Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 2012

The attitude of many laypersons to scientific and technical matters is one of reverence.  They will drink in the fake profundities of, say, television science programs with a credulity quite as remarkable as that of any religious fundamentalist. Any statement has only to be prefaced with the words “scientists think…” or “scientists have shown…” for it to be received with exaggerated awe.

The advertising world knows this well and exploits it to the full. People dressed up to look like research scientists and doctors appear in advertisements for products from toothpastes to miracle diets. Economists and bankers follow suit: anxious to bathe their work in the aura that attends the hard sciences, they mystify the public with largely meaningless numbers. Few economists ask the simple human questions: what is wealth for? What is the good life? What are the costs of our “growth” and who bears them?

The London Olympics was sponsored by multinational giants like Coca-Cola and Nike whose scientific credentials had to be “hyped” for a gullible world public. The website for Coca-Cola’s sports drink Powerade, targeted at the general public, states: “Drinking sports drinks, such as Powerade Isotonic, before intense exercise helps to ensure that you begin in a well hydrated and well fuelled state. This can be particularly useful if you find it difficult to eat, or find you need many bathroom stops prior to exercising. Starting exercise well hydrated is vital; leaving it until you are on the field or track may be too late. This is particularly crucial for longer duration exercise, or activity undertaken in hot, humid conditions, and even for people whose primary exercise is actually manual labour.” Powerade advises customers that “To avoid dehydration … you should drink before, during, and after sport” and that, “You may be able to train your gut to tolerate more fluid if you build your fluid intake gradually”. It even provides a “Hydration calculator” to work out how much Powerade Isotonic you will need before exercising.

Other drinks manufacturers claim that “Stimulants such as caffeine, guarana and taurine with energising fast and slow release carbohydrates produces a scientifically proven range designed to enhance your overall performance.” Red Bull says “In extensive studies it has been repeatedly proven that Red Bull increases performance.”

Where is the real scientific evidence that backs up such claims? A joint study by the British Medical Journal and Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine has debunked the myth of “hydration”, a fictitious disease created by the advertising industry. The authors of the study write: “Drinking ahead of thirst may worsen performance in endurance exercise and carries a rare but serious risk of hyponatraemia. The body’s internal mechanism for staying hydrated is cheaper, easier, and seems to be the best way to optimise performance.” As for professional athletes, “Elite endurance athletes perform best when they drink to thirst; some studies suggest exercise induced dehydration can improve performance.” (“Mythbusting Sports and Exercise Products”,

Regarding the use of energy drinks by professional athletes, the authors conclude: “Limited, low quality evidence supports the use of energy drinks containing caffeine, taurine, or guarana to improve endurance in moderate intensity activity of around 60 minutes. No studies compare the effectiveness of these products with ingesting caffeine alone and there are important concerns regarding harms.”

The Internet has, of course, made such scientific knowledge available to a wider public but sorting out genuine science from the bogus is not easy. Unless a website carries peer-reviewed articles or belongs to a well-established professional institution, it is difficult not to be hoodwinked most of the time. Internet search-engines are not unbiased as some enthusiasts imagine. Sceptics about anthropogenic global warming, for instance, find it easier to migrate to websites that reinforce their views rather than to those that challenge them.

How do we combine a healthy respect for evidence-based scientific study with an equally healthy disrespect towards the pronouncements of scientists on topics outside their particular realm of expertise? One can share in the excitement surrounding the recent “discovery” of the Higgs Boson in the CERN Hadron Collider experiments, without capitulating to the myth that elementary particles are more important- indeed, “more real”- than the world experienced and inhabited by human persons; or labelling it a “god-particle’ in some pseudo-scientific act of worship. The “hype” by some scientists and popular philosophers about having come up with materialistic explanations for “everything”, including consciousness, should be treated with the same ridicule that most TV advertising deserves.

Raymond Tallis, the neuroscientist and philosopher whose book Aping Mankind ( see my last post) is exemplary in how to combine good science with the debunking of scientific hubris, writes that: “Ultimately, a theory of consciousness will have to make sense of science and, more generally, knowledge itself: of the fact that the blind laws of physics have given birth to a sighted watchmaker who makes those laws visible and sees how they may be used to shape the world according to her perceived needs. There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences- no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics- that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

Perhaps the most stimulating book I have read in recent months is Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2011).

Tallis is one of those rare polymaths- a neuroscientist, psychologist and philosopher; and one who writes with sparkling wit as well as erudition. He brings his formidable skills to bear on the principal target of this volume: scientific reductionism, specifically in the widespread use of neurological science and evolutionary theory to reduce human beings to “mere animals” and the latter to machines.

He labels “neuromania” the assumption that “what neuroscience cannot find in the brain isn’t really real, since the sum total of what we are is the sum total of what is in our brains.” The errors of muddling correlation with causation, necessary condition with sufficient causation, and sufficient causation with identity lie at the heart of the neuromaniac’s basic assumption that consciousness and nerve impulses are one and the same, and that (to echo a commonly held formulation) “the mind is the creation of the brain.”

Tallis labels “Darwinitis” the tendency to ignore or minimize all that is distinctively human (consciousness, selfhood, free-will, that collective space that we call the human world) and to forget all that has happened in the millions of years since we and chimps journeyed in different directions: “the slow-moving journey of gene-based evolution in the chimps’ case; and a much-faster-moving hominid journey, in which initial biological promoters of difference- the upright position, hands, a special kind of gaze-were increasingly overshadowed by cultural promoters such as tools, language and the creation of public spaces and a shared consciousness. Those who overlook this journey are fixing their gaze on the launch pad in the expectation of seeing the rocket that has long since gone into space.”

Our consciousness cannot be found solely in the stand-alone brain; or even just in a brain in a body; or even in a brain interacting with other brains in bodies. It participates in, and is part of, a community of minds built up by conscious human beings over hundreds of thousands of years. “This cognitive community is an expression of the collectivization of our experiences through a trillion acts of joint and shared attention. Even those who believe that the human mind began as the activity of the brain of Homo sapiens, must, I shall argue, have to accept that we have gone far beyond brain activity a long time ago.”

Those in the academy and the popular media who propagate the notion that there is no significant gap between man and beast are propagating views whose consequences are not merely intellectually dishonest but dangerous. “It is a bitter irony,” notes Tallis, “that two of our greatest intellectual achievements- the theory of evolution and neuroscience- should be used to prop up a picture of humanity that is not only wrong but degrading.” And such views are making steady headway beyond science departments in universities. We now have new fields such as neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics and neurocriminology, all attempting to “explain” everything from why we appreciate a Rembrandt painting or trade in subprime mortgages in terms of electro-chemical activity in bits of our brains.

Tallis himself is an atheist, and this fact adds further potency to his searching critique. Nobody can dismiss his defence of human uniqueness as an attempt to smuggle in theism through the backdoor. What he is attacking are shoddy science and naive philosophy.

He summons philosophers to wake up from their slumbers and to reassume their fundamental duty: namely, to look critically at the framework and presuppositions within which contemporary thought operates. “To accept science as the last word on the mind is to overlook that which made science possible: the mind itself… There is at present nothing in matter as understood through natural sciences- no, not even in the wildest reaches of quantum mechanics- that would lead one to expect matter to assume forms in which it would become conscious, self-conscious and knowing, so that it might be able to formulate universal laws that encompass its own existence.”

This is thought at its most refreshing and invigorating. His arguments against naturalism are more penetrating than much of what is found in Christian apologetics. The most disappointing aspects of the book are his sarcastic asides on religion. Tallis declares that he gave up religion at the age of twelve. And his understanding of religion, or at least of Christian language about creation, remains clearly at that early adolescent stage. Creation is assumed to entail the denial of the evolutionary story, and is identified with six-day creationism or intelligent design.

Thus a dialogue between Raymond Tallis and Christian philosophers of science would be mutually challenging, as well as profoundly enriching for the Christian Church. What a pity that so much effort has been devoted to lambasting the polemics of Dawkins and Harris, when Christians should be reading thoughtful humanists like Tallis.



August 2012