Thursday, 17 April 2008

The science-hating Daily Mail does it again

This is a story by the Daily Mail by Danny Penman about how memories and personality traits might be inadvertently transplanted along with organs:

Not only is the idea obviously ridiculous, but the article quotes the famously gullible Gary Schwartz to lend some dubious credibility to the story. It lists a handful of stories that suggest extreme personality cases and some 'amazing' coincidences that have occurred in transplant patients and refers to 'more than 70 documented cases' (where are they documented, exactly, Danny?) that are 'similar' to the one at the heart (pun shamefully intended) of the story. What do you mean by 'similar'?, Danny?

The central story concerns a man called Sonny Graham, who shot himself without warning after receiving a heart transplant from a man who also shot himself under, according to Penman, 'identical circumstances'. Additionally, Graham apparently tracked down the donor's wife (I have to wonder for what possible reason anyone would do this) and claimed to fall instantly in love with her and married her shortly afterwards.

Penman writes:
The tragedy of Sonny Graham will, no doubt, be written off as mere coincidence. After all, there is surely no conceivable way that the memories, let alone the character of a donor, can be transplanted along with their heart.
before going on, of course, to suggest that there is such a possibility. But I want to quickly look at how 'coincidental' this behaviour really is.

First, the shootings. Shooting is a relatively common means of suicide, especially in the US where guns are commonplace. I can't help but wonder if had he hanged himself, people would still flag it as a coincidence because, afterall, they both committed suicide. Of course, according to Penman, the circumstances of the suicides were 'identical'. I'm having real difficulty in imagining what this might mean, especially since it is likely that the two men were alone at the time they killed themselves. What was identical about the incidents? That they both used guns to shoot themselves? Since this is a sensationalist story about spooky coincidences, I can't help but feel that if there were marked similarities between the incidents, Penman would have spelled them out in lurid detail. The other supposed coincidence is that Graham shot himself 'without warning' and was otherwise apparently happy. However, this only seems like a coincidence because of the circumstances. It is very common to hear of the shock of friends and relatives when someone commits suicide. I myself have known two people who killed themselves and - although I admit that I might not be the most sensitive person in the world - I had no warning whatsoever. Nobody suspected any supernatural influence precisely because it is common for suicides to occur without warning. Plus, what kind of warning would there be, anyway? Someone repeatedly stating that they wanted to die or making several botched or half-hearted attempts would surely qualify, but I'm not sure what else would.

Second, we have the rather creepy business with the donor's wife. I mean 'creepy' in the sense of morbidly fascinating, not in any supernatural sense. First, Graham tracks down the donor's wife (as far as I know, donors are anonymous in the UK largely to prevent things like this), for reasons unknown. Then he instantly falls in love with her and marries her. Coincidence? Not even that. She's a much younger, attractive woman. They would be forgiven for feeling a dubious 'connection' toward each other. And on Graham's part, we should be clear: the man was clearly obsessed. Why else did he track her down in the first place? Presumably he felt some need to track her down, but I can see no reason to suspect that the organ itself was the root of that. Adopted people frequently feel a need to track their natural parents, despite the fact that they have had only genetic influence over their lives. People like to keep track of old homes or cars. Perhaps Graham felt in some sense uncomfortable about having another person's heart and felt a need for some kind of 'closure'. Who can tell - but it seems a plausible explanation. It might also go some way to explaining why Graham shot himself: if he was obsessed with his donor, it might easily lead him into a cycle of behaviour that led to thoughts of emulating his suicide. Again, I am speculating wildly and have no evidence that this was the case. And yet, it seems a lot more plausible than Penman's suggestion, simply because we know that people can behave in that kind of way. We understand some of the drives and motives of people. We have witnessed how obsessive behaviour can develop and the marked influence it can have on a person's life.

So I don't think that anything in Sonny Graham's story points at the possibility that personality is transplanted along with organs. Neither do I see any coincidences at all in the story: just things that look like coincidences if you suspend your objectivity for a moment. In fact, if there is anything like a coincidence or something remotely odd, it is from the perspective of the wife, who had two husbands shoot themselves. It might be more interesting to look at this common element, rather than at the organ. I'm not, of course, suggesting that the wife had anything to do with either case; I'm just pointing out that Penman carefully avoids this connection entirely and focuses on the transplant.

Penman gives several other anecdotes, which are all equally easy to understand without needing to invoke supernatural means. For example, a boy who wrote a song called Danny, My Heart is Yours, speaking of how the protagonist "felt destined to die and donate his heart." He was later killed in a car crash, did indeed donate his heart - to a girl called Danielle. It is claimed that when the boy's parents met Danielle (it would be interesting to know who tracked whom down), they played her this song (how warped are these people) and although she had never heard it before, she 'knew the words and was able to complete the lyrics'.

Let's look at the 'spooky' bits of this one too. First, how about the whole Danny/Danielle thing. Yeah, I suppose we can call that one a coincidence, although not really much of one. But look again: this is supposed to be a story about how personality is transplanted along with an organ, but in this case, the song was written and titled and the girl named before the organ was transplanted. In other words, we have to write this coincidence off entirely unless we are also claiming that people (or hearts) can see the future. The song was about a heart transplant, so must have involved a recipient. He picked a name which was similar to the name of the recipient of his heart. Big deal.

We are also asked to be surprised that he wrote a song about dying and donating a heart, then he died and donated a heart. This is not a coincidence because everyone dies. If they have a donor card, the heart will be harvested for transplant. This would have happened whether he had written the song or not.

What about the song lyrics? Well, the reporting is woefully vague here, isn't it? In what way did she 'know' the lyrics? Exactly how did she 'finish' them? If she knew them, presumably she wouldn't have had to just 'finish' them - she would have been able to recite them from scratch. If she was 'just' able to 'finish' them, that wouldn't be a very surprising feat. Afterall, song lyrics tend to rhyme and have to scan, so the options are limited, even for a skilled songwriter. We have no idea how skilled or otherwise the donor was. I bet I could do the same with a random song I hadn't heard. Add to this the fact that the meeting was surely emotionally charged and had only happened in the first place because at least some of the participants felt the need to feel a 'connection', much as I'm speculating Sonny Graham did. Otherwise, why would the meeting have happened at all? And if that situation isn't likely to colour your perceptions of what actually happened, I don't know what is. Even a small 'hit' (guessing the last line to a verse, for example) would seem very important and could easily be magnified in the memory to Danielle 'knowing the lyrics'.

In other words, no real coincidence here, either: at least, none that requires an explanation such as hearts having memories. There just isn't anything here to explain. The parents were grieving, the girl was probably feeling pretty weird about the whole thing (afterall, she had received major surgery that saved her life, which was only possible because someone else died. That has to be a traumatic event.) I think both parties might have wanted - desperately needed - to find some kind of connection and so magnified the significance of some events.

There are a few other sketchy and easy to explain anecdotes, but I won't go into them.

I want to finish with the 'science-hating' I refer to in the title. Of course, this is supposed to be a sensationalist story, but the tone used by Penman when describing how he personally believes that scientists would react to the story (he doesn't actually go and ask any, revealingly (Schwartz doesn't count)) is unsettling. For example:
Virtually every doctor and scientist will tell you the heart is a mere pump.
I don't think they would say that. I think they would talk about the heart's incredible properties, the feat of 'engineering' carried out by natural selection and open wonder at the skills of the researchers and surgeons who have made it possible to perform live-saving transplants.
For a few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body.
Why are these people described as 'brave'? If they have a hypothesis and any evidence to support it, then they are just doing their jobs. Bucking the norm for a scientist 't 'brave', it's what
we are supposed to do. The emotive term 'brave' is used solely to romanticise the notion and to add more spurious credibility to a story that badly needs it.
Many scientists will, of course, point out that tens of thousands of organ transplants have now been carried out worldwide, so you would expect to come across a few bizarre cases like Sonny Graham's.
The 'of course' could mean two things:
  1. Of course scientists will say this because it is true
  2. Of course scientists would say that, wouldn't they?
I strongly suspect Penman is trying to suggest the latter. What do these scientists know, eh? With their tedious evidence?

To be fair to Penman, he does make a token leaning towards critical thinking....but as we've come to expect from stories like this, it is only to set up a straw man, which he does a pretty inadequate job of shooting down:

It is also hardly surprising that after a major life-threatening operation such as a heart transplant, a patient may undergo a profound alteration to their character. Who could remain unchanged after staring death in the face?

The powerful drugs required as part of organ transplant procedures can also cause major changes in behaviour. Put all these together and it's no wonder that some patients leave hospital with a drastically different outlook on life.

He proceeds to point out that these are not adequate explanations because the changes in these reported cases are 'so specific'. I don't know what he means by that, how he proposes to measure specificity or where he proposes to draw the line between specific enough and not, but as I said, this is a straw man anyway. It deliberately leaves out the obvious knowledge of the recipients about details of the donors' lives and willingness of outside observers to interpret things within a supernatural framework, perhaps driven by grief or anxiety. The changes may be specific because of some kind of obsession with the donor or with the transplant itself. It would not be difficult to set up a controlled double-blinded study on this matter.
If Professor Schwartz and his ilk are right, it would destroy one of the foundation stones of modern biology. But then again, modern biology has a guilty little secret: it has, as yet, no viable theory to explain how we store memories and how we produce consciousness.
This is an astounding statement. First of all, it is a stunning non-sequitur. Yes, such a discovery would destroy one of the foundations of modern biology. But that is entirely unrelated to the suggestion that biology doesn't know about consciousness. They two are conjoined only for rhetorical impact. Second, the extent of knowledge biologists have on consciousness is neither guilty nor a secret. It is published and available to anyone who wants to read it. But why should scientists be guilty of not knowing everything yet? They know more than you do, Danny. Scientists will freely admit their ignorance. In fact, that is what science is all about. Admit you don't know something and set about trying to find out. Third, of course, it is absolute nonsense to say that we have no 'viable' (I wonder what he means by that?) theory of how we store memories and produce consciousness. It is true that we don't have the full picture yet, but there is an enormous amount that we do know. It is all there in the public domain (although regrettably, you still have to pay for access to some journals) - just go and look it up.
In fact, scientists haven't even managed to define what exactly consciousness is, let alone managed to pin down where it comes from and where it is to be found within the body.
Tchk, these idiot scientists, eh? This just proves they don't know what they are talking about, doesn't it? Well, no. Why should scientists be able - even in principle - to put together an entirely unambiguous definition of what does and doesn't constitute consciousness, without exceptions on either side? Danny, do you know for sure that such a thing is even possible? This is not some mystical quality of consciousness, of course. The same is true of definitions of 'life'. Or 'happiness'. Or 'confusion'. Some things just can't be defined that way: consciousness or even life is not a binary property that any given object can be said definitively to have or not to have. If you don't believe me, ask whether a brain damaged person is conscious. Or a dog. Are bacteria alive? Viruses? The answer is defined. A virus is alive according to our definition, whereas a bacterium isn't, not because of some mystical property of life, but because we have drawn the line in that place because it is useful. Now there certainly are scientific definitions of consciousness (again, all you have to do is look them up). Whether they are adequate for all purposes seems debatable, but the important point is that a universally agreed definition is not needed in order to study something. Scientists need to be able to describe what it is that they are studying, but they don't have to provide a universal definition of an entire subject to do that.
And if we can transplant hearts, then perhaps it's not so fanciful to suggest that some part of the spirit goes with them.
Except that there is absolutely no evidence that a 'spirit' exists and that the more we learn about consciousness, and despite what Penman hasn't bothered to look up, we already know a lot, the less room there is for any kind of soul. Simple observations of brain damage have made that pretty clear, for one thing.

But neither Penman nor the Mail care about any of this. They wanted a sensational story and they engineered one. They wanted to cast scientists as the bad guys, spoiling the fanciful
notions of desperate people and they carefully achieved that as well. The story of Sonny Graham alone should teach them that perpetuating this kind of delusion might easily be dangerous. It is certainly harmful and entirely immoral to give false hope to victims of tragedy. It is bad enough when sincere believers do this. When bad journalists in ludicrous newspapers do it simply to increase sales, it is unforgivable.

[Edit: you can see more of Danny Penman's 'wisdom' here:

Very worryingly and disappointingly, it seems that (if this is the same Danny, which it appears to be) he has a PhD in biochemistry. I wasn't 100% sure that he was deliberately writing nonsense or whether he actually believed some of what he said until I found this link. Now I think we can be certain that he's a complete sell-out. He also appears to write for New Scientist. The articles of his I've skimmed in there so far seem to be of higher quality, although they are shorter, factual 'filler' pieces.]

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