I have tried to communicate a fact to my readers regarding the nature of our perception of reality in some of my blog posts, but judging from some of the replies I’ve received, I don’t seem to have gotten the point across. This may have happened because my explanation was one of several ideas I was writing about. So I’ve decided to make the perception of reality the main topic of this post. Let’s go.
As the title of this post implies, what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is fake. What do I mean by fake? What I mean is that what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are not physical realities that are “out there” and are independent from you. And here let me clarify that I am not being flippant or just “expressing my opinion”. What I am telling you is a fact that is accepted by scientists and was discovered a long time ago. This is old news.
How can this be? Is life then a dream or some other sort of mystic stuff? The answer is “no”. Let me explain.
The brain detects the reality around us through receptors present in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. When these receptors are triggered by outside stimuli, they generate an electric signal that travels by the nerves to our brain. So what our brain receives is not light, or sound, or smell, or taste, or tactile signals. What the brain receives is just electric signals. Once these signals arrive to the centers of the brain responsible for perception, these electric signals are filtered, organized, and integrated to CREATE perception. Did you notice that in the previous sentence I put the word “create” in caps and underlined it? Yes, the brain generates a perception for us that is very different from the physical reality present “out there” that generated the signals which were detected by the receptors in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. Let’s see how.
We see color, but color is just a brain-generated representation of the wavelength of the light rays that strike our eyes. The physical reality out there is that light rays have different wavelengths, but we don’t see wavelengths. In fact, if it were not for science, we would not know that light has a wavelike nature! What the brain does is create an internal representation of these different wavelengths where we perceive short wavelengths as purple and long wavelengths as red.
With regards to hearing, it’s the same thing. The mechanical perturbations in the air around us reach our ears as compression waves, and by pretty much the same process as vision the brain generates an internal representation of these waves where we perceive short waves as high pitch sounds and the long ones as low pitch sounds.
In the case of smell and taste, the receptors in our nose and mouth detect the chemical structure of compounds in the air, food, or drink, and the brain generates the different fragrances and flavors we perceive. The reality “out there” is not fragrances and flavors, but merely chemical structures.
Finally, there are receptors in our skin that send the brain a signal when, for example, they detect a difference in temperature. This signal is integrated by our brain to generate the sensations of hot or cold that we experience. The reality “out there” is differences in heat content, but we perceive this as “hot” or “cold”. Something similar happens for other skin sensations such as the compression of our skin (which we perceive as pressure) or the damage to our skin (which we perceive as pain).
This is why, as I stated in the title of this post, everything you perceive is fake. What you perceive is not a real (veridical) representation of the reality “outside” of you. And of course, the way our brain perceives reality also affects vastly more complicated things such as the emotions we experience, the convictions we have, or the actions we take.
But, if this is true, how can we even function?
The answer is because there is a correlation between the reality “out there” and our perception of it. And we know this correlation is high because life would otherwise not be possible (if you don’t recognize the edge of a cliff as you approach it, you will die). This is a situation analogous to when you work with a computer. You create and move and delete files all the time in your screen, but the physical processes taking place in your screen are very different from the physical processes that are taking place in the hard drive of the computer (so much so that some people in information technology refer to the screen as the user illusion). However, because they are correlated, it works. Thus, at the level of our basic senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch), our perception of reality although fake, is not false.
So, if there is a correlation between the sensations that our brain generates and the reality “out there”, why should this even be an issue worthy of consideration? The reason is that the correlation between reality and what we perceive is not 100% percent. There are many well-known illusions that can fool our senses because they exploit this disconnect between reality and perception. But at more complex levels, there are many biases in our perception of reality that can lead us to filter said reality and distort our perception of it to the point that it becomes false. For example, many people still accept conspiracy theories such as those denying the results of the 2020 election, the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, the 911 attacks, or the moon landing. Others accept false world views such as creationism, QAnon, or the flat Eart.
How our way of perceiving reality can lead to its distortion is an active area of research in scientific fields ranging from molecular neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience to psychology and economics.
"Five Senses" by TheNickster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
In Facebook I belong to a group that pays tribute to one of my all-time favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes, written by Will Watterson. Watterson's strip about a hyperkinetic albeit imaginative kid named Calvin and his alter ego stuffed tiger, Hobbes, ran from 1985 to 1996 in the United States. Calvin, is the quintessential brat who often strains the nerves of his mostly tolerant parents, while Hobbes plays the straight man to Calvin’s antics. The comic strip often parodies modern life at the personal, family, and societal levels.
The most salient feature of the comic strip is Hobbes. When someone besides Calvin is around, Hobbes is shown as a stuffed toy tiger, but when Hobbes is alone with Calvin, he is portrayed as a walking talking tiger. This has been interpreted in several ways by fans of the strip, with some people claiming that the walking talking Hobbes is a figment of Calvin’s imagination while others claim that the tiger actually comes alive when he’s alone with Calvin.
One of the members of the Facebook group posted what Watterson once wrote about the ambiguity of Hobbes’ nature.
The so-called "gimmick" of my strip — the two versions of Hobbes — is sometimes misunderstood. I don't think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin's around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin's imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that's how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.
I took exception to this, and I posted on the group’s page the following:
“This is not true. There is only one reality. We may perceive it in different ways, but those perceptions still have to have a high degree of correlation to reality for life to be possible. If I see the edge of a cliff and you don't, I will survive, and you will die. Seeing a walking talking tiger instead of a stuffed tiger is not just ‘another way’ to perceive reality, it is a fantasy. There are perceptions of reality which may make sense to some people, but they are false.”
A few people replied to my comment making several claims. Among these where that “everyone has their sense of reality’, that “there is no consensus regarding the interpretation of reality”, and that research into the quantum realm validates this notion; that “only those dogmatically adhering to their own perspective dare speak with any certainty when it comes to asserting that their interpretation of reality holds all due authority and finality in its validity”, and “what makes you an expert on reality? How do you know that for one a thing is not real that is for another?”.
I wanted to put together my replies to some of these comments in this post, because the implications go beyond a mere comic strip.
I understand that the perception of reality by different people can be different: for example, color blind people vs people with normal color vision. In fact, our perception of reality doesn’t even have to be “veridical”. However, as I stated in my comment, there has to be a big enough correlation between reality and our perception of it for life to be possible. All around us the world is full of patterns, regularities, and things happening one way and not another, that allow us to figure out how to go about living. Reality is not anarchical, and there are millions of consensuses regarding the nature of reality all around us. For example, the sidewalk under our feet WILL NOT turn into quicksand and swallow us, a tree WILL NOT uproot itself and chase us, a cloud WILL NOT turn into lead and fall on us, etc. We don't have to live in fear of these occurrences, because we have internalized how the world works. This ability is part of our evolutionary programing and has survival value.
Scientists go beyond this intuitive understanding of reality that we have all developed by performing tests to gain insight into more complex aspects of reality and they discard those views of reality that are incompatible with the evidence. With the exception of the quantum realm, so far all the evidence we have indicates that, at least at our level, we live in a deterministic world. Things are one way and not another. Some things are possible, and others aren’t.
I agree that some individuals see a reality that is very different from the one the rest of us see, but many of those people are unable to function in the real world and can even put their lives and those of others in danger. That is why they are treated with medication or locked up in psychiatric wards. Their view of reality IS NOT an “alternative view”, it is a FALSE view. I agree children often see reality in a way that is different from adults, but this is why they are treated like children and are under the care and supervision of adults. And it is our job as adults to assist in weaning them of their childhood fantasies, so they can take their place in the adult world.
Of course, when I post things like these, I come across as an arrogant, insufferable, “know better than thou” jerk divorced from the magic of childhood who is disrespectful of other people’s points of view. Let me just state two things.
1) I am a fan of fiction and fantasy. From Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, or The Far Side; and from the numerous incarnations of the Star Trek franchise (I’m a Trekkie) to many works of horror such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Aliens, Night of the Living dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Texas chainsaw Massacre, or the Rocky Horror Picture show. I enjoy fiction and fantasy and find inspiration in them, so much so that I also write short stories. Fiction and fantasy have important roles in adulthood, but they ARE NOT reality, and as adults we must recognize this.
2) Reality is not a democracy, and alternative views of reality, especially those unsupported by evidence are not always valid or worthy of respect. Are the QAnon folks right in their claims of the existence of a worldwide cabal of satanic, cannibalistic, pedophiles? Was the 2020 presidential election a fraud? Was 911 an inside job? Is COVID-19 no worse than the flu? Will the COVID-19 vaccine modify your DNA and implant a microchip that will allow the government to track you? Was the moon landing a hoax and is the Earth flat? Was the Earth and all life on it created 10,000 years ago? Is the government spraying you with chemicals? These are not “alternative” views of reality, these are FALSE views of reality and should be treated as such.
So, to wrap it up, yes, by all means enjoy and be inspired by Calvin and Hobbes (or other works of fiction and fantasy), but all the while understanding that Hobbes IS NOT a walking talking tiger but just a figment of Calvin’s imagination.
Calvin and Hobbes image by Bill Watterson is a Wallpaper from flickr by Brad Arnold and is used here under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.
Movies often take artistic license when it comes to well-known physical, chemical, and biological principles, and there are certain stunts in movies that do not resemble the actual occurrences that happen in reality. However, most of these things are hardly noticed by the majority of the public who, truth be told, is there to mostly have a good time and not to nitpick about whether what is depicted could happen in the real world. There are, of course, some limits. You do not want to show something so laughable that will compromise your viewers' suspension of disbelief, but where do we draw the line?
In this post we are going to examine some of things in films that defy the laws of nature.
Decapitation or Brain Destruction
Occurrence: In movies you sometimes find that a character is decapitated, or their brain is destroyed, yet its body nevertheless lingers on in the same position for a few dramatic seconds before falling.
Reality: Maintaining the posture of a body with joints (for example knee and hip joints) against the force of gravity is a continuous second by second task. Upright standing bodies even at rest are maintained this way due to the forces of muscles contracting and pulling against bones. If these muscles were to relax, the body will immediately collapse like a puppet suddenly deprived of its strings. What makes muscles contract is the action of the brain. The brain constantly sends signals through the nerves for the muscles to contract to a greater or lesser degree in order to keep bodies upright and regulate posture. If the brain is severed from the body or is destroyed these signals cease, muscles relax, and the body falls instantaneously to the ground.
Occurrence: When people in movies lose consciousness and fall from a standing position, they never seem to clearly bang their heads or certain areas of their bodies against the ground.
Reality: Falls in real life can be life threatening mostly because of the damage sustained by head impacts. In movies, the actors or their stunt doubles fall in ways that protect the head and other areas such as the tailbone from injury. These “Hollywood Falls” are designed to dissipate the energy of the fall and avoid injury. In the real world, when a person loses consciousness and falls, they cannot maneuver their bodies into the right position to avoid serious damage, especially to the head.
Growth of Mass
Occurrence: Some movies feature an entity or a character that undergoes a transformation which greatly increases their size in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Reality: A living thing cannot just grow to a large size without an equally sizeable input of mass and energy (for example carbon dioxide and sunlight). Any added mass has to come from somewhere. You can’t get something from nothing. Additionally, there has to be a mechanism to generate the extra mass from a precursor, and any such mechanism would presumably require a number of steps and would take time not only to generate the extra mass but to distribute it properly. For example, a type of algae called kelp can use the carbon dioxide in the water to make plant material through photosynthesis, and it can grow in optimal conditions up to two feet per day! This makes it one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, but still far short of the growth spurts exhibited by some monsters, aliens, or other fantastical entities in the movies.
Explosions in Space
Occurrence: When people within a spaceship witness a large explosion in space, they hear the sound of the explosion and the spaceship is rocked by the shock wave.
Reality: Shock waves are areas of compression of a medium such as air. The explosion pushes air molecules into each other, and that effect propagates to neighboring air molecules and so on forming a shock wave that upon reaching our ears is perceived as a loud sound. The medium of space is not dense enough to propagate the type of shock waves that would rock spaceships and be audible to human beings.
Freezing or Blowing Up When Exposed to the Vacuum of Space
Occurrence: Movies depict people freezing or blowing up when exposed to the vacuum of space without wearing a space suit.
Reality: Because space is largely devoid of mass, two of the three ways by which the body loses heat, conduction and convection, are missing. Heat can then only be lost by radiation. A person suddenly exposed to outer space would not instantly freeze and in fact would only feel mildly cool. Similarly, a person exposed to the vacuum of space will not explode. The air in their lungs would expand causing serious damage if it is not exhaled, and a certain amount of the water in the blood and soft tissues would transition to the gaseous phase (ebullism) which will lead to significant swelling and bruising of the body, but not an explosion. The greatest threat is lack of oxygen which would lead to loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds followed by death.
Groups of Animals Surviving by Preying on Themselves
Occurrence: Some movies show a large group of animals in a deserted or isolated environment that have survived solely by preying on each other.
Reality: This situation is untenable because conversion of energy is not 100% efficient and doesn’t happen at once. Several animals would have to be consumed over the life cycle of a single animal for it to reach maturity and procreate. The new animals would fail to produce a replacement for the animals they have consumed. Each generation of the animals will become progressively smaller until they become extinct.
Humans or Monsters of Very Large Size
Occurrence: In movies, huge beings, many several stories high, are depicted with bodies that are not that different in proportions from the bodies they would have if they were much smaller.
Reality: As bodies change in size, several of their parameters do not increase by an equivalent measure. An increase in body size leads to a much higher increase in body volume, and this creates all sorts of problems. Consider, for example, that a higher volume leads to a higher weight which has to be supported. The reality is that all those colossal beings depicted in the movies with those body plans would collapse under their own weight and also experience a host of other issues affecting things such as regulation of body temperature, blood circulation and aeration, metabolism, etc.
Do any of these differences between the movies and real life bother you? Please leave a comment and let me know.
Image of Godzilla from pixabay is free for commercial use.
In 1799, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya published a compilation of 80 aquatinted etchings (the Caprichos series) in which he criticized the irrationality and ignorance rampant in the Spanish society of his time. The most famous of these etchings depicts a writer asleep at his desk surrounded by bats, owls, and other creatures swarming about him that in Spanish folklore were associated with the mysterious and evil. The title of the etching, written on the desk of the writer, is “the sleep of reason produces monsters”.
I am writing this post in the year 2021 in the United States, and although a gulf of 222 years and more than 3,000 miles separate me from the Spain of Goya, it is my opinion that Goya’s thinking is very relevant to our society today. In the past few years, we have all witnessed with growing frequency how reason has slumbered in the minds of millions foisting a number of monsters upon our society.
We have seen firsthand how disinformation and misinformation have spread like cancers capturing the imagination and wills of people and spawning things like disdain for journalists and scientists, COVID-19 severity denial, and vaccine hesitancy. We have experienced an unprecedented level of polarization in our society to the point that those seeking a middle ground are attacked and ridiculed. We have seen how millions have insulated themselves from ideas and opinions that go against their beliefs, preferring instead to listen to those that tell them what they want to hear. We have seen the rise of philosophies, narratives, and frameworks of knowledge that run contrary to reality, ranging from isolated unfounded conspiracy theories to warped world views like QAnon.
One example of a particularly dangerous monster is the skepticism regarding the 2020 election. Many Americans have been fed misinformation that this election was a fraud, and many Americans have believed it despite the fact that no evidence has been uncovered that indicates this is the case. And perhaps one of the most memorable portrayals of the mindset of the fraud believers was revealed in Jan 4, 2021 during the Fox Business Network program “Lou Dobbs Tonight” by its host Lou Dobbs who had been a frequent broadcaster of conspiracy theories. Dobbs was interviewing the director of a pro-Trump Political Action Committee (PAC), and he said the following:
We’re eight weeks from the election, and we still don’t have verifiable, tangible support for the crimes that everyone knows were committed, that is, defrauding other citizens who voted with fraudulent votes. We know that’s the case in Nevada, we know it’s the case in Pennsylvania and a number of other states, but we have had a devil of a time finding actual proof. Why?
Many eyes opened wide, and jaws dropped that day. Here it was, revealed in all its brutal matter of fact casualness for all the world to see: the sleep of reason.
Although Dobbs to his credit, and unlike many fraud believers, did admit that there is no evidence for the fraud claims, he then goes on to state that everyone KNOWS that such fraud happened, and wonders why it is so hard to find the evidence. The disconnection is glaring! We normally base our knowledge that something has happened on evidence, therefore lack of evidence cannot support such knowledge. Reasonable people would accept that knowledge that is unsupported by evidence is not trustworthy and, in fact, is not knowledge at all – reasonable people. Only two days later Americans came face to face with the monster spawned by this irrationality when a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol seeking to overturn the results of the election and to harm or kill our elected representatives.
While many dismiss the storming of the Capitol as the actions of a few, there are millions of people that still believe that there was fraud in the elections. And while most of these people don’t sanction the extreme behavior exhibited by the criminals who stormed the Capitol, these people can vote and request that their elected representatives act on their will.
At the time Goya made his famous etchings, the system of government in Spain and many other countries was a monarchy. In such a system the average citizen has little influence on the actions of their government and how it affects them. However, the United States is a democracy. In this system, the people elect their leaders and can pressure them into taking certain actions. This is the strength of democracy, but it can also be its weakness if a significant number of people who are not acquainted with reality elect and pressure their representatives into supporting fictions. The current modifications to election practices that are being enacted in several states are an example of this.
It is not my intention to issue an opinion on the merits of these modifications, but I just want to point out that these modifications are being implemented mostly in response to skepticism about the validity of the 2020 election. However, because based on the evidence this skepticism is unwarranted, it follows that the enactment of these modifications is unwarranted too. Rather than being proud of the fair and transparent 2020 elections with a historic turnout, a significant part of our population views them with suspicion or is convinced that fraud took place and that something must be done about it. And this, of course, can affect the dynamics of reality. If a substantial number of people elects and pressures their leaders to uphold a fiction, this fiction in terms of its consequences paradoxically will turn into a de facto reality that will affect others.
It is important to counter misinformation and fight for the wills of those who have accepted it or who are considering accepting it. It is important to awake reason and vanish the monsters that its slumber has begotten. Goya understood the danger of the sleep of reason more than 200 years ago, and we must also understand it today, and with more urgency because in a democracy the people have the power to alter the dynamics of reality. And we cannot allow reality to be compromised.
The etching by Goya is in the public domain.
Power to the people was a slogan used in the United States during the sixties and beyond intended to be an exhortation to free the people from the oppression of the establishment. Although the slogan was originally political, it has been applied to many areas of human endeavor where there are institutions controlling an activity that many people would rather not have anyone control. The process of passing a certain amount of control from the establishment to the people has played out throughout modern history in many areas and is still doing so. Let me give you three examples.
The first example is beer. In the United States after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the majority of beer brewing was carried out by large brewing companies, and brewing your own beer at home was illegal. The situation began to change in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made brewing beer at home legal. Another bill that had been signed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford had decreased the beer tax on small breweries. This set the stage for many home brewers to enter the beer brewing business as “craft brewers”. The process was further empowered by the state-by-state wave of legalization of brewpubs which started 1982. In 1979 there were 90 breweries in the US and by 2019 there were 5,301 breweries, of which 5,234 were craft breweries that accounted for more than 25% of sales in the 116 billion US beer market. Many people agree that when it comes to beer, giving the people the power to make and sell their own beer has been a positive development.
A second example is music. Up to the year 2000 six major record labels held a monopoly on the music business. To hear music, people had to listen to the radio, buy records, tapes, or CDs from a distributor, or pay to go to a concert if you lived close enough to a concert venue. Whether a band made it or not depended on whether they were “discovered” by record companies. With the advent of the internet all this changed. People began to download or share music for free with services like those offered by Napster and the many imitators that it spawned, which cut significantly into the profits of record companies and record stores. Musicians started posting their music and their concerts online, gaining followers through social media, and developing and managing their own business brands selling merchandise. Today these independent musicians are part of an industry worth more than one billion dollars, which is still growing.
A third example is literature. The big publishing houses had always held a monopoly on which authors got published. They acted like gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy of being published and who wasn’t. With the advent of the internet, self-publishing platforms arose that allowed people who became known as “indie authors” to bypass publishing houses and take their literature directly to an audience. Today these self-publishing authors account for more than 30% of electronic book sales and 17% of print book sales.
The same trend that we have witnessed in the areas of beer, music, and literature have also spread to other areas wrestling power away from the traditional players and giving it to the people. I certainly believe this is a positive development, but what happens when that development extends to reality?
During the last few years we have witnessed a denigration of journalists and traditional news outlets. Piece after piece of investigative journalism has been labelled "fake news" regardless of the validity of the evidence presented. Alternative news outlets have sprung up that promote baseless conspiracy theories to which millions of people have flocked, and an increasing number of people also get their news from questionable social media sources. We have seen the rise of “alternative facts”, and the disregard for truth has become so dire that the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 labelled “post-truth” as the word of the year. This term is intended to describe a situation where facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.
The above phenomenon is not just limited to journalists and news outlets, but it has also affected science and scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people believe that scientists are beholden to powerful interests and therefore are not to be trusted. These people get their science from alternative sites that promote contrarian scientists rejected by the scientific establishment or from social media accounts that disseminate biased science views. We have ended up with a significant segment of the population believing that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, that masks are not effective, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19, and that the COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. These people who have not taken the virus seriously have served as incubators for the pathogen, and because the more a virus spreads, the more it mutates, this increases the likelihood that more infectious variants will arise that may even be resistant to current vaccines to a certain extent. There are some viral variants that have originated in the United States.
I mentioned the cases or beer, music, and literature as examples where taking away power from the institutions and giving it to the people has been something positive. Beer, music, and literature connoisseurs may decry this process lamenting that the standards for good beer, music, and literature have been degraded. However, what constitutes good beer, music, or literature is in the end a subjective opinion. That, however, is not the case with reality.
Reality exists independent from us and our beliefs. Reality is not an opinion. Alternative realities are not realities, they are fictions. If the glass is filled to half of its volume with a liquid, that is a fact. There is no alternative way to view this reality. Saying anything different is at best a mistake and at worst a lie. We can discuss at length whether the glass should be viewed as half full or as half empty, but that is an interpretation of the reality which is something entirely different. Some persons will argue that differences in the perception of reality by people are to be expected. However, these differences in the perception of reality are only valid if they have a high degree of correlation to the reality. If you are walking towards the edge of a cliff, regardless of the way you perceive reality, you have to be able to identify that what’s ahead of you is the edge of a cliff. If you don’t, you will get hurt or die.
Taking away power from those that report on or discover reality and giving it to the people is not a positive development if the people make up, believe, and promote false realities. This is how we end up with global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity denial, creationism, vaccine hesitancy, skepticism about the 2020 election, chemtrails, the flat Earth, and QAnon.
Musical note image by ruhbastard, foamy beer glass image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, book image by OpenClipart-Vectors, and fist image by Tchekele, all from pixabay, are free for commercial use and have been blended into one image.
The reality behind human beings and their actions can seldom be portrayed accurately in either/or terms. However, I have repeatedly observed that a lot of people don’t really want to deal with complex realities. These people are mostly interested in stories where protagonists are sorted into tidy definable categories, such as moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad, heroes or villains, and infamy or glory. Due to this, individuals that can’t fit nicely into these groupings are often mythologized by writers ranging from those who are practical and create a story in order to get a point across, to those who create a story to manipulate public opinion and shape current or future events, or reinterpret the past. In this way, the special nature of the human condition with all of its intricacies and contradictions is altered to serve purposes other than the truth.
Today we are going to get a glimpse of the complexity lurking behind some personalities in the fields of medicine and science.
Marion Sims was a 19th century American physician who pioneered surgical techniques and built medical devices that greatly advanced medicine. He is considered the father of modern gynecology and has had statues erected in his honor, and hospitals, universities, and schools named after him. Without a doubt Sims has benefited the lives of countless women. However there are significant blemishes in his record. For example, one of Sims’ claims to fame is the development of a surgical technique to correct a condition called vesico-vaginal fistula, where a tear in the bladder during childbirth results in a connection with the vagina leading to incontinence. Sims came up with a surgical procedure that corrected this condition, but to develop the procedure he performed many operations on slave women, and he did not use anesthesia. While he has been both attacked and defended, there is evidence that even his contemporaries were critical of his methods and deemed them unethical.
William McBride was an Australian obstetrician who in 1961 was told by a nurse that a new drug he was prescribing for nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, thalidomide, was causing birth defects in newborn babies. McBride sounded the alarm in a short letter published in the medical journal, The Lancet. Other researchers and clinicians confirmed his concern. By the time thalidomide was withdrawn from the market, it had caused limb malformations in thousands of newborn children. McBride became a hero receiving multiple awards. Thalidomide became an infamous symbol of industrial greed and recklessness, and triggered the implementation of tougher drug approval laws throughout the world.
Now fast forward several decades. McBride sounded another alarm, this time about a drug called Debendox (also prescribed for nausea and vomiting during pregnancy) that he found in his lab to cause birth defects in rabbits. The drug was withdrawn amid lawsuits, and McBride was a willing witness for the claimants. However, an investigation revealed that McBride falsified the data on which he based his claims. Extensive studies of Debendox found it to be safe and it was reintroduced under the brand name Diclegis . Meanwhile more research on thalidomide revealed that it is an effective drug against various cancers and other conditions, and its use has saved and improved many lives.
Fritz Haber was a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his development of an industrial process to produce ammonia from nitrogen in the air. The ammonia thus produced could be used as a fertilizer, and this freed humanity from the dependence on natural sources of nitrogenous compounds, which increased the amount of crops that could be grown preventing famines and saving and improving the life of millions. But during World War-I, Haber had been enthusiastically involved in the German war effort that led to the manufacture and deployment of the infamous chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases which caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of deaths. Haber is recognized as the father of German chemical warfare, however being a Jew, he had to flee Germany in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. In the ultimate irony, Zyklon B, a chemical originally developed as a pesticide by a firm that Haber founded, was used to kill more than a million people during the holocaust including some of Haber’s relatives. The much feared mustard gas and several of its chemical derivatives were used decades after the war ended to treat cancer, a practice that gave rise to the field of chemotherapy which has saved the lives of millions of cancer patients.
Peter Duesberg, is an American scientist who in 1970 discovered the first in what would eventually turn out to be a long list of cancer causing genes (today called oncogenes). The discovery of oncogenes paved the way to the connection between these genes and viruses like the Human Papilloma Virus that causes cervical cancer for which a successful vaccine was developed in 2006. Duesberg’s career was on the rise and he received numerous awards. However, when the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s and the HIV virus was discovered as its causative agent, Duesberg questioned this fact and became very vocal. Despite being shunned by most scientists, Duesgerg’s ideas convinced the then president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, that HIV did not cause AIDS. As a result of this Mbeki refused international help to treat the disease with drugs against the virus leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
Henry Heimlich was an American surgeon who is famous for inventing the “Heimlich Maneuver” in 1974. This procedure to rescue people from choking has saved many lives and is taught as part of first aid courses throughout the United States. However, the Heimlich Maneuver was not accepted after a rigorous scientific evaluation of the proposed procedure, but rather because of Heimlich’s promotional talents. Despite the acceptance of the maneuver, the scientific community thought Heimlich went too far when he advocated its use for treating people having asthma attacks, expelling the mucus clogging the airwaves of patients with cystic fibrosis, and clearing water from the lungs of persons who nearly drowned. However, what thrust Heimlich into infamy was his proposal to cure Lyme disease, AIDS, and cancer by infecting patients with malaria (malariotherapy). As Heimlich was unable to find support among scientists in the United States for his idea, he raised funds from Hollywood celebrities, skirted around US regulatory agencies, and sponsored and funded several controversial and dubious clinical trials in other countries where AIDS patients were infected with malaria. In these trials a few patients died under ill-defined circumstances. No therapeutic advances resulted from this research.
Nevertheless, Malariotherapy was not an invention of Heimlich. It was originally conceived by Austrian physician, Julius Wagner-Jauregg who used it successfully in the era before antibiotics to treat patients with neurosyphilis. The infection with malaria would produce a fever that killed the syphilis bacterium (this is why it was also called pyrotherapy), and later the malaria would be treated with quinine. For the development of this treatment, Wagner-Jauregg received the Nobel Prize in 1927. He is considered one of the leading psychiatrists of his time and in his native Austria there are streets and hospitals named after him. Unfortunately, Wagner-Jauregg was also an anti-Semite who supported the concept of racial hygiene and advocated the forced sterilization of people who were mentally ill, criminal, or considered genetically inferior. He was an early supporter of the Nazi party and applied to join, but ironically was turned down because his first wife was Jewish.
The foregoing are but a small sample of complex individuals whose actions have had a substantial impact on our world. It is easy to box these individuals exclusively in the categories of heroes or villains, but doing so is a disservice to those whom their actions directly or indirectly helped or hurt. Give these individuals their fair share of infamy and glory, but do not let their narratives become just another story.
Photo of engraving by R. O'Brien of Marion Sims is by William Kurtz and is in the public domain. Photograph of Fritz Haber from the German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S13651) is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) license. Photograph of Henry Heimlich by Nieznany is used here under an Attribution-Share-Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license. The photograph of Julius Wagner-Jauregg from Universität Graz is in the public domain.
In the last decade, scientists made amazing discoveries. For example, scientists managed to photograph a black hole, which is the remnant of a star that has collapsed upon itself (a supernova) creating a region of space with such a strong gravitational field that even light can’t get out. Scientists also managed to detect gravitational waves, which are the ripples that form in the fabric of spacetime when cataclysmic events happen such as the collision of two black holes. Another discovery was the finding of the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle associated with a proposed universal quantum field that interacts with other particles generating their masses. Finally, space probes sent to the planets made exciting discoveries regarding these worlds such as the way Saturn’s rings are formed (Cassini Spacecraft), the presence of water in Mars in the past (Curiosity Rover) and present (Mars Express spacecraft), or the surprising geological activity found in Pluto (New Horizons Probe).
These are exciting discoveries that stimulate our imagination and sense of wonder and advance the frontiers of our knowledge of the universe.
But wait a minute. How do you know these things are true?
What if these scientists are lying? What if they are faking data and misleading the public? Why would they do this? Well, they could be doing this to keep getting their grants approved by funding agencies, or they may have sold out to the companies that make their multimillion-dollar equipment. How do you know this is not happening? Are you an expert in astronomy, space crafts, or physics? How do you know if the data are true? How do you know these individuals are not hiding their dishonesty behind a wall of technical mumbo jumbo and made up findings? How do you know there is not a conspiracy of dishonest astronomers, spacecraft experts, and physicists to mislead taxpayers and take their money?
You would probably reply that you believe that the majority of the individuals involved in these studies are persons like you or me who strive to be honest and are genuinely interested in figuring out the truth about things. You would also expect scientists with competing views to double-check the experiments and observations of each other. Additionally, you would expect funding agencies to have mechanisms in place for reviewing the granting of funds, the results of studies, and the claims by any whistleblower regarding the mismanagement of funds or faking of any data. Finally, you would hope that any of a number of government and agency watchdog groups would notice if something strange was going on.
And yes, all of the above are indeed the case. We acknowledge that there will be some dishonest individual or groups of individuals that will abuse the system, but we expect all the above safeguards will work to eventually weed them out. We also rely on these safeguards to rule out the existence of any Machiavellian conspiracy.
But in any case, truth be told, if you are an average person, all the questions I asked and all the notions I put forward above are probably nothing more to you than a theoretical mental exercise. For you, things like black holes, gravitational waves, subatomic particles, and planets may be interesting, but they are not something that really concerns you that much or affects your everyday life.
But here is my point.
There are thousands of scientists who, much like the astronomers, spacecraft experts, and physicists alluded to above, are also finding out some amazing things in other fields of science. Climate scientists are finding that the Earth is warming due to human activities, and that unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and implement green technologies, we are going to do great damage to our planet. Vaccine scientists are coming up with new vaccines against terrible diseases, and alerting us about the dangers of not vaccinating our children. Evolution scientists are applying the tenets of evolution to come up with useful applications that benefit our society, and warning us about the dangers of the scientific illiteracy that would be created if creationism were to be accepted and taught in schools.
However, unlike things in space or in the realm of subatomic particles, climate change, vaccines, and evolution affect people directly. They are told they HAVE to use less fossil fuels and more green technologies. They are told they HAVE to vaccinate their children. Their children ARE taught in school that something that goes against their faith is true.
And what a difference this makes to some people!
All those scientists who were “persons like you or me who strive to be honest and are genuinely interested in figuring out the truth about things” are now deluded, evil liars and cheats, or atheists. All those safeguards that supposedly keep science and scientists true and honest have failed in these fields, and all the science in the climate, vaccine, and evolution disciplines has become part of nefarious conspiracies to fake or misrepresent data, get money, cause harm, take away our liberties, destroy religion, or spread socialism!
However, astronomers, space craft experts, and physicists are not different from climate, vaccine, and evolution scientists in that they all follow the scientific method to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in their fields of expertise. These people uncover the way our world and the universe works, and then they report it. All scientists do this. Why demonize and delegitimize some and not others? The answer is, as mentioned above, because what some scientists find in some fields challenges our behavior or our beliefs.
This is one of the things about science that some people cannot deal with. Science is not just about generating pretty pictures and interesting experiments for show. The purpose of science is to discover reality. And in doing so, science may reveal that what you are doing is harmful to yourself, society, or nature. Science may also reveal that some of your most deeply held beliefs and convictions are not true. While many people welcome these discoveries and change their behavior or beliefs, others have a lot of problems in dealing with this and will understandably lash out at science and scientists. But that’s the way science works. Reality cannot be compromised.
The Image of the Black Hole of the Galaxy M87 by the Event Horizon Telescope is free for public use.
The Global Average Temperature graph by NASA is in the public domain.
The title of this post is a reworking of a philosophical argument originally formulated to address the possibility that things don’t exist unless they are perceived. The statement in its reformulated form posits a scientific question regarding the nature of perception.
In this post I will be writing about the very basic first order perception of reality that is relayed to us through our senses, not the complex cultural, social, emotional, psychological, and many other -al aspects of human perception. Many people would like to think that our perception of the world around us is a complete and true representation of reality. However, scientists have studied the phenomenon of perception for many years and they have come up with some amazing findings.
We perceive the reality that surrounds us through our senses. These traditionally have included sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. On top of these we have additional senses such as the ability to perceive heat or cold, the ability to perceive noxious stimuli (pain), and the ability to perceive acceleration and balance, among others. Each of these senses detects aspects of the world around or inside us and is associated with certain receptors in our body. Despite all that you may have read in sensationalist publications, no claim of extrasensory perception (ESP) has ever been validated. To perceive an aspect of reality, we need to have a receptor in our bodies that will detect it, and one of the consequences of this is that if we don’t have said receptor, we will not perceive it.
From studying other organisms in our planet we have learned that their perception of reality is different from ours. For example, a human, a dog, a cat, a bird, a snake, and a butterfly can look at the same image and perceive it different ways. And this example only covers the sense of sight. Part of the reason this is the case is that other living things have receptors that we lack. Many snakes can “see” heat emission in great detail, which allows them to identify a prey or a predator in absolute darkness. Various organisms, including species of insects, birds, fish, and mollusks, can detect ultraviolet light. Migratory birds and other animals can detect magnetic fields, which allow them to navigate accurately following the Earth’s magnetic field on long treks. Sharks, rays, and skates, and other species can detect weak electric fields, a sense that they use to communicate or detect prey. Insects such as locusts and bees can see polarized light and use it for navigation. Some species of shrimp can detect ionizing radiation.
The above examples point to the existence of hidden aspects of reality that are beyond our experience, and indicate that our perception of reality is not complete. It must be acknowledged, however, that we have been able to compensate for our limitations with our intellect. We can build devices such as infrared or polarized light glasses, compasses, Geiger counters, and other type of detectors that can allow us to perceive or at least measure and exploit these hidden realities. In fact, we have gone beyond that and developed devices capable of perceiving realities that no other life form in our planet can perceive such as imaging the inner structures of our bodies and cells, or detecting gravitational waves produced by colliding black holes.
But, even if our perception of reality is not complete, isn’t what we do perceive an accurate representation of said reality? Our brain utilizes the information relayed by our senses to form a representation of the reality around us; however, this representation is not necessarily true. Everyone, for example, has seen the spokes of the wheel in a moving vehicle slow down, become stationary, and even begin spinning in the opposite direction. There are situations in which our senses can fool us, and many such illusions have been catalogued and even used in art. However, it can be argued that, despite these exceptions, in the majority of cases our perception of reality must be essentially true; otherwise life would not be possible.
There is no question that our perception of reality must correlate with reality enough to make life possible. However, this does not mean that our perception has to be a true representation of said reality. Scientists have performed simulations pitting true (veridical) perceptions of reality against utilitarian ones where not all aspects of reality are perceived, but rather just those that make life possible with the least expenditure of energy. In these simulations, the utilitarian perceptions won out in the long term. To understand this concept, consider your computer screen. You have a number of files that show up as icons of a certain shape, color, and pattern. This utilitarian representation of computer files allows for you to efficiently interact with the computer mechanisms that make the creation, editing, archiving, and deleting of files possible, but the actual physical (veridical) reality of what a computer file looks like is nowhere near anything visualized as a desktop icon. Thus we and other living things may be wired to perceive reality in such a similar functional way that stresses utility over veracity.
Now that we have seen that not only our perception of reality is incomplete, but that there is also not a one to one correspondence between our perception and reality or even an overriding reason why it should be accurate, we are ready to answer the question presented in the title of this post.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
When the tree hits the ground it will give rise to compression waves which will propagate through the air and the ground startling nearby wildlife. But if by “sound” we mean the unique perception by our species of these waves, then the surprising answer is: no!
Photograph by the author.