The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rupert Sheldrake's "Banned" TED Talk

Watching Rupert Sheldrake's TED Talk is a little bit painful.

He says this:
"...there's conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis, and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a world view. And unfortunately, the world view aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very life blood of the scientific endeavor."
I find this disingenuous because people who understand science (i.e. most actual scientists and lay-people who have actively invested time to understand) get that all knowledge is tentative and based on increasing piles of evidence. Other people may not know this and just accept the word of "experts" because you can't be current and knowledgeable about everything. Some people accept science as a world view because they see the advances made by science and attach their wagon to that horse. If I can paraphrase Chris Hardwick, "Religion always updates and struggles to adapt their dogma when science makes new discoveries, and it *never* goes the other way." Some people just accept the scientific world view; is that right? No, but you can't get everyone to understand the nuanced position that science has in society and the world.

Sheldrake wrote a book called, "The Science Delusion" (catchy title...I wonder where he got that from?) where he takes, the ten dogmas of science and turn(s) them into questions." These 10 dogmas, as he calls them, are:
1. Nature is mechanical, or machine-like.
2. Matter is unconscious.
3. The laws of nature (Nature?) are fixed.
4. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same.
5. Nature is purposeless.
6. Biological heredity is material.
7. Memories are stored in your brain as material traces.
8. Your mind is inside your head.
9. Psychic phenomenon like telepathy are impossible.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

He makes some mildly disparaging remarks while listing these, like mentioning that governments only invest in researching mechanistic medicine and not complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because they can't possibly work because they're not mechanistic. Apparently, he's never heard of Senator Tom Harkin or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Sheldrake goes into some detail on a couple of these "dogmas", starting with number 3, that the laws of nature are fixed. He calls this a "hangover" from an older world view. He quotes Terrence McKenna regarding science saying, "Give us one free miracle and we'll explain the rest." to the chuckles of the audience. I guess he's been too busy to check out Lawerence Krauss' A Universe From Nothing talk.

He says that in a universe that is evolving (a slight misuse of the term, but hey, who's counting?), why shouldn't the laws evolve? He makes the odd comparison that human laws evolve, so why not the laws of nature? Seems weird to me that he misunderstands this point - human laws change because we are involved in a constant dialogue with each other to figure out the best way to interact with each other, the planet, and its resources; natural laws are simply us trying to figure out how best to describe, document, and predict the observed actions in the universe. But what do I know?

He segues into his hypothesis of "morphic resonance", which is not supportable by much and has not been independently replicated by anyone. Dogs supposedly knowing when their owners are coming home and people supposedly knowing when they're being stared at do not good research papers make. In fact, there is a good deal of pseudo-scientific tap dancing with respect to Sheldrake, as evidenced by this article from Scientific American, which concludes:
(Sheldrake says)...skeptics dampen the morphic field, whereas believers enhance it. Of (scientist and skeptic Richard) Wiseman, he remarked: "Perhaps his negative expectations consciously or unconsciously influenced the way he looked at the subjects."

Perhaps, but wouldn't that mean that this claim is ultimately nonfalsifiable? If both positive and negative results are interpreted as supporting a theory, how can we test its validity? Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.
Exactly. Let's go with Karl Popper on this one, shall we? Unfalsifiable = unscientific.

He then says that, "Genes, in my view, are grossly over-rated. They only account for the proteins that the organism can make, not the shape or the form or the behavior." I will let the more educated biologists take this sentence apart for the nonsense that it is. He asserts immediately after this that, "Every species has a collective memory, even crystals do." I would *really* like to see ANY evidence for this, especially before he gets to assert it in front of a TED audience (sure, it's TEDx, so the standards are lower - obviously - but still, come on). We're at the almost 9 minute mark of the talk now and the woo is starting to flow like a river.

He gets into nonsense about rats who learn a new skill in London will somehow make it easier for rats anywhere else in the world to learn the same skill - he attributes this to morphic resonance, but we're more familiar with the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon.

Sheldrake then moves on to the constants of nature. He seemingly makes much of the changing of the speed of light from 1928 to 1945, and then again in 1948. For a take-down of this stupid claim (and it *is* stupid) by Sean Carroll via Jerry Coyne, check out the latter's blog-post at Why Evolution Is True.

Sheldrake goes into a phenomenally misguided attempt to say that, because physicists have gotten different answers to universal constants (the speed of light and the gravitational constant), perhaps those constants are not "constant" after all. What if they're changing? (Never mind that instrument precision has gotten unfathomably better in the last 90 years) What if the Earth goes through, "patches of dark matter" as it goes around the Sun and that alters these measurements? He posits that because the scientists who measure these things are "dogmatic" and have set these numbers, there is no further inquiry; but he also, in the same breath, says that scientists are constantly re-measuring these constants and comparing them with each other all over the world. So, which is it?

He starts to wrap up by stating that, "Science simply can't deal with the fact that we're conscious." I would say that scientists are studying and trying to "deal" with the idea of consciousness and they are doing it in a much more tangible and helpful way than people like Sheldrake just making shit up to explain it. It's the difference between scientists (Einstein, in particular) tweaking Newton's idea of gravity as an invisible force that attracts masses into the theory that gravity is actually acceleration through curved space-time, and the other people who just made up "the Ether".

He says (I would go so far as to say "blathers") that we think our minds are inside our heads, but he believes that our mind projects outward and that our minds are outside our heads. Think about that over a nice spiced rum and coke for a spell. You might just faint dead away from the dumbness. No, our vision isn't light reflected off of material objects in the world that enters our eyes and is processed via receptors and nerves to our brains where they are interpreted...that's stupid. Your eyes are projectors!

Sheldrake then says that there is a, "great deal of evidence" that people can feel one another's gaze from behind. He says that, " we question these dogmas that have held back science so long, science will undergo a re-flowering, a renaissance." Yes, think about how much science has been "held back". Just in my grandmother's lifetime, she has seen the Model T Ford (came out in 1927) turn into a Lamborghini; a Sopwith Camel turn into spacecraft and an International Space Station with rotating crew; and phones that looked like this - I think her phone number was 6 (she was an "early adopter") - to the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy s4, which must be like magic screen windows to other parts of the world. Yep, science has certainly been held back.

This was a horrible TEDx talk. Disgraceful. I'm sure you'll die of not-surprise to see that Deepak Chopra said it was, "Brilliant". Sure, if you think that way. But, if that's the case, you probably think round is funny." You know what, I take back my opening sentence. Watching this was a LOT painful.

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19 Barbaric Yawps:

At 15/10/13 7:15 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mike. I found this TEDx talk when a friend posted it on FB. Your dress down has saved me a lot of time going through the bunk. In the end I told my friend I enjoyed the talk, but that Sheldrake is an author and maybe a philosopher, not a scientist.

His list of ten dogmas is laughable even at first glance.

I must say I am a little obsessed with cults and how they fool people. But people like Sheldrake and his ilk are far more dangerous than EST, the cult of Xenu, and deifiers of Tessla. Dangerous also doesn't mean they should be silenced, and to their credit, TED still hosts the talk.

I just wish i could see Sarah Silverman's talk!

Thanks for keeping it rational!

At 25/10/13 6:06 am, Blogger Marc Chehab said...

Just found the talk today, thanks for the post!

He is talking a load of rubbish. The reason educated people know this is has nothing to do with dogma, but because they know materialism is not an assumption science makes, but at best a preliminary outcome of it. Would it be possible to telepathically communicate (if idealism were true), science would find it too. the reason it's not in science is not the beliefs of scientists, but because it hasn't been demonstrated. The "arrogance" or "dogmatism" associated with science is merely insistence on method. Also, ted is free not to publish a talk of such low quality, just like any other publisher. "Banned" is a bloated term.

At 26/10/13 11:37 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i thought his talk was thought provoking.
i noticed in the article the word phonomena was used, what if their is no phanamenea just lack of understanding.
i believe using the scientific method to describe unvisersal functions will work great to a degree, like newtons laws quantum mechanics it seems we have reached the end of the road for this newtonesc train of thought, reguarding particle or wave function atemporaly by the observer.
many inventions and scientific advances were made on a wim, or a dream or the supersubconcience or who knows what. are intuition should be trusted to advance science, then objective deduction to try to isolate the phenomena. regarding telepathy its hard to woo away edger cacy the gov was sure intrested. mk ultra, haarp was conspiracy that was a long time ago, the only thig we can say with certainty is the gov is continueing down this road and hoarding the data, medausa project, skull to brain to name a few

At 9/11/13 6:03 pm, Blogger Matthew Holt said...

Hi Mike,

I've never listened to Sheldrake before I was made aware of this episode, however I've been studying the History and Philosophy of Science for a number of years. I'd heard of him but never read or engaged in his work. I must say I was surprised at how aligned he was with current HPS thinking. Most of the things he said about the Philosophy of Science ie the dogmatic view in science is a mainstream (HPS) concept. I was expecting something far more radical and outrageous when I watched the talk. I am very surprised this was banned. (I make no comment on his Morphic Resonance claims).

What I can say from what I've read about HPS, ie listened to TTC lectures on Science and read Introductory texts by Professors of Science as well as Kuhn and Popper is that Sheldrake is right in line with current thinking about Science in the HPS field. He is not way out at all in his concern about Scientific Dogma and Materialistic Dogma in science.

I'd like to comment on your phrase,
"I find this disingenuous because people who understand science (i.e. most actual scientists and lay-people who have actively invested time to understand) get that all knowledge is tentative and based on increasing piles of evidence."

Actually this idea you mention as true is termed 'the cult of facts' in HPS circles. It doesn't stand up to Historical Research as to what Science is and how it has occurred. In Fact, people who 'know' science, ie people who academically study what Science is (HPS) (STS) scholars do not support the idea about facts piling on facts.

I've read convincing arguments that facts cannot be pinned down and there are no such things as facts - just theory and value laden judgements about experiences. This sounds pretty hard to swallow, but the arguments are profound.

So you need to be careful about stating things like that (above), as Science is not what most people believe. Academics on Science Philosophy and History are nearly Universal there is a myth of Science. I've heard/ read from multiple HPS Professors that there is no one scientific method and the 'scientific method' is a myth too.

Tell me - Did Einstein use the 'Scientific Method' to come up with the Theory of Relativity? Was this theory accepted before physical experiments could be done confirming it? Answer - No.

Science is far more complex than the Scientific Method and Facts on Facts. Science has been demonstrated Academically time and again to be a seething mess of belief systems and theory laden ideas and agendas, people fighting over research funding and dogmatic views, rhetoric flying everywhere. Science is a beast and is not objective at all.

Sheldrake isn't voicing anything new, it is just that he is powerful intellectually and is openly challenging the establishment which is causing such a backlash against him. This is powerful evidence that there is a Scientific Institution with deeply held beliefs that doesn't like to be questioned and has the power to manipulate social media and influence supposedly independent third party organisations like TED.

This whole episode is great evidence for scholars in HPS who want to argue about the Totalitarian nature of Science.

At 9/11/13 11:20 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Hey Matthew,

Thanks for writing. I'm going to take parts of what you argued and respond where I think I have a cogent reply. Firstly, you wrote: "...facts cannot be pinned down and there are no such things as facts - just theory and value laden judgements about experiences." I wouldn't say that what we consider facts are "value laden". I mean, the sky isn't blue because of values; it's blue because of how we perceive the colour spectrum.

Sure, there is no "scientific method", per say, but at the level of general public knowledge, you're looking at observation, hypothesis, experiment, results, conclusions, peer review. There are variances but this is the basic template.

Also, you asked: "Did Einstein use the 'Scientific Method' to come up with the Theory of Relativity? Was this theory accepted before physical experiments could be done confirming it? Answer - No" Well, no he was a theoretical physicist who used math and his understanding of physics to find where the then-current understanding of gravity fell short. His theory was more and more accepted as the experimental evidence piled up, one after another, and it agreed with the observed universe.

I would agree at least partly that science as an institution is a "seething mess", but it's a mess of biases, opinions, and interests. The methods of science are designed and revised specifically to remove these motives and emotions and get closer to the true answers.

At least that's my opinion, and I might be a complete moron. In fact, it's pretty likely.

At 4/12/13 6:48 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Mathew for your clarity in the midst of such knee jerk resistance to someone thinking outside the box. Like a religious fanatic who always has a quote to back up their argument, Heathen Mike (how appropriate) will always find a way to refute the possibility that his world view is limited and possibly false. Its too threatening to face, so instead he challenges anyone who intimates that, in fact "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

At 4/12/13 8:45 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Anonymous...if that is your *real* name:
Where are you getting that I'm not open to being wrong? You claim that I am somehow like a "religious fanatic", but I fail to see the comparison: I admit that I may be "a complete moron" in the last sentence of my reply to Matthew, whereas I have rarely seen that sort of honesty from a person arguing from a religious viewpoint.

I'm open to new ideas, but you've got to bring some actual evidence.

At 16/4/15 4:39 pm, Anonymous Noble said...

Your a goofball sir, perhaps you should calm yourself down before posting. His talk hit upon some very fundamental problems with in science and your 'proof' that since science has given us the care and iPhone, therefore all scientific theories are correct is childish. These are theories, kind sir, they should not be held so close to your chest as you would hold a child.

Do you know there are universities that are closing the physics department because the accepted views have 'proven' all there is to know about physics.

If you are not open-minded then you will never be able to understand truths.
'The wisest man is the one who knows that he knows nothing'

At 16/4/15 5:11 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Ok, firstly: "You're" a goofball. You're. As in, "You are". It's a fucking contraction - use it properly.

Secondly: where do I say anywhere in ANY of my writing that all scientific theories are correct? Show me one example.

Thirdly: You say, "...there are universities that are closing the physics department because the accepted views have 'proven' all there is to know about physics." Exactly what horse-shit "universities" have done or are even considering such a stupid, nonsensical, ridiculous idea? Name ONE educational institution that has done, is in the process of, or is planning on doing this.

I do not say this lightly but you, sir, are a liar. Take your lies and silliness elsewhere. Minds here are open to change but that change is preceded by solid evidence, not flighty, half-witted poppycock.

At 18/11/15 3:27 pm, Blogger brklynusa said...

Mike, Thanks ever so much for this breakdown. You did an excellent job not only with your analysis, but also handling the commenters afterwards. So glad I found your blog. All the best!

At 18/11/15 4:47 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Well, thank you very much! I'm glad you found my corner of the internet as well.

At 11/4/16 10:06 pm, Blogger Anonymous said...

Considering that he has a PHD in Biochemistry from Cambridge not to mention numerous other credentials he is a scientist. It's merely your unimformed that he is not a scientisy.Perhaps it is dangerous to start calling people dangerous for the way that they think. It's almost like there's a cult of fundamental materialists using very unscientific terms like "bunk", "woo" and "dreck" to vilify any thinking that they do not agree with. Perhaps the one who is convinced that others have been fooled is the actual fool.

At 11/4/16 10:09 pm, Blogger Anonymous said...

Considering that he has a PHD in Biochemistry from Cambridge not to mention numerous other credentials he is a scientist. It's merely your unimformed that he is not a scientisy.Perhaps it is dangerous to start calling people dangerous for the way that they think. It's almost like there's a cult of fundamental materialists using very unscientific terms like "bunk", "woo" and "dreck" to vilify any thinking that they do not agree with. Perhaps the one who is convinced that others have been fooled is the actual fool.

At 12/4/16 8:07 am, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Are you serious? How about you do a couple of things for yourself before you run your mouth:
1. Spellcheck your comment before you tell me about how "unimformed" I am.
2. If you're going to bitch about how Sheldrake is correct and I'm wrong to criticise him for his unscientific views and nonsense, perhaps point out a couple of specific parts of my post where I'm egregiously in error and how I could correct those inaccuracies. I doubt seriously you even took the time to read what I wrote.
3. Define what the actual fuck a "fundamentalist materialist" is before throwing it around as though everyone knows what your own personal made-up vocabulary means.

At 5/12/16 1:35 pm, Blogger Michael Toolan said...

Sheldrake is definitely a real scientist. In addition to doing his PhD in Biochemistry at Cambridge, he held the post of Director of Studies in Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Claire College at Cambridge. He was responsible for breakthrough studies in cell biology resulting in new and now standard content in basic cell biology textbooks. Have a look at "polar auxin transport." He's published 80 or so peer-reviewed scientific papers, in journals such as Science. He also studied the history and philosophy of science at Harvard. Steven J. Gould once invited Sheldrake to give a lecture to one of his classes. - Mathew is right that Sheldrake is consistent with current HPS thinking, in various ways - such as questioning the assumed validity of materialist reductionism as an orientation to discovery of ultimate truth. - However radical he's claims of Morphic Resonance and reality of telepathy, etc., the fact of the obvious strength of his intellect and breadth of knowledge in general makes accompanying his claims, him pretty interesting, and not easily simply dismissed.

At 5/12/16 2:38 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Hi Michael,

I don't think I said Sheldrake is not a real scientist. His credentials are pretty good but they don't really mean anything when he's talking about "morphic resonance" and other immaterial stuff. I don't "easily simply" dismiss him, I look at what he said, see that it makes no sense, and then dismiss him on this particular topic.

Sheldrake could certainly school the crap out of me on quite a few subjects.

Thanks for taking the time to write.

At 8/12/16 8:39 pm, Blogger Michael Toolan said...

Heathen Mike,

Thanks for the response. - You did contrast Sheldrake with "people who understand science - i.e. most actual scientists." That seems to dismiss him as any kind of authority on science. Are actual scientists and real scientists different categories? - I'm no expert either but am interested in all this, and don't have much of a forum to explore this stuff, so I welcome other thoughts. - You recognize the strength of his credentials but say those credentials mean nothing in the context of him talking about immaterial stuff. The one aspect of his thought that I noted as being in line with current HSP criticism of science was his questioning of the materialist philosophy within mainstream science generally. So, there doesn't seem to be substance to the argument that his credentials are meaningless in talking about something immaterial. His whole point is that science falsely rejects the notion that there are fundamental realities of an order that cannot be described by physics and chemistry. In law "immaterial" simply means "irrelevant," though I don't think that's how you meant it... - He does also offer support for his suggestions of realities that aren't in accord with conventional science. If one's stance, in the face of this evidence he says exists, is to hold that non-material reality (at least as it's normally conceived of) is an impossibility in principal, and therefore reject any claims of evidence to the contrary - that becomes a tautological argument. As if to say it simply cannot be true - therefore I am correct in rejecting it. You could also say he must just be crazy, but that seems like an ad hominem version of the same thing. - If on the other hand, you had some information about the fallacy of an experiment he conducted, which he claims supports his work, that would substantial. For example, if the owner of the parrot Sheldrake appears to demonstrate the telepathic ability of ( came out and said that it was just a hoax - that would be an argument with substance. And I would love to hear about anything of that sort.

Thanks again. Michael

At 16/12/16 12:25 am, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

My apologies for the late reply - I've been really busy with life lately and internet conversations have taken a far backseat. That said:
Sheldrake has a Ph.D in biochemistry so he's certainly an authority within that scope. Once he starts talking about other areas, however, his expertise (or lack thereof) starts to show quite plainly. Just to be very clear, I'm no expert in any area of science with the possible exception of surface anatomy due to my job. Not relevant to any topic discussed here.
Scope of practice matters because he's presenting himself as a "science expert", but criticizing other areas where his expertise does not lie. When he starts talking about "immaterial stuff", he's not an expert.
When you say, "science falsely rejects the notion that there are fundamental realities of an order that cannot be described by physics and chemistry", what does that leave behind to actually measure or quantify? When I say "immaterial", I mean not made of atoms/subatomic particles - so think of when Chopra rambles about consciousness or some such stuff.
The parrot experiment: they did 147 two-minute trials wherein the bird (N'kisi) got 23 hits. Sixty of the trials were discarded because the N'kisi didn't talk at all or said stuff that weren't "key words". I agree with the Skeptic's Dictionary (here: analysis that discarding 40% of the data seems a lot like he was selecting for a pre-desired outcome. That article has a good breakdown of the N'kisi experiment and I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on it, good or bad.
I obviously do ad hom arguments on my blog because they're amusing and I find them fun as long as they're not too over the top. I've gotten away from them lately (I don't write nearly as much as I used to) but they certainly do get clicks. Sheldrake's arguments are quite enough to bite into here however, so we can keep this going if you'd like. I'm busy for the next week but I'll have some time after the holidays to touch back if needed. Have a great end of year/Christmas and thanks again for replying.

Also, for any "anonymous" commenters reading this: *This* is how you engage in a civil discussion with possible differences of opinion. Learn from Michael.

At 16/12/16 5:32 am, Blogger brklynusa said...



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