Unifying Theories Are Intensely Sexy To Scientists
“Unifying theories, although intrinsically appealing, should be subject to careful scrutiny.” — Professor Nutt
Lately I’ve been commenting on a tremendous new book that I’ve been invited to review. It’s called Overloaded: How Every Aspect of Your Life is Influenced by Your Brain Chemicals, authored by Ginny Smith. And she quotes Professor David Nutt who makes some interesting points respecting the problem of unifying theories.
What is a unified theory?
This is where a new discovery in science — although it really exists in every discipline — seems to describe the world or a phenomenon (quantified through arithmetic abstraction or conceptual formulation) with such force that a consensus builds around it. Worded differently,
“[T]he attempt to unify the disparate phenomena of nature within a single theoretical framework and a single set of descriptive equations.” — Editors for AccessScience.
And before you know it, we’re basing further discoveries and experiments on this axiom or principle, only to learn that it’s nowhere nearly as universal as we had initially hoped. This can lead to some pretty dismal medical mistakes. So I wanted to explore that train of thought today, kind of blog-style.
David Nutt’s Critique
So I’m going to start by sharing David Nutt’s comment. He’s speaking here in the context of an oversimplification that has gained much traction in the field of neuroscience regarding dopamine’s role in behavioural and substance addiction.
“Addiction is a complex mixture of behaviours and attitudes that vary from drug to drug and from user to user, and it is unlikely that a single neurotransmitter could explain every aspect of addiction…Unifying theories, although intrinsically appealing, should be subject to careful scrutiny just like other theories — and perhaps even more so because they can lead the field into directions that ultimately prove to be unfruitful.”