Monday, January 14, 2013

Pseudoscientist calls science dogmatic (surprise)

Bad Religion, to which bad science has been compared.
Source: Flickr (available via CC license)
In a post a couple of weeks ago on the HuffingtonPost blog, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake lamented what he regards as crippling dogmas in science (I'm relieved to see it placed in HuffPost Religion and not HuffingtonPost Science). The piece is titled: Why Bad Science is like Bad Religion. For reference, a photograph of Bad Religion is shown to the right.

The HuffingtonPost piece is a diatribe devoid of evidence. Says Sheldrake:
I have been a scientist for more than 40 years, having studied at Cambridge and Harvard. I researched and taught at Cambridge University, was a research fellow of the Royal Society, and have more than 80 publications in peer-reviewed journals. I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.
He starts off relatively normal; the argument that research is driven by conformity has been explored recently by writers including John Ioannidis. It's got truth to it. Grant funding is scarce, and grant proposals must draw heavily on literature precedent (putatively to show the money will not be wasted). Though this does select against potentially very innovative projects, some avenues exist to fund "startup" ideas (see NIH Challenge Grants for instance). And conformity has some utility: it would be very, very expensive to fund every single crazy idea--unsustainably so. This is a reason the federally-funded National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has received criticism and proposals for defunding. (NCCAM is part of the NIH! What??).

Next the punches at scientists begin to come out:
Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.
Ah, the classic "science is as based on faith as religion is" argument. That's simplistic and shallow, of course, and many authors (including, obviously, Richard Dawkins) have countered this stale line of thought. Sheldrake seems to suggest that religious fundamentalists are more self-aware than scientists are--that they're more aware of their own limitations.
Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance "promissory materialism" because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.
Here Sheldrake assumes that by following the scientific method, you remit yourself to cold nihilism, to blank materialism devoid of any joy or meaning. That's also ridiculous. As Douglas Adams has said: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

And there is no such "credibility crunch". Scientific tools are cheaper and faster than ever before, and advances are rapid. Genome sequencing, for instance, is increasingly quick and affordable. Biology, "materialistic" as it may be, has grown from a descriptive endeavor to a broad arena utilizing information science, chemistry, systematics, physics, and more to rationalize life processes. If there is a credibility crunch, I'm missing what it is: science seems to be doing quite well.

The following is, however, the shakiest part of Sheldrake's argument:
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. 
The technical triumph of the Human Genome Project led to big surprises. There are far fewer human genes than anticipated, a mere 23,000 instead of 100,000. Sea urchins have about 26,000 and rice plants 38,000. Attempts to predict characteristics such as height have shown that genes account for only about 5 percent of the variation from person to person, instead of the 80 percent expected. Unbounded confidence has given way to the "missing heritability problem." Meanwhile, investors in genomics and biotechnology have lost many billions of dollars. A recent report by the Harvard Business School on the biotechnology industry revealed that "only a tiny fraction of companies had ever made a profit" and showed how promises of breakthroughs have failed over and over again. 
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.
Here Sheldrake commits one of the biggest anti-science sins: worship of gaps. This is what anti-evolutionists say, too: "There are unexplained gaps in the fossil record!" "We don't have records of every fossil!" "Why aren't there transitional forms?" Science hasn't failed to explain biological development. We know a lot about it. And there aren't any big insurmountable walls. The picture keeps getting filled in. And the extension of heritable biology beyond simple genetics is illustrative of life's complexity: it isn't a case for adoption of magic and psychic nonsense.

Sheldrake says "there's no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity": but importantly, he neglects that there's no proof for anything supernatural.

I admit I'd never heard of Sheldrake before reading this piece, which I learned of when it was shared by a nutritionist I follow on some social media website. Who is this guy? I wondered. Should I know of him? Is this a Harvard biologist I hadn't heard of? Maybe a tenured professor at a smaller school who's big in the education field, or in science writing? The bottom of the article made him sound reputable: (but yes, they spelled it "resaerch")
Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D., is a biologist and author of Science Set Free. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Resaerch Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India. From 2005-2010 he was Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. His web site is
The problem is, Huffington Post made him sound like an actual real-live scientist. I guess he is indisputably an author. But his credentials, as outlined on his website, are spotty (not that non-traditional career paths are bad); it's interesting that he is crying out against dogma, yet he lists his most traditional posts in the article to establish his identity.

Sheldrake did indeed get his PhD from Cambridge and was initially regarded as a promising student. But he has, for all intents and purposes, parted ways with the scientific community. His career started out well (he was a Crick student and a fellow at Cambridge), but he ventured into the realm of magic with his 1981 publication of the book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation. Scientists quickly recognized the work as unscientific, but Sheldrake held onto his ideas and has for the last 31 years been in conflict with, you know, real biologists.

For a more thorough analysis of his career, read this account.

Is his work really that far out? Is it really unscientific? Is he being unfairly pilloried by dogma-loving, chauvinistic power-hungry capitalist traditional hegemonically dominating scientists? Is his critique of science as prejudiced and fear-driven justified?

Nah, he's way off base. His "science" consists of self-promoting, mystic, pseudoscientific nonsense that preys on the superstitions of the uninformed. From his own website, his research areas include: unexplained powers of animals; experimenter effects; morphic fields; the sense of being stared at; telepathy.

My personal favorite: "Can you wake a sleeping animal by staring at it?"

Before someone yells "continental drift!" at me: there's a big difference between someone being shunned for crazy theories without evidence and someone being shunned for theories with evidence. Science is self-correcting, and the dogmas shift over time. If there are facts and analysis to back it up. Sheldrake has not provided the extraordinary evidence (or any evidence) that extraordinary claims require.

He touts his publication record: early on he had some high-profile papers doing actual science (such as a 1968 paper in Nature) but his last few decades have been dominated by fringe-science journals like the Journal of Scientific Exploration and the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake
Source: Wikipedia/Public domain.
So is Sheldrake taken seriously by non-biologists? The problem is: he seems to be. We live in a society that loves Dr. Oz and thinks alternative medicine is an equally valid alternative to evidence-based therapy. So not suprisingly, there are a variety of fawning articles, reviews, and interviews. One piece proposes that Sheldrake may be a modern-day Isaac Newton. And several of his books have sold very well, according to Amazon stats.

As I previously mentioned, the article grossly misrepresents Sheldrake's credentials and area of "expertise". He calls himself a biologist, but that's a bit of a stretch. Sheldrake is more well-known for his parapsychology research and doesn't appear to have recently held a job that we would consider being a "biologist" for any appreciable amount of time.

Shrouding pseudoscience in science's clothing is a common tactic; shame on Huffington Post for not being clearer about who Sheldrake really is. When pseudoscience and actual science are blurred (especially by those who claim to be scientific experts), a great harm is done to the public good and the advancement of scientific thinking.

In final response to Sheldrake's points: of course there is dogma in science.* Of course there's resistance to change. But it's not in the things he's suggesting (he confuses how science works with what science says). And science, unlike religion, is self-correcting; views change over time, and they change broadly across the field. We don't have a thousand subsciences that conflict with each other, insisting the others are doomed to burn for eternity in Tetrahedron Letters.

* One such dogma is that n = 1 is sufficient for comparing the yields of two reactions. "Putting in LiCl raised the yield from 89% to 92% and the ee from 91% to 96%". Yeah, no it didn't.


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  2. I think you're pretty harsh on Sheldrake here, or rather you're just not very objective or partial in your approach. For one thing, well let's take an example for the element of faith. Dawkins has based his selfish gene hypothesis on lots of rigourous scientific work and lots of data and experimental findings. However, other biologists, with access to the same data, come up with a different interpretation. The data itself being interpretable, it does take an element of faith to say, that interpretation is wrong, this one is right. Personally, being a scientific pluralist, I think that both interpretations are two sides of the same coin, a coin of which the only descriptions we are capable are its sides, and not the "essence" of the coin itself. Is nature cooperative or selfish? I would say neither, and to believe only one or the other is a step of faith.

    Another, more striking example, of this faith in science phenomenon is/was to be found in string theory which had ONLY theoretical proof behind it: no predictions, no observations, no possible experiments. Finally, in 2013, the Large Hadron Collider failed to prove supersymmetry (a central part of string theory) and now things are looking ropier than ever. Yet, despite opposition from great minds like Sheldon Glashow and Richard Feynman, the vast majority of the theoretical physics community came to "put their faith" in string theory - despite a complete lack of empirical evidence or predictions.

    There, just wanted to point out that aspect. Also, I should give credit to Lee Smolin for the information on string theory and say that he (and he really IS a respected physicist) has been lead to raise many of the same points as Sheldrake. Sheldrake probably is wrong about everything he believes in too, but he's not wrong about trying to shake science out of its dogmatic and monist outlook on the universe (said the pluralist, but of course!)

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