, and therein lies the rub.  So it goes.

So… instead of writing about that, I’m going to write about how to cure cancer!  I wrote last week about another piece by Jason Fung, a nephrologist who also writes about diabetes, intermittent fasting, and ketogenic diets.  This week, Fung discusses in this piece about why cancer research is stuck, and how physicists might help.    What’s awesome about Fung’s writing is that he is one of the only people I know (besides myself) who fingers that the problem is really an information structure problem that’s preventing us from curing cancer.  For me, that’s super-cool.  Here’s a great pull quote from the article:

Oncologists tend to view cancers as some kind of genetic mistake. Some mutations making cells go crazy and become cancer. But to Drs. Davies and Lineweaver, another cosmologist and astro-biologist, the behavior of cancer cells is anything but berserk. Not at all. It is a highly organized, systemic method of survival. It’s no accident that cancer survives everything the body throws at it. It’s not a random collection of genetic mutations. Developing those specific attributes is as likely as throwing a pile of bricks into the air and having them land exactly as a house. Considering the body’s massive deployment of weaponery to kill cancer cells, it is impossible that cancer survives only as a freak accident. A freak accident that happens to every cell in the body, in every organism known to exist? If something seems ‘stupid’ but works (survives), then by its very definition, it’s not stupid. Yet cancer researchers and doctors had all treated cancer as some kind of random collection of stupid genetic mistakes. No, there was stupidity going on, and it wasn’t the cancer’s.”

Dr. Davies is a physicist at the University of Arizona, who, with no previous experience, was commissioned by the National Cancer Institute to start asking some basic questions about how cancer forms, and understanding it from ‘first principles’ — looking at the laws of physics/energy balance/etc., instead of looking at it in terms of a data cloud and then attempting to understand that cloud.

I’ve already made the point that we should expect no more from medical researchers (or nutrition researchers, or almost any other health/biology researcher) than to map their fragmented social structure onto the authority-based knowledge that they’re creating.  Fragmented Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies will do that, and they will inevitably produce pointillist interpretations of the endless amounts of data they measure.  But it gets even worse.  Inevitably, totally data-driven researchers will also trot out their one tool for attempting to pull interpolative or extrapolative meaning from data — the linear regression curve.  What that means for those who don’t work in the sciences is simple.  They will collect a bunch of data, with any inference of connection or meaning between that data considered ‘confirmation bias’ (even though one really can’t escape implicit bias when one decides how and what to measure!) and then create a plot, and draw a line with a slope across it.

How this reinforces the brain wiring then becomes obvious.  (Well, obvious to me!  🙂  )  They come up with a linear plot that creates one solution, that then maps to the meta-linear thinking that exists in Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies.  No multiple solution thinking.  No competing/shared hypotheses.  That straight line is ‘my way or the highway’, and as we’ve seen with all other social systems, we bring in the information/stimulus/food source that reinforces the social system.  And since it’s pretty much status-driven, instead of goal-driven (who’s the most famous cancer doctor!) understanding goes wanting.  Biological systems are highly nonlinear in behavior, and often have multiple stable states — multiple truths that might be observed from data.  And meta-linear hierarchies just aren’t stacked to understand them or produce knowledge about them.  And, as Fung notes, it takes nigh-on forever to get anywhere.  He voices his frustration in this pull quote:

Medicine, on the other hand, rejects new theories like a prom queen rejects pimple faced suitors. If ‘The Man’ says that calories cause obesity, then all other theories are shouted down. If ‘The Man’ says that cancer is caused by genetic mutations, then all other theories may apply elsewhere. They call this process ‘peer-review’, and glorify it as a religion. Galileo, for example, was not a fan of peer review by the church. In physics, your theory is only good if it explains the known observations. In medicine, your theory is only good if everybody else likes it, too. This explains the rapid pace of progress in the physical sciences and the glacial pace of medical research.”

Embedded in this pull quote is a conundrum.  Fung, while trashing the biologists and medical researchers, is, like the NCI, singing the praises of the physicists.  What DO the physicists have that the biologists (and psychologists, and sociologists, and many others) don’t have?  All scientists are more-or-less organized in hierarchies, and as such, should be constrained in advancing their fields one endlessly debated data point (or transformative rule) at a time.  The reasoning is as follows — Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, as status-driven social structures, will only value the known and the reliable.  They remain bastions of cognition — knowing, and will very likely penalize meta-cognition, which is really that complex space of knowing what you don’t know, as well as having some fuzzy definition of what real unknown unknowns are out there.  Such Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, to put it concisely, as they grow ever more sophisticated, are going to do great with knowledge.  But when it comes to wisdom, well, they’re going to suck.

What do physicists have that the others don’t?  They have a well-defined metacognitive system that jumps past the limits of their social structure.  We call it math, and the world is filled with recognition for its more formal name — theoretical physics.  What theoretical physics enables us to do is extrapolate outside the data, and doesn’t hinder our ability to intelligently guess.  Math gives us the ability to infer dynamics, and more than just straight lines on a scatter plot.

And there’s more.  You can’t practice physics without an appreciation for all things nonlinear.  Gravity, for example, only behaves linearly close to the ground.  All the other things that actually make our world run involve extensive nonlinear behavior, which inevitably leads to possible multiple solutions.  (For those math-impaired, who can barely remember Algebra II, remember that a quadratic equation has 2 roots — that’s multiple solution thinking!)  And things like gravity inevitably involve complex gravitational wells and potentials, that lead to all sorts of interesting things, including how you can hurl a satellite around a planet and get it to speed up if you do it just right.

This kind of thinking wasn’t always accepted in the physics community.  It’s really in only the last 150 years that this got going.  I watched  this episode of the National Geographic series on a cross-country plane flight, and it showed the inevitable v-Meme conflict between a young Albert Einstein, who embraced this kind of thinking in developing his Theory of Relativity, and other older, darker scientists who were largely empiricists getting ready to plot points.  Since most of the episode was about Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, and this is what I remember, I think it also confirms I am a space alien.

I’m not quite sure that this makes physicists overall more empathetic.  Algorithmic thinking, even if it leads to larger Guiding Principles insights, is still rooted in the discipline, which inevitably leads back to the hierarchy, and that both creates and reinforces social behavior and low-level empathetic evolution.  The famous physicist, Albert Einstein himself, was likely a crazy narcissist, and decidedly impaired when it came to empathetic interaction.  I’ve got a whole theory about once your IQ passes a certain point, and you have the ability to create entire worlds inside your health, it’s a sticky wicket– because you can justify basically anything inside your noggin.  Validity/reality — or social control from your orbitofrontal cortex be damned.

And you’ve got to wonder about people like father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.  It would be interesting to find some statistics on a behavior like sexual harassment (decidedly anti-empathetic!) and see if it were lower in the physics community.  But nonetheless, one can understand the adoption and integration of nonlinear mathematics into physics as an important cultural sidebar that encourages metacognitive reflection and speculation.

It’s a takeaway that the social sciences might heed — and actually start allowing some larger discussion of topics like I explore on this blog!  It may be that it is social structure uber alles dictates true deep empathetic development.  But developing more overarching guiding principles thinking is really what we as a species are desperately in need of.  Even if it is speculative on where we should head next.  Which is, of course, the dominant reason I write this blog.


6 thoughts on “Finding a Cure for Cancer — or Why Physicists May Have the Upper Hand

  1. You bring in a less typical perspective. It can’t be doubted that v-memes are a useful frame. There are many ways to approach this problem.

    Consider that a lot of medical research is done by doctors. A few things come to mind. One critic, Richard Harris, wrote a book about this in which he noted how problematic this is considering few doctors ever get trained in research methodology and statistical analysis. This results in a lot of shoddy medical research compared to other fields. Humans are complex and studying them has turned out to be extremely difficult, vastly more challenging than something like gravity.

    Medical research, unlike physics research, is dogged by the placebo effect. Simply having a patient in a study will result in improvements. Doctors, rightly so, get used to their authority having immense influence. No matter what they study, placebo effect will ensure they often get positive results. Medical researchers, unaware of what social scientists know, have been slow to adopt more stringent research methods such as double blind. There has been immense naivete in the medical field. Ideological biases, along with environmental confounders, easily seep in.

    Another point to keep in mind is that doctors are shown to measure high in verbal intelligence. They are trained and have a lot of experience in communicating. This is probably why so many doctors end up writing books and surely improves their bullshitting skills, specifically in terms of verbal rationalization. Doctors are also used to acting as public authority figures and, for many of them, this would go to their heads.

    No other field of research gets such public attention and immense pressure would go along with that. It’s not a big deal for most people if a physics study turns out to be wrong, but it is with a medical study because it directly involves people’s lives. This makes it harder for medical researchers to admit their mistakes. Also, no other field is controlled by such massive influx of money and so controlled by diverse moneyed interests, often big biz. To have a successful career as a medical researcher, you have to give the funders the results that they want. This is even more true as government funding has been on the decline.

    On a positive note, there has been increasing discussion of these issues in the medical field. It is being acknowledged by many that there are serious problems that need to be resolved.


    1. I think all that stuff you wrote is good, Benjamin. The interesting thing is that the social structure and physics is also stacked against you. Not very good for deep comprehension.

      On a lighter note, there are some statistics out there that say stuff like ‘95% of research is bunk.’ Yet every time I go to a conference, 100% of the people are claiming success. How does THAT work? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The lack of well-rounded people might be the most fundamental issue, though. The quality of research would obviously relate to the quality of the researcher.

    And all of that would be shaped by the prevailing v-meme worldview, biases, incentives, etc. It is hard to be a well-rounded individual in a society that isn’t entirely well-rounded.

    “A scientist isn’t necessarily penalized for being a complex, versatile, eccentric individual with lots of extra-scientific interests. But it certainly doesn’t help him a bit.”

    —Stephen Toulmin, “The Historical Background to the Anti-Science Movement”


    1. Don’t disagree re: well-roundedness, but few can resist the power of the immediate social structure to dictate behavior. You need an ability to talk back up the chain of command and share information without fear of recrimination. That’s not the way social hierarchies work. And there used to be stronger cultural sidebars that protected people and encouraged freer debate. With the reduction in tenured faculty, there’s far less of that now. My university has 75% clinical/temporary/whatever faculty, and far more administrators. The effect is profound.

      Liked by 1 person

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