TED Flirts with Scientism


Recent developments within the TEDx conference (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) community of organizers are indicative of a rising tide of intolerance in the world of science. Historically, TED has provided an influential forum for cutting edge ideas that may not otherwise have had a fair hearing in the public arena. Recent events, however, should cause one to question the credibility of TED and are a reflection of the increasingly polarized debate between science and religion in American culture.

Responding to charges that TEDx conferences were booking speakers who were not representative of its mission statement, the organization sent a memo to the TEDx community of organizers regarding the need to be aware of and vigilant against would-be promoters of "bad science" (full memo here). TED's knee jerk response to the potential diminution of its reputation has been to circle the wagons against all forms of "pseudoscience" and "health hoaxes."

Reality Sandwich's Ken Jordan addressed a respectfully written letter (full text here) of concern to TED conference curator, Chris Anderson, asking if the organization hadn't overreacted, especially regarding speakers who had presented topics related to the concept of non-locality and the brain/consciousness question. My own interest here is to pick up on this theme of intolerance as it pertains to alternative forms of medicine and holistic forms of healing. Forgive me if my comments may not seem as kind as Ken Jordan's. I believe that the only solution to this dualistic dilemma is to lift the veil of authority and sanctimony that hides the underlying imperialistic impulses of contemporary science.

In my estimation, a good deal of confusion arises from a lack of understanding as to what constitutes good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The TEDx memo states with a good bit of authority what it believes the differences to be, and I must add, it does so very poorly. In fact, the memo serves as a perfect example of scientism masquerading as science. Perhaps if we define some terms it will help shed some light on this sad situation.

Science
was originally conceived of as a systematic and organized method of studying and learning about the world around us and within us. Eventually, it came to mean the study of the "natural" world, where natural meant the material world of physical objects. Over time it became co-opted by persons invested in an objectivist, reductionist, mechanist worldview. Subjectivity as defined by personal experience and most forms of consciousness became taboo and unworthy of the efforts of real scientists. As such, anything other than the strictly material world was out of bounds as a subject of scientific scrutiny. Nature was thus severed from its connection to all subjective aspects of human experience.

Conventional medical science
in particular has been badly hampered by this same materialistic dead end ever since. By definition, it is unable to seriously investigate emotion, thought, imagination, dreams, consciousness, bioenergetics and other factors that can have a profound effect upon health and illness, without appearing to be unscientific. The origins of this, of course, was the perceived need for medicine to distance itself from the superstitious thinking that it equated with religious doctrine. The irony is that modern medical science itself has become doctrinaire in the process.


Scientism
is an ideology that attempts to apply conventional scientific principles to fields of knowledge where it has no business being. Scientism is an exaggerated belief in the knowledge that science provides and the ability of science to use that knowledge to solve all manner of problems, human and otherwise. Hardcore scientism asserts that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge. Only science can provide access to truth. All other forms of human inquiry and experience are not to be trusted.

Religion, metaphysics, philosophy, ethics, and even psychology are unscientific and, therefore, inferior. Scientism believes in the superiority of reason, objectivity, and logic. Other forms of knowledge — intuitive, experiential, emotional, spiritual, imaginal, et cetera are subjective, deceptive, and even contemptible.

Those who espouse scientistic beliefs are essentially materialists. Only things that can be seen, touched, measured, and quantified by the methods of science are real. All else is imaginary, a deceptive illusion. As would be expected, objective reality is taken to be the only reality. Scientism puts itself in the untenable situation of denying the role of human consciousness without being able to explain how anyone could even read this article without the aid of consciousness! Taken to its logical conclusion, scientism would entail that humans are biological robots without meaning or purpose.  

Most importantly, scientism is fundamentally imperialistic. Scientism represents an abuse of scientific authority that has been taken too far. Scientism is science without boundaries. Advocates of scientism believe that they have the authority to pass judgment on the entire range of human social, cultural, and political affairs. However, scientism is guilty of a double standard. The imperialistic impulses of scientism lead it to make pronouncements on topics of human inquiry that regular conventional science recognizes as beyond the scope of its methods of investigation.

Examples of medical modalities that are subject to scientistic derision include acupuncture and homeopathy. Both have solid clinical track records and both have a good bit of research to back them up, but they are dismissed because they are founded upon principles that cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms. Heck, according to some skeptics, even my own osteopathic medical training is suspect (more here). 

Most people do not know what scientism is and have never heard the word before. Defenders of a scientistic worldview do not see themselves as such and would object to charges of scientism. They call themselves skeptics, and they believe that their mission is to defend "real" and "true" science against all heretical forms of "pseudoscience." Although skeptics represent a relatively small faction of ideologues, they nevertheless are a very vocal group, not unlike far right wing extremists. Right-wingers are religious fundamentalists while left-wingers who believe only in science are best characterized as scientistic fundamentalists. A succinct history of the skeptics movement can be found here.

I have the utmost respect for science when is practiced with full awareness of its limitations, its scope, and most importantly, the presuppositions that inform its worldview. But science conducted without an understanding of its philosophical underpinnings is a dangerous thing. Such underpinnings include the propositions, for example, that the world according to science is limited to the three dimensional world of physical objects, that subjective information is irrelevant to scientific investigations, and that answers are to be found in the reductionist study of small parts rather than the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Pseudoscience is a term used to disparage anyone who claims to bring something new to establishment science. It is a swear word used by scientific fundamentalists, or advocates of scientism, when they feel threatened by ideas that challenge their worldview. In this sense, there is no real pseudoscience other than the pseudoscience that exists in the imaginations of small-minded people. Holistic medical therapies are frequently accused of being pseudoscientific because, if taken seriously, they could expose the faulty logic of the metaphysical assumptions that lie at the foundation of conventional medical science. In other words, it would reveal that conventional medical science is not grounded in scientific fact as it claims, but in metaphysical assumptions.

To summarize, science is the original and pure ideal of open-minded inquiry. Conventional science is a materialistic perversion of that ideal, which denies the value of subjectivity, human experience, and consciousness. Scientism is an arrogant attempt to pass scientific judgment upon other fields of knowledge. And pseudoscience is a paranoid delusion held by those who feel their scientistic worldview threatened.

Now let's return to the TEDx email wherein the difference between good science and pseudoscience is explained. Examples of bad science are given and they include the implication of vaccines as a cause of autism, "GMO foodists," "food as medicine," "the fusion of science and spirituality," and various forms of "healing" including "Reiki," "energy fields," and "alternative health."

The memo also describes the "marks of good science," which includes the criterion that "it does not fly in the face of the broad existing body of scientific knowledge." I do recall that quantum physics was once in the very same position but, now, is so mainstream that to deny its place would be to commit heresy.

The memo moves on to define the "marks of bad science," which include the fact that it "has failed to convince many mainstream scientists," "comes from overconfident fringe experts," uses "imprecise, spiritual or new age vocabulary, to form new, completely untested theories," and the clincher, "speaks dismissively of mainstream science." There seems to be an awful lot of emphasis here on defending mainstream science. And just as much time is devoted to dismissing new ideas before they get to see the light of day, simply because they do not conform to the prevailing standards of conventional medical science.

The memo then goes on to give the warning signs of a speaker who is not up to TEDx standards, including if a speaker's "affiliated university does not have a solid reputation." Reputation for what, mainstream thinking? Speakers are also suspect if "there is little or no comment on them in mainstream science publications or even on Wikipedia." This is beginning to sound a little repetitive, never mind that Wikipedia is well known in holistic medical circles to be rabidly anti-alternative medicine. The final irony is the warning that it is a "BIG RED FLAG" when speakers sell products or services related to their talks. I don't suppose they are referring to PhRMA here, are they?

In closing, the memo states, "Bad science talks affect the credibility of TED and TEDx: it is important we get this right." In a single fit of hysteria over its precious reputation, TED has done a serious disservice to countless individuals on the cutting edge of the emerging new medical paradigm and, in the process, has gone running into the arms of the left wing fringe of medical scientism. TED may be unwittingly doing the bidding for an organized community of skeptics who are known to raise hell in calculated ways in order to press their anti-alternative medicine and anti-consciousness studies agenda.

The whole point of Rupert Sheldrake's latest book is to call for a return to an open-minded attitude of inquiry in scientific circles. Heaven forbid, perhaps we should stone him! (sarcasm) Regardless of TED's descent into fundamentalist scientism, the way forward is clear. All signs point to an emerging paradigm that is inclusive of diversity both in terms of science and spirituality. And contrary to TED's warning, the frontier between science and spirituality is the most promising and potentially the most rewarding. Namaste!

Image by Lawrence Wang, courtesy of Creative Commons license.