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Junk science junkies

24/09/2013

In my opinion true Science and true Religion neither are nor could be opposed. — Sir John William Strutt.

We must seriously put out of court alike the hypertrophied scientific people with atrophied religious instincts, and the hypertrophied religious people with atrophied scientific instincts. Neither group can help us here; they only introduce confusion. – from The Dance of Life by Havelock Ellis.

If you click the tag ‘scientism‘ on the right you’ll see a list of posts I’ve made that might give the impression I am anti-science. If so, it would be the wrong impression. I like science. So much so I like to keep it in it’s box and not allow it to be brought into disrepute by people who attempt to promote it as something it is not.

I’m proud to number several scientists and inventors among my ancestors and relatives, including a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.

During primary school I was so obsessed with science texts that teachers took my parents aside for a worried chat about how imbalanced my reading habits were. When I finally started reading literature it was primarily science fiction.

My high school studies were always slanted towards science. In my senior years the only non-science subjects I took were maths and English. The only tertiary degree I ever completed was a BSc with a double major in physics and psychology and my uncompleted degrees all had at least one science strand.

If you consider computer analysis and programming a practical science then my working life has been almost exclusively science based. Much of my voluntary activist work has centred on forensic science, particularly population genetics, and criminology (though I’d be stretching things a bit to call that a science).

Even today science and pop science texts take up a significant portion of my bookshelves and much of my web browsing is of science journals and clinical trial results.

Yep. I’m a geek.

What I dislike is not science, but it’s abuse.

One place in which science is heavily abused is the courtroom.

Despite admissibility standards such as Frye and Daubert that purport to keep junk science out of court, much of what passes for science in criminal trials is either seriously twisted or not science at all.

An example of the former is forensic DNA analysis, in which juries are routinely presented with mind-boggling match odd based on dubious and usually irrelevant population models while being prevented from hearing evidence of error rates in the lab or by lab technicians – gathered during accreditation testing – that might enable them to estimate the likelihood the tests in question were messed up due to contamination or misinterpretation.

An example of the latter is when a forensic psychologist gives evidence under oath as to whether a defendant was acting under compulsion or in accordance with his own free will. This is a question philosophers have wrestled with for millenia without being able to find a satisfactory answer for humans in general much less a specific individual and is way beyond the pay grade of any expert witness. I would argue it is outside the domain of science altogether.

But with the possible exception of the mass media, nowhere have I seen science abused more than it is by religious propagandists.

Perhaps the most widely propagated abuse of science by the religious is Creationism. Not only do Young Earth Creationists routinely abuse Darwinism in order to make a straw man they can easily knock over, they must also ignore or misrepresent fields as diverse as archeology, geology, cosmology, genetics, dendrochronology, nuclear physics, astronomy, oceanography, microbiology, linguistics and many others in order to pretend their beliefs are compatible with science. ‘Weaker’ versions of creationism, such as Intelligent Design Theory, are not so comprehensively abusive of science but nonetheless their proponents either fail to understand or overlook well supported scientific theories when promoting their own pseudo-scientific ones.

The New Age has a particularly confused attitude towards science. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard New Age proponents denigrate science through misrepresentation one minute only to misrepresent it in an attempt to appropriate it’s authority the next.

The ‘miracle’ healers

The love-hate relationship between science and the New Age goes back to the latter’s roots in the New Thought movement of the nineteenth century. Originated by self-educated watchmaker, healer and mesmerist,  Phineas Quimby, the main tenet of New Thought is that all illness originates in the mind and can be cured by right thinking. One of Quimby’s patients and disciples was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, the family religion of CIA psychologist and MKULTRA project director William Thetford who would become the mastermind behind A Course in Miracles.

New Thought proliferated quickly across the US, receiving a considerable boost from the utilitarian philosopher William James who repeats its unsubstantiated claims for miraculous cures in his seminal text The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he elevates it to the status of a fundamental religious experience on par with mysticism. Its pseudoscience was soon informing aspects of Spiritualism and Theosophy as well as breathing new life into the remnants of various failed millenarian groups that had sprung up in the decades prior to the onset of the 20th century. It is now hard to find any homegrown US religious cults of the last century and a half that have not been influenced by New Thought.

Of course there is a core of truth to New Thought philosophy. Many human illnesses are psychological or psychosomatic and can be alleviated by a change in thought habits. Perhaps the most spectacular of these are conversion disorders in which severe stress and anxiety manifest as distinct physical maladies such as paralysis, blindness, fits, phantom pregnancies, etc. Conversion disorders typically respond poorly to standard medical therapies but can sometimes be cured with psychiatric or psychological ones. The scribe of A Course in Miracles, Helen Schucman, had previously been a pediatric psychologist specialising in conversion disorders.

Another basis for belief in New Thought is the placebo effect and various related powerful physiological outcomes mediated primarily by psychological or neuronal responses.

Most people would be familiar with the placebo effect whereby an inactive pill or treatment is given to a patient who then recovers, at least partially, from her illness. This can even work when the patient knows she is receiving a placebo, though it is more likely to be effective when she believes it to be a real medicine administered by a trusted medical authority.

Many believe the placebo effect to be a form of neural control of physiology whereby the brain’s domination of the sympathetic and/or parasympathetic nervous system is asserted in a manner that produces measurable physiological responses. Biofeedback methods of controlling heart rate and blood pressure rely on this principle but there are also effects less subject to conscious control. For example, repeatedly feeding a subject chocolate flavoured laxatives will eventually cause an association whereby giving them chocolate alone will induce diarrhea. Yes, chocaholics, a cure is at hand!

Best practice trials of new medicines will always include a double-blinded placebo arm to separate the placebo effect from the real effect of the drug being tested. Unfortunately many drug trials – particularly of psychiatric medication – are a long way from best practice and their biased testing and bogus claims only serve to encourage even less scientific snake-oil salesmen.

New Age and New Thought practitioners pretty much never set up objective trials that would allow a dispassionate evaluation of the effectiveness of their methods however scientists have done so and none have shown results significantly better than the placebo effect. The response from New Agers is to either blatantly misrepresent the results of the trial to pretend they support their practices or dismiss scientific method as something that drives away the faith needed for their healing to work. Anecdotes always trump evidence in the Age of Aquarius.

There can be little doubt New Thought healing has brought relief to many who could not be helped by allopathic (i.e. mainstream) medicine, either because they had no access to it or because effective allopathic treatments did not exist. But it is also clear many people, particularly children, have died because their serious diseases have been treated with what is essentially a placebo when far more effective therapies were available.

It must also be acknowledged that a lot of undue faith is placed in allopathic medicine by both patients and practitioners and this too does much unnecessary harm.

Quantum voodoo and the mind of Einstein

Surely no scientist has had his legacy appropriated and misrepresented more than Albert Einstein.Albert Einstein

Who has not seen the quote attributed to him that we use only one tenth of our brains? There is no documentary evidence that he ever said any such thing, but so what if he did? He was a physicist not a neurologist and there is no reason to give his pronouncements on such subjects any more weight than those from the local butcher.

Functional MRI studies show categorically that we use far more than 10% of our brains even when engaged in fairly unchallenging tasks. The evidence suggests that a healthy person will use very close to 100% of their brain over a typical day. Evolutionary biologists can also muster some persuasive arguments as to why an animal carrying over a kilogram of superfluous neurons and glial cells in its skull would soon find itself on the natural selection scrapheap.

In his bestselling The Power of Now, New Age guru Eckhart Tolle asserts, ‘The surprising result of a nation-wide inquiry among  America’s most eminent mathematicians, including Einstein, to find out their working methods, was that thinking “plays only a subordinate  part  in  the  brief, decisive phase of the creative act itself”‘. This is indeed a surprising survey, not least because those conducting it seemed unable to distinguish between eminent mathematicians and eminent physicists, but also because pollsters were apparently able to convince these eminents to respond to a push-poll that asked such ambiguous leading questions as “Does thinking play only a subordinate part in the brief, decisive phase of the creative act itself?”. Less surprising is that Tolle offers no references for his claim and the only Googleable evidence that such a nation-wide inquiry was ever carried out are allegations by Tolle himself and by Deepak Chopra, from whom Tolle seems to have lifted the quote word for word without attribution. Least surprising of all is that Tolle considers thinking to be a very minor component of his ‘creativity’.

One quote legitimately attributed to Einstein is “God does not play dice with the universe”. Various religious apologists have usThe Flying Spaghetti Monster is the ultimate inspiration behind all true art and scienceed this line to lend bogus authority to whatever weird and wonderful version of the Flying Spaghetti Monster they are flogging but Einstein’s ‘god’ was the god of Baruch Spinoza, a minimalist impersonal organising principle underlying reality as we perceive it. There is nothing about Einstein to give any reason to prioritise the reality of his god over any other even if it was represented accurately by those who appropriate his words. What he was responding to with that sentence were the theories of quantum physicists which seemed to suggest an underlying randomness to the universe. The subsequent history of scientific research has been less kind to Einstein than to those he was criticising.

Niels Bohr once said “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it”. What he was referring to were the bunch of powerfully counter-intuitive conclusions physicists of the first half of the 20th century were drawing from their experiments (both actual and intellectual) in quantum mechanics. Discoveries such as the observer effect and the uncertainty principle and thought experiments such as EPR and Schrodinger’s cat indicated that material reality – at least at its most fundamental level – is very different indeed to how we perceive it.

Some early quantum physicists noted similarities between the metaphors they used to describe quantum phenomena and those employed by Hindu philosophers to allude to the basis of perceptual reality, giving rise to the meme of ‘Quantum Mysticism‘. This was to be a huge boon to New Age prognosticators who could exploit the shaky grasp most people have of both fields to claim authoritative support – both technical and arcane – for their own fuzzy thinking and empty aphorisms regarding such topics as free will, the nature of consciousness, mind-body dualism and, inevitably, the power of positive greed.

Quantum Mysticism was boosted into the New Age with a series of books of ever increasing speculative pseudoscientificity – from Fritjof Capra‘s The Tao of Physics to Gary Zhukav‘s The Dancing Wu Li Masters to Robert Anton Wilson‘s Quantum Psychology – reaching it’s idiotic apogee in Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing, which attempts to reconcile ayurvedic medicine with quantum theory. After receiving the 1998 Ig Nobel Prize for “his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness” Chopra explained that he used quantum physics ‘only as a metaphor’, though it is unclear for what. Perhaps Chopra himself is a quantum entity and his axis of spin depends on how you measure him.

There are many schools of interpretation of quantum mechanics, some better informed than others, but perhaps the most conservative one is simply that our minds have not evolved in such a way as to enable us to articulate the concepts necessary to come to grips with phenomena as distant from our day to day experience as the very small, the very large or the underlying nature of phenomenological reality and it is impossible to be truly objective as the observer is inevitably part of the system he observes. So it is perhaps unsurprising that those trying to speak of photons, black holes, consciousness and god reach into similar boxes of inadequate metaphors. That does not mean they are all the same thing. Or as Niels Bohr puts it “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

Keeping God and science in their boxes

Scientific knowledge arises by assembling evidence with the tool of skepticism. Religious belief arises by assembling intuitions with the tool of faith. It should be obvious to all they are entirely different fields of human inquiry and have little meaningful to say to each other.

You cannot make a religion out of science or a science from religion, you can only come to worship your own ignorance of their underlying principles. When you have been blinded by folly and hubris everything looks the same.

Science cannot be subjugated to the authority of the Bible any more than religion can be subjugated to the authority of Richard Dawkins. Nor does one confirm the other nor both confirm the ‘wisdom’ of New Age gurus. Those who attempt to abuse them in such a manner are doing a disservice to both and making arrogant fools of themselves.

From → ACIM, autobiography

6 Comments
  1. Much as I really enjoyed this meaty and informative post, I’m not so sure at all that serious scientific inquiry and Eastern philosophy or mystical traditions are incompatible. Science requires rigorous objectivity, which should sideline personal interest. If one is trying to arrange experiments to produce results that support one’s belief system, which holds one as inordinately significant, that’s not going to result in productive science. One needs to sideline self-interest and be open to whatever implications the results of an experiment produce. So, you have an impersonal objectivity on the one hand, and the other is more of a subjective, internal sidelining of the selfish ego, such as learning to temporarily suspend the tyranny of the selfish ego in meditation.

    The Dalai Lama has said something to the effect that if Buddhism conflicts with science, Buddhism needs to adapt.

    Why can’t rational objectivity and Eastern philosophy work in tandem to dislodge the inherently selfish ego? Sure, Capra might have oversimplified parallels between subatomic physics and mysticism to make a popular book, but I wouldn’t be so sure that objective science and subjective insight won’t make similar discoveries.

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  2. Science requires rigorous objectivity, which should sideline personal interest.

    Well, there’s one problem for a start.
    The sramanic tradition is not objective at all.
    In some ways it is subjective and in others (non-dualism) it transcends subjectivity and objectivity.

    By twisting it into something examinable by objective science you have made it into something else entirely.

    For instance the fact that experienced meditators can produce different fMRI traces to novices says nothing at all about what is actually happening in the mind of the meditator or whether that has any relevance to the doctrine of the meditator’s religion. It is an irrelevant distraction at best.

    If Buddhism conflicts with science Buddhism either Buddhism or science needs to adapt because one of them has strayed onto the turf of the other. The greatest overlap between claims made by Buddhism and claims made by science is Abhidhamma psychology and, quite frankly, I think Buddhism wins hands down.

    But the Buddism of the Dalai Lama, Vajrayana, is full of all sorts of magicalist accretions that are not part of the Tripitaka (in fact the notion of a reincarnating Dalai Lama is inconsistent with anatta IMHO) and if the DL says it’s time for a clean out and thinks science might help him do that I’m certainly in no position to contradict him.

    Why can’t rational objectivity and Eastern philosophy work in tandem to dislodge the inherently selfish ego?

    It may well do so.
    Anything might do so.
    Just as a truck driver and a diesel engine might work together to move a freight across a continent.
    But you don’t call upon a doctor if the engine breaks down or a mechanic if the truckie gets sick.

    Nor am I entirely certain objective science and subjective insight can’t make similar discoveries, but given the intrinsic difference in their approaches it seems to me it would be very difficult to determine whether they had actually discovered the similar things or whether they are describing different things in similar ways.

    Basically I doubt they can be used to either verify or falsify each other.

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  3. I find it extremely amusing that human beings think they can label God and put restrictive parameters making their label the ‘only real one’…label that is…

    I imagine if there were an anthropometric God He would be laughing harder and harder about that in the last couple of millennia…

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  4. You wrote: ” By twisting it into something examinable by objective science you have made it into something else entirely.”

    When did I say that mysticism or non-duality is examinable by objective science? How could experiences of non-consensual reality be encompassed by reason? Haven’t I argued before with you that science can never hope to embrace all, and that it’s arrogant to think there is nothing outside of what the human mind can comprehend? I think you have me confused with someone else. Jesus Christ kabob on a skewer! I have said that we take if for granted that all other living creatures on this planet have a limited intelligence that is hopefully inadequate to understand or encompass the whole, but erroneously make an exception for ourselves and our particular physical and sensory makeup.

    You wrote: ” Nor am I entirely certain objective science and subjective insight can’t make similar discoveries, but given the intrinsic difference in their approaches it seems to me it would be very difficult to determine whether they had actually discovered the similar things or whether they are describing different things in similar ways.”

    I said they could work in tandem to dislodge the selfish ego. I am not saying they are the same or would come to the same ultimate conclusions, nor that if they did that the conclusions would be understood in the same way.

    So I reassert my conclusion, both rational science and Eastern philosophy can work in tandem to dislodge the selfish ego from the seat of tyrannical supremacy. For example, Galileo was punished by the inquisition because his scientific model of the universe, which showed that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around, threatened cherished notions of man as the center of the universe. In other words, his objective discoveries were a blow to the ego.

    Further, the prime manmade problems we face are the result of the selfishness that is the natural behavior of the immature ego. If for example, policy makers listened to scientists about global warming, rather than the lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry, we could be tackling the problem and hopefully waylaying environmental destruction. And the maturity of more spiritually evolved individuals can help steer science from being misused for destructive purposes, such as creating ever more destructive weapons. You may call this morality or ethics, and contrary to many assumptions that they are entirely subjective or somehow sinister, if one is able to challenge them with argument and they are not merely dictatorial tenants of bygone mis-interpreted and misapplied religions. Without ethics we’d still have slavery in England and America, along with child labor, and a much more vicious suppression of women and “minorities” or “marginalized people”.

    So, rather than say that these two branches of philosophy are disparate and incompatible, working at cross-purposes, or just irrelevant to each other, I think it’s much more constructive, intelligent, and “enlightened” to see that they are in reality not only compatible, bringing them together is possibly the best way to move forward and salvage our civilization and species.

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  5. When did I say that mysticism or non-duality is examinable by objective science?

    I was using the rhetorical “you” not the personal one.

    It never occurred to me you’d think I was accusing you of doing that.

    Sorry for the offensive ambiguity.

    I said they could work in tandem to dislodge the selfish ego.

    I agree that the insights offered by science can help some overcome their egos, but so can anything. Art, love, work …

    OTOH, anything can also be used to reinforce the ego, as science does for the likes of Richard Dawkins.

    Science is just a tool. It’s the tool user who determines it’s use.

    I’m not sure science is a natural tandem partner for Eastern philosophy, especially for Westerners.
    How many of us have more than a superficial grasp of either?
    I sure don’t.

    If Tolle and his ilk can use that superficiality to fool others by mixing and matching incompatible components why wouldn’t I be likely to do the same thing to myself?
    I’ve done so in the past.

    I also disagree that the global problems we have are primarily due to the immature ego. If anything the opposite is the case. We have created problems such as consumerism that have turned on us and infantilised us.

    IMHO institutions such as corporations, governments, religions etc are meta-organisms that exist and evolve in different environments to our own (e.g. the market, ‘Great Game’ style realpolitik, ideological ‘space’). They are no more controlled by people than we are controlled by our individual cells. The best adapted ones appropriate both the crassly self-interested and the ‘spiritually evolved’ (whatever that means) for their own purposes. Look at how the Sri Lankan government uses the words of the Buddha to justify its abuse of Tamils.

    I don’t think ethics had anything to do with the abolition of chattel slavery in the West. It was changing economic circumstances that did it. Southerners were no less ethical than Northerners at the time of the Civil War, they just lived under different economic institutions.

    To deal with rogue institutions we need analysis of rogue institutions, not Dhamma studies.

    Perhaps it’s a conspiracy theory but I can see why many radicals believe the CIA promoted New Age religion in the US to counter youth politicisation (they not only started ‘A Course in Miracles’, they also financially backed the Esalen Institute and the founders of Neuro-linguistic programming). By encouraging the already narcissistic baby boomers to turn their attention inward they could get them to take their eyes off the ball.

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  6. Exceptionally well written and authoritative. A fascinating cross-disciplinary approach. I’m in the process of exploring ideas of holism and it’s relationship to perception and global paradigm shift. You have a quite a deep scientific handle on this kind of stuff which would be helpful for me, as I tend approach these ideas from a more mystical and experiential level. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to reading and learning a whole lot more.

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