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Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:10 PM

Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-rupert-sheldrake/why-bad-science-is-like-bad-religion_b_2200597.html

Dr Rupert SheldrakeBiologist and author
Posted: 12/01/2012 9:59 am

In both religion and science, some people are dishonest, exploitative, incompetent and exhibit other human failings. My concern here is with the bigger picture.

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.

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.

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.

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Arrow 37 replies Author Time Post
Reply Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion (Original post)
cbayer Dec 2012 OP
Turbineguy Dec 2012 #1
humblebum Dec 2012 #2
Confusious Dec 2012 #3
cbayer Dec 2012 #5
LeftishBrit Dec 2012 #7
cbayer Dec 2012 #9
tama Dec 2012 #13
Speck Tater Dec 2012 #26
tama Dec 2012 #30
xocet Dec 2012 #29
tama Dec 2012 #31
cbayer Dec 2012 #36
burnsei sensei Dec 2012 #4
LeftishBrit Dec 2012 #6
cbayer Dec 2012 #8
tama Dec 2012 #14
intaglio Dec 2012 #17
tama Dec 2012 #18
intaglio Dec 2012 #23
tama Dec 2012 #24
cbayer Dec 2012 #22
Thats my opinion Dec 2012 #10
LeftishBrit Dec 2012 #11
tama Dec 2012 #15
Humanist_Activist Dec 2012 #28
trotsky Dec 2012 #35
Phillip McCleod Dec 2012 #12
tama Dec 2012 #16
cbayer Dec 2012 #21
trotsky Dec 2012 #34
skepticscott Dec 2012 #19
cleanhippie Dec 2012 #20
Odin2005 Dec 2012 #25
Humanist_Activist Dec 2012 #27
Fortinbras Armstrong Dec 2012 #32
Name removed Jan 2014 #37
trotsky Dec 2012 #33

Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:12 PM

1. Or as one of my colleagues puts it:

"Engineering by superstition."

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:28 PM

2. Both wise and perceptive, and a viewpoint that needs to be taken to heart. nt

 

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:32 PM

3. Ahh, that Rupert sheldrake

The one who can't get anyone to believe his theories because they are basically pseduoscience.

No wonder he's complaining. Anytime some writes something like this, 9 times out of 10 it's because they have some pseduoscience theory that the actual scientific community ignores.(because it's pseudoscience crap)

His contribution to pseudoscience? The "morphia field" where each and every generation transmits knowledge to the next generation through "morphic fields."

I wonder how close you have to be for these fields to work, seeing as there are still tribes in the amazon who don't know what a helicopter is.

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Response to Confusious (Reply #3)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:39 PM

5. I'm not that familiar with his scientific work, but I think his take here

is an interesting one.

I am fascinating by these people who try to see some bridges between the natural and supernatural, although I tend to be very much a skeptic.

At any rate, his resume is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

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Response to cbayer (Reply #5)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:59 PM

7. His recent resume is very much something to sneeze at

He did start out doing respectable work in biochemistry and physiology; but has ended up promoting all sorts of ideas that claim to be scientific but are not supported by any real evidence, and go against most other findings.

I'm not saying that everyone needs to be a scientist, or that science is the only way of looking at the world. If someone wants to study the world through a field other than science - philosophy; literature; art; history; for that matter, religion - then that is great. But I have little respect for people who produce pseudoscience and claim that it's science, and who then accuse others who point out the lack of foundation for their theories of not being sufficiently 'open-minded'.

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Response to LeftishBrit (Reply #7)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 02:01 PM

9. I think you make very valid points.

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Response to LeftishBrit (Reply #7)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 01:06 AM

13. Actually he's very good experimentalist

 

and I presume your opinion is based on second hand sources who either refuse to discuss the evidence or give false testimony about it (on ideological grounds), rather than direct familiarity with the recent scientific work of Sheldrake.

To put short, he's been lately concentrating on telepathy, beginning from looking at anecdotal evidence to find the most common natural settings of the claims of the phenomenon, and then testing those phenomena - such as notice of someone staring you from behind, guessing who calls on telephone, various phenomena of animal telepathy - with scientific rigor. The results have been statistically very significant and repeated by other researchers.

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Response to tama (Reply #13)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 01:17 AM

26. When I was in grad school in the 70's

 

I ran an experiment that illustrates the problem Sheldrake points out. I wrote a computer program to simulate the output of a biased binary random number generator. I collected the statistics and presented my data to two sets of mathematicians and statisticians.

To the first group I said that the data represented a hardware random number generator I was building and I wanted to know if the behavior of the device was truly random or if it showed a significant bias. The unanimous conclusion was that the deviation from expected outcomes was unquestionably statistically significant.

To the second group I said that the data represented the outcome of a series of ESP tests and I wanted to know if the results were truly random or if there was evidence of some ESP effect. The unanimous conclusion was that the results were unquestionably purely random and showed no significant deviation.

The same data was seen as evidence of an effect, or as evidence of no effect depending of what the "objective" mathematicians were told was the cause of the effect.

The data itself was generated by computer to have a significant deviation from random, but that deviation became invisible to those who wished not to see it.

I'm reminded of another statistical paper I read wherein it was pointed out that everybody seems to put a lot of faith in the beneficial effect of an aspirin regimen for heart patients, and no faith at all in experiments for ESP. But the fact is that the evidence for ESP is over 100 times more significant than the evidence for the aspirin regimen. (Specifically, the p of the aspirin effect being chance was about 100X the p of the ESP results being due to chance.) So objectivity goes out the window when a scientist is confronted with data that goes counter to his preconceptions.

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Response to Speck Tater (Reply #26)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 03:32 AM

30. "Observer bias" and "degree of plausibility" combined

 

are good concepts to avoid flame wars and keep the discussions polite...

And Sheldrake leaves another door open pointing out that also there could be something strange about statistical math and our view of randomness that produce these results. And in fact there is what is called Shnoll effect; "randomness" of e.g. radioactive decay shows statistical effect that correlates with astrophysical time: http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/articles/time.html

BTW Shnoll is biologist and first spotted the phenomenon in some biological data, and then started to test it with supposed randomness of radioactive decay.

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Response to cbayer (Reply #5)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 03:27 AM

29. If one were to judge his argument by his resume, that would just be argument from authority....

Last edited Tue Dec 4, 2012, 03:58 AM - Edit history (1)

Cross out the author's name and ask what is being requested in that article:

"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."

So, what would such a "proof" look like?

Inductive procedures are open-ended. The next experiment can always render ideas and explanations inadequate. Hence, there never will be a final proof in the way that he seems to want one.

What does he mean by "explained...alone"?

If he has some viewpoint/theory that brings in something that is not of "physics and chemistry alone" let him bring it forth and present with the new theory the empirical evidence that it is needed for the purposes of "explanation".

There is no need for him to bemoan "arrogance". Let him bring on the reproducible evidence that demonstrates the provisional correctness of his non-"physics and chemistry alone" theories and the community will accept his results.







ALSO: Here is a different thread that was locked in the Science Group. If you look at Sheldrake's book as linked to in this other thread, you will likely find that nonsense comes up fairly quickly - i.e., as seen in his book, unobserved processes are promoted to being classified as phenomena:

http://www.democraticunderground.com/12281675#post5

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Response to xocet (Reply #29)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 06:42 AM

31. Couple points

 

First, you make good point about open-ended inductive procedure, and it seems Sheldrake uses term "physics" bit unclearly, but from the rest of the article and from other sources it can be deducted that he is referring at least mostly to the materialistic paradigm and it's so far unfulfilled promises of explanatory power. Sheldrake, if I interpret correctly, considers it extremely unlikely that materialistic paradigm could succeed, but is more open to potential of quantum biology and quantum approaches to consciousness.

Here's one attempt to link Sheldrakes views to physics: http://dnadecipher.com/index.php/ddj/article/view/16


Second, in your post to locked thread you use abstract noun "science" constantly as animate-like subject sentences in the way that creates impression that science is some kind of collective organism having opinions and views of it's own. That is bad form. I know it's idiomatic English, but what it does is to cover the fact that science is social field of lot's of different views and opinions, and instead of collective "science" as subject factual expression would be "some scientists" or "most scientists" if that is the case and can be proven to be so.

Of course telepathy is not "unobserved process" as there are tests that show effect and others that don't, and evidence is not non-existant, but remains inconclusive and subjective valuations of the plausibility of the evidence vary.

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Response to xocet (Reply #29)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 12:27 PM

36. Actually, I first read this without any idea of who he was, and I found it interesting.

It was others who read it in light of his history and possibly prejudged it based on that.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:34 PM

4. Liberal materialism has become the dominant mode

of philosophical reflection.
Religious zealotry is styled, often by religious zealots, as the only counter to it.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:52 PM

6. Maybe - but one of the best-known practitioners of bad science is Rupert Sheldrake himself

He is a great promoter of telepathy and other phenomena of parapsychology; and of even more bizarre theories that indicate that memory is not stored specifically through neural connections in the brain, but is inherent to all organically formed structures and systems; that memories can be passed on from one generation to the next; and that physical and mental characteristics are not based on genes (or on environment in the usual sense) but by 'morphic resonance', where organisms have some sort of intrinsic influence on other organisms of the same species. I suspect that when he complains that scientists are not sufficiently 'open-minded', he really means that they won't accept his own bizarre and non-evidence-based theories.

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Response to LeftishBrit (Reply #6)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 01:59 PM

8. I wasn't aware of this when I read the article, but have now done some further

reading about him and have re-read in context.

Whatever he is, he's pretty interesting for being so non-traditional, imo. And he certainly has been handsomely rewarded in academic fields for the *work* he has done.

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Response to cbayer (Reply #8)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 01:12 AM

14. He's unorthodox, for sure

 

but that's what a good scientist is supposed to be, and his experimental scientific methodology is of very high standard. The controversy around him reflects strong opposition from ideological - not empirical science - orthodoxy towards his field of study and findings.

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Response to tama (Reply #14)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 05:36 AM

17. He is not unorthodox - he is a purveyor of Woo

He was an experimentalist but then veered into explaining results that did not match his preconceptions by invoking an unnecessary element in "Morphic Resonance"

Contrary to his belief that he is a prophet without honour, other scientists have cooperated with him and assisted him and found his results to have been skewed by his own misconceptions, poor statistical analysis and by changing previously agreed parameters.

Sheldrake has championed the idea of "the staring effect" where people think they have observed someone look up or round in response to being stared at. This is not a real effect:
1) if the recipient alone in a room people will look up occasionally, if someone else is with them then they will look up or round more often, if another person is seen to be looking at them or lowering their eyes after looking the recipient then the upward glances are more frequent;
2) on the observer side you cannot see how often someone is looking up and you can only notice them looking round if you are looking at them.

Attempts to prove the effect using video cameras show that the supposed effect is statistically insignificant and could well be random noise.

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Response to intaglio (Reply #17)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 07:38 AM

18. Well then

 

Which other scientists are you referring to, specifically? Link to source would be nice, thanks.

As for the staring effect: http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/staring/

See especially http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/staring/pdf/artefacts_elim.pdf and http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles%26Papers/papers/staring/pdf/sensoryclues.pdf about elimination of possible artefacts. Tests have been carried also blindfolded to eliminate what I guess you are suggesting, somewhat confusingly as I fail to see the connection to Sheldrakes controlled methodology. Closed circuit TV test, according to Sheldrake, show that "This conclusion is confirmed by an independent series of experiments in which subjects were looked at through closed circuit television (CCTV), while their galvanic skin response was recorded continuously, as in lie-detector tests . In these experiments, the lookers and subjects were in different rooms, and the subjects could not have received any clues about when they were being looked at through normal sensory channels. The subjects in these CCTV experiments were not asked to make conscious guesses about when they were being looked at or not; their physiological responses were unconscious. Yet there were significant differences differences in their skin resistance when they were being looked at on a TV monitor in another room (Braud, Shafer and Andrews [1990], [1993a], [1993b]; Schlitz and
LaBerge [1994], [1997]; Wiseman and Schlitz [1997])."

On the other hand Muller et alii CCTV experiment http://www.uniklinik-freiburg.de/iuk/live/forschung/publikationen/StaringEDAconsciousPA2006.pdf with very different methodology from "either-or" conscious guessing of Sheldrake et alii don't show PSI effect. They admit the sample data is very small to draw statistical conclusions.
And as such their very different methodology does not refute the results of other methodology, just raises further questions.

The main counter argument that the strong effect of study paradigm by Sheldrake et alii is product of guessing strategies remains AFAIK just a guess, as I'm not aware of empirical studies making clear what these strategies exactly are and how exactly they work to produce the strong positive effects.



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Response to tama (Reply #18)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 03:02 PM

23. Blindfolding has little effect

because humans attempt to respond by looking whether or not they have vision. There are numerous other inputs that inform us of the presence of others

Essentially Sheldrake evaluates his own work and others pull down his dubious analysis.

I propose the following protocol.
Take subject (the primary) to be observed, connect them to electro-encephalograph and an electro-myograph. Wheel them, blindfolded and earplugged, into a room with a low level of white noise and a video camera that can only observe the primary subject.

Sometimes that room is otherwise empty, sometimes there are 3 or 4 people (the secondaries). These people are placed in chairs facing away from the location of the subject and which have motors to rotate them. In some experimental runs none of the other 4 persons are rotated. In others rotation occurs randomly and the secondaries are to stare at the subject until the chair rotates away.

After a set period of time, identical in all cases, the primary is taken to a room to be interviewed by someone unaware of the experimental set up for that run. In all cases the video, interview, encephalographic and myographic data are analysed by a third party unaware of the state of the secondaries. The evaluation of the data should look for evidence of voluntary or involuntary movement from the primary and any "feelings" the primary may express about a particular test run.

This analysis is then compared to the data on the presence or absence of staring.

This test has to be carried out on a minimum of 5 times on each of 20 primary subjects with secondaries drawn at random from a pool of at least 100.

Precautions; due to the sensitivity of the human body to floor born vibrations the floor under the Primary should be independent from the floor beneath the secondaries. It might also be advisable to control for body heat and osmic (smell) effects

If you get any more than random noise from such a set-up I would be willing to reconsider my position.

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Response to intaglio (Reply #23)

Mon Dec 3, 2012, 12:04 AM

24. Actually

 

You are free to keep any position as you wish, as the evidence in the field stays inconclusive - as in science in general and all that scientific evidence ever offers is various degrees of plausibility, which is always subjective. Motive for my contribution in this thread was that Sheldrake is a good man and a good scientist with whom I've exchanged couple emails, and my cousin who is cognitive scientist knows him better.

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Response to tama (Reply #14)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 12:58 PM

22. Thanks, tama. I found his writing intriguing, and looking into

his history interesting as well.

Not rejecting him at all, but it helped me recognize what may be motivating him.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 03:56 PM

10. While some of Sheldrake's stuff is way outside the box,

in his day so was Galileo's as well as was most other avant guard scientists' who are now considered quite orthodox.

His statement here is self critical--and apart from his exotic extrapolations, what he says here is close to the bull-eye. His is a warning to all of us that when we make absolute statements about anything we are really just another type of fundamentalist.

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Response to Thats my opinion (Reply #10)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 06:06 PM

11. And so were/are a lot of crackpots and cultists.

Being 'outside the box' does not automatically make your work wrong, but it also does not automatically make it right without evidence.

Moreover: although Galileo's work did go against many then-contemporary scientific theories about the universe, that was not why his work was so strongly rejected. It was the Inquisition that persecuted him, on religious grounds, not some form of scientific orthodoxy. Sheldrake's views are not being rejected because he is being persecuted by some religious or political dictatorship. They are mostly rejected because there is no evidence for them, and quite a lot of evidence against them.

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Response to LeftishBrit (Reply #11)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 01:22 AM

15. The why don't you

 

look at the evidence?

Dawkins asked Sheldrake to appear on his TV show and he promised to come if it was guaranteed that the discussion would be about the evidence. Then shortly before the show Dawkins informed Sheldrake that he could not talk about evidence and Sheldrake cancelled appearance.

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Response to Thats my opinion (Reply #10)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 01:59 AM

28. That's an idiotic comparison...

 

first off Galileo's observations weren't too surprising, and remember this is after Copernicus, so he wasn't too outside the box, indeed, Vatican astronomers were reaching the same conclusions as him at nearly the same time, its just that Galileo was an asshole and decided to attack the Pope in his famously published work, calling him an illiterate simpleton. You know how that ended.

But even more importantly, Galileo had EVIDENCE to back up his ideas, and that evidence, observations, and experiments could be repeated by anyone who was interested enough to do them. Not so with Sheldrake, what experiments are done he dismisses all possible explanations but his own pet theories, or he looks within the noise of statistical analysis and thinks its conclusive in favour of his theories. He is the epitome of a man who is dogmatic in his beliefs, he is the fundamentalist.

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Response to Thats my opinion (Reply #10)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 10:34 AM

35. Here's a free logic lesson from Carl Sagan:

"The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

TMO, are you comfortable saying that Fred Phelps is absolutely wrong about homosexuality?

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sat Dec 1, 2012, 11:11 PM

12. thats pretty rich coming from rupert sheldrake

 

he's a grade 'A' crackpot. not surprising he found a home on that particular site.

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Response to Phillip McCleod (Reply #12)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 01:30 AM

16. Phillip McCleod is a crackpot

 

Does the act of saying so make in necessarily true? Thought not.

Also there nothing irrational in tactic of attacking a person instead discussing what he says - because in regards to human psychology, destruction of personal credibility is very well functioning tactic of ideological propaganda to oppress opinions and evidence contrary to one's belief system.

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Response to Phillip McCleod (Reply #12)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 12:57 PM

21. Which particular site? The Huffington Post?

They have the best religion section on the web, imo.

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Response to cbayer (Reply #21)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 10:32 AM

34. They are also home to a lot of crackpot woo.

Anti-vaccine nonsense, etc.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 08:26 AM

19. Dishonest and self-serving

 

Funny that he doesn't openly mention the personal axes he has to grind with the scientific community, namely that they aren't swallowing his woowoo whole. He simply repeats the standard diatribe of the poor, oppressed crackpot about the rigid and dogmatic scientific establishment. Particularly ironic, since he tries to bolster his credibility by touting his own association with that same establishment and with the peer-review process. And then, of course, another round of boilerplate with the "science has been wrong in the past and science doesn't know everything" strawman, as if any of the scientists he's slamming have ever claimed otherwise.

And exactly where religion comes into it, except as an attempt to smear by association, is never very clear. He knows perfectly well the response to his lead-off sideswipe, but chooses to fling the poo anyway. Science has well-established and proven methods of self-correction, and over time, it gets closer to the truth and increases knowledge and understanding. Religion does not. Bad science gets better. Bad religion stays bad.

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Response to skepticscott (Reply #19)

Sun Dec 2, 2012, 11:23 AM

20. "Bad science gets better. Bad religion stays bad."

WINNER!!!!!

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 12:42 AM

25. Sheldrake is a crank who probably has Schizotypal Personality Disorder.

A book I have on the developmental biology of Autism and Schizophrenia uses his nuttiness as an example of mild Schizophrenic thinking.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 01:53 AM

27. Well, this man definitely represents bad science, and I can't see a difference...

 

between it and religion, also, I don't know what the difference is between "good" and "bad" religion.

He makes unfalsifiable claims of a pseudo-scientific nature, or claims that are falsifiable and have been falsified already. Yet, instead of re-evaluating his theories, he sticks by them, and then complains about the "dogma" of "mainstream" science. This sounds like a classic case of fundamentalism and closed mindedness.

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Response to cbayer (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 09:24 AM

32. Here's my take on Sheldrake

This is from something I wrote in the mid-1990s.

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who brought out his first book, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, in 1981. Sheldrake developed his ideas further in The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (1988) and The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (1991).

His basic argument is that natural systems, or morphic units, at all levels of complexity -- atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, and societies of organisms -- are animated, organized, and coordinated by morphogenic fields, which contain an inherent memory. Natural systems inherit this collective memory from all previous things of their kind by a process called morphic resonance, with the result that patterns of development and behaviour become increasingly habitual through repetition. Sheldrake suggests that there is a continuous spectrum of morphogenic fields, including behavioural fields, mental fields, and social and cultural fields.

Morphogenesis -- literally, the "coming into being" (genesis) of "form" (morphe) -- is something of a mystery. How do complex living organisms arise from much simpler structures such as seeds or eggs? How does an acorn manage to grow into an oak tree, or a fertilized human egg into an adult human being? A striking characteristic of living organisms is the capacity to regenerate, ranging from the healing of wounds to the replacement of lost limbs or tails. Organisms are clearly more than just complex machines: no machine has ever been known to grow spontaneously from a machine egg or to regenerate after damage. Unlike machines, organisms are more than the sum of their parts; there is something within them that is purposive, directing their development toward certain goals.

Although modern mechanistic biology grew up in opposition to vitalism -- the doctrine that living organisms are organized by nonmaterial vital factors -- it has introduced purposive organizing principles of its own, in the form of genetic programs. Genetic programs are sometimes likened to computer programs, but whereas computer programs are designed by intelligent beings, genetic programs are supposed to have been thrown together by chance. Sheldrake has suggested that the misleading concept of genetic programs be abandoned in favor of terms such as "internal representation" or "internal description". Exactly what these representations and descriptions are supposed to be has still to be explained.

To Sheldrake, the role of genes is vastly overrated biologists. The genetic code in the DNA molecules determines the sequence of amino acids in proteins; it does not specify the way the proteins are arranged in cells, cells in tissues, tissues in organs, and organs in organisms. As Sheldrake remarks:

Given the right genes and hence the right proteins, and the right systems by which protein synthesis is controlled, the organism is somehow supposed to assemble itself automatically. This is rather like delivering the right materials to a building site at the right times and expecting a house to grow spontaneously.


The fact that all the cells of an organism have the same genetic code yet somehow behave differently and form tissues and organs of different structures suggests to Sheldrake that some formative influence other than DNA must be shaping the developing organs and limbs. (The general consensus among biologists is that this is determined by "homeobox genes", which are a special sort of gene that controls such things -- and there is considerable experimental evidence for this consensus.)

According to Sheldrake, the development and maintenance of the bodies of organisms are guided by morphogenetic fields. However, the nature of these fields has remained obscure, and they apparently cannot be described in conventional physical and chemical terms. According to Sheldrake, they are a new kind of field so far unknown to physics. They are localized within and around the systems they organize, and contain a kind of collective memory on which each member of the species draws and to which it in turn contributes. The fields themselves therefore evolve.

Each morphic unit has its own characteristic morphogenetic field, nested in that of a higher-level morphic unit which helps to coordinate the arrangement of its parts. For example, the fields of cells contain those of molecules, which contain those of atoms, etc. The inherent memory of these fields explains, for example, why newly synthesized chemical compounds crystallize more readily all over the world the more often they are made.

Before considering other types of morphogenic fields, it is worth examining exactly it is supposed to be. Sheldrake describes them as "fields of information", saying that they are neither a type of matter nor of energy and are detectable only by their effects on material systems. However, if morphogenic fields were completely nonmaterial, that would imply that they were pure nothingness, and it is hard to see how fields of nothingness could possibly have any effect on the material world. In a discussion with physicist David Bohm, Sheldrake does in fact concede that morphogenic fields may have a subtle energy, but not in any physical sense of the term, since morphogenic fields can propagate across space and time and do not fade out noticeably over distance. In this sense morphogenic fields would be a subtler form of energy-substance, too ethereal to be detectable by scientific instruments. Sheldrake also suggests that morphogenic fields may be very closely connected with quantum matter fields. According to Sheldrake and Bohm, the universal quantum field forms the substratum of the physical world and is pulsating with energy and vitality; it amounts to the resurrection of the concept of an ether, a medium of subtle matter pervading all of space.

The reason Sheldrake uses the term "formative causation" to refer to his hypothesis of the causation of form by morphogenic fields is precisely to distinguish it from "energetic causation", the kind of causation brought about by known physical fields such as gravity and electromagnetism. Formative causation is said to impose a spatial order on changes brought about by energetic causation. The dualism Sheldrake introduces with his distinction between energetic and non-energetic causation is all the more remarkable given that Sheldrake criticizes other forms of dualism, such as the idea of a nonmaterial mind acting on a material body (Cartesian dualism), and the idea that the material world is governed by nonmaterial "laws" of nature.

Instinctive behaviour, learning, and memory also defy explanation in mechanistic terms. As Sheldrake remarks, "An enormous gulf of ignorance lies between all these phenomena and the established facts of molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics and neurophysiology." How could purposive instinctive behavior such as the building of webs by spiders or the migrations of swallows ever be explained in terms of DNA and protein synthesis?

According to Sheldrake, habitual and instinctive behavior is organized by behavioral fields, while mental activity, conscious and unconscious, takes place within and through mental fields. Instincts are the behavioral habits of the species and depend on the inheritance of behavioral fields, and with
them a collective memory, from previous members of the species by morphic resonance. The building up of an animal's own habits also depends on morphic resonance. It is possible for habits acquired by some animals to facilitate the acquisition of the same habits by other similar animals, even in the absence of any known means of connection or communication. This explains how after rats have learned a new trick in one place, other rats elsewhere seem to be able to learn it more easily.

Sheldrake suggests that memories are associated with morphogenic fields and that remembering depends on morphic resonance with these fields. He says that individual memory is due to the fact that organisms resonate most strongly with their own past, but that organisms are also influenced by morphic resonance from others of their kind through a sort of pooled memory, similar to the concept of the collective unconscious put forward by Jung.

According to Sheldrake, morphic resonance involves the transfer of information but not of energy. But it is difficult to see how the one can take place without the other, though the type of energy involved may well be supraphysical. Sheldrake, however, rejects the idea of morphic resonance being transmitted through a "morphogenetic ether", saying that "a more satisfactory approach may be to think of the past as pressed up, as it were, against the present, and as potentially present everywhere

Social organization is also explained by Sheldrake. Societies of termites, ants, wasps, and bees can contain thousands or even millions of individual insects. They can build large elaborate nests, exhibit a complex division of labor, and reproduce themselves. Such societies have often been compared to organisms at a higher level of organization, or superorganisms. Studies have shown that termites, for example, can speedily repair damage to their mounds, rebuilding tunnels and arches, working from both sides of the breach that has been made, and meeting up perfectly in the middle, even though the insects are blind.

Sheldrake suggests that such colonies are organized by social fields, embracing all the individuals within them. This would explain the behavior of shoals of fish, flocks of birds, and herds or packs of animals, whose coordination has so far also defied explanation. Social morphic fields can be thought of as coordinating all patterns of social behavior, including human societies. This would throw light on such things as crowd behavior, panics, fashions, crazes, and cults. Social fields are closely allied with cultural fields, which govern the inheritance and transmission of cultural traditions.

According to Sheldrake, then, human beings consist of a physical body, whose shape and structure are organized by a hierarchy of morphogenetic fields, one for every atom, molecule, cell, and organ up to the body as a whole. Our habitual activities are organized by behavioral fields, one for each pattern of behavior, and our mental activity by mental fields, one for each thought or idea. Sheldrake also suggests that our conscious self may be regarded either as the subjective aspect of the morphogenic fields that organize the brain, or as a higher level of our being which interacts with the lower fields and serves as the creative ground through which new fields arise.

However, Sheldrake's fields are subject to question: What are the physical properties of these fields? I dunno. How do these fields pass information? I dunno. Are these fields detectable by any sort of instruments? Apparently not. How are these fields generated? I dunno.

Because of things like this, Sheldrake is regarded as a quack by the overwhelming majority of scientists. If there was one scintilla of hard evidence for the existence of these fields, then Sheldrake's theory might be accepted. The problem is, there is none. You can't just point to mysterious "fields" in order to answer a question.

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Response to Fortinbras Armstrong (Reply #32)


Response to cbayer (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 10:26 AM

33. Bad science can be countered (and conquered) by good science.

Bad religion is just an "other way of knowing."

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