Volume 29 - Number 9 - Thursday, January 30, 1997


To the Editor,

The invitation to John Horgan to give the prestigious Beatty Lecture at an institution that I am proud of is deplorable. Horgan has no background in doing science. His book,The End of Science, is based on interviews with "famous" scientists, which he claims support his theory that all great science has already been done.

After 20 years at a research university, I recognize that scientists sometimes get grandiose notions about having resolved all the questions in their field. I have seen this happen to those who become so enamoured of their own theory that they stop processing new information. It can also develop in scientists at or near the end of their careers, who lose touch with the real world of experimental science, and are unable to cope with the technological changes necessary to continue active involvement in science. In addition, some elderly scientists are resentful that young scientists don't revere them to the extent they believe is their due.

Nevertheless, I know many senior and retired scientists who have maintained an active interest in the world around them. I look up to these individuals as mentors in my own career. The impact Horgan has made is not due to deep analysis or knowledge of science. Rather, it is a superficial and glib story that he puts over by being a smooth talker. He is certainly helped along by the strong affinity humans have for apocalyptic predictions. He is also trading on his affiliation with Scientific American to obtain honoraria for blathering on in public.

His comments about my own field, psychology and neuroscience, were so ignorant as to be laughable. He maintains that Freudian psychoanalysis is a mainstream theory in psychology and psychiatry, and that there will be no more significant advances in treating mental disease or understanding the human brain. Such remarks are destructive to the efforts of practitioners in the mental health services to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness, and to alleviate the consequent suffering. Let's hope he is wrong, because there is still a great deal of suffering we are unable to relieve with current therapies.

Horgan claims that different forms of psychotherapy and antidepressant medications can be equally efficacious in treating depression. Major depression is a very serious illness, with a mortality rate from suicide in the order of 5% per year. What Horgan did not say is that research indicates that the critical factor in any psychotherapy is whether the therapist is able to establish rapport with the patient. The fact that the rapport is more important than the theoretical leanings of the therapist tells us something about the function of the human brain.

It is also true that currently available antidepressants take two or three weeks to act (as does psychotherapy), during which time society has to pay for hospitalization of serious suicide risks. We hope that an understanding of the biological mechanisms of depression will allow the development of a generation of fast-acting antidepressants. This will not be a trivial achievement. Horgan also did not say that any respectable pyschoanalyst will make sure that a psychotic patient is referred to someone for pharmacotherapy--psychoanalytic treatment is actually destructive to patients with psychotic illness.

Horgan's perception of the scientific process of discovery is very shallow. In my own field--pain--it is known that pain results in an average of 23 days of work lost per person per year for all working individuals in the U.S. (5 days per person for full-time workers). It is also true that at the basic level at which I work, details have proliferated faster than anyone can reasonably comprehend. Still, on the basis of what is known about how pain is generated, a wound should only hurt for 5-10 minutes! I think I stumbled on a neurophysiological mechanism by which pain continues for tens of minutes and hours, and it suggests the possibility of a completely unanticipated class of peripherally acting analgesics. This discovery may allow a new theory about how pain is produced in injured tissue.

If so, the mass of facts in this area will become much simpler to comprehend. I do not think this is trivial, and the fact that it is not a grand and complete new theory to explain all kinds of pain is simply because all pain is not generated in the same way.

I have been planning to buy a subscription to Scientific American for my teenage kids. On hearing Horgan, my belief is that the journal is on the skids. He actually stated that public interest in science was minuscule. With attitudes like this on the editorial staff, there are obvious reasons for circulation problems, and they are not related to the growth of television as a source of public information. I have found that, any time I have the energy to talk about my work in non-technical terms, just about anyone I have ever met has been fascinated, from my cleaning lady through to my kids' friends' parents.

Frances Abbott
Associate Professor,
Psychiatry and Psychology

To the Editor,

In her introduction of John Horgan, last week's Beatty lecturer, Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard said that she would shelve her copy of his book The End of Science next to The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If someone happens to give me a copy--since I will not be purchasing one of my own--I will be shelving it next to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Both Horgan's book and Zen fall into the same category, but whereas one rhetorically examines the dangers and concludes the vapidness of rhetoric, the other claims to take its argument for its own truth completely seriously. The value of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance lies in its encouragement of people to accept the limitations and contradictions of the behaviour of the world, but to nevertheless strive for a personally acceptable version of truth.

In his talk, Horgan left me with the feeling that people are stupid for such striving; they should not look for the perpetual motion machine because according to "science," it is unattainable. This perseverance with a belief in the face of the facts may indeed be one of our human limitations, but The End of Science shows the extent of the notoriety one can achieve with such perseverance.

Ralph Harris
Associate Professor, Mining and Metallurgical Engineering

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