Tag Archives: Pseudoscience

Why did Psychology Today publish woo?

Psychology Today sets itself high standards. “We are proud to be a trusted source for clinical and scientific information … we hold this content to the highest standards”, it says. “All expert author content is reviewed, edited and fact-checked for accuracy, objectivity and to ascertain that the author has relevant domain expertise”.

So why did it publish a recent interview of Jeffrey Kripal by Dinesh Sharma, a piece filled with what can be fairly summed up as “woo”.

Dinesh Sharma’s background is in the social sciences and Jeffrey Kripal is a theologian. The editor, whose job it is to uphold the above standards, was Tyler Woods, whose degree was in politics and English. None of them has any standing in the physical sciences, which might explain why the article goes badly wrong when it starts talking about physics. Let’s take it bit by bit.

Materialism has been waning in influence in the scientific community, …

Well, no, that’s not true. Materialism is the dominant paradigm in the physical sciences.

The decline of materialist philosophy has been rooted in 1) the belief in “intelligent design,” that God exists, …

Well that’s a bit of a give-away, right from the start. But no, that idea has very little traction in modern science.

… 2) unsatisfactory explanations for mental and conscious phenomena and the “mind-body problem”;

Granted, materialist science has not properly explained consciousness. But non-materialist conceptions have not done any better; they can’t explain consciousness either.

… and 3) recent developments in 20th century quantum physics.

Here comes the woo. We don’t fully understand quantum mechanics … therefore whatever woo idea the author wants to promote. The argument really is no better than that.

Thomas Nagle’s Mind and Cosmos is a recent example of the waning of the materialist paradigm.

That’s “Nagel” not “Nagle”, and it’s a book by a philosopher that was roundly panned by scientists who regarded it as showing that Nagel did not understand the science he was commenting on. The ideas he presented have pretty much no traction in science (though they are popular among theologians touting intelligent design).

The recent studies of psychedelic substances have shown that mind is irreducible to matter. The “mystical experiences” at the heart of individual transformations have led to an acceptance of the mind-altering power of psychoactive medicinal plants …

Eh? So plants — material things made up of chemicals — have the ability to alter the processes going on in the brain, and that’s an argument against materialism? Really? Yes, physical stuff (for example alcohol) can alter the state of a physical thing (our brain), and so affect how it functions. So?

To justify this, Sharma quotes Michael Pollan (a journalist with no scientific background), saying that:

… psychedelic therapy … depends for its success not strictly on the action of a chemical but on the powerful psychological experience that the chemical can occasion.

So a chemical can cause changes in the brain that have lasting effects. Again, where is the argument against materialism?

I [Sharma] reached out to a colleague, Jeffrey Kripal, an expert in the history of religion, to enlighten us on the connection between science and spirituality, mind and matter, …

I’m not convinced that that’s the right choice of expertise! But, anyhow, to the interview:

Sharma: You say Western knowledge systems are at a precipice of making a ‘flip’. This is actually the case in physics. But the new physics is being constrained within the domain of the hard sciences, not permeating the larger culture, due to the politics of knowledge.

This talk of a “flip” would be news to most actual physicists. And note that, despite the editorial boasts, neither of them has “relevant domain expertise” to discuss physics.

Kripal: I think we are at a crossroads. Our social and spiritual imaginations have not caught up with the quantum reality our mathematics, our physics, and frankly our technologies all use and suppose.

I’m not sure what that’s trying to get at. But it contains the phrase “quantum reality” to give an impression of profundity.

Sharma: Are you looking to “flip” the “materialistic paradigm” dominant in the academy since the enlightenment period?

Kripal: Well, yes, of course, but the book is not about me doing anything. It’s about a larger cultural, philosophical, and scientific shift that is happening all around us. I am just reporting.

No, there is no shift away from the materialist paradigm in science.

Sharma: I like your phrase, “science only studies the things it can study.” Thus, it can be defined by what is selectively excluded from the sciences?

OK, so what topics are selectively excluded from scientific study? No specifics are given, no justification for this claim.

Kripal: Science works so well because it gets to say what it will study, and what it will not. We are not so fortunate, or we are more fortunate, in the humanities. We study human beings, who never really fit into our paradigms or our models, …

But science also studies human beings! And they fit just fine into our paradigms of biology and evolution.

Kripal: What I am trying to say in the book is that human beings have all kinds of strange, quantum-like experiences, and we should not ignore or discount them just because they do not play by the rules of our scientific or humanistic games.

Again, using the word “quantum” to make it sound all sciency. And what actually is a “quantum-like experience”? And in what way is science supposed to be ignoring these “quantum-like experiences”?

Sharma: What are precognitive dreams that you think are prophetic or tapping into another realm of time?

Any actual evidence that deams are “tapping into another realm of time?” Kripal gives only a reference to woo-meister Eric Wargo: “Eric basically argues that there is no such thing as the unconscious; that the unconscious is consciousness transposed in time”. That is unevidenced woo, not science.

Kripal: … the biological sciences have a long way to go. They have real hang-ups around vitalism and teleology, for example. I think both of those are real mistakes—they might be pragmatic and useful mistakes, but they are still wrong.

This is a rejection of science by a theologian, who is rejecting science because he does not like it theologically.

Kripal: Life is not reducible to chemistry. Evolution evolves itself over and over again toward obvious goals (like the eye).

Eyes evolve multiple times because they are useful, not because they are a “goal”. This sort of theologically-motivated rejection of the scientific account of evolution started in Darwin’s day and is still rumbling on. It will likely do so as long as there are theologians. None of these critiques are ever found to have substance. Is this really what Psychology Today wants to be publishing?

Science Unlimited, Part One: Pseudoscience

Philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci have recently edited a volume of essays on the theme of scientism. The contributions to Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism range from sympathetic to scientism to highly critical.

I’m aiming to write a series of blog posts reviewing the book, organised by major themes, though knowing me the “reviewing” task is likely to play second fiddle to arguing in favour of scientism.

Of course the term “scientism” was invented as a pejorative and so has been used with a range of meanings, many of them strawmen, but from the chapters of the book emerges a fairly coherent account of a “scientism” that many would adopt and defend.

This brand of scientism is a thesis about epistemology, asserting that the ways by which we find things out form a coherent and unified whole, and rejecting the idea that knowledge is divided into distinct domains, each with a different “way of knowing”. The best knowledge and understanding is produced by combining and synthesizing different approaches and disciplines, asserting that they must mesh seamlessly. Continue reading

The cosmological multiverse and falsifiability in science

The cosmological “multiverse” model talks about regions far beyond the observable portion of our universe (set by the finite light-travel distance given the finite time since the Big Bang). Critics thus complain that it is “unfalsifiable”, and so not science. Indeed, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states that instead: “… the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics”.

Sean Carroll has recently posted an article defending the multiverse as scientific (arXiv paper; blog post). We’re discussing here the cosmological multiverse — the term “multiverse” is also used for concepts arising from string theory and from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but the arguments for and against those are rather different. Continue reading

Telling science from pseudoscience and the demarcation problem

demarcPhilosophers of Science have long puzzled over what they call “the” demarcation problem, of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. In the early 20th Century the Logical Positivists proposed the verification principle, that a statement was meaningful and scientific only if it could be empirically verified. Karl Popper then proposed a similar idea, that a scientific idea is one that can be falsified.

There is a lot of truth in both proposals, but neither can be interpreted too narrowly. The problem is that no statement can be verified or falsified in isolation. Science constructs whole webs of ideas, and it is the whole construct that is then compared to empirical data, to be adjusted and improved as necessary. Further, a statement such as Newton’s law of gravity can never be verified in the general sense, all we can say is that it worked well enough — as part of the wider web of ideas — in the particular instance we tested. Nor is it straightforward to falsify such a law. If our overall model is inconsistent with an observation then we could indeed alter one of the laws; but we might also overcome the inconsistency by altering some other part of the overall model; or we might doubt the reliability of the observations. Continue reading