Every now and again, it’s a good idea to question your premises. That’s why there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘banned’ TED talk. Dr. Sheldrake’s presentation is about scientific dogma; unquestioned premises of science that turn the scientific method into scientism, a religion of science, where any doubt of the dogmatic beliefs is met with scorn.
Many see the TED board of directors decision to remove his talk from the their website (it’s back, but relegated to a discussion of this very topic–see the link above) as evidence that Dr. Sheldrake is on to something. The problem, though, is that Sheldrake is attacking a strawman. It’s not that dogmatism shouldn’t be avoided, it’s that it isn’t dogmatism when busy scientists don’t feel like they have to address every hypothesis ever raised by anyone. Must Sheldrake himself respond to every critic? (Will I get a comment from him on this blog; or should I assume that since this post went unanswered that there’s a pro-Sheldrake conspiracy against me?)
Sheldrake claims that scientists put a range of things outside of question, from the constancy of physical constants to efficacy of Western medicine. Here are the ten dogmas from his talk:
- Nature is mechanical or machine like
- All matter is unconscious
- The laws or constants of nature are fixed
- The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
- Nature is purposeless
- Biological heredity is material
- Memories are stored inside your brain
- Your mind is inside your head
- Psychic phenomena like telepathy is not possible
- Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works
How do we know if some measurement is accurate? Nowadays, we compare it to a known standard, but what if you’re measuring something that hasn’t been measured before? We validate measurements the same way people did when they first decided to use rulers. Compare the results to nature. Back then, if merchant wanted to sell me a length of rope or planks of wood, he might measure them in els (an el is the length between an elbow and wrist). If you ordered 20 els of rope and got what seemed to be 20 els of rope, that’s a happy transaction. If the merchant’s idea of an el based on his very small arms was much smaller than mine, I’d object and eventually, we’d arrive on a standard el, often attached to the city hall, that we could agree upon. We validate the measurement by finding something that represents what we see in nature, and if works, we keep using it.
Measurements like the el or the meter are also premises just like several of Sheldrake’s ten dogmas. The reason we don’t constantly take our meter stick to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST is the U.S.’s modern equivalent of hanging a standard el on the city hall) is because it works. The results of measuring for shelves at home and then using those numbers to buy wood at the hardware store is proof enough that we don’t need to question the meter stick.
The reason these so-called dogmas aren’t questioned and proved anew in every scientific paper is because assuming they are true is handy, like trusting the meter stick. It’s right to calibrate once and while, to take a step back and ask, if constants of nature really constant, but just because this isn’t done all the time isn’t evidence of the dogmatic nature of scientists.
What Sheldrake is calling dogma is just the convenience of not questioning the foundation each time we endeavor to learn something new. Sadly, this attack is common among many in the fringe. (which is not to say Sheldrake’s on the fringe–so help me!) ‘Why won’t the establishment listen to me when I tell them I have proof of a perpetual motion machine / telekinesis / pink unicorns? They’ve clearly got something against me!’ In reality, every claim doesn’t deserve the same attention. The farther the claim is from already established knowledge, the more firmly the onus falls to the claimant to demonstrate it’s worth checking into in the first place.
Cold Fusion turned out to be cul-de-sac, but that didn’t stop my university physics department from investigating it. It was outside the accepted dogma, but it seemed plausible enough to check on. Perhaps Sheldrake get’s little attention for his theories on scopaesthesia
(the sense that someone is staring at you from behind) because he has offered little justification for the mechanism of this phenomenon, and not because the establishment is too dogmatic.
Meanwhile, Sheldrake’s TED talk accuses scientists of treating these premises as unquestionable dogmas. That is plainly untrue. Journals regularly feature articles testing the efficacy of “non-mechanistic medicine” or seeking to measure changes in physical constants. Immaterial effects of consciousness and even prayer are reviewed over and over again simply because no matter how many times it is shown that matter is unconscious, energy is conserved, and brains are material, not everyone is convinced. The unconvinced perform experiments trying to prove their point of view and sometimes their efforts are rewarded with new insight into how nature works. The rest of the time, these dogmas are simply premises that seem to work, over and over again, in experiment after again.
If I assume that nature is machine-like and, that assumption in mind perform an experiment only to achieve the expected results, then not only is that evidence of whatever phenomenon I was trying to observe, it’s also support for my assumption—no dogma required, just convenience.
In the end then, this comes down to a controversy as to whether the TED committee should have removed Sheldrake’s talk. While it is a good idea to revisit your assumptions now and again, Sheldrake’s talk goes further than just raising this issue. He gives the impression that scientists are unwilling to budge on their premises, accusing them of being dogmatic. The numerous papers (included Sheldrake’s own) exploring topics from his ten dogmas are each examples of the freedom of the scientific method. Sheldrake is not banned for having unconventional ideas. He’s making an unsubstantiated claim that these are unmovable dogmas in the first place. Is an unproven undermining attack on science really an idea worth spreading?