Coyne and Sheldrake again…

…this time in the pages of the New Republic, in an unfortunate ad hominem attack by the former upon the latter. Here is a sample of Coyne’s invective (note, “woo” is Coyne’s word for non-materialist ideas or perspectives): “went off the rails,” “misbehaving woomeisters,” “thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo,” “woo-spouting,” “paranoid,” “rant [what he’s referring to is far more restrained than Coyne’s own intemperance],” “paints himself as a martyr again,” “The Woomeister,” “paranoid rants.”

The occasion for all of this is Sheldrake’s post linked above, which discusses a genuinely problematic phenomenon over at Wikipedia involving that immensely seductive word “objectivity.” The trouble is that scientific materialism itself is a philosophical position that cannot be demonstrated “scientifically,” so to simply assert it as simple Truth and “objectivity” is an exercise in dogmatic intolerance.

As Sheldrake rightly points out, there really is an organization which calls itself “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW),” they really are (in Sheldrake’s words) “well trained” and “highly motivated.” They do “have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules.” Susan Gerbic of said group really does have a training video up, and she indeed “glories in the power that she and her warriors wield.”

Topics which span cultural fault lines are naturally going to result in highly contentious Wikipedia Talk pages, as partisans fight to gain as much control as possible over the presentation of the article in question. We are not talking about an Encyclopedia Britannica article, where one person is asked to write something and a very limited number of editors join in the rest of the way. The “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” have a declared mission to steer a great many articles – and more as each week goes by – their way, along with sophisticated techniques for doing so. The problem is that they are unaware of any potential blindspots in their thinking. Specifically, I refer to that cultural paradigm of scientific materialism being simply “objective” “Truth.”

There certainly are areas of Sheldrake’s thought which I don’t follow, including “morphic resonance,” one of his central ideas. But there is no doubt that his thinking and work overall are at the very least worthy of engagement and at their best represent important critiques of certain tendencies within Science today.

What is always striking to me in Jerry Coyne’s writing is the ever-present shadow of “religion.” The word appears all the time, even when there is no reason for it to. In this current piece it announces itself twice significantly. Consider the following paragraph:

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

This is revealing, I think. First, “something more out there” – more, that is to say, than what is contained in a purely materialist philosophy – becomes effectively reduced to the phrase “psychic phenomena.” What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t Sheldrake believe certain “psychic phenomena” exist? Yes, he does, but nonetheless I would say Coyne’s sentence is misleading. “Psychic phenomena” is a vague phrase encompassing everything from easily mockable fringe beliefs to non-materialist ways of seeing grounded firmly in “evidence-based” practice. Then there is the link between “sympathy for woo” and “sympathy for religion.” What “religion” is he talking about? The word encompasses an extraordinarily vast and varied field of views, ideas, practices. It claims some of the most degraded as well as some of the most realized beings in our human experience.

And then later in his piece he complains about a BBC interview with Sheldrake concerning the Wikipedia war over his own (Sheldrake’s) page, on the grounds that the opposing side wasn’t represented (though he reports the BBC’s intention to do just that sometime this week). At which point there follows this parenthetical remark: “[Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as ‘keen churchgoers’].” The implication is as clear as can be: a “keen churchgoer” is de facto suspect as an inquirer into this matter of Wikipedia integrity, in a way “The Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia,” well, aren’t – at all. They’re simply “objective” defenders of The Truth, of course.

(For anyone who wishes to compare Coyne’s characterization of Sheldrake with the latter himself, I embedded in a previous post his “infamous” TEDx talk here. You may disagree with Sheldrake there to one degree or another but I really don’t think it can be said that Coyne’s constant references to him in this article as “paranoid” and a ranter, as someone who likes to proclaim himself a “persecuted” “genius” and “martyr,” as someone “off the rails,” are demonstrable. This can be said also of several interviews I have heard with Sheldrake.)

scientism: 3) the syndrome

In a previous post I tried to delineate the nature of a particular syndrome, one which is rarely aired outside of Science Studies, STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and other academic departments. In beginning to write about this I’m reminded of a quotation I just came across from Bill McKibben, in an interview publicizing the Burlington Book Festival:

Books remain the single most important way for societies to think seriously about themselves. There are arguments that can only be made at length, and with grace, which is to say only with books.

This certainly holds true with regard to the subject at hand. It’s exceptionally hard, in a short statement, to say anything about it that is perhaps worth saying. Nevertheless, I would like to throw out a provisional set of arguments over a series of posts. As we find ourselves moving further and further down a path whose deeper premises remain effectively unquestioned, I believe this topic can only acquire ever more importance.

I will be suggesting ten or so reasons why such questioning needs to be taken more seriously. Most of these points are not particularly controversial. Nevertheless, their direct implications rarely are addressed in the media, in policy decisions, in the broader cultural discourse more generally.

Before moving on to these, however, one larger point, touched on in a previous post. There is a straw man constantly resorted to here which has to do with the crisis of polarization we’ve reached, whereby virtually any criticism directed towards Science is assumed to have “religious” motivation and a fundamentally “irrational” basis. In fact, this assumption in itself is part of the syndrome – despite the truth that indeed, religious fundamentalism’s antagonism towards rational critical thought remains one of the greatest of dangers in the world.

In any event, this is most definitely not my own point of departure, quite the contrary. What I will be focusing on most here has to do with fields relatively newly “scientized,” which in all kinds of ways touch upon important and vastly complex human questions. And because human, also especially emotive and self-interested. Prior to the past 150 years or so, “science” used to point to a fairly small and circumscribed set of disciplines. Today, as linguist Roy Harris well puts it (in The Semantics of Science):

For many years now linguistics has not been the only subject scrambling to climb aboard the bandwagon of science. Students of virtually every form of human behaviour – including psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and educationists – have tried to do likewise, and in some cases have simply appropriated the title science as an official designation for their own discipline or subdiscipline. If people were shocked in 1914 when Clive Bell spoke of a ‘science of aesthetics,’ they have nowadays become accustomed to universities whose football coaches are “sports scientists” and whose army instructors introduce their trainees to the study of ‘military science.’ (pp. 104-105)

To which one can add, of course, the notion of “political science.”

In my most recent post on this subject I quoted the following from Jerry Coyne (my emphasis):

I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

I find the formulation I’ve highlighted both honest and largely accurate as a description of how science operates. The trouble, to my mind, comes in with what follows the colon, with phrases such as “the truth about nature,” “most rational people,” and “what’s out there.” These beg a number of questions that need to be explored in greater depth, which I hope to be able to do in future posts.

scientism: 2) definitions

So first, some preliminary definitions. What do we talk about when we use the word “scientism”?

Very broadly, “scientism” here refers to the view and understanding of “science” effectively as a religion, though without an acknowledgment of this being so. In other words, it is a totalizing approach in which “science” is assumed capable of answering any and all ultimate/ultimately valuable questions. Most crucially for my purposes here: looked to implicitly as the default mode of inquiry regarding human psychology and potential.

More fully:

1) a: “Reason” is viewed as a unitary entity. That is to say, when something called “reason” is deemed to be operating, we are referring to the same thing, practically speaking, no matter what the context.

b: Likewise, “science” is viewed as a unitary entity. It is supposedly the case that what, say, physicists, chemists, and cell biologists do, and how they do it, is basically the same thing that, say, geologists and meteorologists do, which is basically the same thing that researchers into the effects of food and drugs on the body do, and basically the same thing that sociologists, psychologists, and evolutionary theorists do.

c: Finally, these two entities collapse into one. As Jerry Coyne, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, puts it in the article I quote from in the earlier post:

…some spheres of the humanities, namely the social sciences, do give us a way to find knowledge. They do it by using the same techniques as do “real” scientists: observation, experimentation, testing of hypothesis and predictions, rational inquiry, and doubt. In fact, I have long called things like social science, history, Biblical scholarship (as opposed to theology), and archaeology “science broadly conceived.” In fact, I have said that even things like car mechanics and plumbing could be considered forms of science, for when fixing electrical problems or finding leaks, mechanics and plumbers use scientific inquiry.

…I see science as essentially continuous with things like history and archaeology. I see science not as an area of inquiry that depends on a prescribed “scientific method”: as Philip [Kitcher] and others note, there is no one “scientific method.” Science can proceed via induction or deduction, experiment or observation, or any manner of rational inquiry that produces reliable (i.e. generally verifiable and reproducible) knowledge. I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

2) Going a small step further to make this point quite clear, a scientistic attitude believes that the same heuristic expectations – the same principles, basic approaches, forms of verification, outcomes – apply equally to the study of sentience as to non-sentient matter and phenomena. That is to say, that there is nothing ultimately distinct between the study of immaterial thoughts, intentions, emotions, let alone the movement of these within the vast mesh of interconnectedness and interdependence that comprises the human mind, and the study of a subatomic particle, an organic molecule, a rock, a mountain, the atmosphere.

3) Scientism assumes without question that only “scientific” explanations can count as “ultimate,” and ultimately satisfying. No other means or form of expressing the truth of some phenomenon or other can ever have the prestige of a “scientific” formulation.

4) Therefore, as follows on from this, Science likewise and perforce must contain the ultimate source of all values – including those informing its own assumptions and projects. Since it is viewed as providing the only ultimately trustable methods and the only ultimate explanations, it has succeeded in taking the place of religion in more-or-less all of the latter’s traditional functions, and has supplanted the humanities more generally in perceived value.

5) Finally, as a result of the specialization inherent in scientific research and language, we have had no choice but to accept what amounts to a priesthood with whom, in the last analysis, the rest of us are not allowed to disagree at the level of basic view or experimental design, interpretation of results, and so on. Just as the theological pronouncements of the medieval Western Church, delivered in Latin, were indecipherable to all but its hierarchy, today’s scientists speak a language which non-specialists do not understand and generally do not have the time and means to understand. And this has become ever more the case with ever-proliferating specializations and sub-specializations of science: even those with a solid background in each of the major sciences cannot hope to keep up with all the new vocabulary, techniques, and technology that increase year to year.

Therefore, whereas in the past a more general public conversation was possible about wisdom, knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, today, more and more, the average person finds herself silenced with regard to ultimate questions. Instead, we quote the latest headline in the New York Times Science section – about which media reports I have written below – and shrug our shoulders.

Very rapidly we have reached a point of virtual powerlessness and to a certain extent vapidity in our public discourse, in which ordinary sound, considered, deep reason carries little prestige when placed next to the latest splashy headline conveying a presumed increase in knowledge. (Presumed because, as noted in the linked post above: in Seth Mnookin’s report newspapers paid pretty much exactly four times as much attention to original studies as to related (supporting or unsupporting) ones, with 80% of the former being subsequently refuted or unconfirmable as stated. And with one out of 57 articles on the related studies even bothering to mention that the original finding cannot be confirmed as stated!)

This is one of quite a number of effects of scientism upon our culture that will be the focus of subsequent posts.