Academic Myths


Do you remember hearing that atomic energy was going to make electricity “too cheap to meter”?  This is an academic myth from engineering. Obviously no one believes this one anymore.  By “academic myth” I mean a wrong idea widely held by authority figures like professors at any eminent university (and in their field of expertise). Actually, Denver’s domestic city water was un-metered for the first ¾ of the City’s existence.


Some of these are trivial like the myth in chemistry that the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon) are totally inert chemically.  This myth was rebutted in 1960 by the demonstration that xenon reacted rather briskly with elemental fluorine.  This new fact produced no controversy but has yet to appear in elementary chemistry textbooks because it would unnecessarily complicate teaching basic chemistry to most such students.


There have been too many of these academic myths in medicine.  Here is one recently rebutted: the belief that human brain cells do not divide and multiply after early childhood.  And the very interesting new evidence: cab drivers from Providence, RI, have a much larger hippocampus than cab drivers from New York City.  The hippocampus is the part of the brain where geographical information is stored.  Providence has very many irrationally related streets.  New York is almost all simply streets east and west and avenues north and south—much, much less to remember to find any address in the larger city than the smaller one.  The required additional cells for this information storage in the hippocampus were created on demand in adults who didn’t even know that they would be cab drivers. 


And a second example from medicine: a generation ago it was universally agreed that a very bland diet was required to heal stomach ulcers.  My Spanish-speaking patients taught me that this was not true because they almost reflexly ate spices and their ulcers healed anyway.  Perhaps the Spanish patients were spared because the aggravation of ulcers by spices is from your family telling you off about not following your diet, not from the diet itself.  I will finish with what are, perhaps, the two most important academic myths of our time.


Economists almost from the origin of their field as an academic discipline had held, quite emphatically, that a nation’s economy  had to grow in order to remain healthy.  This myth has been crumbling slowly for 50 years.  Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Lovins and Hawken’s Natural Capital, and Daly’s Limits to Growth led the way.  It is time for this myth to be abolished if only because of global warming from accumulation of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere caused by the industrial revolution when large scale exploitation of fossil fuel began.  In 1895 Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist and a father of the field of physical chemistry, was studying the infrared absorption spectrum of CO2.  The ability of CO2 to absorb and reflect heat was perceived by Arrhenius to be capable of soon precipitating global warming when added to the already (in 1895) known increase in atmospheric CO2 following the industrial revolution. His measurements and calculations had to be quite sophisticated because CO2 is now only about 0.04% of our atmosphere even after it has almost doubled from the pre-industrial content.   So don’t buy into the myth, never widely held by academics, that we cannot afford the cost of fighting global warming—we cannot afford not to fight.  Some of the battles, like conservation, cost less than nothing.  Besides, global warming is only one of the limits to growth.  Exhaustion of natural resources such as petroleum, metals, forests, fisheries, not to mention environmental degradation will soon trash the planet if global warming doesn’t catch us first.


My final academic myth deserves great emphasis.  This is the myth that all knowledge is socially and culturally determined. It has been widely held in humanities departments of colleges and universities for many decades.  This myth totally discounts efforts to discover objective truth and thereby trashes scientific endeavor.  Sometimes it is called postmodernism.  Its fundamental error is in believing that the human mind is a blank slate at birth so that all that we become depends on upbringing, education, and other life experience—nothing is innate.  This is not true.  Only one counterexample suffices to refute it: people blind from birth evoke the same involuntary facial expressions to emotions such as fear, elation, shame, as seeing people (from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals  by Charles Darwin, 1872).


Postmodernists are correct that scientists are not logical machines.  They do have biases that mislead them--even stubborn ones that they carry to their graves.  All this does not prevent science from being self-correcting. A few examples follow.


Darwin himself believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics as did everyone else in his times. (Stalinists resurrected this belief; they really liked it because it would make second-generation communists easier to indoctrinate.)


Linus Pauling was the only person ever (so far) to receive two Nobel prizes as the sole recipient (Chemistry and Peace Prizes).  No one doubts that he deserved the prizes.  However, he was convinced that vitamin C cured and prevented colds.  This has been disproved without detracting from his major accomplishments.


Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of organic evolution with Charles Darwin, went to his grave believing that spiritualists really do communicate with the dead.  He did not merely dabble with spiritualism; he was a true believer.  His other opinions were unaffected.  He was also the first prominent citizen anywhere to state publicly that primitive races were not inferior.  He learned this from traveling alone with them in the Amazon and Indonesia.


Louis Agassiz, the geologist who first perceived the geological evidence for continental glaciation in 1840, never accepted the fossil record and other evidence for organic evolution.  I never took a formal course in geology, but the textbook I borrowed from a friend showed a picture of a San Francisco statue of Agassiz toppled by the 1906 earthquake, making a metaphorical point for the author (and for me in this essay).  (Later I passed a pop quiz in geology required by the rangers for off the trail travel in the Grand Canyon—the routes through the cliffs required recognizing geological landmarks to follow them.)


Bottom line: don’t knock required college courses outside your major field.  More science knowledge by humanities graduates would have saved the world from postmodernism.


John A. Frantz, MD   

July 26, 2006