Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Linus Pauling and a vitamin C theory of consciousness

this household name is on my mind a lot these days.

i didn't realize Pauling has won not just one but two Nobel prizes. all i knew was his highly controversial advocacy of vitamin C. he thought it could cure cancer.

ok, maybe that says more about my general lack of education in chemistry than anything else (i was a solid "D" student). but question is, how can someone so smart get something so simple so wrong? you just run some double-blind randomized clinical trials instead of rely on self-anecdotes, & that should be basic scientific commonsense?

ah well, maybe it should be commonsense by now, but only if we care to learn the unpleasant lessons from the past.

there is a world of difference between how the physical/mathematical sciences should be done, and how human biomedical sciences should be done. the skillset and necessary concerns don't always translate. in biomedical sciences, honest empirical tally keeping is more important than anything else.

for those who see consciousness as a problem of theoretical physics, who wants a mathematically grounded grand theory, they would really do well read the story of vitamin C and Linus Pauling (this is a good bio)

in the end, Pauling never got vilified like Freud was. but he has two Nobel prizes to buffer the damage to his legacy. for those who don't, i suppose it wouldn't be so nice to be remembered a cult leader advocating "quackery".


  1. Hey Hakwan, great to see you blogging! I am definitely looking forward to your book (I have almost thought about trying to possibly write a monograph on higher-order thought theories of consciousness but it seems like a lot of work!

    Anyway, I read the biography you linked to and it was very interesting. It seems like he had a lot of intuitive guesses, some of which turned out to be right and some of which turned out to be wrong. The vitamin C thing seems to be one of those as well, just one of the wrong ones. I have often wondered why some people take their intuition so seriously and I sometimes think it is more often the case that this happens when one has a lot of intuitive success. So, if one is mathematically inclined and is able to intuitively see the answer/solution/proof or whatever then when one has some intuitive pull in another domain one would be more likely to trust that intuition. On the other hand those who intuitive fail more often may be more cautious.

    But do you really think 'honest' tally keeping is possible in one's own life time? Isn't that a discipline-wide sort of thing that happens over time? Individual scientists should make arguments based on data, but all of that depends on interpreting the dat (which is already a theoretically loaded enterprise) If Dehane and you write a book on consciousness you will likely appeal to a lot of the same evidence but interpreted differently, right?

    On another note people like Freud, and I would add Franz Gall (and countless others), may have been doing something that we would classify as pseudoscience, or quackery, but don't you think they still contributed something? Every intro pay textbook talks about Freud all throughout the book, but especially in the contribution of the unconscious (sure it is not the cognitive unconscious, etc but it is still a contribution, right?)....same for Gall. Phrenology is BS but localization of function is still an important insight right? So maybe even those on the wrong path (from our point of view) may still contribute something useful in the long (possibly very long) run, or would you disagree with that?

  2. to make it look like i have more blog posts i will attempt to reply you in a different post in the next few days :-D