Yesterday I had the audacity to publish a diary with some ideas about Alternative Medicine and as has happened in the past when I wrote about my field, Complexity Science, all kinds of predictable responses appeared as comments. First of all I apologize if people find what I write offensive, there is no harm intended. On the other hand I do not tolerate being berated because of assumptions that mostly boil down to the notion that anyone would write about such things must know nothing about science. My diary title deliberately makes a metaphor between this category of responses to writings on scientific issues and the response one often gets from fundamentalists on religious issues. Clearly, as in any metaphor, there is a limit to how similar the two are, but the comparison has some use. read below the break and I'll try to explain what is going on in contemporary science with regard to this issue of "complexity" and "complex systems."
First of all, because it is bound to come up, I'll provide a short bio. I have a BS in biology from the Illinois Institute of Technology, which in itself needs amplification to make the story complete. I started out in engineering (IIT is an engineering school), but wanted to become a physician so I changed to premed biology (I was a regular NROTC scholar and could not officially do premed anyway). However, I took all the more advanced math, physics and chemistry with the engineers, something most biology majors did not do. After three years as a USMC officer on active duty I did my Ph. D. in physiology at the University of Chicago. I really wanted to do it in Mathematical Biology in Rashevsky's program, but was now married with 2 kids and did not want to spend the extra time getting the required BS in Math that his program required at that time. I did my postdoc at the Weizmann Institute in Israel mentored by the late Aharon Katchalsky who was introducing Non-equilibrium Thermodynamics to biology along with Ora Kedem. I then went to the Biophysics Department at SUNY at Buffalo where as junior faculty member I became acting chairman in about a year. My jobs took me through other places including the Biophysical Lab at Harvard Medical School. From Chicago to Buffalo I was in contact with the man who developed the version of complexity theory many of us now practice. It began in the late 1950s as part of an ongoing developing work by the late Robert Rosen who did do his PhD in Rashevsky's program.
That is but a part of the story. The preface to my book on Network Thermodynamics, which is on my web page, will tell you more. A student of Bob Rosen, Aloisious Louie has a book coming out: More Than Life Itself: A Synthetic Continuation in Relational Biology which I will elaborate on in a future diary.
To get the ball rolling, lets look at an abstract to one of my published works that was attacked in a strange way in the previous diary:
The emergence of a new field of science called complexity theory has made an impact on the community of scientists as well as the general public. This brief tutorial takes a very special view of this. The thesis is that complexity science has grown out of a general lack of satisfaction with traditional scientific practices and their failure to find a way of capturing anything but a shadow of complex reality. In spite of the many impressive advances from science and technology, it is clear that the picture delivered of the world is that of a surrogate world populated by machines and mechanisms. The nature of the real world demands more than traditional science can deliver. Yet traditional science has constraints and bounds on its universe of discourse. Complexity science, as presented here, demands that the barriers and constraints be removed in order to gain a more complete view of nature. This tutorial presents a summary of what is entailed by this new methodology.
Here's what someone had to say:
There are so many unsupported assertions here it is incredible. Lines like this say more about the review process at the journal than about anything else:
Here is that line:
The nature of the real world demands more than traditional science can deliver.
First off had the author of the criticism been a non scientist, I could understand the very big mistake made here. On the contrary, the person insisted that they were a qualified scientist and that I could not be. Here's the problem with this particular exchange: It is an Abstract folks and Abstracts are limited to just about the number of words you see there by the publisher. It is clear the author of that comment had no way of knowing how I develop these ideas in the paper since he had no access to it last night. Only the Abstract appears on line.
As in the case of religious fundamentalism, the commenter did not care. You see, I could not possibly defend what I was saying. It was contradicted by his scientific scripture.
The history of complexity science is replete with this kind of blind dismissal. When the Santa Fe Institute first started, their funding had to come from sources mainly outside the mainstream. That lasted a relatively short time. Soon other Centers were forming after its model. For example, The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI). This group in particular includes people from major institutions such as MIT and Harvard among many others. Universities around the country have Centers within them as well. My own affiliation is with theCenter for the Study of Biological Complexity at Virginia Commonwealth University. A quick Google might get you a reference to my role in that Center.
For about 20 years I taught a set of three undergraduate honors modules on the subject of complexity. It was attended by all kinds of honors students. We all quickly learned about scientific fundamentalism. I did not lecture. I got what I needed by asking provocative questions and letting the students iron things out. It was a very popular set of modules and I never had trouble getting students.
A clear pattern evolved. The science majors were usually withdrawn and uncomfortable because I refused to protect science for them. They had to come to its defense while English and Music majors asked the relevant questions about their views.
So what is happening here on this blog-site is no surprise to me. It is the product of a clash of worldviews and a strange one at that. My honors science students were temporarily disarmed when the teacher was not giving an authoritarian backup to the superior "objectivity" and "methodology" they so proudly voiced. By the end of a module, most of them no longer felt like they needed that shelter. A few left disillusioned and unhappy, not learning how to cope with uncertainty and existential issues that had penetrated the barriers their version of positivism had provided. I could not really help them. I will not reach many here who are already set in their ways and believe in their scientific scriptures(sorry).
This is not an esoteric and sophisticated issue. It is a discussion with central relevance to the debate going on about health care reform and related issues. It will take many more diaries to spell this out, but it definitely needs to be done. I hope people will have the patience to see this developed carefully and systematically rater than scoff at it in Abstract form.