The dull bureaucrats of pseudoscience

I was first alerted of the recent “TED pseudoscience debate” by Ben Goertzel’s “Statement on the Recent TED/Psi/Consciousness Controversy.” Then this morning I received the newsletter of the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS), with more info.

IONS says: “TED, the popular conference organizer with the tag line “ideas worth spreading,” recently removed videos of two TEDx talks from their official YouTube channel and then cancelled a TEDx event. The censored talks and cancelled event had a common theme—exploring the possibility that consciousness extends beyond the brain. TED’s justification for their actions was that the contributors were promoting ‘pseudo-science.’ The videos were talks presented by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock.”

“A group of scientists, headed by Deepak Choprapushed back hard on TED’s recent moves with open letters on the Huffington Post, and in many commentaries published on the web.”

Ben says: “It is noteworthy that the ‘skeptics’ who have prevailed upon the TED administration to call these scientists’ work pseudoscience, consistently refuse to engage in any detail with the actual data gathered by these scientists, or others working on psi and other frontier aspects of mind-matter interaction.”

The videos of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock were eventually re-posted by TED, but on their lower-profile TED Blog. TED says : “We plan to repost both talks in individual posts on our blog… and invite a reasoned discussion from the community… The goal here is to have an open conversation about the line between science and pseudoscience.”

These discussions are closed now, but it is worth noting that an overwhelming majority of posters supports Sheldrake and Hancock and condemns TED’s bigotry and censorship. Just read the discussion. One careless opening statement of TED, “claims that are well outside orthodox scientific thinking,” is quickly exposed as bullshit: good scientific thinking doesn’t have to be “orthodox” — it has to be correct. The history of science shows that, very often, correct thinking is not orthodox, and orthodox thinking is not correct.

Speculative consciousness studies are often based on highly imaginative, non orthodox ideas. For example, some researchers think that subtle, not yet well understood quantum entanglement effects may play a central role in how the conscious mind emerges from the brain, and these weird physics may explain telepathy and psychic abilities. Others think that the brain, rather than generating the conscious mind, acts like a receiver for consciousness transmitted from “somewhere else” (a good analogy is a TV — the internal circuits generate the images that you see on the screen, but they do so based on the specifications in the external broadcast signal).

The correctness, or lack thereof, of these scientific speculations, must be determined not by preconceived bigot notions of what is “orthodox” and what is not, but by theoretical analysis and experimental validation, following the scientific method.

Many “bureaucrats of science,” unable to contribute to science but always able and willing to criticize the work of more brilliant and creative scientists, like to use the term “pseudoscience” for highly imaginative science, not currently supported by conclusive experimental evidence. Well, if this is pseudoscience, then all Nobel laureates are pseudoscientists.

So what is pseudoscience, really?

Real scientists propose new theoretical models of reality, design new experiments to test their models, and carry out these experiments in the lab. Useful new models become part of mainstream science. Of course, the devil is in the details, and scientists often disagree, which is good because healthy disagreement is important for the advancement of science. When real scientists disagree, they do so calmly, respectfully, engaging the actual scientific arguments, models, and experimental results  presented by their opponents, and try to control their own emotional reactions and stay cool.

If this is what real scientists do, then “pseudoscience” must be what real scientists don’t do. The politically correct “bureaucrats of science” don’t propose new theoretical models, don’t design new experiments, and don’t work in the lab. Instead, they defend whatever is the current majority position (very often without understanding it), and are always ready to dismiss new ideas as “pseudoscience” without bothering to support their ad-hominem babble with actual scientific arguments.

The bureaucrats of science like to repeat the mantra “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Well, this mantra is BS is you ask me: if there is extraordinary evidence for something, then it is not an extraordinary claim but an evident fact. On the contrary, science advances by extraordinary claims with little initial supporting evidence, and extraordinary evidence is provided by later, targeted experiments.

Sheldrake says: “This discussion is taking place because the militant atheist bloggers Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers denounced me, and attacked TED for giving my talk a platform.”

I guess not all bureaucrats of science are militant atheists, and not all militant atheists are bureaucrats of science, but I think the two mindsets are strongly related, and both are strongly related to the sedate, disabled and disabling (anti)spirit of today’s pseudoleft (the real Left is something else). Common features are witch-hunting, self-righteousness, dogmatism, intolerance, holy wars against imagination and free inquiry, total absence of a sense of humor, and terminal dullness. I hope TED has not fallen in this camp. If it has, well, TED is a private initiative and they have the right to choose their featured speakers, but we have the right to vote with our feet and watch other science talks.

As I see things, the study of consciousness is a perfectly valid and very important field of science, including unconventional consciousness research. Based on what I can see in his published works, Sheldrake is a real scientist who thinks out of the box, elaborates theoretical models, and proposes experiments to validate them. The militant atheists and the bureaucrats of science are not real scientists, because instead of addressing the actual scientific points made by their targets, they hide their lack of arguments behind name calling and holy wars (“Pseudoscience! Not orthodox! Sounds life religion!”).

I think the time has come to start using language properly, and use the term “pseudoscience” for those who really deserve it, the dull bureaucrats of pseudoscience.

OK, now watch these two great talks.

  • René Milan

    “This contradiction can be solved only in one way: by the liquidation of science as a moral being existing outside the life of all, and represented by a body of breveted savants; it must spread among the masses. Science, being called upon to henceforth represent society’s collective consciousness, must really become the property of everybody.” Mikhail Bakunin 1871.

  • S K

    Thank you. Enjoyed the article.