Feb 25, 2013

Rupert Sheldrake's Takedown of Scientism

Hat-tip to Graham Hancock for this wonderful TEDx presentation by Rupert Sheldrake. In it the biochemist enumerates a list of assumptions that are accepted as indisputable facts among those for whom science is a belief system rather than, well, science. I've been whining about the dangers of scientism and its bedfellow new atheism for some time. It's dangerous to those of us who see more to the world than meets the eye, but worse, it's dangerous to the practice of science.

Pay particular attention to an anecdote Sheldrake shares at around the 11 minute mark, because it's really telling. After finding records of the speed of light having apparently slowed between 1928 and 1945 -- which raises a question as to whether the constants of physics are actually constant -- Sheldrake took the problem to the head of metrology at the National Physical Laboratory. He described it as an "embarrassing" episode but said they had solved the problem. How? They fixed the  definition of the speed of light in 1972. If the speed of light were to vary, no one would notice because the speed of light is now the standard metric. Defining reality by adjusting the rules to marginalize painful truths is a process I've seen way too many times in scientific practice. It's handy if your goal is making reality appear thoroughly predictable. If you define a scientific principle carefully enough, outliers aren't even outliers anymore. For all intents and purposes, they cease to exist. Which is all well and good unless you're experiencing one of those things that "can't be," and are, therefore, "imagining things."

The title of Sheldrake's newest book, The Science Delusion, is an obvious parody of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. (The title of the US publication is Science Set Free.) Needless to say, it's now added to my must-read list.

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