How Lying about Science allows You to Claim Anything You Want

Attempting to look up TEDTalks that have not been broadcast is quite interesting. Essentially, TED has refused to be associated with some talks that have been made at their venues. One such talk is ‘The Science Delusion‘ by Rupert Sheldrake. (To be honest, I am loathe to bring your attention to it.) TED’s statement about this is that, although they do not vet the speakers at TEDx (independent) events, videos can be taken down if they are unscientific or misleading. Obviously, the speaker disagrees with this assessment of the situation. Sheldrake thinks it is censorship of competing ideas.

The Science Delusion is a philosophical discussion that claims to have identified 10 dogmas that underpin the way science operates. The problem is that his 10 claims are not representative of what one must believe in order to do science. Sheldrake thinks his claims are representative of science and, therefore, that if he can tear down these dogmas he will have torn down the pillars of science (thus allowing him to peddle his unscientific beliefs in telepathy and alternative medicine, under a guise of intellectual discussion).

I’m not going to concern this post with all the accusations leveled at science: least of our concerns are the idea of science as a religion or the glancing reference to philosophical materialism (would it kill these people to learn the term “methodological naturalism”?). Instead, I want to address just a couple of these dogmas.

If there is a dogma in science, I think it is this: “if there is a perceptible difference between a claim being accurate and it not, science can perceive that difference”. If there is no perceptible difference, it is not at all clear how you reasonably became confident of your claim, anyway.

One does not have to hold to any sort of mechanistic beliefs about consciousness, or the illusion of consciousness to do science. A science team can land a rover on an asteroid or build a global telecommunications system without a belief in a deterministic mind. It may be believed by number of scientists, but it is simply not a necessary belief for science to operate. (However, in the domain of neuroscience, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reasonably contest claims of a mechanistic mind; this is very different from a dogma.)

To investigate medicine, one does not need to believe this claim: because there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy can work, homeopathy cannot work. If one remains unconvinced by the literature already available on this issue, one need only believe this: there is a perceptible difference between homeopathy working and not, thus we can discover which horn of that is representative of reality. A lot of medicine, particularly psycho-active medicine, were administered on the back of their efficacy regardless of the fact we had (and in many cases, still have) no understanding of the mechanism.

One does not need to believe the mind is entirely material and contained within ones head to be a psychologist. One need simply believe there would be a difference between the mind being communicated by telepathy and it not. That said, it is quite difficult to reasonably argue with the fact that if you take material contained in one’s head out, there are impacts on the mind.

These ideas of mechanical medicine and material minds are not even dogmas of the disciplines to which they relate. More importantly, one can build a well or model the death of a star without even considering questions related to these accused dogmas. These “dogmas” are actually just claims that are becoming increasingly difficult to reasonably challenge (you can always make an unreasonable challenge). These ideas emerge from individual disciples within science. None of these claims are even necessarily applicable; it’s not enough that they’re not dogmatically held, but they don’t even apply.

What science has is the complete opposite of dogma. Claims within science exist within an open, functional meritocracy; they rise and fall based on the reasonableness of their defence and rebuttal. The free light of enquiry and challenge fuels and drives science.

Another dogma, that Sheldrake takes precisely no time over, is that of purpose: science must (apparently) believe there isn’t one and evolution says there isn’t one. This one stuck out because it betrays either how ignorant Sheldrake is or how ignorant Sheldrake believes his audience to be. Evolutionary science doesn’t suggest there is a purpose, but that is not the same as demonstrating there is not purpose. Many people have taken just to the comments of this blog to tell me how evolution proves [sic] a purpose built on self interest and sex. So, to the right people, it can be suggestive of a purpose indeed. Purpose is a subject thing, there is no perceptible different between it existing and it not.

As one would expect, to support things that are misleading one must occasionally lie. Take, for example, the claim that “governments only fund research into mechanistic medicine and ignore complementary or alternative medicine”. This is patently untrue. In some part of the UK homeopathy is available on the NHS and accupuncture is more widely available through the NHS, having had funding for research. The National Institute of Health in the USA also fund alternative medicine.

And, as is always the case, Sheldrake is not a sceptic turning his consistent eye to science. Instead, he is a proponent of another idea which necessitates scepticism of science in order to flourish. (“If it weren’t for law enforcement and physics, I’d be unstoppable” – Darynda Jones.) His idea is morphic resonance (he’s written a book about that, would you believe?). His argument is that there is no such thing as a “Universal Constant” (you may know the Universal Constant from other pseudo-intellectual ramblings, like the modern version of the Cosmological Argument for God). Instead, as there is cosmological evolution that has been happening ever since the “Big Bang”, so too have the “constants” (he prefers: habits) of the universe, that the universe learns and adapts.

Sheldrake mentions a crystal. If you are the first person to create a crystal then there exists no rules on how that crystal forms, but once you’ve made it the rules do exists (or, so the argument goes). It follows then that the second crystal of the same type to be made will crystalise quicker, because the universe has learned to make it. Apparently we observe this, but there’s no citation. Apparently meme theory among migratory animals also counts as evidence for this.

And so TED removed this TEDx talk from the website, on grounds of philosophical reasonableness and factual accuracy. And that seems plenty reasonable to me.

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5 thoughts on “How Lying about Science allows You to Claim Anything You Want”

  1. It follows then that the second crystal of the same type to be made will crystalise quicker, because the universe has learned to make it.

    This should work then on sandwiches. To the lab!!

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