More about Cybernard

A very Happy New Year to all my readers…..

At the end of last year, I referred to the fascinating work of Jean-Gabriel Ganascia and his colleagues in Paris. Their work concerns an attempt at reconstructing the scientific process employed by Claude Bernard in his research, using artificial intelligence methods. I will have the good fortune of meeting with Dr Ganascia next week in Paris at a seminar on Claude Bernard’s science. Meanwhile, I refer you to a summary of Dr Ganascia’s Cybernard project and – for those who wish to dig deeper – to the reference list at the end of his article.

The program of CB-orientated events in France for 2013 (the bicentenary of Bernard’s year of birth) will be promulgated shortly and may be of interest. I will publish it in my blog as soon as it is available.

Regrettably, I know of no similar  events in other countries but if you are aware of any, please do let me know.

CYBERNARD – an analytical exploration of Bernard’s writing

Why does a person write in a particular way? What does it tell us about him or her – and about his or her reasoning? Artificial intelligence (AI) methods have already been used to analyse the work of eminent writers like Heine and Flaubert with these questions in mind, using a program specially developed for that purpose.

Over the last five years, a team representing three different French institutions have been using ‘AI’ methodology to study the scientific works of Claude Bernard: particularly analysing what he wrote for the wider public in the Revue des Deux Mondes. Remember that it was  for his writing as much as his science that he won his ‘seat’ in the Academie Francaise…..

Read about the Cybernard project in more detail in this (bilingual) abstract: , and I will share the results and conclusions of the study with you once they become available to me.

Meanwhile, feel free to join me on as wisepeter1, on as wisepeter, email me on or simply add your comment to this blog. If you wish to dig deeper into Bernard’s life and work, you may be interested in a detailed biography, quotations, articles, images and a bibliography on my bilingual (French/English) academic website ….

…and there is always my novel ‘A Matter of Doubt’ or its French translation ‘Un defi sans fin’ (see earlier blogs). These are a ‘must’ if you really want to know about the man and his life !!!


Something by Ben Goldacre…. for a change.

You need a break from Bernard, Pasteur and Zola ? Then do read the fascinating book, ‘Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre (also available for Kindle). Long ago, Claude Bernard condemned the traditional, uncritical and largely unproven science which was prevalent at the time – and set down  his principles for improving it. Those principles mostly remain valid 150 years later !  Goldacre’s biting analysis of the continuing confused thinking and devious practices in medicine and the health sciences makes for an entertaining and enlightening read. He also has an interesting website – Look out for his sequel, too: ‘Bad Pharma’ is just published by Fourth Estate. It appealed to me because of the revelations of my ethical analysis of 100 consecutive pharmaceutical trials in general practice

Back soon !

Bernard and Pasteur – such contrasting characters….

They differed strikingly in their attitude and approach to the world around them. Bernard was modest – Pasteur full of himself; almost arrogant. Because of his research, Bernard was reviled by his family -Pasteur’s family adored him. Bernard held the interest of his audience by the compelling content, even if haltingly delivered – Pasteur held the interest of his by his smooth self-confident rhetoric. Bernard insisted on providing incontrovertible proof – Pasteur relied on people’s belief in his persuasive argument and tone. Bernard refused to ‘borrow’ the ideas of others for his own purposes – Pasteur both used and abused the work of others to achieve his  goals and reputation. Bernard helped his assistants and colleagues to achieve stardom – Pasteur subjugated his assistants and colleagues in order to enhance his own image. Bernard gained the recognition, the gratitude and even the affection of his profession – Pasteur strived to win the admiration of the world. These two men were friends, and despite differing approaches they were equally brilliant scientists. There are profound lessons to be learned from the way that they achieved their individual successes.

More on Bernard and Zola

At a recent book reading/signing event, I was asked to expand on Bernard’s philosophy; and specifically his concept of experimental determinism that formed the basis of his scientific method. Determinism exists in many forms, and referring to its behavioural context, Bernard states:

          “Man is forced to be free for this reason alone; that he has a conscience and judgement. His liberty flows from this. He is free to do good or bad; but when he has done bad, remorse proves to him that he was indeed free, and that he could have done otherwise, had he so wished.” (Bernard, The Cahier Rouge, translated by Hoff, Guillemin and Guillemin).

….and so Bernard endorses the existence of ‘free will’ in human thought – and action. This is in contrast to the hard determinism of philosophers  Taine, Comte and Littré, who denied the existence of ‘free will’. They maintained that only heredity, environment and prevailing circumstance defined human destiny.

It is for his scientific (experimental) determinism that Bernard has become so well known. He committed himself to destroying the unhelpful concept of vitalisme. For centuries, scientists had used it to explain the apparent inconsistency of biological systems and experimental results. Bernard’s determinism implied an expectation of identical results from experiments performed under identical conditions. For him, any divergent results indicated that the conditions of two apparently similar experiments must indeed have been different. There was no virtue in attributing such divergence to vitalisme. The principle of experimental determinism is fully explained in Bernard’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine’ – still being used 150 years after its publication in courses on the philosophy of science.

I commented in a previous blog that after Bernard’s death, and courtesy of the intermediary Henry Céard (ex-medical student and now a budding writer) Emile Zola enthusiastically adopted Bernard’s experimental method. I believe that he quite inappropriately used it to explain the behaviour of the fictitious characters in the novels comprising his Rougon-Macquart cycle. Had Bernard still been alive at that time, I think that he would also have angrily disagreed with the way that Zola used his principles in his essay, ‘the Experimental Novel’. This was Zola’s guide-book for the budding naturaliste author, in which he honours Bernard for the inspiration it gave him. Novelists certainly use characters as ingredients or reagents in their plots. However, in contrast to scientists, the results of the interactions are pre-conceived by the author. This is not experimentation!

Zola heartily embraced determinism, but one must ask if he truly believed in the ‘scientific’ basis of his writing, or whether he simply used the concept to support an approach which he had already tried, tested and found to be successful in early novels such as Thérèse Raquin.

Bernard and Zola….

No, they probably never met, but…..

….from quite an early age, Bernard had worshipped romantisme – in art as in literature. Indeed writing was young Claude’s over-riding passion, although one that was sadly not endorsed by his parents as worthy of a career. Only much later in life, did he achieve recognition for his (scientific) writing, through his election to fauteuil 29 of the Académie Française.

Meanwhile, art and literature had moved from romantisme, through réalisme and into the naturaliste movement promoted enthusiastically by Emile Zola.  In the 1870’s, a third-year medical student, Henry Céard made the decision to give up his medical course and instead pursue his passion for literature and literary criticism with Emile Zola in the fertile Groupe de Médan.

Soon after Bernard’s death in 1878, Céard (who would almost certainly have attended some of Bernard’s lectures) presented his master, Zola with a copy of  the ‘Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine’. Here Bernard had expressed inter alia his insistence that if the elements/conditions of an experiment were truly constant, then the results should also be the same, however many times the experiment was repeated (scientists had for centuries invoked vitalisme as the supernatural force which explained inconsistent experimental results). Bernard also emphasized the difference between a simple observation (which had limited scientific value) and a true experiment (induced observation).

Emile Zola, always interested in the progress of science, took these notions to his literary heart. He insisted that Bernard’s principles could be directly applied to the observation and understanding of human behaviour, and to the experimental manipulation of characters and their situations in naturaliste literature.

In heaven, Bernard would surely have blushed with pride at this further accolade from one of France’s most prestigious writers.  If you want to know more, then do read Zola’s Le roman expérimentale (available through Amazon in English translation as ‘the Experimental Novel’). Zola’s interpretation and use of Bernard’s principles have been widely challenged, but his ideas make for fascinating reading!