Apr 27 2010

Dossey on the Scientific Method

Dr. Larry Dossey, author of The Power of Premonitions, has the audacity to educate us about the scientific method, appropriately enough in perhaps the most prominent anti-scientific venue on the web, the Huffington Post. He starts off with a horrid straw man quoted from Jeremy Rifkin:

The scientific observer is never a participant in the reality he or she observes, but only a voyeur. As for the world he or she observes, it is a cold, uncaring place, devoid of awe, compassion or sense of purpose. Even life itself is made lifeless to better dissect its component parts. We are left with a purely material world, which is quantifiable but without quality … The scientific method is at odds with virtually everything we know about our own nature and the nature of the world. It denies the relational aspect of reality, prohibits participation and makes no room for empathic imagination. Students in effect are asked to become aliens in the world.

This is a Hollywood level cardboard stereotype. It certainly does not resemble what I have experienced as science or scientists. Without getting too much into this side point, Rifkin himself is a controversial figure in the scientific world. He is an economist, not a scientist, and just to give you a flavor of his reputation, Stephen J. Gould once wrote about his work that it was, “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship.”

Dossey, however, takes Rifkin one better:

In Rifkin’s view, the way science is currently defined and taught is a profound violation of how today’s youngsters — and an increasing number of scientists — see the world. Although he does not use these words, the way kids are taught science these days constitutes a form of child abuse. It involves the forced infliction of a false identity. There is an unfortunate precedent — Native American children who were once forced into white-run schools and forbidden to speak their native tongue or wear native clothing.

Right – science education is abusing children by force feeding them a world view incompatible with their nature, just like we abused Native Americans. I think I see a new Godwin’s Law in the making – making an emotional appeal to Native Americans as the symbol of Western cultural scientific abuse, or the transgressions of the artificial against the “natural.”

Interestingly, Dossey goes on to make two legitimate points about science education, making his overall article rather incoherent. It is not clear what his premise has to do with his later points, and it seems like he was just looking for an excuse to swipe against science. He argues that the public image of science is as a lone endeavor, when in reality it is a community effort. Kids might be more attracted to science if they knew how communal it was. I agree – and have made that point before.

He also points out that women have yet to feel fully welcome in the world of science. Again, he is far from the first person to point this out – this is a recognized problem and is getting better and is getting attention.

But let me get back to his premise, which was that science is cold and lifeless, whereas the real world is connected and vibrant – what hogwash. That is the kind of thing that, in my opinion, only someone largely naive to the awe and wonder of science can say. That is the attitude of someone who does not want real science, but magic, the kind of magic that makes you believe in premonitions.

The scientific world view is full of awe and wonder. Understanding how truly awesome the universe isĀ  – in its elegant complexity, its staggering beauty, and the many intricate systems of which it is comprised – gives a profound feeling of connectedness and sparks the imagination. And it has the advantage of being real – unlike, say, premonitions. Science is the study of our nature and the nature of the world – so how can it be at odds with it?

In my opinion the view of Rifkin and Dossey is the view of a cranky outsider – someone trying to score cheap points, but devoid of any true experience or insight about science.

I will also turn the criticism around – in my younger days I was enamored of ESP, alien visitation, and other pseudosciences. They were fascinating, but I could not escape a hollow feeling in that deep down I sensed that these were fantasies, not reality. I wanted to find something to latch onto, to feel that these things were real, but I never found anything.

But when I delved into a real science, like astronomy or paleontology, the experience was much more profound and satisfying, because I knew these things were real. I knew that dinosaurs actually walked a very strange landscape in our past, and that Mars was another world we would one day visit. And when I started learning about how things actually work, I felt even more connected to the world, in a satisfying way that no pseudoscience or fantasy ever provided.

Dossey is in no position to lecture about the deficiencies of the scientific world-view. He disguises his ideological problems with science in borrowed legitimate observations, and mixes them with howling straw men that no scientist would recognize in themselves. The result is not even “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship,” because no one would confuse this for scholarship. It is anti-intellectual fluff for the Huff Po, which is buried in the stuff.

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