The Science Delusion

Paranormalia blogger Robert McLuhan reviews The Science Delusion, the new book from 'heretic biologist' Rupert Sheldrake (Amazon UK):

We're used to scientists telling us that the universe is inert matter, that we lack free will, and that our ideas, beliefs and goals are just 'folk psychology'. The Science DelusionTo voice dissent is to invite sharp correction or be denounced as a follower of pseudoscience. So for those of us who are suspicious of the claims of materialism it's astonishing, and also heartening, to hear a scientist agree that it's a hidebound ideology, dismiss the belief in determinism as a 'delusion' and call on the 'high priests' of science to abandon their 'fantasy of omniscience'.

All this sounds rather rhetorical, and the title of The Science Delusion seems to have been chosen as a counterblast to the Great Panjandrum of scientific orthodoxy himself. But Rupert Sheldrake is not Richard Dawkins, and this is as coloured as his language gets; the book certainly has little about religion. For the most part it's a dispassionate expose of materialism's failures and a plea for scientists to open up to new thinking. The sciences are being held back by 'assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos', he argues. Not only have the most fundamental questions not been answered for all time, they can all be replaced by more interesting and fruitful ones.

You can find more from Rupert Sheldrake at his website, and also via the new subscription-based site Sheldrake TV.

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Georgehants's picture
Member since:
28 November 2010
Last activity:
32 weeks 2 days

Ordered book couple of days ago, wonderful to read open-minded science, in the year of enlightenment.
Clearly taking the P out of our University, taxpayer subsidised, 18th. century thinking, negative, book writing machine that has never heard of the Quantum.

georgehants

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
Last activity:
8 hours 51 sec

The Pifalls of "Causation" in Science

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff...

"And then, just two days later, on December 2, 2006, Pfizer issued a stunning announcement: The torcetrapib Phase III clinical trial was being terminated. Although the compound was supposed to prevent heart disease, it was actually triggering higher rates of chest pain and heart failure and a 60 percent increase in overall mortality. The drug appeared to be killing people.

That week, Pfizer’s value plummeted by $21 billion.

The story of torcetrapib is a tale of mistaken causation. Pfizer was operating on the assumption that raising levels of HDL cholesterol and lowering LDL would lead to a predictable outcome: Improved cardiovascular health. Less arterial plaque. Cleaner pipes. But that didn’t happen."

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The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough. They allow us to hit fastballs, discover the law of gravity, and design wondrous technologies. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.

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"This treatment plan, though simple, was still extremely effective. Even when nothing was done to the lower back, about 90 percent of people with back pain got better within six weeks. The body healed itself, the inflammation subsided, the nerve relaxed.

Over the next few decades, this hands-off approach to back pain remained the standard medical treatment. That all changed, however, with the introduction of magnetic resonance imaging in the late 1970s. These diagnostic machines use powerful magnets to generate stunningly detailed images of the body’s interior. Within a few years, the MRI machine became a crucial diagnostic tool.

The view afforded by MRI led to a new causal story: Back pain was the result of abnormalities in the spinal discs, those supple buffers between the vertebrae. The MRIs certainly supplied bleak evidence: Back pain was strongly correlated with seriously degenerated discs, which were in turn thought to cause inflammation of the local nerves. Consequently, doctors began administering epidurals to quiet the pain, and if it persisted they would surgically remove the damaged disc tissue.

But the vivid images were misleading. It turns out that disc abnormalities are typically not the cause of chronic back pain. The presence of such abnormalities is just as likely to be correlated with the absence of back problems, as a 1994 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed. The researchers imaged the spinal regions of 98 people with no back pain. The results were shocking: Two-thirds of normal patients exhibited “serious problems” like bulging or protruding tissue. In 38 percent of these patients, the MRI revealed multiple damaged discs. Nevertheless, none of these people were in pain. The study concluded that, in most cases, “the discovery of a bulge or protrusion on an MRI scan in a patient with low back pain may frequently be coincidental.”