Mad Cows and Molecular Biology

Allen Adler adler at
Mon Apr 1 02:48:23 EST 1996

In article <Pine.SOL.3.91.960331215648.22535A-100000 at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA> berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA (Alexander Berezin) writes:

>   These days press carries many stories on
>   the Mad Cows desease. In today's story I have 
>   read that Dr. Stanley Prusiner came up with
>   an idea of prions (having no genes) quite
>   a while ago, but was ignored by the 
>   sceintific establishemnt.

I like the idea of prions too. However, I can understand why
it might not have been received well. If I get an idea, I can't
reasonably expect other people to drop what they are doing and
start working on it. This is the case even if I find the idea 
fascinating and have lots of effort to back it up. The trouble
is that there are lots of interesting ideas and it is ultimately 
a matter of taste what one wants to work on. When we subscribe
to the idea that researchers should be independent, we automatically
subscribe to the policy that researchers should be free to ignore
good ideas.

I don't know the exact history of prions, although I  looked
at some articles on them in Scientific American about
10 years ago and the proceedings of at least one conference
edited, I think, by Gajdusek. My impression though is that
even now no one has actually isolated a pryon and proved that
it is the mechanism of any disease. One of the things we are
taught about critical thought, particularly in science, is
that the proper attitude with which to receive any unsubstantiated
claim is with skepticism. In this connection, let me quote something
that Andre Weil, one of the most important mathematicians of this
century often says: "Theorems are proved by those who believe in
them, not by those who don't."

In view of these basic facts, Alex's explanation:

>   Why ? - Because 'Molecular Biology knows
>   ALREADY that no life form can exist 
>   without DNA/RNA, and, beside, such ideas 
>   are nonsense anyway,', etc, etc.
>   If the above is true, this is a classic example 
>   of how the dominant paradigm-in-fashion [ this 
>   time - Molecular Biology ] paralizes, disdains and 
>   eradicates all alternative viewpoints and ideas. 

is something of an oversimplification. In order to make
his point more clearly, Alex suggests that it is the
modern equivalent of the following story:

>   Likewise, we can recall notorious astronomy 
>   professors  (almost all of them !) who refused to 
>   look through the Galileo's 'devil's tube' because
>   they ALREADY knew that there can't be any spots
>   on the Sun.

The amount of effort required to look into the "devil's tube"
is quite trivial compared with the effort of conducting one's
own experiments aimed at substantiating or refuting the
existence of prions. So I don't think this is a fair comparison.

Alex does, however, raise an interesting point, namely the
fact that at various times in the history of each science,
researchers have believed things that were complete nonsense
and in turn taught them to their students, who imagined
that they understood them. This fact ought to teach us some
humility even when dealing with the theories of which we
are proudest. In the publications of the Ostwald Classiker
Series, one finds a translation of something by Del Rey from
the 17th century in which he describes an experiment purporting
to show why one doesn't need the concept of phlogiston. However,
his explanation of the experiment is based on the assumption
that there are only 4 elements. In the early 18th century,
there is an article by Lemery (nephew of the great Lemery)
on "chemical trees" and his methods of making them from amalgam.
It shows that his experimental technique is far in advance of
the theories available to him. To a modern reader, his discussions
of humors is meaningless and one wonders how his explanations could
have meant anything to his contemporaries.

The trouble is that in our own times, it is considered a sound
pedagogical practice, at least in physics and chemistry, to lie
to students. The idea is that it is better to tell them a lie they
can understand than to tell them the complicated truth. The net result
is that for an entire semester, the students are lied to. The only
time one tells them the truth is at the beginning of the next
semester, when they are informed that everything they were told
in the previous semester was a lie. And then they lie again and
say that now they are going to tell them the truth.

Another of the reasons it is considered ok to lie is that
the lies are part of the common parlance of the discipline,
just as in the south of Germany, one says hello with "Gruess Gott",
independently of one's religious opinions. Thus, the education
one receives is as much socialization into the community of
those who practice the discipline as it is the transmission
of information. Rewards for performance and acceptance by the
social body of the profession do a lot to persuade most people
that they understand something when they really don't. Finally,
those who are educated in this way often wind up teaching others,
never realizing that what they are teaching doesn't make sense much
of the time.

To return to the original point raised by Alex and my reply
to it, by what right can I expect others reading the preceding
paragraphs to drop everything and begin the necessary process
of introspection required to produce examples of what I am talking
about? None whatsoever. So let me give some examples of my own,
not confined to chemistry and physics, since what I am describing
is endemic is much of education:
(1) There is no satisfactory treatment of Lewis structures in
    chemistry in modern textbooks. Furthermore, an examination of
    the literature since Lewis introduced them (e.g. see J.Chem.Ed.
    over that period) shows that although this has been abundantly
    pointed out, the pedagogy remains entrenched. That means:
    (a) students are given either incomplete or contradictory rules,
    (b) students are given "cooked" rules which enable them to do
        an artificially restricted class of examples, thereby turning
        the course into a course on how to pass the course rather than
        a course on chemistry.
    Lewis himself was motivated to invent Lewis structures partly
    because of his own frustrating experiences with the pedagogy of
    rules for writing chemical structures that had constituted his
    own education. He was somewhat horrified that the old pedagogy
    managed to resurrect itself on the foundation of his innovations.
    The conceptual issues (as in (2) below) regarding Lewis structures
    are not treated except to say that the model is wrong.
(2) The distinction between mathematical models such as the
    Schroedinger equation and that which the model is intended
    to describe is not made, for all practical purposes, except
    in the form of thermal noise about mathematicians. In particular,
    the fact that some of the mathematical entities described in the
    model don't have an experimental existence is explicitly denied.
    Thus, the s,p,d,f,g... orbitals, which arise as an artifact of
    a mathematical treatment of the Schroedinger equation, have no
    real existence, but students are routinely taught the contrary.
    By way of contrast, if one works with the Dirac equation (which
    has not been successfully generalized to the case of many electron
    atoms) one finds that entirely different kinds of orbitals arise
    from the mathematics.
(3) In introductory philosphy courses, students are inevitably taught
    that Plato and Socrates believed in ideal forms and the students
    are given some selection of dialogues which purport to illustrate
    Plato's point of view. However, they are never given the
    Parmenides to read. In the Parmenides, young Socrates meets
    Parmenides and tells him about his ideas about forms and
    Parmenides tears him apart. He then goes on to explain to
    Socrates his own point of view on the question of the existence
    and nature of the One, arriving at the conclusion (I don't
    remember verbatim): "Whether there is or is not a One, both
    that One and the others alike both are and are not and do and
    do not appear to be all manner of things in all manner of ways,"
    to which Socrates assents "Most true". Now, if Socrates and
    Plato believed in forms, why did Plato write a dialogue in which
    Socrates presents this view and gets torn apart? At the very
    least, one ought to make the Parmenides available to the
    students and tell them that there is active debate (I know of
    conference procedings on it) on "The Parmenidean Question",
    which is the question I just asked. But no, you don't jettison
    a perfectly stable pedagogy just because of a few facts.
(4) In music, students are required to learn theory. What they
    learn about harmony and counterpoint is the pedagogical equivalent
    of what chemists do when they teach about Lewis structures.
    The texts are a conflation of old treatises and old textbooks
    or else are simply self-serving mechanisms for computing a grade.
    The history is lost in the shuffle and so is the important fact
    that the theorists have one art and the composers another. The
    students are often told, "Later on, you will learn when it is
    ok to break the rules," but as far as I know, there is no course
    called "When you can break the rules". 

These are only a few examples of misinformation which students are
required to learn as fact and I have not even scratched the surface.
These are equally lost opportunities to present a critical approach
to these subjects. The resulting education is mediocre and everyone
involved in it has a vested interest in keeping it that way:
the students have to pass the course by learning the material,
not by revising or debating it; the profs get paid to teach it,
not to make up a new curriculum. The educational system and
the closely related research system are, for all practical
purposes, the only wheel in town. You can fight it all you
like, but when you apply for a job, you will be paid to keep
it the way it is, not to change it.

Allan Adler
adler at

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