Pseudo-science comes to the New Republic

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If anyone had any question on the impetus for the TED organization’s abrupt distancing from TEDx talks given by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, a pretty clear picture is emerging in the aftermath. In a recent article for New Republic magazine titled Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted, And Is Not Like Galileo, University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne, a vocal member of the skeptical sub-culture, admits his role in influencing TED’s ‘scientific advisory’ panel on  their dismisal of Sheldrake’s work:

“I and several others pointed out that what he said violated the mission of TEDx to present innovative but sound science. This resulted in TEDx taking Sheldrake’s talk off of their website and putting it in a special “time out” room for misbehaving woomeisters.”

While Coyne’s influence was fairly well known at the time, what comes to further light in this recent round on the New Republic is that the skeptical sub-culture is either willfully ignorant of the biased tactics that they are using, or are simply flat out lying. Coyne’s article addresses claims that the “Guerrilla Skeptic” movement has been influencing the inclusion of inaccuracies in Sheldrake’s Wikipedia biography.  By pointing out that the person behind the biased editing has publicly stated that they are not aligned with the Guerrilla Skeptic movement, Coyne feels that he has provided an authoritative conclusion to the situation. However, as I indicate in a piece on the Observations & Phenomena Tumblr:

“Further in the article we find this statement in regards to Sheldrake’s claims that the Guerilla Skeptic movement was behind the misinformation in his Wikipedia bio:

“Sheldrake is dead wrong in his accusations. The person who did most of the woo-removing edits of Sheldrake’s page, not a member of GSoW, has posted an article decisively refuting the claim that there is a Guerrilla Skeptic “conspiracy” to debunk Sheldrake. Tim Farley of Skeptical Software tools has investigated the edits thoroughly and confirmed that no Guerrilla Skeptics seem to have been involved.”

So we are to assume then that a widely reported centralization and mobilization of the skeptical sub-culture, which includes a YouTube video on the James Randi Education Foundation page detailing operative goals and techniques, had no effect on inspiring actions from people who may not take on its label? Really?

Ideologies are funny things, anyone who is up on the latest business best practices should be at least passingly familiar with the concept of “leaderless organizations.” Others may encounter it in terms of 5th generation and asymetric warfare, which happens to be where the idea of ‘guerrilla’ warfare fits in.

We’ve seen the power of these practices in the Anonymous movement, and the supposedly spontaneous emergence of things like Occupy and the Arab Spring. The power of ideology is that you don’t need a centralized group of individuals to organize around, the ideology works whenever someone acts under its influence whether or not they are a card carrying member of the core group.

Coyne’s complete lack of nuance in this instance, his facile insistence on offense and surprise, and the gloating tone of his supposed ‘gotcha’ moment again points to a lack of cultural literacy that draws into serious question anything he might say about anomalistic science and psychical research.”

It is difficult to believe that with global terrorism, asymetric warfare and guerrilla organizations like Anonymous playing such a large part in the current zeitgeist that the supposed superior rational analytic capabilities of society’s skeptical watchdogs remains so naive as to how guerrilla tactics work. Point by point Coyne’s article, which is receiving strong support from status quo bastions like New Republic magazine and Forbes (although we should remember that Benjamin Fulford was also a Forbes commentator…) demonstrate just how separated the skeptical sub-culture is from having even a basic understanding for anything they attempt to analyze.  

Does Coyne truly believe that a reader, on either side of the argument, who is truly thinking about the situation is going to believe that TED, New Republic, Forbes, LiveScience, Discover, the Guardian, and all of the other places where skepticism holds open court are simply good corporate citizens doing their best to save the world from irrationality? Or is it more likely that this simply reflects the ambient influence of radical (guerilla) skeptics who are vocal behind the scenes in influencing friends, colleagues and media outlets that gain revenue from their punditry to push their agenda.

Ironically, one of New Republic magazine’s founders, Walter Lippmann, himself coined the term ‘stereotype,’ and was also a very astute social commentator, whose book Public Opinion opened a deeper discussion on issues of expertise in the post-industrial era. Lippmann, unlike Coyne, recognized the importance of stretching the boundaries of inquiry, stating in an article in 1912 that the philosopher Henri Bergson, a former President of the Society for Psychical Research, was “to thought what Roosevelt (was) to action: a fountain of energy, brilliant, terrifying, and important.” Although he was a progressive left leaning thinker, Lippmann did not hesitate to proclaim the work of a philosopher who challenged the basis of what many today feel is solid secular thought.

In Public Opinion, Lippman defines what he calls “pseudo-environments,” or imaginal worlds created in the public consciousness through the influence of mass media. He goes on to show how when a person allows themselves to be seduced into these mediated narratives,  “to that pseudo-environment (their) behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates.”  What we see in the cultural policing of pundits like Coyne represents the creation of a very deliberate pseudo-environment predicated on the degenerate state of information exchange, lacking in any sense of ethics, decorum or taste. This is exactly what Lippmann warned about in his work, and represents one of the core problems with mass media as a cultural driver.

Even the title of Coyne’s piece, where he cites claims that liken Sheldrake to a scientific martyr on par with Galileo, finds itself in a funny position of admitting the lack of cultural understanding and manipulation of cultural memory, whether through ignorance or intent, that many in the skeptical sub-culture foster like a gift.  For specialists in the history of science who are aware of the complicated social situation that Galileo found himself in this straw man is offensive enough, but Coyne furthers his confusion by missing, or ignoring, a fact pointed out by Dr. David Luke, Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich (London) in the Department of Psychology and Counselling:

“It was actually (the skeptical) John Maddox, editor of Nature, in 1981, that first likened Sheldrake to Galileo (when he said):  “Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy”

Craig Weiler, of the Weiler Psi Blog, has an article up that analyzes Coyne’s New Republic piece, where he points out that in the peer reviewed literature Sheldrake is treated as an equal player:

“Many scientists are skeptical of Sheldrake’s work.  Those who have either commented on his work in peer review or attempted his experiments include:  Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Chris French, Anthony Atkinson, Steven Rose, Robert Baker and David Marks, to name a few.  NONE of them have ever referred to Sheldrake as a pseudoscientist or characterized his work as pseudoscience in a peer reviewed paper where they would have to prove that assertion.  If you take the time to actually go over Sheldrake’s work, there is nothing about it that justifies the pseudoscience label.  Nichts, nada, zip, zero.”

In terms of whether Coyne holds up his own scientific standards, 14 uses of the word ‘woo’ should be a psycho-linguistic clue that the writer is not mature enough to sit back and take the time to come to any true analytical conclusions.  While claiming that Sheldrake is not being persecuted, he also makes statements such as:

“I’ve crossed swords with Sheldrake before when I campaigned against his TEDx talk, which was filled with his crazy ideas.”

Alright, so it’s not a persecution, it’s a war with fierce face to face duels and grandiose campaigns, which has now gone 5th generation with the Guerilla Skeptics.  This might be where so many of us are missing the point, science and rationality have nothing to do with it, what we’re seeing is just a pathetic squirt gun fight that should be left to kids and not serious scientists.

In responding to Deepak Chopra’s rebuttal of the first New Republic article Coyne continues down the road of illiteracy in confusing metaphor and allegory with scientific hypotheses.  His misinterpretations of Chopra’s statements can be shown in his reaction to the statement that the moon exists only in human consciousness. In stating this as an example of pseudo-science, Coyne remarks that,  “the moon is there whether humans see it or not, and intelligence is not inherent in nature.” Unfortunately, the “moon” is not there whether humans see it or not, the “moon” is a cultural concept, a pseudo-environment if you will, that indicates a phenomenal event. The same categorical errors, and misinterpretations of the context and meaning of what is being said, can be demonstrated across the board in Coyne’s statements.  If he were a highschool biology teacher it might be acceptable for him to hold this kind of naivete, but as a tenured University of Chicago professor his lack of nuance is disturbing.

The absolute inanity of so much of the dialogue surrounding the TED situation, Wikipedia, and now Coyne’s juvenile ramblings at the New Republic are an embarrassment to scientific inquiry and another sign of larger issues with media made authority and expertise in our society. As one digs deeper into the history of thought, it becomes clear that the present state of skepticism is little more than an immature, or manipulative, reaction to pursuing science to it’s rational ends. The ability to clearly show how pundits like Coyne, who are positioned as experts by the media, display a stunning lack of cultural clarity and insight is probably the greatest gift to come out of the furor that continues in the wake of the skeptical sub-culture’s obsessive attempts to woo the public to their short sighted concept of science.

Note: In the upcoming Evolver Learning Labs webinar – Every Body’s Psychic: Discovering your psychic potential and what to do with it co-hosts Craig Weiler and David Metcalfe will lead a discussion with some of the leading researchers in parapsychology and anomalistic science on the current state of psychical research and some of the social benefits that can be seen from more open lines of inquiry. 

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