Compartmentalising the mind

Michael Edmonds’ article in the latest issue (NZ Skeptic 101) was very interesting, especially laying out the groundwork for non-chemists. If I still had science classes, I would have them all read it and may pass it on to some friends to use.

Michael Edmonds wondered why some people, trained to a high level in chemistry, could turn to pseudoscience. He suggested that external bias, such as religious beliefs, could be one reason. That still does not really explain how those people could ‘switch tracks’ like that and go from apparently working in ‘science’ mode to denying the science that didn’t fit their beliefs. I had the experience of working with someone like that for quite a few years, and it took me a long time to sort out how this could happen.

Dr V was an excellent chemist and knew details of even obscure reactions. He regularly caught mistakes in science exams, including bursary papers here. He was an extremely well organised person and would happily put in much extra effort to do demonstrations other teachers wouldn’t attempt or be bothered to do.

We had a ‘hydrogen organ’ that he used and showed me how to set up. My class jumped a full 30cm off their stools when it went off. He once nearly deafened himself when his went off prematurely, and he enjoyed telling this story with a laugh at his own mistake. He once fell in the river collecting marsh gas to show his class how cleanly it burned. You can imagine his classes enjoyed things like this.

He was always willing to help younger teachers with chemistry reactions and demonstrations and enjoyed designing new demonstrations of chemical principles. However, his knowledge of biology was more limited. He refused to do dissections, taught reproduction to the limited extent defined by the syllabus (just the basic structures and the names of the parts of the reproductive system), and flatly refused to mention evolution.

In discussions, he would argue against radioactive dating, saying we couldn’t know that the radioactive decay rates hadn’t changed over time.

Another day, he would argue that the earth couldn’t be more than 10,000 years old – on the basis that if you extrapolated the changes recorded in the magnetic field over the last 60 years, you could not go back more than 10,000 years before the field became ridiculously strong.

How could he make this switch? It was literally like he had switched to a different part of his mind/way of thinking. Yes, he enjoyed arguing.

That, alone, wouldn’t explain things. What he did, I finally realized, was compartmentalise things in his mind, just like he did with equipment in his lab, like having lots of little drawers to pull out. Pull out one drawer for describing an acid reaction. Pull out another for dealing with a plant structure. Pull out another for dealing with his religion. There had to be some mental capacity to do this, since I am unable to compartmentalise the world in that way. This is the only way that I could understand or explain his ability to switch tracks in thinking.

Having heard a recent TED talk by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations in people with vision impairment (Charles Bonnet syndrome), and how specific parts of the brain generated specific types of hallucinations (observations by MRI of people during hallucinations, including Oliver Sacks, himself, who has some visual impairment(, I can understand better how my former colleague could compartmentalise.

Louette McInnes,

Natural Health Products Bill

I was disappointed to read that some therapies are not covered in the new Bill, in particular subluxations which can be seen on an X-ray only by a chiropractor, and ear candling which not only is complete baloney but also in a number of people has resulted in burns to the ear and even perforated ear drums.

Only today a flyer came in the letter box for craniosacral therapy…

However I guess many of these mumbo-jumbo therapies are really a type of psychotherapy involving a belief system and the Laying On Of Hands which therefore makes people feel better, which I suppose can be OK in the scheme of things… And of course something like 80 percent of complaints get better over a couple of weeks anyway.

Bill Tucker

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