The Amateur Ideal


James Lovelock, Mr Gaia

Slow to get to the blog this week, everything else is busy.

Earlier in the week I was listening to an extended interview with James Lovelock, who I first heard about back in the 1980s when the ABC did a series on maverick thinkers. He's most famous for his creation of the Gaia hypothesis, which basically said the Earth is a single, self-regulating system. This post isn't about the pros and cons of that idea, although in passing it doesn't seem a big leap to think that all of the various systems of the Earth somehow link to each other. It was way too much to that modern Torquemada, drizabone rationalist Richard Dawkins, but then he's always liked his science in withered, dust-dry, manageable rational chunks.

One of the interesting things Lovelock spoke about was the role of intuition in science. He feels modern science has become too obsessed with data and modelling, and about being absolutely right about things, all the time. Whereas great scientists have always used a huge chunk of intuition in making their discoveries, including Einstein, with some of his hypotheses only receiving experimental confirmation now, decades after his death. Amen to that, the sort of science Dawkins and his ilk want to use to rid the world of irrational dolts is more fundamentalist than the loons they go after.

The other remarkably refreshing thing about Lovelock's career is that so much of it was conducted as an amateur. Not in the sense of being untrained, he was certainly very well trained and has numerous world-class discoveries and patents to his credit, but in the sense of not working in the usual scientific establishment. He's always done a lot of his work from home, funded by his various inventions and patents. Modern science is so institiutionalised, with a very large percentage of it funded by the military and drug companies, that people increasingly wouldn't dream that significant discoveries could still be made outside multimillion dollar laboratories.

Lovelock's way of doing science also flies in the face of the mythology about science being about peer review, so that the only objective truth is that agreed to by scientists as a whole. Increasingly that sort of intersubjective game only produces self-referring, highly experimental facts with little reference to the wider world, and much more reference to grant applications and funding in general.

A great example of others doing this sort of work came via the New York Times (thanks RV). See here. What Seth Roberts discovered was fascinating, but what I liked most about this story is that sense of experimenting on your own. Too many of us for example hand over complete responsibility for understanding our own bodies to health professionals. And maybe try a bit harder and try to be 'informed' about our bodies, through reading scientific and popular medical writing. We may have done some high school biology and know roughly where the organs in our bodies are, and what respiration and circulation and so on are about. We may even have high-level qualifications in biology and know complex biochemistry and physiology and what have you. None of that will get you to a place where you intuitively understand your body in the way Seth Roberts now does.


Seth Roberts, Psychology professor, Amateur Anthropologist/Biologist

If you don't have any sense of how this thing happening in your body is linked to this or that thing you're doing, or to what else is happening in your body, then you're pretty much experientially ignorant, and a stranger in your own flesh and bones. Your doctor will never be able to make those correlations for you as well as you can, and most of them won't even try, it being outside the scope of what they've been taught about how our biology functions.

It reminds me of being a teenager, when I used to play a lot of tennis. At one point my usually strong serve started to be out more than in. At the same time I started foot-faulting regularly. Coaches tried to help me with my serve, and then with my foot faults. Then one day when practising by myself, I suddenly wondered if the two were linked. So I simply tried to make sure I didn't overstep the line when I served, and voila - the serve started going in regularly again. It was one problem, not two problems. I was serving badly because my entire body was getting out of position, which as a side-effect caused me to foot fault. It's simple correlations like this that you can only really discover on your own, when it comes to your body and health. And you have to take responsibility for it, to own your own body and your own health, and to go to the doctor only when their undoubted fix-it-up-after-it's-all-gone-wrong skills can be useful.

It takes a bit of courage at first. But it's the most liberating thing once you get a taste for it. And you'll feel better, because you will be better - much better. Never be blinded by the science, just as Lovelock never was. Never assume that you couldn't possibly understand things that specialists are confused by - odds are that they don't understand it because they are too specialised. The world is full of wonders that the rank amateurs working from home even with flimsy tools, including their own bodies, can discover every day. And I would guess most of the things you go to the doctor about are part of a wider pattern of what you're up to that they will never see, and wouldn't be interested in even if they could. That's your job.

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