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.