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Metaphors, Assumptions and Dogma in Science (Response to The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake)

March 29, 2013 11 comments

I’ve just finished reading portions of Rupert Sheldrake‘s The Science Delusion. The title is an obvious allusion to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion so you can guess that Sheldrake’s thesis is that scientists have great faith in their craft, elevating it to the level of producing what I call Truth. The problem, Sheldrake points out, is that modern science is based on adhering to a dogmatic assumption that the universe is a machine. He points out that this is a fairly new idea, and worst of all for supposedly empirical science, there is absolutely no evidence for it. It’s a belief. It’s a myth. I’d like to leave aside the readability and scholarship for a proper review (perhaps elsewhere), but here I’ll deal with the real philosophical problem this presents.

Sheldrake points out that the mechanistic worldview, that is seeing the universe and everything in it as a machine, was a fairly radical idea in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries when it was proposed by a minority of scientists and natural philosophers. David Hume dismissed it completely. The universe and its inhabitants were seen as something organic, i.e. something that grows, by most ordinary and learned people. However, the material success of Newton’s Laws and (Sheldrake doesn’t mention!) the Industrial Revolution, and continuing into the computer age, has helped convince most people that they are robots inhabiting a giant clock. This is bad for science, as dogmatism stifles creativity and ideas that could be either helpful for science (like Sheldrake’s own theories of morphic resonance) or helpful to the general population (like “alternative medicine”) are dismissed since they don’t fit in to the mechanistic, materialistic worldview of science.

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and ...

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for his research into parapsychology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, many scientists dismiss acupuncture as incapable of anything but a placebo effect, since its “mechanism of action” is not known; therefore it’s a money-making tool for charlatans and shouldn’t be used to try to heal people. Sheldrake points out that’s not a valid criticism since the effect on the health of the patient is the same regardless of the mechanism of action, even if it’s just a placebo. Scientists and materialist physicians, on the other hand, will support many drugs whose mechanisms are poorly understood, simply because they are produced by chemistry. As someone who’s seen the inside of pharmaceutical research, Sheldrake is dead on: we don’t know much more about methylphenidate than we know about acupuncture. The mechanism of action of many psychiatric drugs is completely unknown and that doesn’t stop doctors and scientists from having total faith in them.

Although Sheldrake makes his point somewhat clearly, I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem with the mechanistic worldview and dogmatism in science. The problem I see is not within science, but in how the general public is persuaded to see science as Truth. Just witness how scientific graphics are used in TV commercials to sell running shoes: it’s very convincing even when there’s no actual science behind it. This means that scientists do a very good job of convincing people that science is the only route to Truth, or merely that science is the most pragmatic method of achieving their goals. People either see science as infallible, and they swallow the idea that the current mechanistic worldview of science is It. The big problem, as I see it, is that people are encouraged to deny their own experiences in favor of the findings of science, which are inextricably linked to the dogmatic assumptions of the mechanistic worldview.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend, just for the sake of discussion, that I suffer from terrible migraines up to three times a month that keep me from going to work or enjoying and taking care of my family. Totally hypothetical (not). Let’s also pretend that I’ve been to lots of doctors, been prescribed all kinds of drugs, vitamins, diets and exercise based on “evidence.” I’m still getting headaches. None of this stuff has helped to my satisfaction. I’ve had improvements, and I’m slowly learning to live with it, but the best most doctors have to offer me is “try this, there was a study done…” Science is slow. It’s way too slow to help me with this problem. I’ve been having these headaches for thirteen years and the science has not improved much in that time. The best a headache specialist could offer me was to take large doses of vitamins that were identified to help people with mitochondrial disorders, in a study done over forty years ago. The mechanistic worldview, encouraging me to see my body as a set of pumps and electronic circuits mounted on an armature of primitive calcite crystals tells me to see more doctors until I find the one who’s read the right peer-reviewed study. Why should I deny my own experience in favor of peer-review? No thanks. You bet your ass I’m going to try Chinese medicine before I’m going to wait for science to catch up to what I need in my life. I do science, I know how slow it is, even for the fast people.

My biggest problem with the book is this: scientists play the game of “Who’s right?” I used to believe that being factually correct was the most important thing in life. Most of the scientists I know also believe this and they don’t just apply it to their work. They apply it in all realms of their being, particularly because our language and culture is set up for it. People like to be right. Many see life as a competition. Unfortunately, Sheldrake is also playing this game. He spends most of the book promoting his own scientific theories of morphic resonance and other ideas about psychic phenomena. I see this as more of the problem. We don’t need more science or better science. We need to see science for what it is: a way of learning. When we ask for more science, we are reinforcing the attitudes that lead to the problem in the first place. This is particularly evident in how we teach science.

When we teach science, we play the same game by teaching not methods, but findings. Most often those findings are actually models and metaphors, not experiences. For example, right now I’m helping to teach genetics and molecular biology. Most of the course material is not experimental procedures as it could be, but models of the function of biological molecules. The biggest one is the model of protein synthesis, where DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into polypeptides. This is not anyone’s direct experience. This is a story (you could even call it a myth, due to the dogmatism it attracts) that is supported by clever experiments. Nicholas Maxwell points out that we could come up with a huge number of alternative myths that would also be supported by the same experiments, but that’s not how science works. Science seizes upon the first kinda-plausible idea and runs with it until it runs out of steam. The “findings” or “facts” that are found to support this story are wrapped up in it: we never would have done those experiments and found them to support the story if we didn’t have the story in the first place. When we teach science, we don’t teach method, we teach the mechanistic worldview, which is a myth. I often remind my colleagues that most of science is made up. Surprisingly a lot of them take no issue with that assertion, just as I don’t. The problem comes when we present it as something that’s Right, and don’t present people with the alternative of trusting their own experience. If we were honest about the nature of science, then people would see science as one fun way of learning, rather than The Way of Learning.

Unfortunately we encourage intellectual terrorism (“Who’s right?”) by refusing to be honest with people about the nature of our ideas. Sheldrake points this out, but quickly gets caught up in the same game by proposing alternatives. We don’t need more science, we just need to be honest about what science is. This is Sheldrake’s main point, but he primarily focuses on the danger of it to science, proving that he is, after all, a scientist. I am a lot less skeptical about my overall experience than I used to be. However, I’m still just as skeptical about scientific matters because science is a particular way of doing things and it’s intensely limited. I happen to think the prevailing theories of science are just fine. Swallowing them whole as the key to understanding your own direct experience is not just fine.

My overall point is that I don’t think the abuse of mechanistic metaphors is as big a problem for science as it is for regular people (scientists included). I’m surprised how often I see people who have a problem with science, e.g. adherents to “alternative” medicine, are doggedly scientific. In other words, I often encounter people raising gripes against “science,” and their first response is to propound an alternative scientific theory, i.e. to do more science. I’m also surprised how often I hear people explain their personal experiences (mostly bizarre, inexplicable ones) in terms of science: people usually invoke quantum mechanics because it’s the weirdest scientific thing they’ve heard of. It’s almost like they feel they need to defend their own experiences. That’s sad. Personal experience is not a competition, nor is it subject to peer-review. This just shows how deeply science-as-truth is ingrained in our culture. This probably has to do with the Puritan origins of our country; to understand that I’m reading Paul Feyerabend.

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Jerry Coyne’s anti-religious promotion of evolution

August 17, 2012 9 comments

I just finished reading a piece by Jerry Coyne published in this month’s issue of Evolution. Coyne lays out the problem of belief in evolution, belief in God, and questions whether there can be compatibility. He’s basically asking how we, as scientists, can get more people to accept evolution. Relying mostly on poll data and sociological assays of religiosity in the United States and elsewhere, he concludes that the problem is that the United States is a more strongly religious nation than most others. He then argues that science and religion are incompatible unless we redefine religion, and hence cautions that acceptance of evolution will have to wait until widespread social change makes religion less important to Americans.

Coyne’s primary argument that science and religion are incompatible is an argument also used by Richard Dawkins, based on the idea that scientists discover Truth (with a capital “T”) . Coyne distinguishes between “scientific truth” and “religious truth” and then conveniently shows that religious truths are not supported by science. There are some logical problems there, but I would rather ask the question: is that really what scientists do? Do we discover the Truth? What is the Truth? I don’t know any way to communicate Truth to anybody: what I experience as Truth is based on my subjective experience, and is inconvenient to communicate in any reliable way. What I think is going on here is that Coyne, Dawkins and many others take science too seriously: science is a way of communicating. Science is a way of using objective criteria to describe nature so that we can talk about the common aspects of our experience.

However, is that Truth? Or is it just what we can learn using science? Science is very effective in doing what it does, but it is also intentionally very limited. Science cannot do a lot of things that people might find very interesting: certain experiments would not be science because there would be no further experimenting with them. For example, there were widespread experiments with telepathy, prayer and other forms of supernatural communication around 1900, but the experiments were hard to conduct and the results were hard to interpret. So what did the scientists do? They did what scientists always do and they backtracked to something that they could work with. That’s the point: science is about experimenting with things in small steps that are fun to play with. Science is incredibly limited, very slow, and usually very crude in its means of experimentation (“Hmm, this week let’s cut out this part of the brain!”) . Such a method could hardly come close to finding “The Truth.” Nevertheless, it is still fun, enlightening, and people learn a lot doing it. There’s no greater hell for scientists than feeling that they are not learning. Let’s see science for what it is — a good way of learning and communicating — instead of relying on it for The Truth.

My real question is why this is so important to Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The title of the essay is telling: “Science, religion and society: the problem of evolution in America” (my emphasis). Non-acceptance of evolution is a problem to be solved. Really? What is exactly the problem to solve? What do we accomplish by having more people accept evolution? What does anybody gain, except learning more science? This is kind of like complaining about not getting a third cookie: we scientists do accept and study evolution and get our own benefits from doing that. Do we really need more scientists? I think what is motivating these authors is that they believe that they are reporting The Truth, and it’s always in the best interests of people to know The Truth. Then I ask how evolution is different from Christianity or Islam: how are atheists any different from the religions they oppose in saying that they themselves have the truth and everyone would be better off to agree with them? Has evolution become ideology?

The other possible answer is that scientists believe that they are right in another sense. Not that they are ideologically correct, but that they have the right information, the right data, the right facts. This is a syndrome of people believing that being right is the most important thing. I would venture to ask if compassion is not more important than factual correctness. Have you ever been in a conversation with a person who absolutely didn’t care about your feelings in any way, but just wanted to show you how wrong you were about some arbitrarily tiny little matter of fact? If it was me, then I’m sorry.

Religion, Coyne concludes, is a symptom of a sick society, and America is completely sick. Might that mean that Americans need religion more than they need evolution? Is being factually correct really important when people are just hurting, feeling misunderstood, feeling abandoned by a rigid, competitive society? Again, perhaps compassion is more important — and the means of conveying that compassion is inconsequential. If you don’t think Americans are ill, then why are they killing themselves with terrible food? Why are they watching their neighbors kill themselves on TV? Why are so many Americans addicted to pain medication? I agree with Jerry Coyne here: if we live in a society where people are so bad off that they need religion, is making them accept evolution really important? What bothers me is that his only seeming concern for the problems of his fellow human beings is clearing it all up so that they’ll finally accept his version of Truth.

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