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June 27, 2007

Paradigm Shifts, Family Jewels, and Schrödinger's Cat

Though I have previously argued that a Heisenberg-esque Uncertainty Principle exist[s] in social interactions as much as it does in quantum mechanics, two recent (and unrelated) news stories have really driven home (for me, at least) the challenges we face, both as individuals and as a society, in attempting to make sense of contemporary developments. While this could be said about developments (or advancements, as the case may be) in any field of academic inquiry, be it art, science, or economics, the two disciplines I will focus on are (American) history and (molecular) biology, specifically the recent release of the so-called family jewels by the C.I.A. and recent developments in understanding the role of RNA, as outlined last week in the Economist (registration and subscription required, respectively).

The Family Jewels

Though the C.I.A.'s alleged shenanigans during the Cold War have been the subject of conspiracy theories for years now, and even distributed (and convoluted) by hugely popular movies and television shows (e.g., J.F.K., The X-Files), legitimate insight and analysis into what actually happened has been severely limited hitherto by an endemic lack of transparency. Equally problematic is the fact that most attempts to document, understand, and analyze the events of the Cold War and Vietnam-era have been undertaken by individuals who themselves were part of that era, i.e., entangled (to use a quantum term) with it; and thus, unlikely to have been in a position to understand the long-term implications.

I have always been skeptical of contemporary analysis, especially in the social sciences (e.g., political science, sociology, history) that rely so heavily upon insights only hindsight affords, particularly because of the so-called observer effect. One need only look at the myriad works published in recent years that purport to analyze the consequences of the 2003 Iraq invasion and the Bush Doctrine of preemption to realize that, for the most part, no one has even the slightest idea of what the implications of these actions might be; all we have is educated (or often, uneducated) guesses, reasoned (and unreasoned) predictions that will likely be looked upon by our children as just as ridiculous as Dewey Defeats Truman (1948) seems to us.

Compare this lack of clear knowledge with our understanding of the Truman Doctrine, and it soon becomes clear how little power we have to understand our own world, specifically because we are ourselves actors in it. Perhaps it is for this reason alone that we are likely to be condemned to repeat the past despite our understanding of history: every generation wants to see itself as different than the past one, and has not the capability to see its own actions as simply variants of its parents' and grandparents' generations, ultimately yielding the same results and failures.

RNA and Lamarckism

If you were to ask me eight years ago (fresh out of A.P. Biology class, no less), or even last week (holding a degree in Molecular Biology), about Jean Baptiste Lamarck and his theory of acquired evolutionary characteristics, I would have told you, both then and now, that it was patently wrong and widely discredited. To wit, I would have been correct, insofar as contemporary understanding of evolution and genetics goes, but also, perhaps, totally wrong—at least, if one is to believe the recently propagated theories about how RNA may, in fact, facilitate the genetic transmission of characteristics acquired by the parent during its lifetime to its offspring.

That concept, which hitherto was downright ridiculous, given our understanding of DNA and genes, now seems more and more plausible. We are probably living through a so-called paradigm shift in molecular biology, and yet, I am not so sure we have the capability to grasp it fully. For every Einstein in the 1920s and 1930s, I'm sure there were hundreds, if not thousands, of physicists who refused to acknowledge quantum mechanics at all, clinging desperately to the classical Newtonian physics on which they had based their entire lives.

Science, like most disciplines, relies on some (seemingly) irrefutable axioms, and when we start to question or erode the foundation upon which we base our inquiries, it can be very traumatic for those who live through it. Often times, the fiction of consummate understanding is far superior (for the human psyche, anyway) to the disconcerting realization that we know nothing at all (or worse, that we have it all completely wrong).

Schrödinger's Cat and Other Thoughts

All the discussion above, however, is not intended to say that just because we probably do not have the capability to fully understand events that transpire during our lives, that we should not attempt to do so anyway. I think in certain ways, the people who do end up making especially prescient observations distinguish themselves in a way that we should allow people to be distinguished. By that, I mean, that while it may sometimes seem that observations and analysis offered by some are simply a result of luck or chance, the ability to foresee events cannot always be random. Accurate and prophetic observations often speak to the skills (and perhaps, superior understanding) of the observer, as much as they do to any notion of luck. This is especially so in science, where challenging the establishment and contradicting one's own educational framework can often prove to be nearly impossible.

It may be true that we might not have a means to know whether Schrödinger's cat is alive or dead, and perhaps, that means that it is both dead and alive simultaneously, but ignoring the cat is far worse than not knowing its status. We just have to learn to acknowledge our own inadequacies, and come to terms with them. Only then can we all move on to our analysis, virtually guaranteed to be flawed and inherently riddled with biases.


Important points, especially tying in the history with the science. The Hegelian dialect is most firmly grounded in the evolution of scientific thought, which is always perceived to be cumulative and progressive. As the RNA theory attests, this may not always be the case.

Knowledge is power, but knowledge also speaks truth to power.

And speaking of AP Bio, I just dominated in that class.

I don't remember a thing from AP Bio, besides the fact that I had it first period, and couldn't be tardy.

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