Here’s a fascinating public debate brought to my attention by a post on Craig Weiler’s interesting blog The Weiler Psi. The issue involves some strong criticism of a TED talk by radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake by Jerry Coyne and PZ Meyer. You can see a video of the talk at the bottom of this page, and it is essentially a summary of his book Science Set Free (which is a wonderful book, by the way). The problem arose when ardent skeptics protested that Sheldrake’s talk was unscientific, and should therefore be removed from the
TED site. To their credit, the TED people opened the debate to the public. The result was a (ahem) spirited discussion. It is interesting to note that most posters took Sheldrake’s side in the debate. As Craig Wheeler notes, this may suggest that the internet has freed up the minds of the younger generation, who are now more open to such ideas. (Please note: the discussion has now been closed on the TED site).
I am strongly of the opinion that the mechanistic presuppositions of modernist science are well and truly passed their used by date. I am in fundamental agreement with Sheldrake that it is time for science to begin to loosen its Newtonian shackles and enter the age of the organic universe. The issue is not simply one of the limitations of the scientific method, but the unnecessarily dogmatic culture of many scientific and educational organisations worldwide.
Update March 19th: The latest installment of the debate on TED can be found here.
Here’s what I wrote about the issue on The Weiler Psi blog. Marcus
The only issue as far as I can see is whether the talk should be re-classified as philosophical rather than scientific. But if this is the case, many science talks would have to be put in their philosophy section (I don’t know if they have one, but…), because they don’t go into detail about the evidence of the topic they are dealing with. I did note some skeptics repeating the same strange comment – why doesn’t Sheldrake bother to do experiments himself? – when he’s been doing them for decades.
It would pay to remember that Coyne and Meyer are extremists – as are Randi, Wiseman and co – and they are intolerant of any opposing perspectives, as we have seen here – even the discussion of them. So as far as I’m concerned it’s a good thing if they are becoming fringe players in the science game themselves. And it’s inevitable that they will become increasingly fringe, as their worldview position is simply wrong – wrong in the sense that their position excludes valid data, evidence and experience. They are on the wrong side of history. I discuss many of these ideas in Futures Studies, and I generally get a very open reception. Then again, hardcore skeptics don’t tend to attend Futures conferences, because they don’t like talking about the future – you can’t measure it…
Keeping all this in mind, now we can all get some sleep.
Update March 15th (from my facebook page)
Unfortunately, TED have taken down Rupert Sheldrake’s TED talk about “science set free”. Two skeptics complained about the talk, which posited 10 questions which challeng scientific orthodoxy on a number of key questions, including the nature of consciousness. Sheldrake merely asked the ten questions, and suggested they be scientifically investigated. This is indeed a rather disturbing development, given that the discussion page on the issue indicated that the general public was heavily on Sheldrake’s side. If one cannot legitimately ask open questions about the way science is conducted, or about discrepancies in data, then science is no longer open inquiry, but a set of unquestionable dogmas. Tellingly, this was the central point in Sheldrake’s talk that has been removed. They also removed a talk by Graham Hancock, who openly supported Sheldrake. http://www.ted.com/conversations/16894/rupert_sheldrake_s_tedx_talk.html