The BBC and Chopra buy into woomeister Rupert Sheldrake’s “Galileo syndrome”

Rupert Sheldrake is a pseudoscientist who has made his name promoting various kinds of woo, including telepathy (including in d*gs!), immaterial minds, and his crazy idea of “morphic resonance,” a Jung-ian theory in which all of nature participates in some giant collective memory. (He was once a real scientist, trained in biochemistry and cell biology at Cambridge, but somehow he went off the rails.)

I’ve crossed swords with Sheldrake before when I campaigned against his Tedx talk, which was filled with his crazy ideas. I and several others pointed out that what he said violated the mission of Tedx to present innovative but sound science. This resulted in TEDx taking Sheldrake’s talk off of their website and putting it in a special “time out” room for misbehaving woomeisters.

I’m sure most of you know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part as well as a product of my scientific training. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

Sheldrake and his supporters always defend themselves as beleaguered scientists whose correct theories are unfairly attacked or neglected because they buck the current “materialistic paradigm.” That is, he thinks himself an unrecognized and persecuted Galileo figure. The proper answer to this is given on the NeuroLogica website:

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled (highly recommended). Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

Last summer someone decided to fix Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article, which, edited by his supporters, had been promoting Sheldrake’s woo in violation of Wikipedia policies on fringe science and pseudoscience. Perhaps you don’t know about these policies, but you can read about them at the link. That discussion begins like this:

When discussing topics that reliable sources say are pseudoscientific or fringe theories, editors should be careful not to present the pseudoscientific fringe views alongside the scientific or academic consensus as though they are opposing but still equal views. While pseudoscience may in some cases be significant to an article, it should not obfuscate the description or prominence of the mainstream views.

It’s a pretty good policy, and prevents people like Sheldrake and his deluded supporters from editing Wikipedia articles to give unwarranted credibility to their pseudoscience. And that policy allowed the rationalists to come in and clean up Sheldrake’s page, which they did.

Sheldrake eventually noticed his new, non-woo-spouting page, and responded in October on his own blog (“Science set free”) with a paranoid post called “Wikipedia under threat”. A sample:

This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. At the beginning of the “Talk” page, on which editorial changes are discussed, they have posted a warning to editors who do not share their biases: “A common objection made by new arrivals is that the article presents Sheldrake’s work in an unsympathetic light and that criticism of it is too extensive or violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy.”

If you want some amusement, have a look at the Wikipedia “talk” page on Sheldrake’s bio. It will give you a newfound respect for Wikipedia editorsas the skeptics are over there are just trying to make sure, as per Wikipedia policy, that Sheldrake’s pseudoscience is not presented as credible science.

Sheldrake continues his rant on his website, blaming the editing of his page on the “Guerilla Skeptics,” a group dedicated to policing dubious pseudoscientific claims and giving skeptics themselves decent Wikipedia pages. Sheldrake writes:

The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules. The mastermind behind this organization is Susan Gerbik [sic]. She explains how her teams work in a training video. She now has over 90 guerrillas operating in 17 different languages. The teams are coordinated through secret Facebook pages. They check the credentials of new recruits to avoid infiltration. Their aim is to “control information”, and Ms Gerbik glories in the power that she and her warriors wield. They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.

The “ideological agenda” here, though, is simply that false or unsupported claims not be presented as the truth. If that’s an agenda, I’m all for it.

But Sheldrake is dead wrong in his accusations. The person who did most of the woo-removing edits of Sheldrake’s page has posted an article decisively refuting the claim that there is a Guerrilla Skeptic “conspiracy” to debunk Sheldrake (the author says that he/she is not a member of this group, nor were they involved). Further, Tim Farley of Skeptical Software tools has investigated the edits thoroughly and confirmed that  no Guerrilla Skeptics seem to have been involved. Finally, Farley checked with the GSoW boss, Ms. Gerbic, who denies involvement. Farley concludes:

. . . the central claim, that Guerrilla Skeptics are controlling Sheldrake’s bio, is demonstrably false.  It is a classic conspiracy theory. I asked Susan Gerbic directly, and she confirmed that Sheldrake’s bio was not on their current project list. But you don’t need Susan’s word, just search for the name “Sheldrake” at the project blog and you find only a post about a related article, and no indication they had worked on Sheldrake’s bio. (Believe me, they’re not shy about showing off their work – it’s part of their outreach efforts).

Look in the editing history of the people actually editing Sheldrake’s article, and you’ll find only cursory overlap with articles the guerrilla skeptics have bragged about editing.

So Sheldrake and Weiler et. al. are actually complaining about the wrong thing entirely! Instead of floating conspiracy theories about the Guerrilla Skeptics, they should be studying the Wikipedia rules and trying to understand why it is their edits keep getting rejected.

Sheldrake not only paints himself as a martyr again, but singles out the wrong group for “persecuting” him.

Sadly, now the the BBC World Service itself is being played a fool by Sheldrake, as they have put The Woomeister on their station to proclaim his conspiracy theories.

If you go here on the BBC, and listen to the 5-minute interview with Sheldrake (starts 8:02, ends 12:44), you’ll see the sympathetic ear that the BBC interviewer lends to Sheldrake, not questioning his claims in the least.

Much of what Sheldrake says in the interview is untrue, and it’s all in service of telling the world not to believe his Wikipedia page as it was sabotaged by Guerrilla Skeptics, which also is “distorting hundreds of pages on Wikipedia.” That is a lie, and Sheldrake should know better because that segment was broadcast only 5 days ago, after, three weeks after Farley’s piece was published. Nor does the BBC interviewer talk to the Guerrilla Skeptics, seek any contrary views, or ask Sheldrake any hard questions. The interviewer apparently didn’t investigate this whole issue beforehand. It’s just dreadful reporting. To be fair, the BBC says that they’ll talk about the “reliability of Wikipedia and Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page” this week. If anybody hears that segment, let us know. [Note: Matthew Cobb points out to me that the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as "keen churchgoers."]

But I’m wondering why the BBC gives Sheldrake a voice at all. Why do their readers need to hear his paranoid rants? Would they allow a creationist to go on the air and argue that mainstream biologists are in a conspiracy to suppress the truth of a young earth and creation ex nihilo?

Finally, Sheldrake’s American counterpart, Deepak Chopra, has written a piece on his own website decrying Wikipedia skepticism and the persecution of Sheldrake. Indeed, it takes one purveyor of woo to understand another. In a piece called “The rise and fall of militant skepticism,” Deepak writes

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free. His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.

But you’d never know it from Sheldrake’s Wikipedia entry, which is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics. Since I am close to Sheldrake personally and have Wikipedia woes of my own, it’s not fair for me to offer accusations over the extent to which Wikipedia is under attack. But the skeptics have been caught in the act, which is the pickle they find themselves in, as I mentioned at the outset of this post.

You can read a detailed account in a series of online posts written by Craig Weiler at his blog The Weiler Psi. Confronting the militant pests at Wikipedia resembles taking hold of a tar baby, as Weiler relates in his most recent post, pointedly entitled “Wikipedia: The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play.” The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.

Steve Novella has written a cogent takedown of the paranoia of both Chopra and Sheldrake on a post on Skepticblog called “Chopra shoots at skepticism and misses.” Novella also has a few interesting words about whether the idea of God is a testable hypothesis.

There is, I suppose, a form of “militant skepticism” that is so skeptical that it won’t accept anything. But I’m not aware of anyone adhering to that view, except perhaps some postmodernists. Others are skeptical of some things that are, to all reasonable people, demonstrably true (there are some of these). But the critics of Sheldrake and Chopra are not “militant skeptics.”They are simply people who demand evidence for bizarre claims of psychic phenomena and universal consciousness.

Let’s face it: we’ll never be free of people who lap up the woo of people like Chopra and Shedrake. There’s something about human psychology that is susceptible to this kind of stuff. All we can do is decry it as often as we can, and hope that those on the fence will listen to us. That is what Steve Novella and the Guerrilla Skeptics are doing, and more power to them.

h/t: Darren

76 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    sub

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      si

  2. uglicoyote
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Road.

  3. Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I think the BBC is indiscriminate in applying a policy of journalistic balance, which is very appropriate for coverage of, say, political issues, to science and medicine. Typified by a very good piece by Ben Goldacre about anti-vaxxers, summing up the current research, which was extroduced as a “personal view from Dr. Goldacre”.

    /@

  4. Alex Shuffell
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Deepak Chopra says: “The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.”

    I agree, Chopra is a loser. When the claims of Chopra and Sheldrake are presented as science they are held to the same standards as actual science. They don’t like that.

    If you want to see a sweet clip of Chopra being humiliated by his own twisted logic watch this 37 second clip – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qySx8tSs8BQ

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      The sad thing is that a NPOV on Wikipedia seems in my view to be *too* credulous. It makes it sound like the crazy stuff is as supported as mainstream stuff (or even speculative stuff), which is a bit unfortunate. However, I’d rather that than the free-for-all that could happen …

  5. John K.
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    There is, I suppose, a form of “militant skepticism” that is so skeptical that it won’t accept anything. (I’m not aware of anyone adhering to this view)

    There are some solipsists out there, but not many. There is also such a thing as hyper-skepticism, otherwise known as deniers (evolution deniers, global warming deniers, ect.) who just continually reject any legitimate evidence in favor of their conclusion, whom I am sure Chopra and Sheldrake would like to have people believe their critics are.

    If theories fail in peer review, what other option to hold onto them does one have except a conspiracy theory? Those darn scientists, always militantly demanding scientific rigor in theories before they accept them. They ALL just hate me, that must be what is going on.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I read one of Sheldrake’s books years ago — probably his first, A New Science of Life: the hypothesis of formative causation. His notion of morphic resonance was clearly transparent nonsense.

    My position, however, is that strict deterministic materialism has a lot of explaining to do about free will, conscious experience, and generally the theory of mind. I consider these to be open questions that have nothing to do with religion or mysticism. This is a different stance from that of woomeisters like Sheldrake and Chopra, who willy-nilly throw out one half-baked idea after another. I think it’s a proper skeptical stance.

    • Kelton Barnsley
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Putting free will aside (which I don’t think requires any explanation because it doesn’t exist), I agree. Well said.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      Morphic resonance? It makes complete sense – on the Discworld. Mind you, Terry Pratchett was writing fantasy…

  7. Griff
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I despair for the BBC. I recently read an article where a snake was repeatedly described as “poisonous”. (It’s now been edited)

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Also on the BBC, QI — The Japanese grass snake and the common gartner snake are, apparently, actually poisonous.

      /@

      • Griff
        Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        Well don’t blooming’ eat them then!

      • Griff
        Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        I think this one was about the Atlantic Bushmaster.

  8. Andrikzen
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Woo: fast-food of the mind. It’s quick, pre-packaged, appealing and low cost (saving the effort to think for oneself). And like fast food has little or no substantive value.

  9. Stephen
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Obviously you don’t see any trace of the Guerrilla Skeptics changing Sheldrake’s wikipedia page because they are doing it through the morphic resonance thinghy.

  10. Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    re “(He was once a real scientist, trained in [ various scientific truths ] at [ Anywhere Reputable University ], but somehow he went off the rails.),” … … how … … does this happen ?

    Seriously. How does this come about ?

    So damned very Many are the opposite, ya’ know: born and raised up inside mama’s / daddy’s religiosity, then they (are fortunate enough to) study science, then they are no longer … … stupid.

    So, how … … if one has the training, does woo come about in to their brains ?

    Blue

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Maybe fear of death combined with wishful thinking does the trick for some.

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      I think many of these people are seeking fame. To gain the spotlight one has to have a combination of skill and luck, but even then fame can be very fleeting. Being a contrarian gets you noticed – especially in journalistic circles where they are looking for “both sides.”

      • Michael Fugate
        Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        Also it requires much less hard work than doing science. When do you think either Chopra or Sheldrake were last in a lab doing an experiment?

    • eric
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      All IMO, but…

      As the saying goes, “success breeds contempt.” Someone like Sheldrake makes noteworthy discoveries A-C, they sometimes start to think they couldn’t possibly be wrong on issues D-Z. They start to think that all the people who disagree with them on any issue must be uninformed, irrational or malicious.

      Same goes for fame/notoriety. Being told you are great by a lot of people can make you less self-critical or aware of your own faults.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I think we should look to comic books for our answers as there is an unusually high percentage of villains with advanced degrees. They all seem to have some lust for power or they have some sort of trauma occur. :)

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted November 6, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Although they always fail in their ultimate objectives, at least Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom are able to build things that work.

        A Rupert Sheldrake supervillain would stand on a Metropolis skyscraper thinking bad thoughts at Superman to no effect until his dog told him it was time to come home.

        • Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          Don’t know ’bout you, but I prefer my real-world supervillains to be ineffectual….

          b&

  11. Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I am such a militant skeptic that I am going to, right now, take extreme military action: I shall fart in Sheldrake’s general direction.

    Who’s with me?

    b&

    P.S. Anybody know what general direction Sheldrake is in with respect to the American Southwest? b&

    • Griff
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      Pointless. The noxious fumes will never reach him.

      • Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        Not true! The resulting di-morphic field will absolutely crush Sheldrake’s puny morphic fields.

        b&

        • Griff
          Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          Or his dog will start barking…

          • Griff
            Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

            I’ve just had an image of the dog at Pompeii!

            • Griff
              Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

              Overwhelmed by a pyroclastic flow!

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Next time you bathe, fart in the water. It might take a while but soon Sheldrake and will be drinking a homeopathic Ben Goren fart.

      • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        In that case…mission accomplished!

        b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I’ll wait until you do that then taunt him a second time!

      • Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Woah…is that really necessary? I mean, I’m okay with violating the Geneva Conventions like that, but only if we’re left with no other options.

        b&

  12. Matthew
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t see how “skeptic” can be regarded as anything other than a compliment in the milieu of science. If Sheldrake or Chopra can produce tangible evidence of their views, we skeptics are more than happy to accept it, right? And if they can’t produce such evidence or even testable hypotheses, then what are we even supposed to be talking about? A theory that has no bearing on the physical world is literally useless. If the implicate order can explain the mass of the neutrino, then hallelujah! But if it has no explanatory power for anything I can actually experience, then what good is it? Until shown otherwise, it’s a map of Narnia and deserves exactly as much serious consideration.

  13. KCS
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I remember my youthful days at basic skeptic military training camp, one false move and sarge would be up in your face yelling, “drop and give me 20 empirical facts!”.

    • TJR
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Remember all those exercises, like how to dismantle a faulty argument using only a swiss army knife? Or how to strip, clean and reassemble a Wikipedia article in only 30 minutes? Great days.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted November 7, 2013 at 4:54 am | Permalink

        Or how to assemble a jig-saw puzzle with a hammer.

  14. Faustus
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Well if there’s this “morphic resonance” thing on can’t he put his side across on that? I can’t imagine there are many sceptics on there to debunk him…

    • Stephen
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      It’s our negative energy that thwarts him there.

  15. Christopher
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Sheldrake gave a talk/lecture at my university campus a few weeks ago. I had to witness him for myself, so sat at the back with my head in my hands. At one point in the Q@A, someone in the audience (all of which were Sheldrake cronies who belly laughed at every sneer he made) compared sceptics and atheists to Hamas. To which Sheldrake replied “yes, they are” and went on his long boring 20 min speech about this organised group of militants changing his Wiki page. Yep, just like Hamas.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Holy hyperbole…

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Which organization invited him?

  16. Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    “editors should be careful not to present the pseudoscientific fringe views alongside the scientific or academic consensus as though they are opposing but still equal views”

    If only journalism had such high standards.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      If only journalism had ANY standards.

  17. eric
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I prefer Carl Sagan’s version to Dudley Moore’s. “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

  18. eric
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Much of what Sheldrake says in the interview is untrue, and it’s all in service of telling the world not to believe his Wikipedia page as it was sabotaged by Guerrilla Skeptics, which also is “distorting hundreds of pages on Wikipedia.”

    I just briefly looked at his entry and I’m not sure what he’s upset about. Seems very reasonably neutral to me.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      “Seems very reasonably neutral to me.”

      That’s probably what he objects to.

  19. dick chenary
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    > But I’m wondering why the BBC
    > gives Sheldrake a voice at all.

    Some folk… actually value free speech
    and really practice what most just preach.

    imo

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      I guess, then, that it’s the BBC’s duty to present, without comment, Holocaust denial, alien abduction, homeopathy, and flat-earthism, right? Should I teach my students creationism?

      And don’t tell me that I don’t value free speech.

      • dick chenary
        Posted November 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        > I guess, then, that it’s the BBC’s duty to present,
        > without comment, Holocaust denial, alien abduction,
        > homeopathy, and flat-earthism, right?

        Most people are able to discern
        fact from phantasy, thus, choose to spurn.

        Censoring any… is cause for concern.

        imo

        • Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          Well, the BBC can’t tell fact from “phantasy.” And I needn’t point out that the BBC’s giving an even-handed discussion of Sheldrake’s views, or even (better in my opinion) choosing not to present them, is not censorship.

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      The freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses. The owners have no more responsibility to promote views they find objectionable than you do.

      …or do you walk around carrying every billboard anybody might ask you to?

      b&

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 5:01 am | Permalink

      OH lay off poor dicky boy.
      Why, he made it all rhyme and everything…

      “Some folk actually value free speech
      And really practice what most just preach”

  20. Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to my blog! This whole Sheldrake thing has been entertaining, it seems to be the story that keeps on giving.

    Trying to get BBC World Update’s attention so maybe they’ll interview an actual skeptic editor in their follow-up they promised. If anyone has a tip on contacting a producer there, let me know.

  21. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Great takedown by Harris. I’ll take exception to one of his points, though. I never found a lack of arrogant people at scientific conferences.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Wrong post. But I posted essentially the same thing over on the right one. j hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh :D

      I.e., I agree. (jhh’s compliments of my cat…)

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Sheldrake and his supporters always defend themselves as beleaguered scientists whose correct theories are unfairly attacked or neglected because they buck the current “materialistic paradigm.” That is, he thinks himself an unrecognized and persecuted Galileo figure.

    I don’t read Sheldrake either. But whether or not he hits the Galileo metaphor, he scores high on Baez’s crackpot index. (As do Chopra, naturally.)

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Steven Novella defines atheists as empiricists and skeptics as philosophers, despite that organized skepticism has adopted science as basis.

    A classical accommodationist gap dodge, in other words:

    Some people choose to have faith in an unfalsifiable god, one that resides outside the realm of science. Once someone’s faith has retreated outside the realm of science, then science is no longer the tool by which one should address such faith. Logic and philosophy are now more appropriate, but you cannot say, by definition, that an unfalsifiable God can be scientifically proven to not exist.

    In practice most people blur the line between an empirical God and an unfalsifiable God, in which case I believe the best approach is to point out the self-contradiction, and force them squarely either inside or outside the arena of science. Once completely outside the arena, they must surrender any pretense to actual knowledge and admit their beliefs are solely personal faith. If any part of their belief dips into the arena of science, however, then it is scientific fair game.

    This is the debate, at least, that has been raging ever since there has been a modern skeptical movement. There are two basic camps, loosely referred to as the atheists and the skeptics (yes, there are lots of permutations and subtleties, but that’s the basic picture).

    As a skeptic, I would be very skeptic about:

    – defining something as having both the characteristics of existence and “that resides outside the realm of science”.

    By definition, the universe is all that exists, and physics is about things that exist. The map of existing things “that resides outside the realm of science” is physical systems that we have not yet explored scientifically.

    It is a classic (shrinking) gap for gods.

    – defining something as having both the characteristics of existence and unfalsifiability.

    I can’t falsify (observe the actual value of) the naked value of the electron charge, yet it exists.

    – defining something as having both the characteristics of unfalsifiability and “that resides outside the realm of science”.

    I can’t falsify magic action (such as gods), yet I can observe that such doesn’t exist by thermodynamics of closed systems.

    “No go” theorems falsify the “go” part and the “no go” follows by constraint, this is how quantum mechanics has a “no cloning” theorem.

    The universe and the potential falsification of thermodynamics is a “no go” on magic.

    Besides, only philosophers bother with falsification. As I noted here before (but forgot that we want the cubed volume factor so messed up the numeric), deism and theism is with inflation homeopathic notions: any notional creationism is diluted to > 10^-150 parts per volume by a physical mechanism.

    You may or may not apply a falsification quality cut off “beyond reasonable doubt” on homeopathy. I would guess 10^-10 parts per volume is a practical limit on observing dilution effects. But mostly it is a ludicrous sell.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Edit error:

      “- defining something as having both the characteristics of existence and unfalsifiability.”

      – defining something as having [demanding] both the characteristics of existence and falsifiability.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

      In response to my criticism, Steven Novella agreed that an unfalsifiable god is one of the varieties of deistic gods. My further point, to which he didn’t respond, was that a vanishing small number of people believe in such a god, which means that Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (with whom Steven Novella disagrees) are essentially correct.

  24. tmtyler
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    See “RationalWiki” and “QuackWatch” for examples of scepticism taken to unhealthy extremes.

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Any sites opposed to such things as Joe Mercola’s lucrative bullshit empire, the anti-vaccine fringe, Conservapedia, cryptozoology and to pseudoscience in general is ok by me.

      How are either of those sites unhealthy or extreme?

      • BillyJoe
        Posted November 7, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

        Seconded.

        • Diana
          Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          Thirded

      • Posted July 4, 2014 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        Tim’s particular issue is that RationalWiki doesn’t buy into transhumanism and the Singularity.

  25. Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Those poor woo-meisters. I blame the internet for their heartache. Before we had this instant, global feedback mechanism, the Sheldrakes and Chopras of the world could publish books and articles and be on telly and the radio and they’d only encounter as many challenges as people could be bothered sending via post or publishing in print or verbally via talkback show.

    Now, however, their bullshit can be countered en masse, virtually in real time.

    If they’re not going to bother to learn why they’re wrong, they could at least learn the difference between “conspiracy” and “large numbers of rational people choosing not to propagate your unevidenced fantasies in a public medium”.

    • Diana
      Posted November 7, 2013 at 1:42 am | Permalink

      But they won’t make any money being rational and learning things….

  26. Stephen Barnard
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Have Sheldrake or Chopra ever proposed a falsifiable hypothesis that has been tested, or performed and described an experiment that was reliably replicated? (In Sheldrake’s case, after his descent into insanity, or his discovery of how to bilk the credulous rubes)

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      Well, Chopra used to say “quantum” a lot. That’s science, right?

  27. Taylor M. Brown
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Deepok says that Sheldrake is “Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation”.

    It is telling that only non-scientists ascribe scientific thinking to other non-scientists. I’d like to know if there are any actual scientists out there who would say such sweet things about Sheldrake.

  28. Julie (GSoW member)
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Hahaha we didn’t touch his page, even with our minds! We have a list of pages we want to edit and Sheldrake isn’t even on it! Maybe that’s the real reason for his tantrum ;-)

    Great blog! Brings all the facts together. I had no idea the BBC were involved in criticising us so I just had a rant about their terrible reporting on the program’s Facebook page! I expected more from the Beeb :-(

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      We have a list of pages we want to edit and Sheldrake isn’t even on it! Maybe that’s the real reason for his tantrum ;)

      Considering how proudly some wand-wavers wear their alleged persecution at the hands of Hitlerian skeptoscientismists, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the source Sheldrake’s butthurt was him being left off someone’s list.

      After all, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about :)

  29. donald
    Posted November 9, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    The conspiracy theory that skeptics have highjacked Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article has no basis in fact. The conspiracy theory started with a “psychic” called Craig Weiler, he a long internet history of making things up for attention:

    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Craig_Weiler

    • Julie
      Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      I tried to explain politely on Weiler’s blog when he first complained, but my comment didn’t get though his ‘moderation’. I guess that’s why there are only comments supporting him on it.

      I assume he prefers confirmation bias rather than facts.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] último, un comentario gracioso en mi propio sitio web por “Julie”, miembro del grupo Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, […]

  2. […] were responsible for a “concerted attack” on Sheldrake’s biography. Steven Novella and Jerry Coyne both replied to Chopra on their blogs.  Coyne also reiterated his points in an expanded article on […]

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