Brian Josephson on irrational bias against unconventional ideas
Date: Sunday, December 17, 2006 @ 00:11:51 GMT
Lone voices special: Take nobody's word for
December 2006 /NewScientist.com
You don't come across many Nobel prizewinners who believe in the paranormal, but
Brian Josephson is one of them. After receiving the Nobel prize
in physics for his research on superconductivity, his work has taken a very
different direction. As well as using mathematics to describe how the brain
carries out complex tasks, he is an advocate for cold fusion and other
phenomena on the fringes of science. He talked to Alison George about
why he thinks scientists have an irrational bias
against unconventional ideas.
Why did you decide to give up your highly successful work on
In the late 1960s I found my area of research less
interesting, so I looked elsewhere for problems to work on. Investigating the
mathematics of how the brain works is a much more difficult challenge. I also
became interested in eastern philosophy and how that might fit in with
physics. I read a book called The Tao
of Physics by Fritjof Capra that pointed out the parallels between quantum
physics and eastern mysticism.
I started to feel there was more to
reality than conventional science allowed for, and some interesting ideas that
it hadn't got round to investigating such as altered states of consciousness. At
a conference in Toronto I saw demonstrations of psychokinesis - the influence of
mind on matter - and it all pointed to some extension of what science knows at
Did your Nobel prize allow you to investigate areas that are
off-limits for other scientists?
It meant I was free to explore, and
people felt less able to say "you can't work on that". However, I have had
problems with getting funding for collaboration because of the areas I've chosen
to work in.
You have become an advocate for unconventional ideas. How did
I went to a conference where the French immunologist Jacques
Benveniste was talking for the first time about his discovery that water has a
"memory" of compounds that were once dissolved in it - which might explain how
homeopathy works. His findings provoked irrationally strong reactions from
scientists and I was struck by how badly he was treated. To an extent, I
realised that the way science is done by consensus could get things completely
wrong. I feel that it's important to try and correct the errors that scientists
What errors are these?
I call it "pathological disbelief".
The statement "even if it were true I wouldn't believe it" seems to sum up this
attitude. People have this idea that when something can't be reproduced every
time, it isn't a real phenomenon. It is like a religious creed where you have to
conform to the "correct" position. This leads to editors blocking the
publication of important papers in academic journals. Even the physics preprint
archive blocks some papers on certain topics, or by certain authors.
you believe that cold fusion and the memory of water are real, or are you just
open to the idea of their being real?
In both cases there is evidence
that makes me accept them as almost certainly real. They're probably connected
with aspects of organisation that are difficult to deal with in the usual
scientific way. I'm pushing in that direction. I look very carefully at things
before I accept them as real.
You draw the line in a very different place
to most scientists when it comes to hard-to-prove phenomena such as telepathy
and cold fusion.
Can I take you up on something? These things are not
hard to prove, they're just hard to get accepted. The evidence for these
phenomena would normally lead to them being accepted, but they have an
additional barrier in that they are "unacceptable" and often unpublishable. Some
people are extraordinarily hard to convince. In particular, people who work in
an area in which the phenomena are highly reproducible cannot envisage
situations such as cold fusion where - as in many areas of materials science -
things are not that reproducible. They take the illegitimate step from "hard to
reproduce" to "non-existent". Science is often presented as an objective
pursuit, but the history of science tells you that this is far from being the
Do you mean that scientists cannot accept these phenomena because
it would ruin their view of the world?
It would mean an admission of
error. Instead, sceptics can always say that there must have been something
wrong with these experiments. This means that you can never really prove
anything, and a sceptic doesn't actually have to discover anything wrong to
dismiss an experiment.
Is this why you've posted the motto "take nobody's
word for it" at the top of your website?
Yes. And the corollary of this
motto is that if most scientists denounce an idea, this should not necessarily
be taken as proof that the idea is absurd. It seems that anything goes among the
physics community - cosmic wormholes, time travel - just so long as it keeps its
distance from anything mystical or New Age-ish.
There are lots of
pointers towards strange things, such as the quantum interconnectedness of
entangled particles, but physicists are very prickly about them, saying you
shouldn't read anything into these results. There are in fact a lot of
scientists who believe telepathy exists, but they keep quiet about it.
take it that means you pay a price for speaking out about things like cold
fusion, telepathy and the paranormal.
Yes. If you say you accept the
reality of the paranormal then this automatically affects your reputation. It's
assumed that if a person believes in this kind of thing then his views are not
worth considering. It has led to certain people being very prejudiced against me
and assuming that there's something wrong with anything I do. I don't have the
kind of support network that researchers usually have. But since I can do my
research on the mathematics of the brain by myself this is less of a problem
than it otherwise would be, though it slows down progress
Why do you speak out about these things when you know it
causes difficulties for your own research career?
They are important for
various reasons. For example, cold fusion may contribute significantly to
solving the problem of generating clean energy. Had it not been ridiculed back
in 1989, we'd probably all now be using energy generated by cold fusion. So it's
really important to speed up the process. I reckon that cold fusion will be
accepted in the next year or so.
If the evidence about cold fusion is so
convincing, why do so few people believe in it?
You have to look properly
at the evidence typically blocked from publication by journals such as Nature,
and few people are willing to put in the effort to do that. Even better, go
along to a laboratory where the work is being done. It's also hard to change how
people think. People have vested interests, and their projects and reputations
would be threatened if certain things were shown to be
Brian Josephson was awarded a Nobel prize for work on
superconductivity he carried out as a 22-year-old graduate student at the
University of Cambridge. The Josephson junction, which has many scientific and
technical applications, is the legacy of this research. Today he leads the
Mind-Matter Unification Project at the University of Cambridge (www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10).
issue 2581 of New Scientist magazine, 09 December 2006, page 56-57
(Thanks to Dr. Jack Sarfatti for forwarding this message).