In his book The Science Delusion, the British biologist Rupert Sheldrake raises the questions: is our current scientific paradigm build on firm ground? If we took its basic tenets not as self-evident truths, but as hypotheses, would they stand up to the evidence?

Sheldrake’s Research

Rupert Sheldrake (1942) is a British biologist. He studied at the universities of Cambridge and Harvard. After his studies, he started to work as a researcher and lecturer on Cambridge University, in the area of cytology. He studied the growth and death of plant cells, and also agricultural plants.

His most well known book is A New Science of Life, published in 1981, which is much criticized from the perspective of mainstream science. Sheldrake puts forward the hypothesis that living systems are not governed solely by mechanicals interactions, but may be organized around a purpose, which coordinates indeterministic processes at lower levels. Sheldrake also researched other phenomena at the border of the mainstream paradigm: peculiar abilities of animals (orientation, claimed telepathy, anticipation of weather...), precognition or the feeling of being watched. Sheldrake’s research can be found on his website www.sheldrake.org.

Today, aged 74, as a scientist with many years’ experience, Sheldrake is dealing with the paradigm of current science as a whole. He points out its hidden ideological limitations, taboos and the mechanisms by which they are perpetuated. This is the topic of The Science Delusion.

The Science Delusion

Under the "science delusion", Sheldrake understands "the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in" (Sheldrake, 2013b). According to Sheldrake, this attitude is common among people proclaiming "I don’t believe in God, I believe in science" (Sheldrake, 2013b). (The name of Sheldrake’s book, The Science Delusion, is likely an allusion to the book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, another British biologist and a critic of Sheldrake.)

Sheldrake points out that such a belief was widespread several times in the history of science, but was usually ended by a substantial paradigmatic change. The last well known example is physics. By the end of the 19th century, many prominent physicists claimed that with the mechanistic vision of physics and atoms, we are able to explain the world in entirety. By the famous words of the physicist Lord Kelvin from 1900: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." However, before long, the quantum revolution happened in physics and radically changed our view of the world and matter (Sheldrake, 2013a, p. 19).

The 10 Basic Assumptions of Today’s Science

The book revolves around 10 postulates which are considered as self-evidently true by the scientific commmunity and form the "default worldview of most educated people all over the world" (Sheldrake, 2013b). Sheldrake writes that "these beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don't". (Sheldrake, 2013a, p. 7).

It is the following 10 assumptions:

  1. Nature is mechanical
  2. The total amount of matter and energy remains the same
  3. Natural laws are fixed and unchanging
  4. Matter is unconscious
  5. Evolution has no goal or purpose
  6. All biological inheritance is material
  7. All memory traces are stored in the brain and are wiped out upon death
  8. The mind is only the activity of the brain
  9. Parapsychological phenomena are illusory
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind of medicine that really works

The force of these tenets lies in two factors. First, the vast majority of mainstream scientists is convinced of their truthfulness. Second, they form a consistent whole. If someone were to question one of them, they would be automatically disadvantaged. Their opinion would be seen as very improbable, because it would not fit in with the other postulates.

But Sheldrake takes on the current paradigm as a whole. None of these assumptions is taken for granted; instead, Sheldrake asks, what would happen if we were to take them not as proven truths, but as research questions? Would we have good reasons to believe in them? Would they stand to the process of scientific verification?

Sheldrake devotes a separate chapter to each of the assumptions. He describes what the scientists in the paradigm believe and in what historical and philosophical context this belief came up. Most importantly, however, he shows that these statements are not facts, but interpretations consistent with most of the facts. On the other hand, they leave a part of the facts unexplained in the hope that future research will reveal how they can be integrated into the paradigm. On several places, Sheldrake shows how the facts could be interpreted alternatively.

At the end of each chapter, Sheldrakes lists questions for critical reflection for those who are convinced of the truthfulness of the basic assumptions, such as "Is your own belief in materialism determined by unconscious processes in your brain, rather than reason, evidence and choice?"

The Big Picture

The question of the basic assumptions of science is philosophical. But the psychological and sociological question of how – by which mechanisms – these assumptions are perpetuated in science is not less important. In the eleventh chapter, "Illusions of Objectivity", Sheldrake points out that science is often presented as independent, objective and devoid of emotions, based on measurements and rational dialogue. As the science enthusiast Ricky Gervais put it: "Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn't know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence." (Sheldrake, 2013a, p. 328)

In reality, it is more complicated. The 10 assumptions are strongly established in science and skew the interpretation of research, as well as its future directions. A scientist who strays away from the paradigm, is often professionally and socially ostracized, he or she has trouble winning grants, publishing articles in journals or presenting his or her findings on mainstream conferences. Among the scientists in the paradigm, natural self-censorship occurs: they tend to select topics which are "safe", non-controversial and publish rather data that are "expected" by their community.

In the last, twelfth, chapter "Scientific Futures", Sheldrake suggests particular measures we could take to make the situation better:

  • Bring into light the hidden assumptions of science and discuss about them – today, science debates mostly about the details within the paradigm – but very little about its basic foundations;
  • Seek inspiration in non-Western cultures – introspection, altered states of consciousness, inspiration from nature;
  • A change in the structure of financing – by the principle "the more sources of financing science has, the freer it is";
  • Openness to new topics – devote a small amount of resources in science explicitly to researching new topics, outside of the paradigm.

Conclusion

The Science Delusion is a popular book. Although it lists a lot of sources, the argumentation is in some places quite simple and could be improved. On the other hand, this is compensated by the width of its topic: it confronts the base of the current scientific paradigm in its entirety. It presents a challenge. Personally, I would – just as Sheldrake – welcome an open discussion of basic questions of science. The significance of these topics is fundamental for all of us.

Sources

Sheldrake, R. (2013a). The Science Delusion. London: Coronet. 392 s.

Sheldrake, R. (2013b). The Science Delusion – TED Talk. [2016-08-21]

Excerpts From the Book

Preface

"I have spent all my adult life as a scientist, and I stronly believe in the importance of the scientific approach. Yet I have become increasingly convinced that the sciences have lost much of their vigour, vitality and curiosity. Dogmatic ideology, fear-based conformity and institutional inertia are inhibiting scientific creativity.
With scientific colleagues, I have been struck over and over again by the contrast between public and private discussions. In public, scientists are very aware of the powerful taboos that restrict the range of permissible topics; in private they are often more adventurous."
p. 4

Introduction

"Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don't. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.
This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them."
p. 6 - 7

Chapter 5: Is Nature Purposeless?

"It is relatively easy to break things up and analyse the parts. The problem is to understand the whole; not just the parts but also their interacions need to be understood. And these interactions are not contained in the parts themselves.
To study the molecules in a racing pigeon, it is necessary to kill the pigeon first, to grind upt its tissues and cells, and separate the molecular components. But all the strucutre and activity o the pigeon have bbeen destroyed in the process, just as the layout of a building is detroyed when it is demolished. The architecture of the uilding cannt be worked out from a chemical analysis of the rubble, nor can the form of the pigeon and its homig behaviour be reconstructed from an analysis of its molecules."
p. 146

Chapter 10: Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?

"In 2009, around four-thousand women who developed breast cancer while taking Prempro, a hormone replacement therapy (HRT), sued the drug's manufacturer, Wyeth. In court, it turned out that many of the medical research papers supporting HRT had been ghostwritten by a commercial medical communications company called DesignWrite. (...)
As Ben Goldacre reported in the Guardian:
'DesignWrite wrote the first drafts and sent them to Wyeth, who advised on the creation of a second draft. Only then was the paper sent to the academic who would appear as the "author". (...) DesignWrite sold Wyeth more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles for HRT, and a similar number of conference posters, slide kits, symposia, and journal supplements. Adrienne Fugh-Berman [an associate professor of physiology an Georgetown University] found that these publications variously promoted unproven and unlicensed benefits of Wyeth's HRT drug, undermined its competitors, and donwplayed its harms...'"
p. 267 - 268

Chapter 11: Illusions of Objectivity

"Anyone who has actually carried out scientific research knows that data are uncertain, that much depends on the way they are interpreted, and that all methods have their limitations. Scientists are used to having their data and interpretations scrutinised and criticised by anonymous peer-reviewers. They are usually well aware of the uncertainties and limitations of knowledge in their own field.
The illusion of objectivity gains in strength through distance. Biologists, psychologists and social scientists are notorious for physics envy, seeing physics as far more objective and precise than their own rather messy fields, where there is so much uncertainty.
From the outside, metrology, the branch of physics concerned with fundamental constants, seems an oasis of certainty. But metrologists themselves make no such claim: they are preoccupied with variations in measurements, arguments about the reliability of different methods, and disputes between different laboratories. They achieve a higher level of precision than scientists studying plants, rats of minds, but their 'best values' are still consensus figures arrived at through processes of subjective evaluation.
The further the distance, the stronger the illusion. Those who are most prone to idealise the objectivity of scientists are people who know almost nothing about science, people for whom it has become a kind of religion, their hope of salvation."
p. 298 – 299

"What proportion of research results are published in physics, chemistry and biology? There seem to have been no studies on this question, but in informal surveys I have carried out myself, in most subjects this proportion seems to be around 5 to 10 per cent.
Scientists are more likely to publish their 'best' results than negative or inconclusive findings. (...) In addition, scientific journals are often unwilling to publish negative results. (...)
If businesses were required to publish only 10 per cent of their accounts, they would probably publish those that made their business look as profitable and well managed as possible. Conversely, if they needed to submit only 10 per cent of their accounts to the tax authorities, they would tend to show their least profitable activities. Suppressing 90 per cent of the data gives a lot of scope for selective reporting."
p. 308 – 309

"Published data have to pass through three selective filters. The first filtration of the data occurs when experimenters decide to publish some results rather than others; the second when editors of journals consider only certain kinds of results eligible for publication; and the third in the peer-review process, which ensures that expected results are more likely to be approved for publication than unexpected results."
p. 308

"Frauds in the unpoliced hinterlands of science are rarely exposed by the official mechanisms of peer review, refereeing or independent replication. Most come to light as a result of whistle-blowing by colleagues or rivals, often as a result of a personal grievance. When this happens, the typical response of the authorities is to try to hush the matter up. If the charges of fraud do not blow over and if the evidence becomes overwhelming, then an official inquiry is held, and someone is found guilty and dismissed in disgrace."
p. 310

"Fraudulent results are likely to be accepted in science if they are plausibly presented, if they conform with prevailing prejudices and expectations, and if they come from a suitably qualified scientist affiliated with an elite institution."
Broad and Wade, quoted on p. 312

"Specialised product-defense firms have increasingly skewed the scientific literature, created and magnified scientific uncertainty, and influenced policy decisions to the advantage of polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products. In fact, the science behind any proposed public-health or environmental regulation is now almost always challenged, however powerful the evidence."
p. 314

"Very few patrons of scientific research are interested in innocent knowledge for its own sake. When scientists submit grant proposals, they almost always claim that their research will be useful. The facts they hope to discover will be of value for national defence, combating disease, increasing profits, promoting the yields of crops, improving navigation, increasing national prestige, or conferring other benefits. The hoped-for values come before the facts; the promised values enable the research to be funded and the facts to be established."
p. 315

Chapter 12: Scientific Futures

"Students absorb their general views about the nature of reality as implicit assumptions or from the writings of scientific popularisers. The doctrines of materialism are not taught explicitly, and many students and scientists are unaware of their influence in shaping the practice and assumptions of their field.
For example, most neuroscientists take it for granted that minds are in brains and that memories are stored as material traces. These assumptions are not treated as aspects of a philosophy of nature, or as hypotheses to be tested: they are part of the standard paradigm or consensus reality, protected by taboos against deviant thinking."
p. 321

"Specialists are famously said to know more and more about less and less, and in the sciences this process has continued to produce ever more fragmented fields of knowledge (...) It is not the job of all these specialists to think about the underlying philosophical assumptions of the sciences. Historians and philosophers of science think about them, but they themselves are in a specialised field, often treated as of marginal interest to the real business of science."
p. 322

"In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin was one of many independent researchers who, not reliant on grants, did provocatively original work. That kind of freedom and independence is rare today. Science-funding committees determine what can happen in research. The power in those committees is concentrated in the hands of politically adept older scientists, government officials and representatives of big business."
p. 330




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