How to Run a Conference: closed-minded practices revealed


Madness season is here
Scientists waxing furious
To what end?




Certain invitees to a workshop on the Foundations of Physics received from the organisers letters withdrawing their invitations. The letter to Brian Josephson asserted:
"It has come to my attention that one of your principal research interests is the paranormal ... in my view, it would not be appropriate for someone with such research interests to attend a scientific conference."
while a similar letter to David Peat asserted:
"It has come to my attention that you are the author of books on Jungian synchronicity and quantum physics, and on connections between Native American Indian thought and modern physics ... in my view, it is not appropriate for an author of such books to attend a scientific conference."
These letters illustrate well the defensive, paranoid attitudes of members of the scientific community such as those who pressed for this action to be taken; for such people, science equates to 'closed minded enquiry', in the light of which their action is in no way surprising.

Concerning the addressees, Brian Josephson is a Nobel Laureate in Physics, and has in the past year given invited special lectures on his work at Freiburg University's Institute of Advanced Studies (the Hermann Staudinger Lecture), and Loughborough University (the Sir Nevill Mott lecture). In neither talk was there more than casual reference to the paranormal. David Peat has a Ph.D. in physics from Liverpool University. He has collaborated with David Bohm with whose work the workshop is concerned, and lectured on the subtleties of Bohm's ideas. He coauthored with Bohm the book Science, Order and Creativity.

update of April 23 2010: A correspondent notes that this kind of thing, the 'exclusion of undesirables', happens routinely, but usually covertly. One suspects that the organisers, under pressure, sent out these strangely worded emails precisely in order that this unfortunate practice might come out into the open. The above extracts, relating specifically to individuals as such rather than simply imposing conditions upon their attendance, demonstrate clearly that certain scientists regard themselves as members of an exclusive club, not open-minded seekers after truth.

Politics and thoughtcrime

April 26, 2010: A communication has now been sent by the organisers explaining the background to the letters, which seems to have had a strong political element though this was not asserted directly. It was suggested (and there is no doubt much truth in this) that those in control are so prejudiced against the paranormal that belief in the reality of telepathy, etc. can disqualify one for consideration for a job. It was, fundamentally, to protect young researchers looking for jobs that the disinvitation letters were sent.

Such attitudes are pervasive. Scientists who have reason to believe that telepathy is real dare not state this publicly, since this admission could have disastrous effects on their career path. For example my Ph.D. supervisor and head of the Cavendish at the time, the late Sir Brian Pippard, told me once privately that he was quite sure that telepathy existed as his mother always seemed to have accurate knowledge of what was happening to his brother who was fighting in World War II. But he did not tell of this publicly until well after his retirement, as after-dinner speaker at a parapsychology conference.

Orwell, in his book 1984, imagined a similar situation, in a totalitarian society where one could be charged (ref. Wikipedia) with thoughtcrime:
In the book, the government attempts to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects, labelling disapproved thought as thoughtcrime.
Thoughtcrime is alive and well in the scientific community today, as the politics that underlies this affair clearly demonstrates.

The situation has interesting ramifications. In 1991, Valentini, and Fotini Pallikari-Viras and I, realised independently that under some circumstances Bohm's quantum potential had implications for parapsychology. Pallikari-Viras and I developed this possibility, while Valentini developed the mathematics in his Ph.D. thesis and subsequently, but when he writes about it carefully avoids mentioning, as he must, these obvious implications of his work.

It goes without saying that such control from above is not good for science itself, or for the public image of science and scientists.

The article Some Questions for the UK Royal Society, concerned with a situation that is not totally dissimilar, may be of interest.
See also article and discussion, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

A discussion of the disinvitation issue, including a public statement by Valentini asserting that his letters to David Peat and myself should not have been made public, and responses to this by various people, can be seen here. A brief response to Valentini's statement, which he has posted in many places, is appropriate here: Here are some more relevant links: Posted by Brian Josephson, 20 Apr 2010, updated 8 May 2010

May 1st, 2010: This web page will close, as it began, with some poetic thoughts, inspired by Laura Marling's Nature of Dust. The unidentified individuals who 'came in the night', intent on keeping this meeting kosher, remain in the shadows.

Rationality and Science

It's the nature of "must", and it's all around us
It's all about me, and it's all about shove
It's a dangerous mix if you don't get it right
They'll come and get you in the dead of the night
They'll come and get you, if it's not what they like
And then they leave ... and it's bad

It's all about power, it's all about fright
They'll come and get you in the dead of the night
And they do ...

Oh yes it's bad
Sure thing it's mad
Oh yes it's sad


B D Josephson 2010