Rupert Sheldrake and Science as Dogma


A somewhat heated discussion started on the page Cats in Space Quoting Scientists. They had shared the image to the right, and someone had responded.

She stated that this trend is further engendered by science becoming dogma. This is actually something that is said rather often, and fringe scientists are paraded around by antis for this reason. 

In this particular case, some heated responses were made and she posted a video to back her up. That video being a TedX talk by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a former plant biologist that went into the realm of woo somewhere in the 1980s. He has since published parapsychology nonsense in some pay-to-play journals and as is common for woo-peddlers, he buffs up his credentials for people that do not double-check it. For the record, he hasn't published any peer-reviewed science nor does he hold a academic position, at all.

The person that started the conversation asked that we address the ideas an evidence of Rupert Sheldrake. I am not going to go into his woo here, but you can always look elsewhere [123].

Instead, I want to look at a blog post on the topic commented on in the meme, which was written by Rupert Sheldrake. It's called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion.

Fencing away

In both religion and science, some people are dishonest, exploitative, incompetent and exhibit other human failings. My concern here is with the bigger picture.
So far, this is true. Every once in a while scientists find out someone is committing fraud. On the other hand, in anti-science we mostly see them getting very rich.

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.
That's not really true, is it. Sheldrake stopped engaging in science, or at least established science, in the mid 1980's. Also, a "research fellow of the Royal Society" is a deliberate phrasing to mislead; Sheldrake wants it to be misread as "Fellowship of the Royal Society" (FRS), which is something different.  The 'research fellow' means that the Royal Society paid some of his research, while a `fellowship' means that someone is recognised for contributions to science and so forth. Likewise, those '80 publications' are rapidly diminished if you ignore pay-to-play and pseudojournals

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.
I wonder who can be considered more arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant; someone that believes the hundreds of thousands of scientists on our planet are wrong, and he is right, or someone that supports those scientists. 

Note how extremely general and speculative these paragraphs are. No specific claims are made, very little you can actually argue with. Who are these fundamentalists? What truth? What fundamental questions? 

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. Its achievements touch all our lives through technologies like computers, jet planes, cell phones, the Internet and modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an immense expansion of scientific knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.
Not really. To be open minded implies that you let the evidence, not your bias, lead you. This leads to a belief system rather rapidly, because of the body of evidence. 

The philosophy and 'materialist philosophy' he touches on here are nothing to do with 'the pursuit of materialist gains'. No, here materialist philosophy refers to epistemology, the theory of knowledge and how we determine that things are true. The materialist part refers to empiricism, to assess by physical evidence. And yes, the scientific method is a part of empirical epistemology. 

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.
A committed materialist, then, beliefs because of strong evidence. So what Sheldrake is really telling us here is that he thinks that there is some sort of spiritual dimension. That he thinks consciousness is magic. That he thinks there is some sort of deity that habitually interferes. 

Actually, there are two claims he makes that we can consider. Is evolution purposeless? To the best of the evidence gathered over the last two centuries, it is. For two centuries, that evidence has been sought painstakingly because people didn't want to accept it. I suggest you take that lesson and do accept it.

As for consciousness being a by-product, what would it otherwise be? I realise that many people think that it is something more, but that is speculation and feeling-based, not evidence-based. All that we know of neurology, embryology and so forth implies that it is, in fact, purely mechanical. 

These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers.
Scientists aren't immoral atheists that slave away at their evil plans for world domination. While it is certainly true that most scientists do not believe [that there is a god], it is not true that they believe that [there are zero gods]. Most simply ignore the question, stating that religion and science are non-overlapping domains. Some do not ignore it, and there are religious scientists. In my own university, we have Dr. Cees Dekker, a christian biophysicist. 

Also, this story of the evil mob of scientists does of course not refer to anything tangible, and is simply speculation.

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.
Have they? That's odd, because I know of very few "materialists" that do so. Do you here mean members of a particular group in professional philosophy? Do you mean scientists at large? Who exactly promised that? Where did they promise it?

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 surprising that Sheldrake wrote this when he had something to sell. I also do not know of these 'unexpected problems'. Research along 'established lines' is also vague; do you mean research assessed by the scientific method?

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.
Again, who made that 'confident claim'?

Let's separate some things here. How things develop from fertilised eggs is a knowledge issue, and is a field called embryology. In fact, quite a bit is known about that although it is a rather large study; mapping the interactions between the cellular machinery and the genetic information is an extensive job.

The question of 'life' is an entirely different issue. The origins of life research field, a byplay of various scientists because it is not funded well, has yielded a tentative picture that does a marvellous job at explanation. I wrote about that elsewhere.

"Minds" is a deliberately vague term. What do you want to explain? Is it a gap-argument? Usually it is; anything that hasn't yet been explained is 'the gap'. People assert that 'the mind' is more than merely mechanics, and 'the gap' is used as evidence for the mechanic explanation being insufficient. Of course, that we do not know something yet doesn't mean you can make up stories to fit in that gap.

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.
A lot of these numbers mean very little. The first numbers probably mean something along the lines of genes that are directly involved in protein production, while you don't know if the same is true for the sea urchins and rice. Even more so because 'the number' of genes means very little.

Of course, genetic information does not fully determine how tall someone will be, or many other features. From genes onward, we have embryology, how things are made. And then there are environmental factors, which can do a lot. Instructions such as 'be tall' can evolve; but an instruction such as 'be tall if regularly fed with leaves of this and that plant' can also be made (e.g. by releasing growth hormone in response to a particular biochemical that is present in the leaves).

There is so much more than the simplistic 'DNA blueprint' picture. Sheldrake is deliberately referring to the naive pictures, to the misconceptions people have of science, and so forth.

"Investors in genomics and biotechnology"  have probably not lost that much of their investment. Otherwise, why is there an entire movement dedicated to attacking the biotech industry for being greedy and corrupt? (NB: I state that this movement exists, not that they are right). Biotechnology is an important part of our society, and beyond the more obvious GMO crops it also contributes heavily to research and medicine.

And finally, if you make a claim, you do not support it with an out-of-context quote without a proper reference. Who made the report? Where was it published?

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.
 There is no proof of your claim, indeed. I would like to see evidence that consciousness is more than 'merely brain activity', but I haven't seen any. Yes, my friend, the 'more' is a positive claim. You are the one with the burden of proof, even if the positive claim resonates well with your target audience.

The "hard problem" is not that hard. The subjective experience is, in principle, accounted for by a combination of learning intelligence, memory and slightly different sensors. Even so, the assertion that it defies explanation is quite simply, nonsense. In computers we are now starting to have things like self-aware Mario, and we can indeed use statistical suggestions or even fuzzy logic to make more 'human like' decisions in computers. The claim that there 'is more' is a claim, and despite its popularity it is not evidence-based.

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.
Not really. Dark matter and dark energy are evidence-based concepts. We haven't detected them, no. On the other hand, we hadn't detected gravitational waves before January, but we knew they were there too. If you want to learn more on that, see A history of dark matter on arXiv.

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.
Actually, string theory is an endeavour that attempts to become testable. It is not speculation of some weird theoreticians in some obscure corner, but a large-scale endeavour to make testable predictions. The multiple dimensions haven't been tested, yes, but there are various proposals of how to do so.If nobody researches this sort of thing, then it remains so. Things only become testable if someone studies how to do so.

The multiverse "theory" is a philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics (among things) that has very little to do with the actual physics we do. It is also dishonest to refer to a philosophical interpretation when discussing physics.

Either way, that most people know little of the evidence for dark matter and what specifically is meant by the term itself doesn't mean that it is 'shaky' or 'speculation'. Read a book, Sheldrake.
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.
You mean, when it is humble enough to accept the expert opinion of specialists in particular areas, carried by a century of hard data that is recently exploding due to computers? Do you mean the humbleness to not assert that an entire field is speculating, when you clearly have no clue what dark matter is?

Again, I must point out the arrogance of asserting 'established' science is utterly wrong, and you are right.

Discussion and conclusion

If this is the best support Sheldrake has for his position, then this means that there is no support. It is entirely based on gish gallop and speculation, pointing to common misconceptions and popular opinions rather than evidence and examples of "dogma" in science.

Furthermore, while asserting the arrogance of scientists accepting the evidence they know and the opinion of hundreds of thousands of experts, Sheldrake claims to be humble in his assertion of speculation. Also, I have a bridge to sell.

I can understand why someone reading this sort of gish gallop thinks that there is some basis of evidence. Gish gallop means making loads of claims without evidence, leaving the opposition the large job of checking each and every claim. Even so, when someone claims the "establishment" is dogmatic, immoral or whatsoever, I sincerely hope that you will critically assess that persons claims.