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The Science Delusion: has science become dogmatic?

Scientist and author Rupert Sheldrake spoke to George Gillett after addressing an audience at the Oxford Union

Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book, The Science Delusion, explores what Sheldrake describes as “the ten dogmas of modern science”. The claim seems radical at first – Sheldrake is questioning mainstream science beliefs such as the idea that the mind exists in the brain, and that nature is unconscious. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Sheldrake’s argument soon seems to win the audience over.

These dogmas are “off limits” in the scientific community, he explains with authority, yet they lack any substantial evidence and have arisen from conclusions without research.

The problem is especially apparent in physics, Sheldrake argues, suggesting that the laws of nature may not be fixed, regardless of widely held belief. He explains that scientists across the globe consistently record different measurements for the gravitational force or the speed of light. Despite this, they maintain that their variation is due to experimental error, and not an actual change in these so-called constants. “But what if the laws of nature vary throughout the day” suggests Sheldrake, urging scientists to analyse evidence instead of just accepting widely held “dogmas”. He goes further, explaining how physicists, in order to justify these figures, “make up” certain proportions of dark energy and matter to ensure that the calculations fit in with proposed models.

But could science really be dogmatic – after all, isn’t science just an organised method of investigation? Sheldrake maintains that he isn’t attacking science itself – rather it is the unequal distribution of funding that he is concerned with. “Unconventional ideas are neglected,” because journals are only willing to fund research that gets a high citation index – which disproportionality benefits well-established fields and overlooks unconventional ones. This allegedly leads to what Sheldrake describes as an “innovation deficit”; a situation where scientific discoveries have slowed down because we have limited our research efforts because of such dogmas.

He goes on to describe the challenges that unconventional therapies face in medical research funding. “How would you get funding on research into acupuncture?” Sheldrake challenges, insisting that we should be “just interested in whether people get better or not,” and not whether the treatments are “ideologically pure”. “A lot of the benefits of regular medicine come from the placebo effect” Sheldrake defends, in response to my suggestion that alternative medicine acts as a placebo; “it’s not as if one is totally real and other is totally false”.

Sheldrake certainly proposes some controversial ideas, and he is aware of this; describing himself as a “taboo figure in science”. He describes how his theories have been met with “scorn and ridicule” by the scientific community, with the editor of the journal Nature even accusing him of “heresy”. Despite this, he claims that many scientists have expressed agreement to his theories, but “the emotional intensity” of speaking out is such that few people are prepared to voice their concerns. He urges scientists “to come out”, drawing comparisons with the gay rights struggle. This seems bizarre in science, a field that usually prides itself on drawing conclusions solely based on evidence.

After much consideration, it seems that what Sheldrake is suggesting isn’t as radical as it seems. The idea of always analysing the evidence behind a theory is fundamental to the practice of science. What is surprising is the reliance modern science seems to have on opinions and dogmas, and how certain beliefs in science appear to be immune from scrutiny or inquiry. Sheldrake may indeed be a taboo figure now, but his criticisms of science may prove popular in years to come.


About

George Gillett is the Online Editor of the Oxford Student. As well as student journalism, he's published articles in the New Statesman, Independent and Huffington Post. When not writing, he studies Medicine at St Anne's College, and also enjoys playing tennis and squash.


'The Science Delusion: has science become dogmatic?' have 5 comments

  1. 29/11/2013 @ 17:25 Donald H. Wolfraim Ph.D.

    Experiments with highly sensitive weighing scales, which I have conducted, have demonstrated that the force of gravity varies throughout the day.

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  2. 29/11/2013 @ 17:36 Bri Cook

    Not sure that funding the research most likely to produce results is “dogma.”

    Not sure that we have “no evidence” that “minds” are an emergent property of brains, given that we can alter “minds” in many significant ways by inhibiting different areas of brains and by exposing brains to different chemicals.

    Not sure that differing measurements DON’T count as measurement error, and unsure how we would test for fluctuations in constants on the scale implied without significantly more sensitive equipment.

    Finally, acupuncture isn’t “unconventional” or “controversial.” Just looking at the wiki page reveals numerous studies of its efficacy in different settings and for different purposes, all finding it to be exactly as effective as placebo. Effects similar to placebo are unhelpful because you can get the same effect from a sugar pill and good bedside manner, something doctors and nurses already know about and already provide for. Acupuncture is just plain ineffective.

    Go ahead, research the placebo effect, but it’s unnecessary to find more things that replicate the effect. We have plenty already.

    The “dogma” described is actually pragmatism and skepticism.

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  3. 29/11/2013 @ 22:51 Edward

    “Not sure that we have “no evidence” that “minds” are an emergent property of brains, given that we can alter “minds” in many significant ways by inhibiting different areas of brains and by exposing brains to different chemicals.”

    How does been able to alter the mind with chemicals tell us it is an emergent property of the brain? looks like Sheldrake is right about assumptions, It is interesting that some patients with Alzheimer’s before they die become lucid and remember who they and all there family are, giving that the disease has destroyed there memory!.

    I don’t think we are going to find answers to Consciousness Placebo effect etc relying on what we already know, at least Sheldrake isn’t afraid to put himself in the firing line, unlike others who are afraid what there peers might think of them for even trying.

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  4. 30/11/2013 @ 06:23 Anonymous

    At last someone challenging the status quo. Of course we should ONLY be interested in helping ill people get better, whether it’s herbs, sticking pins in them, or reflexology ! Only using the same old drugs year after year has its dangers – healthwise and economic and limply accepting the dogma of multi nationals. Well said Rupert !

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  5. 05/12/2013 @ 16:58 Vas Ra

    Bri Cook,

    you used “a wiki page” to research the scientific study into the efficacy of acupuncture?

    Good grief.

    Read a proper meta-study.

    And then find out how many errors there are on Wikipedia, how a certain faction is trying to keep out stuff that they don’t like and how much stuff that is legit, peer-published and repeated, gets no play in Wikipedia at all.

    Really, if you are into science (the process) and not science (the dogma), you should adhere to the process (research), and not to the dogma (wikipedia summary).

    Also, as for your statement:

    “Not sure that funding the research most likely to produce results is “dogma.” ”

    It’s not that kind of research that gets funding. It’s research that is most likely to produce the kind of results that adhere to the current paradigm (i.e. dogma to some), that get funding.

    This is the same in every field. Ask any emeritus professor who’s been through at least one paradigm shift in their own field.

    Some of this hardnosed funding bias may be pragmatism, but taking it too far into one direction along with emotionally (only) backed reasoning isn’t just pragmatic, it’s again dogma.

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