Solo science – going it alone

In Intelligent Life Autumn Edition 2008 102-106

A modern British university is no place to think. That’s the sad conclusion I came to after ten years of struggling in my secure academic job. What first had seemed a magnificent opportunity – a great privilege – an amazing step for someone who’d been hovering on the edges of academia for so long – had become a burden. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. Instead of reading and writing and thinking and arguing and carrying out experiments to try to understand the nature of the human mind or the mysteries of the universe, I was filling in forms, attending meetings, and marking ever higher piles of increasingly pedestrian essays. Just sometimes I had the joy of knowing I’d inspired my students, or helped them design exciting experiments. Just sometimes I even did some research, but mostly I seemed to be wasting my brain away. So I left.

The job I abandoned was Reader in Psychology at a large new university, where I taught everything from huge classes in introductory psychology and statistics to seminars on consciousness. Opinion among my colleagues was divided between “You’re mad” and “You’re so brave. I wish I could do it”. The deal was simple enough – give up the status, the salary, the pension, the sick pay, a warm room, the equipment that someone else buys and mends, for uncertainty and freedom. I had no idea whether I could manage to cobble together enough work in the way of radio, TV, writing and lecturing, to earn enough to survive. But now, eight years later, I know I can – just about.

And would I go back? No way. My idea of a commute is the two flights of stairs from my bedroom to my study; my idea of work is to sit down at my desk and think and read and write. When I was paid, I never seemed to get any real work done. Now I’m paid little but I can work all I like, and on whatever I like, from the mystery of consciousness or the nature of mind, to genes, memes, and evolution in the cosmos.

This contrast between funding and freedom raises fundamental questions about what makes for the best science. Should government, or committees, or elected representatives decide which research is likely to produce measurable pay-offs, and then control the direction of research accordingly? Or should scientists have the freedom to explore wherever their results and imagination take them, knowing that discoveries that change our understanding of the universe may have no immediate payoff other than delight in knowledge itself, and that it’s impossible, in advance, to know which lines of work will prove productive?

It’s not surprising to find that successful independents extol the virtues of freedom. Jim Lovelock is best known for his Gaia theory; the once-outrageous proposal that Earth behaves as a self regulating organism. When he first proposed this strange way of thinking about planets in the late 1960s, his idea was largely ignored, then scoffed at, and even after a few decades the general response was to reject it as fanciful. But whether he is right about Gaia or not, his proposals eventually became part of mainstream discussion and have caused a dramatic shift in the way many of us think about planet earth and our own responsibilities. Lovelock himself is now at the forefront of the environmental movement, claiming that if we greedy humans don’t curb our consumption fast and drastically, Gaia will exact its revenge.

“I doubt if anyone who is not independent can speak freely and honestly” he says “The constraints can be benign and well intended but they are unavoidable.” He had degrees in chemistry, medicine and biophysics, and was a Professor of chemistry collaborating in research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California when, in the early 1960s, he gave up his conventional career to work independently. When funding bodies rejected his proposals he funded his research expeditions from his own income, mostly by designing scientific instruments in his home workshop in Cornwall. Subsequently, vast sums have been spent on repeating and extending this early research. “I could never have worked on Gaia other than as an independent” he says.

Other independents have private means; among them the courageous Lady Amanda Neidpath, who runs the Beckley Foundation. She is fighting against the restrictions not only of mainstream academia but of drug policies that outlaw the very substances she wants to investigate. Drug prohibition means that, while millions of people in Britain regularly use psychedelic drugs, almost no research on their effects is allowed. Yet Neidpath believes that drugs like LSD and psilocybin can have positive effects for the terminally ill and as an aid in psychotherapy, as well as being invaluable tools for neuroscience. More controversially she argues that having access to a fuller spectrum of states of consciousness can be beneficial for individuals as well as for society as a whole, which is not so crazy when you realise that almost all other cultures systematically use drugs and other methods of inducing altered states with great skill. After long battles, she has finally established the first research project on the effects of LSD with human subjects for over 35 years. “Being independent is a great advantage” she says. “My ideas are fresher. I’m not chained by the system.”

Understandably, many independents work on fringe topics. Rupert Sheldrake studies paranormal claims, and his hypotheses are generally considered way beyond the pale. An early high-flyer, Sheldrake gained a double first, a research fellowship at Cambridge, and a Royal Society Fellowship. He made significant discoveries concerning the chemistry of morphogenetic fields: groups of cells that respond to chemical signals so as to build structure in developing organisms, and his research career looked bright. “I knew that if I’d stayed there I could have become a Professor, a head of Department, or the Principle of a College, like so many of my friends.” he told me. But he chafed against the narrow view of living things entailed in that research and instead resigned his fellowship. He took a job in agriculture in India, where he could pursue a more holistic vision of living things. Living cheaply, in Indian style, he spent more than a year in an Ashram writing a book, and all the while saved enough money to fund many years of independent research back home.

That book was A New Science of Life, published in 1981. I remember the fuss at the time An editorial in New Scientist called his ideas “completely scatty” and Nature called it “a book for burning” – a statement that only fuelled debate and increased sales. From then on Sheldrake was able to earn enough from book sales to ease the troubles of self-funded research; books like “Dogs that know when their owners are coming home” and “The Sense of Being Stared at” among others. His research involves the extended mind and a process he calls morphic resonance. The idea is that when a certain shape or structure has occurred many times, it is more likely to occur again. This, he claims, can explain telepathy, because ideas in one person’s mind can be shaped by morphic resonance with another mind. These paranormal claims are perennially popular, and people flock to take part in Sheldrake’s experiments on telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition.

Sheldrake complains that science today is determined more by big business and climbing corporate career ladders than by soaring journeys of the mind. “The present system paralyses creativity, inhibits curiosity, and is stultifying science. The more who work independently the better.” he says.

Perhaps more surprising is to find that even the most successful of conventional scientists are also complaining about restrictions. Just this year, with the threatened axing of large projects in physics and space research, the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, decried the unfortunate tendency for “for funds to be more tightly micromanaged from the centre.” Many top scientists are prepared to work in universities, despite poor pay, only because they can get funding for the research they want to do. Losing that freedom could threaten Britain’s place as a world leader in science.

So is more intellectual freedom unequivocally a good thing? Is it good for science itself? And is it good for the individual scientists who strike out on their own? Some think not.

Nicholas Humphrey has been on both sides and concludes that being independent can be a mixed blessing. Back in the 1970s he was a leading researcher on primate vision at Cambridge, studied mountain gorillas in the wild, and wrote oft-cited papers on the social function of intelligence. Then in 1983 he left his secure university job to make a television series called “The inner eye” for Channel Four. He remembers the historian E. P. Thompson advising him “Whatever you do, don’t give up your institutional base” (as Thompson himself had done, to his own regret). “If you want to change things you’re much best placed to do it from inside”. And as it turned out Humphrey’s experiment with freedom was indeed nearly a disaster, when after the making the tv programs, he found himself academically side-lined and without a salary. “It’s great to be independent” he told me, “provided you have independent means and lots of friends. If you don’t, the chances are you’ll end up scraping a living, doing things that are the antithesis of free research.” After a few years he had had enough and was longing to get back into the main stream. He was rescued by a rich patron and was able to claw his way back. He now has a distinguished professorship at the LSE. “Financial security makes all the difference” he says. “That, plus the sense of belonging. There’s no point in being right if nobody is listening.”

For Dylan Evans going independent was also a double-edged sword. Evans was Senior Lecturer in Intelligent Autonomous Systems at UWE, Bristol when he decided to give up the conventional research life to conduct “an experiment in Utopia”. He set up an eco-camp on a plot of land in the Scottish Highlands and invited people of all ages and walks of life to join him there, living according to a future scenario in which Britain suffers drastic climate change, cheap oil is gone, and conventional society has broken down. “I learned a lot” he says “but at a high price – my experiment in Scotland was actually quite traumatic.” Indeed, he became increasingly concerned as the volunteers took the scenario as a rehearsal for a real collapse. After nine months Evans left a group of volunteers still living there and returned home, nursing his wounds. “I have seriously revised my previously romantic ideas about the joys of being independent” he said. He even admits to a “renewed appreciation for the value of all that institutional crap that I used to love criticising.” Indeed he is now making his way back into the academic fold with a post at University College Cork.

I scarcely considered such traumatic possibilities when I decided to go independent myself. I could certainly be accused of being foolhardy and ill-prepared, but happily my own romantic ideas remain intact (at least some of them), I still avoid the “institutional crap”, and I have become neither lonely nor despondent. I should also explain that my current phase as an independent is not my first; I spent years working alone long before my decade in employment. In those early days I was obsessed with the paranormal, and convinced that my brilliant theory of telepathy was right and all those closed-minded scientists who said it was impossible were wrong. But unlike Sheldrake, I soon came to change my mind.

My obsession began when, as a student in Oxford, I had a dramatic out-of-body experience. Late one night, smoking and listening to music with friends, I began travelling down a dark tunnel towards a bright light. When someone asked me “Where are you Sue?” I suddenly found myself apparently looking down on the scene, and then able to travel freely wherever I thought to go. After more than two hours of extraordinary, realistic, and joyful visions, it seemed that my individual selfhood was gone and everything was one.

This experience was completely inexplicable by anything I had learnt in the physiology and psychology I was studying. Indeed it took another twenty years before neuroscientists found out how to induce out-of-body experiences, and pinpointed those parts of the brain implicated in causing them. So perhaps it’s forgivable that I jumped to all sorts of crazy conclusions. Although my attempts to verify what I had seen met with mixed results – the gutters on the college roof were quite unlike those I’d hovered above in my travels, for example – I nonetheless became convinced that my spirit, or soul, or astral body, had left my physical body, had paranormal powers, and was capable of independent consciousness and will. This became my passion and reason for living – to prove the paranormal basis of consciousness.

Naturally I was not going to get funding for such a project. My tutors tried to dissuade me from abandoning a proper career in research psychology, but I was determined. I found a part-time job teaching in a polytechnic and a Professor at the University of Surrey who was prepared to take me on, and began work for a PhD on the paranormal.

According to my grand theory; memory was not stored in the brain as everyone assumed (and we now know to be true) but depended on some kind of psychic or telepathic field. I devised predictions concerning ESP and memory and set to work on a long series of experiments. I found no ESP. Week after week, and month after month, I kept changing the conditions, correcting errors, trying different methods, and still no ESP. Other parapsychologists around the world were quick with suggestions – try young children (their natural psychic powers are undimmed by nasty education, you see), try imagery training (we’re all naturally telepathic when our minds are freed), try sensory deprivation, try Tarot cards.

I kept trying, until one day I simply stopped believing. I’m not sure whether it was the combined evidence, the realisation that my theory was neither new nor coherent, or just the exhaustion of getting nowhere, but I remember the day on which I changed my mind. It was as though everything I had believed in had been hanging on by a tiny thread and the thread finally broke. “What if” I thought “what if none of it’s true – none at all?” The world looked a very different place without the psychic lenses.

People often ask me whether I was disheartened, or depressed, or angry that I’d wasted so much time. But I wasn’t. And it wasn’t a waste of time for me personally. During those years I learned much about research methods and statistics, interviewed people who’d had amazing experiences, and learned a great deal about myself. Perhaps above all I learned how to change my mind when I found I was wrong – surely a crucial skill for any scientist.

Was it then a waste of time for science itself. To some extent I think it was. If telepathy and precognition could be demonstrated, or souls shown to leave the body, this would have explosive consequences for science. Indeed it would affect not only psychology but our entire understanding of time, space and matter. But finding out that they don’t is a damp squib. I couldn’t blame those who said “I told you so.” It was, after all, a scientific gamble, and a poor one. All I learned was what most scientists believed all along.

After this anti-conversion I threw myself into research on altered states of consciousness, the brain basis of out-of-body and near-death experiences, and why people hold false beliefs. Throughout these years I managed on small grants from private organisations and by teaching evening classes and a few lectures at Bristol University. Then increasingly I was asked to play “rent-a-sceptic”, appearing on radio and TV programmes with a hundred people who’d seen a ghost, or a studio full of alien abductees, to “provide balance” by saying “it’s all in the mind”. Though it’s unpopular to say so I think being a mother with young kids was relevant. I felt able to stay at home like so many other mothers in my village, with the difference that I took every chance, while the children slept or played, to work on my book or analyse some data. Then, at some point, I had to earn real money, and that’s when I applied for my first proper job.

If it hadn’t been for my early obsession with the paranormal I would never have chosen this independent life, and it must be obvious that most independents work on highly quirky subjects. Jim Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis was considered completely beyond the pale until the human threat to Earth’s climate became obvious. Much of Nick Humphrey’s work was on the origins of consciousness, at a time when consciousness itself was barely mentionable in mainstream science. He also worked on paranormal claims and, like me, became increasingly sceptical the more he investigated.

Is Sheldrake wrong? I believe so. I did so many of my own experiments that failed; I investigated so many other peoples’ experiments and found them wanting, and I investigated so many claims of amazing paranormal feats that turned out to be false, that I think the chances of his being right are negligible. But they are not zero. And here I differ from many other scientists. I am positively glad that Sheldrake is doing what he is. The paranormal is believed in by so many people, and would be so important for science were it true, that we must have at least a few scientists trying to find out. And that, given the way conventional scientific funding works, means we need a few crazy independents who have found some way of funding their work and will carry on alone regardless.

Is there a danger? Humphrey thinks so, and quotes John Maynard Keynes who said “It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone.” My own ideas, like those of Lovelock, Humphrey or Sheldrake, may indeed be foolish. Some of mine have been downright wrong. I was wrong about telepathy, wrong about memory, and I have had several completely batty theories about consciousness. I may still be wrong about memes, consciousness and the illusion of free will, but I prefer to take that risk than lose the chance of pursuing my ideas during the one life I have.