__"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
                                                                                                                            Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park

Just because science makes something seem possible, does that mean we should do it? Of course not, as this astonishing video about post-war DDT use shows:

_Until 1945, most wars had ended because of insect-borne illnesses such as typhus: too many soldiers were dying of disease for fighting to continue. The invention of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT – changed that. In the post-war era the chemists cashed in on the kudos they had garnered for themselves. Chemistry, its proponents suggested, could also change peacetime.

It certainly seemed plausible, and so governments invested in giant industrial complexes that churned out tons of chemicals for use in agriculture and city sanitation. US Public Health Department films show DDT being sprayed on happy children eating sandwiches in a public park, on others splashing in the municipal swimming pool, on mothers holding babies while watching community events.
 
The chemists were going to eradicate the insect pest. And, despite the fact that one of the insecticides used, tetraethylpyrophosphate (TEPP), was nothing but the refined essence of a German nerve gas compound, it apparently never occurred to them that these pesticides could harm other organisms too.
 
Another post-war civil use of chemistry was the augmentation of women’s breasts. Doctors had been trying it for decades, but our new chemical abilities changed the game. The creation of silicone led to injections of a newly-created chemical: liquid silicone to enhance breasts. The result was, in many cases, a need for mastectomy (this 1995 article in the Journal of Plastic Surgery shows the problem has persisted).
 
In 1962 the Dow Corning corporation began to offer breast implants with silicone shells (PDF). There are now many manufacturers of these prosthetics, and millions of women have had them implanted.
 
But let’s be clear, there are downsides. Here’s one disclaimer I found, on the website www.femaleplasticsurgeons.com:
 
 
If you are undergoing breast augmentation, be aware that breast implantation may not be a one time surgery. You are likely to need additional surgery and visits to your female plastic surgeon over the course of your life. Breast implants are not considered lifetime devices. You will likely under go implant removal with or without replacement over the course of your life. Many of the changes to your breast following implantation are irreversible (cannot be undone). If you later choose to have your implant(s) removed, you may experience unacceptable dimpling, puckering, wrinkling, or other cosmetic changes of the breast. Ask your female plastic surgeon about replacement issues. Breast implants may affect your ability to produce milk for breast feeding. Also, breast implants will not prevent your breast from sagging after pregnancy. With breast implants, routine screening mammography will be more difficult, and you will need to have additional views, which means more time and radiation. For patients who have undergone breast implantation either as a cosmetic or a reconstructive procedure, health insurance premiums may increase, coverage may be dropped, and/or future coverage may be denied. Treatment of complications may not be covered as well. You should check with your insurance company regarding these coverage issues.
 
 
It's admirably clear. What it doesn’t say is that, having risked all of the above, the surgery might not do the job you were hoping it would.
 
The medical literature (see here and here, for instance) says there is no evidence that breast augmentation surgery improves self-esteem. Women who have it are more satisfied with their breasts – but not with their general appearance.
 
Worse, as I wrote in the New Statesman this week (and I didn’t call for a ban, as the headline suggests), those seeking the surgery tend to be more vulnerable, with a range of psychological issues – issues that get worse, not better, after surgery. Add to that the fact that women who have had cosmetic breast surgery are around three times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t.
 
It seemed like a good idea to spray America with DDT in order to get rid of insects. Then we discovered that it was destroying the natural world. There was an outcry and the practice was halted.
 
There needs to be an outcry (not a ban) over breast augmentation surgery. Of course the issues run deep. We have a problem with the objectification of, and expectations placed upon, women by others, whether it be the mass media or porn-fed husbands and boyfriends. And, yes, there is a danger that any tightening of regulation would result in women getting surgery on the black market and coming to harm. But let’s be clear, harm is already being done.
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Picture
_ A few years ago, a friend of a friend was at a party, talking to the local druid (actually, he’s a chief druid; he leads The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). The druid broke off the conversation with a brilliant line: “Excuse me, but I can sense that someone is trying to get through to me on the telephone.”

The recipient of this snub reported it to my friend as evidence of just how sensitive, perceptive and spiritual the druid was. My friend reported it to me as an example of how being deluded about your insight has unexpected payoffs: who hasn’t longed for a way of brushing off someone in a way that would inspire admiration rather than irritation?

I would put Rupert Sheldrake in the same category as my local druid. He is utterly convinced he has insight, is not afraid to express it, and has won no end of admiration as a result.

Many scientists and science-lovers have been moaning over the past week about the publicity given to Sheldrake’s new book, The Science Delusion. It has been positively reviewed in the Guardian, and a gushing, uncritical profile in the Observer this weekend also drew exasperated sighs. But not from me: I have long since learned to accept defeat at Sheldrake’s hands.

The truth is, Sheldrake has cannily tapped into a very human foible. That’s why most people think that he is almost certainly onto something when he tells us about a mysterious force that pervades all of nature, something that connects us all. L Ron Hubbard managed something similar.

A few years ago, I tried to read Sheldrake’s seminal book, A New Science of Life. We were due to debate each other at the ICA in London, and I thought I should do him the courtesy of reading his work.

ANSoL is about questions that don’t yet have answers from science. Sheldrake helpfully provides a near-universal answer: “morphic resonance”. Morphic resonance is an influence that allows cells to develop in the myriad necessary ways, gives people a psychic connection to others, enables dogs to know when their owners are coming home, and so on.

This is the passage that caused me to stop reading:


“Morphic resonance is non-energetic, and morphogenetic fields themselves are neither a type of mass nor energy. Therefore there seems to be no a priori reason why it should obey the laws that have been found to apply to the movement of bodies, particles and waves. In particular, it need not be attenuated by either spatial or temporal separation between similar systems, it could be just  as effective over 10,000 kilometres as over a centimetre, and over a century as an hour.

The assumption that morphic resonance is not attenuated by time and space will be adopted as a provisional working hypothesis, on the ground of simplicity.”



It's such a ludicrous assumption, based on something explicitly designed to be untestable by science, that there’s really no point going any further.

When the debate came, although I hadn’t finished reading Rupert’s book, I had read many refutations of his science and experimental reports, and was confident that I could persuade the audience that Rupert really wasn’t a voice worth paying much attention. Which makes it all the more galling that, really, I came off quite badly.

We talked about his experiments, and I tried to point out the flaws in his design and thinking. I was obviously successful because two-thirds of the way through the chair, Vivienne Parry, took an audience poll. “Who’s feeling sorry for Rupert?” she asked. Almost everyone in the audience – my wife included – put up their hands.

I had to laugh. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but it seemed clear the audience weren’t interested in what’s logical or rational, or about how a scientist should go about these experiments and exercise caution about drawing extraordinary conclusions. They were there because they were interested in being told what they wanted to hear.

Thanks to evolution, we have a hard-wired sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s why people want to feel connected to everything else in nature, past, present and future. Morphic resonance taps into this. Science fights against it, to try to establish what is really the case. But if people don't want to expend that effort, they won't.

Afterwards, when Sheldrake and I sat side by side for a book signing, his queue went out of the bookshop and round the corner. Mine wasn't really a queue, just a gathering of half a dozen people.

Of course it’s frustrating to be less popular than Rupert Sheldrake, but I have learned to relax: you can't beat the astrologers, you can't beat Deepak Chopra, and you can't beat Sheldrake. Plus, it won’t last long. Rupert Sheldrake is the Cliff Richard of pseudoscience (non-Brits, forgive me). He is getting old and irrelevant, and so are most of his admirers. Just as no one covers Cliff’s songs, no one else will pick up Sheldrake’s scientific mantle. Mistletoe and Wine is already a thing of the past, and Morphic Resonance will soon go the same way.