A new book called The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake is reviewed in The Independent. From the look of it the book provides an interesting parallel to the science vs. religion argument and the techniques that many fundamentalists (both religious and atheistic) employ. I've not seen the book itself but the author is known as a bit of a outsider to mainstream science and it will no doubt play well to those already holding anti-mainstream science views.
I've come across his name once or twice before with his promotion of morphic fields as a biological information carrier (as opposed to purely DNA based mechanisms as generally accepted by the scientific community) that do the rounds of those suspicious of mainstream science (i.e. a number of my fellow Christians). Going by the review he is true to form in his new book pushing not only morphic fields but general suspicion of a number of established scientific paradigms. Frankly if some of the things mentioned in the review are in the book (cyclic variations in the speed of light that scientists are refusing to talk about??) it is frankly just bull.
Questioning established paradigms is not in itself a bad thing and is something that all scientists should be bearing in mind at one level or another as it is our job to challenge what is currently accepted or maintained. But you don't do that by (again going by the review) cherry picking the science and scientists he disputes in order to bolster his own fringe points by creating false contrasts with the accepted facts and viewpoints.
Prime in his focus are mechanistic and reductionist interpretations of science that provide inadequate (in his view) means of understanding phenomena such as consciousness, free will or biological inheritance, etc. Unfortunately he appears to paint all other scientists with this view and thus having shown the perceived flaws in these views he provides us with the alternative of his own which must now be accepted as the only reasonable alternative.
Two points are however raised by all this. Firstly science as an investigatory procedure has only just started to scrape the surface of immensely complex and novel phenomena such as consciousness. Traditionally this has been an area investigated by philosophy and theology and science as a methodology applied to investigate this area is incredibly young. It is way too early to be dismissing out of hand current viewpoints or methods that have yet to either prove themselves totally but are proving effective thus far. Failure to provide a complete and total explanation of a subject does not mean its total dismissal in favour of a vastly more unproven and unsubstantiated alternative.
And secondly not all scientists are mechanistic reductionists. Many are happily working in these areas using non-reductionist ideas and are producing results that (hopefully) will lead us to a more coherent picture of reality without the total rewrite Sheldrake appears to be demanding occurs. But of course he only highlights scientists and philosophers that fit into the mechanistic pattern (Dawkins, Dennett, etc) that allow him to argue that the scientific enterprise has gone astray and must be brought back into line, a line that only he with his unique and indisputable knowledge is able to provide.
We have here an outcry for an individual shunned/persecuted by the 'establishment' for his radical ideas (possibly unkindly but with good reason), a call to action against a corrupt process (evidenced with selective examples) and a way out that brings the whole enterprise back to a truer and just form (i.e. in a way that proves said individual justified and detractors wrong).
So to go back to the parallel with the science/religion debate its the typical technique employed by 'downtrodden' Young Earth Creationists or advocates of Intelligent Design on the one side and 'noble' arch-atheists on the other, each fighting for their corners and ignoring the majority in the middle.
And as with science/religion those operating on the fringes are held up by the media (in newspapers like The Independent but also by using his ideas in TV shows (Torchwood I'm looking at you!)) as paragons of virtue and of equal scientific calibre to their mainstream contemporary colleagues.
It is an odd thing really and I don't really know what to make of Sheldrake. He has a valid point in picking holes in mechanistic interpretations of (some) areas of science, but then in a typical fundamentalist pattern he needlessly folds that one example into his battle against many other things. The fact he has a valid initial point is probably what helps him get an audience, but doesn't mean the rest of what he says is useful or even helpful.
I wouldn't want to call him a fundamentalist as he is coming at this from (from the look of it anyway) a genuine scientific concern, but in true fundamentalist form he cannot accept that maybe his ideas are rejected not out of persecution but because of a lack of evidence and rigour.
If he wants to win the battle he needs to get out there and gather his evidence and get it published, not in books to a receptive public (another fundamentalist strategy) but in the scientific literature where his ideas can be thoroughly discussed and debate if they have the merit to do so.
If he can't do this done and/or find colleagues to do this with he should consider the case that maybe he is not been persecuted by an unthinking and hostile scientific community, but maybe instead he is just wrong. And in that case he is doing the public a huge disservice with books like these which I don't think is what he is aiming for at all.
December 11, 2013
15 hours ago