Rupert Sheldrake peddles his woo to Americans

Where else but at PuffHo, the bailiwick of Chopra and Jenny McCarthy? You do remember Rupert Sheldrake, right? He’s a woo-meister, like Chopra, but even worse since he pretends to be a good scientist. Indeed, he was trained as one, though he seems to have gone off the rails.

Author of The Science Delusion (endorsed by both Mary Midgley and Mark Vernon!), Sheldrake thinks that the facts that dogs and pigeons can find their way home is evidence for God. Other evidence for God includes his “demonstration” (not substantiated by other workers) that people know when other people are looking at their backs. His Big Theory is that organisms have “morphic resonance,” a kind of inherited species memory (think Jung) that helps shape their bodies and behaviors. When others have tried to repeat his experiments demonstrating “morphic resonance,” they’ve also failed. He’s a pseudoscientist with scientific credentials.

Sheldrake also sees genes as being of minor importance in shaping bodies and behaviors, and, above all, decries naturalism and materialism as the proper way to do science. He prefers nebulous forms of woo, and that’s what The Science Delusion is about. It’s now been issued in the U.S. under the irritating title of Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.

For some reason the Brits love Sheldrake (not all of them!), and he’s far more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., proving that Brit(on)s are not immune to woo.

To remedy this situation, and flog his book to Americans, Sheldrake has written a mooshy piece at PuffHo, “Why bad science is like bad religion.” (At least it’s in PuffHo‘s “Religion”  section instead of the “Science” section.)  I haven’t read his book, and won’t, for I need to read more substantive stuff—like theology. But  I’ll reprise Sheldrake’s antimaterialistic contentions in the PuffHo piece. It all comes down to the contention that while a lot of religion is “bad” (Sheldrake cites fundamentalism), a lot of science is even worse.

What does Sheldrake mean by “bad science”?  He means materialistic science:

Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system. But the “scientific worldview,” based on the materialist philosophy, is enormously prestigious because science has been so successful. . .

Science has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

There’s that perennial equation of science with religion. (Don’t these people know that when they make this comparison to debase science, they’re implicitly debasing religion as well?)  But we don’t, of course, have faith that there is no reality but material reality: that attitude is simply a good working assumption, and, as Laplace affirmed, we haven’t seen the need to assume otherwise.  And if there were evidence for “nonmaterial” phenomena, like ESP or telekinesis, I’d be glad to consider it.  In contrast, the Pope won’t consider embracing Islam.

According to Sheldrake, who really wants to believe in woo, science is actually being impeded by its commitment to naturalism:

As I show in my new book, “Science Set Free,” unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Many scientists prefer to think that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think that they are symptoms of a deeper malaise. Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.

How have we hobbled ourselves by being naturalists? What are the problems that only woo can solve? Here’s his list:

  • We don’t understand organismal development, which, according to Dr. Sheldrake has made no progress.  Anybody who has followed the field will simply guffaw at words like these:

“Despite the confident claim in the late 20th century that genes and molecular biology would soon explain the nature of life, the problems of biological development remain unsolved. No one knows how plants and animals develop from fertilized eggs. Many details have been discovered, hundreds of genomes have been sequenced, but there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.”

That’s either sheer ignorance or, more probably, a lie.  We’re beginning to understand development in a big way, and it’s materialism (and genetics!) that have helped. Hox genes, anyone? Of course we’re a long way from understanding how one goes from a DNA recipe to an organism, but it’s early days yet. Sheldrake prefers not to ponder the exciting path ahead, and fob our ignorance off on God (he’s an Anglican).

  • We don’t understand the brain or consciousness.

“Despite the brilliant technical achievements of neuroscience, like brain scanning, there is still no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.” It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.”

This is again a woo-of-the-gaps stance. It will take us decades and decades to understand the brain, for that’s one of the hardest problems of biology (if not the hardest), but the materialist program has already made substantial progress. As for consciousness not being a product of brain activity, that’s hogwash. You can alter consciousness with material drugs. You can remove it by removing brain activity, like killing someone (and there’s no evidence of consciousness with brain death!).  You can temporarily remove consciousness with anesthetics, and restore it by removing them.  Disease or brain lesions alter consciousness, often in predictable ways.  Yes, we don’t yet know the mechanism of consciousness, or how we perceive “qualia” like redness, but should we throw up our hands and cry “God did it!,” or should we get to work?

  • We don’t understand cosmology.

“In physics, too, the problems are multiplying. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become apparent that known kinds of matter and energy make up only about 4 percent of the universe. The rest consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The nature of 96 percent of physical reality is literally obscure.

Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by superstring and M theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions respectively, which remain untestable. The multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own, is popular among cosmologists in the absence of any experimental evidence. These are interesting speculations, but they are not hard science. They are a shaky foundation for the materialist claim that everything can be explained in terms of physics.”

Yep, physics is full of exciting puzzles, and the answers will no doubt be counterintuitive and a cause of great wonder. But think of all the progress that physics has made using the materialist paradigm! Just to name a recent one, physicists predicted the existence of the Higgs boson and then found evidence for it.  The Standard Model of particle physics is a pretty good paradigm.  We now know that the universe is about 14 billion years ago and originated in a huge expansion event.

Yes, dark matter and dark energy remain puzzles, but is that a reason to accept God?

In the end, of course, Sheldrake is simply relying on god-of-the-gaps arguments.  Because we don’t understand everything at present—and if we did we wouldn’t need science!—there must be a Big Anglican Father in the Sky who does things like create consciousness and dark matter. What a crock!  The history of science has been filling in the gaps, one after the other, that used to constitute evidence for God.  And that caulking has all been done by materialism.  Doesn’t that suggest that materialism will fill the gaps that remain? We haven’t understood a whit more about the universe by relying on deities and spiritualism.

And, OMG, he ends with such a trite admonition:

Good science, like good religion, is a journey of discovery, a quest. It builds on traditions from the past. But it is most effective when it recognizes how much we do not know, when it is not arrogant but humble.

As if we don’t recognize what we don’t know!  Every working scientist implicitly admits that, for science is based on ignorance. It is not the scientists who are arrogant, but the faithful, who assert things about the existence and nature of God for which there’s not the slightest evidence. When you see an accommodationist calling for scientists to be “humble,” you know that they have no other cards to play.

Yes, dogs can find their way home, and so can pigeons.  And, at least for pigeons, we’re starting to understand how they do it. But I wish Sheldrake would find his way home, to a church instead of science. I despise his ill-conceived incursions into science, for they have no evidential basis and only serve to succor who believe that there is Something Out There besides material stuff.  He’s worse than a creationist, because he’s a faith-head in scientist’s clothing, but, unlike Francis Collins, keeps that to himself.

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The Argument from Lost Dogs

73 Comments

  1. Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    What a laugh that Sheldrake complains about string theory and multiverses in physics as not being “hard science”, but his solution is to add woo!!!! That’ll really help make physics more rigorous?!

  2. div411
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Dec. 3

    Dear Prof. Coyne,

    I have been reading your blog for close to a year. As a professor of religious studies, I am atypical in lacking the religious inclination. I love your continuing exposes of the bombastic ignorance of so many.

    With best wishes,

    Robert Segal
    Sixth Century Chair in Religious Studies
    University of Aberdeen

    • Marta
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      From time to time, I have an interest in religious studies, from an historical view point.

      If I were, someday, to hurl this interest into action, a professor lacking a religious inclination is an important criteria I would use in selecting the course.

  3. gbjames
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    I know it is tongue-in-cheek, but… “I need to read more substantive stuff like theology.”?

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      And when the theists in Jerry’s fan club read that sentence, you just know they nodded their heads and whispered “Indeed, heathen.”

      • Sastra
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        And the rest of us think “Wow, poor Sheldrake has really been pwned….”

  4. Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Sheldrake seems to splutter into life her in the UK every so often and sometimes manages to get quite impressive slots on TV. The last I saw was a year or so ago when he managed to get a big slot all morning on the BBC’s flagship Breakfast TV show. He was on about cats and dogs as usual, saying they were psychic because they know when their owners are about to come home.

    The report included details of an ‘experiment’ he conducted to test this which was so methodologically flawed that the cats and dogs could probably have come up with a better one. The BBC presenters goggled credulously at all of this.

    A curious thing is that the BBC is *addicted* to ‘balance’. If there’s ever a proper scientist or doctor on the show talking about real stuff, they have a completely unqualified person arguing the opposite. *Always*. So where was the opposing voice to Sheldrake? Why didn’t they bring in a scientist to point out that he was talking bullshit? Because they *knew* it was bullshit, of course, and they didn’t care.

    I asked Sheldrake a bunch of simple but awkward questions on Twitter and he blocked me. I also complained in the strongest terms for the BBC giving him uncritical airtime, but as far as I know, nothing came of it.

    He’ll turn up again at some point and he’ll probably get airtime again, infuriatingly.

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      Should have said “*to* the BBC for giving…”

    • Sastra
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Richard Wiseman (whom Jerry wrote about on Nov 30th) has tried to replicate Sheldrake’s famous Amazing Dog case study/anecdote for the media. He played the results at one of the TAMs. It was hilarious.

      Sheldrake apparently thinks it should only count when the dog goes to the window AND its master is coming home. That other data isn’t important.

      • Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:58 am | Permalink

        Sastra,

        Yes, that was one of the painfully obvious flaws. Another was that the experiment was clearly set up in the most convoluted way possible, presumably to stack the odds. For example, the pets were left at home with the researchers. At a random time, the researchers telephoned the owners who were wandering around town and told them to come home. Then they observed whether the pets anticipated the owners’ return.

        The problems are many and obvious. Why have the researchers there at all? A camera would have been fine. Wouldn’t their unusual presence in the house have an impact on the pets’ behaviour? Why did they telephone the owners? Might the pets have heard the owner’s voice? Did the researchers use the owners’ names when they spoke to them? After the call, the researchers sat and waited for the owners to come back. Couldn’t the pets have picked up on their anticipation? I’m willing to bet that the researchers couldn’t help looking towards the door whenever they heard a noise outside. And so on.

        My point is that the experimental setup was far more complicated than it needed to be and introduced variables that could very plausibly skew the outcome in favour of the hypothesis.

        This strongly suggests a deliberate attempt to stack the odds. And then, as you say, Sheldrake only counted the hits anyway.

        My guess is that Sheldrake is so convinced that he’s right (or at least wants so badly to be right) that he feels justified in deliberately faking experiments. Or maybe his pants are just on fire.

        • rlwemm
          Posted December 11, 2012 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          The experiment was obviously very methodologically flawed. This is evidence that Sheldrake is a very bad research scientist at the moment. This raises quite a few questions.

          What kind of scientific competence did he have to demonstrate in order to obtain his science qualification?

          Was the university who issued him with a science credential academically poor?

          Did he earn his qualification by solely regurgitating established facts without knowing how to actually DO science?

          Did he bribe or strong arm the university into pass him? Or were the academic staff pressured into passing academically poor students for economic or marketing reasons?

          Has he forgotten what he learned, and if so, Why?

          Does he have a personality or emotional disorder that has wiped his mind clean of knowledge about how to conduct good science?

  5. Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Typo in title – “Rubert”.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Fixed, thanks.

  6. Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I chuckled when I read “…God (he’s an Anglican.). I know what was conveyed, but it still was funny.

  7. Griff
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    1. God of the gaps
    2. God of the gaps
    3. God of the gaps

    Why is it otherwise intelligent people still think they can point at an unknown, puff up their chests, and utter “Hah! You can’t explain that, therefore god”.

    Tide comes in, tide goes out.

  8. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I think the fact that animals can find their way home is evidence that they’re hungry and thirsty. L

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      … and should experimental data affirm that they can sense when their owners are returning…?

      • Dale
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Pets are attuned to their masters behaviors, and that includes changes in those behaviors. If my arrivals become more random then it is likely that my dogs will anticipate my arrivals at otherwise unscheduled times. They may not be clairvoyant but they are not stupid. It’s interesting that Sheldrake seems to think that dogs are too stupid to notice changes in behavior but that they possess psychic powers otherwise.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        “… and should experimental data affirm that they can sense when their owners are returning…?”

        … it might be time to have that muffler replaced.

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      And also speaks to their keen sense of smell.

  9. Mike B
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Alas, the last time I looked, Sheldrake’s latest book has pride of place in the bookshop of the Natural History Museum in London.

    In fact Sheldrake was thoroughly debunked by the excellent Richard Wiseman. If you have any interest in the (lack of) psychic ability in pets, just have a read of

    http://www.richardwiseman.com/resources/psychicdogreply.pdf

    More significant, perhaps, is Sheldrake’s disgraceful lie about Wiseman’s takedown. He went on to use it to support his results, not mentioning it did exactly the opposite.

    This is a man who can’t handle the truth.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Ok, you got this in first. I wrote before I read to the end.

      As a matter of evolution, wouldn’t a trait for clairvoyance in the animal genome be the sort of thing which is selected for?

      Yes. Dumb all around.

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        Actually, that would be quite a good argument against clairvoyance in people.

        Such a trait would be so highly advantageous, that it would spread through the population rapidly… and we’d be up to our eyeballs in people with clairvoyance. But there’s no evidence for this at all.

        Hmmm. I wonder why.

  10. Explicit Explicit
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately for Sheldrake, there is a purely mayerialistic explanation for how Homing pigeons find their way home. They apparently can hear the very low frequency, infrasound acoustic shock waves generated by ocean waves. Like an acoustic beacon, a constant stream of these tiny seismic waves would always say where the ocean is. Infrasounds reflect from cliffs, mountains, and other steep-sided features of the earth’s surface. Ocean wave infrasounds reflecting off of local terrain provide a pigeon with a detailed sound picture of its surroundings, near and far. It is possible that other animals utilize this same technique,

    • Sastra
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Aw. You just took out all the magic.

  11. R.W.
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.”

    Yes, and he also made the following statement on BBC’s All in the Mind:

    “Now I have to say I’m a complete atheist, I have no religious views myself and no spiritual views, except very watered down humanistic spiritual views, and consciousness is just a fact of life, it’s a natural fact of life.”

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      The philosopher David Chalmers also thinks p-zombies are a theory worth giving a blind bit of notice to. He finds consciousness confusing therefore assumes everyone else should as well.

      • Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        The “hard problem” is only hard because its proponents insist on defining “qualia” as being non-physical. If you don’t start with that definition it’s a different proposition.

        • Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          Well, yes. “Dualism is true if you start by assuming dualism.”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        I can’t help but imagining it as self-referential.

        And then zombie-Chalmers opens up his brain to let us admire its “redness”. Always gets me chortling.

  12. Karel de Pauw
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    As I recall, before the sad deterioration of his mental faculties, the late Antony Flew had written quite intelligently about the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. Whereas the former professes a lack of (theistic) beliefs due to an absence of convincing evidence, the latter designates a methodological approach to all matters of belief, whether religious or not, arguing that all beliefs should be tempered according to the strength of evidence.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      I don’t have, want, need or desire theistic beliefs, therefore, I don’t “lack” theistic beliefs. Theistic beliefs are stupidity, not a default condition.

  13. Notagod
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Ants come home! A christian Jeebus made ‘em to it!

    Good science, like good religion, is a journey of discovery, a quest. It builds on traditions from the past.

    Science doesn’t build on its past because of traditions, it builds on its past because every time the experiments are rigorously done the results are the same. Contrasting with the results of christianity when rigorously done, a different result can be obtained each time even if the same person is doing the work rigorously. Without traditions the christians would fizzle into frazzle.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Blockquote fail, sorry. The second indented paragraph isn’t a quote and shouldn’t be indented.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      “Traditions of the past” << I have to laugh at the some of the "scientific traditions" we have built on surely built upon. To wit:

      "Dunking people (mostly women) tied to a chair, to see if they are witches. If they floated..witch! If they sank…Not a witch!"

      "No matter what the illness, relieve the patient of some of their blood. Excess blood, blah blah blah…therefore, too much!!"

      "Banging of the side of the television often corrects a poorly-performing picture."

      "X-rays can cure acne."

      In the past, these were all considered more-or-less "scientifically-tested" techniques to solve problems, but we don't build on those "traditions". Every idea in science is subject to scrutiny, not "tradition". Science requires ruthless abandonment of "tradition" when new ideas supersede them. Read how difficult it was for Harvey to convince scientists about blood circulation, and read up on how many successes, but also horrible failures, accompanied early blood transfusions, until blood types were discovered.

      In this age of over-information, am I mis-remembering something? Did the Bible in earlier editions cite the Earth as the center of the Universe, with the sun, moon, and every star in the Universe, circulating about it? From where in the Bible was it excised? I thought it was in the text itself, rather than a Vatican opinion.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        “Banging on the side of the TV” is actually a key step in the very complex television-repair algorithm my family has been experimenting with for several generations now.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 4, 2012 at 3:54 am | Permalink

          In the old days of valve (tube) sets, it may well have helped to seat valves that had worked loose in their sockets.

          Just as dropping your computer (or preferably, your employer’s computer) a few inches onto the desk sometimes reseats a loose board or unsticks a stiff hard drive. Not recommended too often, though…

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Modern science progresses by answering many small questions satisfactorily. Can science answer the ‘Big Questions’? I don’t know, but it is becoming more likely that when all the small questions have been answered there will be no ‘Big Questions’ left.

  15. TJR
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Not sure how well known he is in Britain either – I’ve only ever heard of him via this and similar websites.

    Mind you, I don’t watch breakfast TV.

    He’s right, though, that if you are a creationist who wants to drag science down then the best attack route is probably via string theory.

    • Martin James Bridges
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I’ve never heard of him before, but then I don’t read the Daily Mail or watch This Morning which I would imagine to be his sort of target audience.

  16. Kevin
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    In the US alone, about 4 to 6 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year. A large proportion of these animals are “lost” pets.

    Just because 1 dog in a million finds his way home, that doesn’t make me confident that it’s a common trait.

    Seriously, isn’t anyone good at basic fucking math anymore?

    • Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      “Seriously, isn’t anyone good at basic fucking math anymore?”

      Several decades of “please spay and neuter” haven’t made a dent in the problem. And human overpopulation is more of a taboo subject than ever. So the answer to your question is No.
      But the way you stated it was concise and amusing. :-)

  17. Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    “Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.”

    Red is light of a specific wavelength. The “experience” of red is cultural and personal, and happens entirely inside the chemistry of a person’s brain. Where is the NEED for God in this (or anything else?)

    And are we supposed to think that colorblind men aren’t just victims of a genetic quirk, but they are spiritually deficient as well, because they are denied the “experience of redness”? LOL.

  18. Kevin Alexander
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    One of my favourite oxymorons is ‘substantial ignorance’
    Sheldrake illustrates this perfectly. He sees a gap and stuffs it with some substance that only he can see.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.

    While we don’t map brain activity to experiences as of yet, we do understand “redness”. It is rooted in the pigments used in the eye’s photoreceptors. People have given rats new vision colors (IIRC by transplanting receptors).

    Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by superstring and M theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions respectively, which remain untestable. The multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own, is popular among cosmologists in the absence of any experimental evidence.

    Um, superstring theory is a variant of M theory.

    And multiverse theory asserts an infinite number of infinite universes. The first testable evidence was Weinberg’s successful prediction of the value for the cosmological constant 1987. The experiment was hence cosmological. There is no competing theory yet today.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      I think some physicists consider the double slit experiments evidence of multiple universes.

      I have a book somewhere on it.

  20. NoAstronomer
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    “The multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own, is popular among cosmologists in the absence of any experimental evidence.”

    To use the word popular, I think, would be over emphasizing the multiverse theory. It’s interesting coffee break talk but not what the majority of cosmologists, let alone astronomers, are actually researching or publishing on.

    Mike.

  21. Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    An off-topic question to JC and other WordPress bloggers/writers – have you noted the increasing number of odd-ball “likes” showing up on posts? Methinks that some folks simply troll other WP sites, throwing out likes with the hopes of gaining followers. Thoughts?

  22. IW
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    “…for science is based on ignorance.’

    Seriously? That’s at best, misleading. At worst, it’s a ready-for-quote-mining phrase for the creationistas to latch onto.

    Science isn’t based on ignorance, nor does it build on ignorance. Instead, it’s rooted firmly in a passionate desire to dispel ignorance by using a proven tool called ‘the scientific method’.

    It’s far more accurate to say that religion is based on ignorance – which is bad enough, even without the attendant lack any realistic desire to dispel it.

  23. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    As a former teacher, it was hard for me to ignore the fact that many children are simply intimidated by science and math classes from day one, and I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the difficulty of the material, or because of the way these subjects are taught. Although I don’t have double-blind studies to support the following assertion, I truly believe that many young students, due mostly to the competitiveness fostered by large class sizes, fall into the trap of comparing themselves — and their intrinsic rates of learning — to their “smarter” or more “successful” classmates, and become discouraged (far-too-quickly) about their own prospects as future members of the scientific community.

    At this juncture, one rather easy “solution” to the pain of humility presents itself, and any religious indoctrination that is happening in their lives outside of school merely reinforces this unfortunate mindset: Scientists don’t know everything, especially the most important “stuff”; and therefore my life’s ultimate meaning and my self-worth don’t have to be predicated on my poor understanding of science. In other words, they assuage their deep feelings of insecurity about their own intelligence by clinging to whatever personal beliefs they find most reassuring, and by asserting that these often ridiculous beliefs are just as valid as anybody else’s.

    Unscrupulous “scientists” like Rupert Sheldrake merely prey upon these kinds of people, for nothing except presumably easy money and fame.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      » abrotherhoodofman:
      As a former teacher, it was hard for me to ignore the fact that many children are simply intimidated by science and math classes from day one, and I don’t think it’s necessarily because of the difficulty of the material, or because of the way these subjects are taught.

      As an educator myself, I would submit that it is very much because of the way these subjects are taught. Children have the greatest curiosity with respect to questions about nature. It is usually by immediately employing needless jargon, contrived pseudo-problems, and answers backed by recourse to authority in the form of scientists, textbooks, and plain “because that’s the way it is” that that curiosity is systematically suffocated.

      As Ben Goldacre says about the presentation of science in the media (in his excellent book Bad Science): “science is portrayed as groundless, incompre­hensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, ‘hard to understand’.”

      And with regard to what’s wrong with maths education specifically (which is just as applicable to science education), you could do much worse than to have a look at a brilliant essay by Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”. Learning is about real engagement with real problems. And Lockhart puts his finger on it when he says:

      “The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems. Oh, I know what passes for problems in math classes, these insipid “exercises.” “Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework.” What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.”

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        All your points are excellent ones. I’d be very interested in your take on class sizes, because although competition is necessary/useful at some level in classroom settings, I will still maintain that it unnecessarily discourages many students who might otherwise do quite well in technical disciplines/fields/jobs.

        Unfortunately, merely telling them that “Einstein got B’s in math doesn’t seem to be a universal antidote!

        • Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          I agree that you make some very good points. My observations and experience is that nearly all children have an innate curiosity and interest in things biological, geological, etc., and that somehow our educational system seems to squelch this in a majority of students. Obviously if they are getting ‘goddidit’ at home and in church it only complicates the whole process. I don’t believe that we do a very good job in helping them make the transition to the wonder of why things they are the way they are to actual understanding while maintaining the sense of wonder in the learning and discovery process.

          • abrotherhoodofman
            Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            I appreciate your reply!

            For us older people, I say it’s all Fonzie’s fault, because it still ain’t totally “cool” to be a geek, despite significant inroads made by corporate titans like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and by television shows like The Big Bang Theory.

            (Or, maybe I’m just not up-to-date with the modern zeitgeist. Youngsters, feel free to correct me, and then: Get off my lawn!)
            ;)

            • Sastra
              Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

              It’s not Fonzie’s fault: it’s Mom’s fault:

              “It’s better to be nice than smart.”

              Actually, that’s fine from Mom. It’s not so great as a general theory of education, though — even in (or especially in) elementary schools. I used to hear echoes of this from teachers when my kids were little. Don’t know if it’s changed for the better, or gotten worse.

              Or maybe I imagined it.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          I suppose those are two separate points. Playful competition, perhaps in the form of a game, can be helpful; competition for grades can poison your whole classroom. (See Alfie Kohn’s insightful article, “From Degrading to De-Grading”)

          As for class sizes, I don’t really have a firm opinion. Or rather, I’d reframe the issue and focus on a) teacher/student ratio (i.e. the idea that there can be more than one teacher per classroom); and b) the fact that problem-based learning and peer-instruction help us get out of a conceptual dead end, which is basically the transmission model of teaching.

          Let’s focus instead on real learning. Roger Schank made this point in a different context, about online courses in higher education, but it is applicable here as well: “So, don’t be too impressed by … nonsense that keeps courses with a teacher talking still the staple of university education.”

          • abrotherhoodofman
            Posted December 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

            BTW thanks for all those great links!

            • Peter Beattie
              Posted December 4, 2012 at 3:09 am | Permalink

              You’re very welcome! :)

  24. MadScientist
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    About “The Science Delusion”, I’ve trained myself to read it as “The Sheldrake Delusion”

  25. eric
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    A very pithy response to Sheldrake is to point out that, in our free western societies, he is welcome to perform whatever research he wants. An improved scientific methodology or just outright better methodology should yield greater discoveries, faster and cheaper. Lots of people would find that valuable.

    So, he doesn’t need to convince the scientific community he’s right, just a few venture capitalists. My guess is that he doesn’t because he can’t.

    • eric
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      (Or maybe he did, but his expanded science did not yield results the way he thought it would, and the funding dried up…)

    • Sastra
      Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I once read that Sheldrake was doing some “research.” He was asking children to send him amazing stories of psychic abilities they saw in their pets. He was going to collect them all and publish it.

      In book form, presumably. Or maybe in PuffHo.

      So my guess is that he doesn’t do research not because he can’t afford it, but because he has no idea what it is.

  26. Fragmeister
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Brit and I find Sheldrake a complete idiot. I read A New Science Of Life as an undergraduate in biology thirty years ago and saw it was utter trash back then. Haven’t been swayed by anything he has said or written since. Shame that he is given pulpits and platforms that most other scientists don’t get. I’d love to see him on The Infinite Monkey Cage which, for all the good fun and jokes, doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to making fun of woo and like-minded garbage.

  27. Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to see the case for naturalism, reductionism, mechanism + materialism laid out so clearly by the blogger.

  28. Posted December 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    btw, here´s the latest chat with Sheldrake http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqaATPAnTZQ

    Those guys liked him!

  29. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Among the many problems already listed here, he seems to have wayyy over-interpreted (as many post-modernists) have Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”- all about paradigm shifts in science.

    These folks seem to think that because of prior massive perspectival shifts, such the Copernican Revolution or Darwinian one, that science is just waiting for some injection of supernaturalistic thinking.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted December 4, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

      Thanks for saying that! Good ideas are corrupted into nonsense. Kuhn’s idea was brilliant, however, the thought of any woo being associated with science would be an anathema to him.

  30. Sastra
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    My dad was a huge fan of Sheldrake. He was both frustrated and disappointed that I wasn’t impressed with his “science.” He totally bought into Sheldrake’s insistence that most scientists shunned his conclusions because he was just too cutting edge and disturbing to their ‘paradigm.’

    He didn’t really want to hear the other side of that.

  31. Posted December 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Morphic resonance… Funny how that idea never caught on isn’t it.

  32. Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    What about all those dogs that are lost and end up in dog pounds, the majority waiting to be killed? What about pigeons, that are among the dumbest of all birds? Parrots and Ravens are much smarter.

  33. Don Bysouth
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    …now i know why sometimes i get lost on my way home….OMG i’m an Atheist !!

  34. Cam Dillinger
    Posted November 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    An Ex Girlfriend’s Mother had a dog that she claimed ‘always knew when it’s owner was coming home’.
    I remember her mother telling me (rather incredulously) that ‘(The Dog) always goes to the door about 10-20 minutes before my husband comes home, it’s inexplicable ! He must by psychic ! Because He JUST SEEMS TO KNOW !’

    Now, I happened to there one day when this ‘miracle’ happened, and I noticed that about 30-40 minutes BEFORE her husband came home, she always performed a specific set of actions, not least of which (from the dog’s POV, at least) was putting some FOOD in the OVEN, so after about 20 minutes of cooking, the smell of food would be overpowering (for the dog) and it no-doubt connected the smell of the evening meal with it’s owner coming home.

    Most (if not all) of these ‘telepathic pets’ can probably be explained by the pets’ picking up involuntary cues that the people are not aware they are giving out.

    Of course, ‘telepathic dogs’ may exist, perhaps we could get one to co-host a TV show with Uri Geller ?


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] From biologist and author Jerry Coyne’s (excellent) website, comes this article arguing the effects of epigenetics have been over-estimated. [Update 3 Dec 2012: I just noticed two other articles on Coyne's site – this review of Sheldrake's book, and this recent post.] […]

  2. […] His ideas that dogs finding their way home, or people knowing that others are watching them behind their backs, proves Jesus; his weakness for telepathy and other bizarre mental phenomena; and his general attitude that science is DOING IT WRONG by hewing to materialism and avoiding the numinous and spiritual (you can find some of my posts here, here, and here) […]

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