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.

10 responses so far

10 thoughts on “Dossey on the Scientific Method”

  1. superdave says:

    It seems like Dossey’s entire argument can be refuted by noting that scientists are people too.

  2. Hubbub says:

    That had some bite to it! Love the flavor, Steve.

    You may have just forgotten, but you might want to post a link to the original article in your post.

  3. ccbowers says:

    I think the women and science thing is becoming a dated concept. Women are beginning to outnumber men in many professional and science fields. Of course there are still areas (physics and engineering, for example) in which women are a great minority… I wonder how much of this is due to actual barriers. Of course we should always be looking at possible barriers and removing them, but looking at medicine and other professional programs- I wonder if men will be the ones needing support in the future. Its even more lopsided when you look at black american women versus men in this country.

  4. Sorry – forgot the link, it is there now.

  5. Watcher says:

    I agree with CC, women are definitely making headway in many science fields, especially academia. At the two institutions I’ve been at, the last three years of incoming graduate students has been about 2/3rds female to 1/3rd male. What I’d be interested in is attrition between the sexes. I have seen ladies having trouble with some of the older cadre of male researchers that may be attributable to the attrition.

    On the other side, I don’t know of many professions that are as easy to work a family into than academia. It’s amazingly forgiving when it comes to maternity (and paternity) leave. As long as you’re getting grants funded and whatnot, people in charge don’t care.

  6. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Dr. Pamela Gay addressed the issue of sexism in the sciences in a podcast, some of her comments I found quite sad. Google,

    Books and Ideas Podcast #14: Dr. Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast

  7. EdPolanco says:

    Just a side comment: why don’t you think of economics as a science? Your comment “he’s an economst, not a scientist” it’s like saying that you’re a doctor, not a scientist. Economics is an area of knowledge that uses the scientific method of observation, hypotheses and tests to advance itself.

    I know some who are not exactly willing to give up their views just for political (as opposed) to scientific reasons. But saying that because of them economics it’s not a science it’s like saying that because of doctors who refuse to vaccinate, medicine isn’t either.

    My two (marginal) cents.

    (if any typo is present, sorry, I’m not a native speaker!)

  8. juliabax says:

    I just wanted to second EdPolanco.
    I was also bummed by the opposition economics-science. Although economics has it’s share of woo professionals – like medicine or physics – I like to think that good economists do research using the scientific method. We were taught to do so in my economics school, at least.

    Other than that, I think that Dr. Dossey is as crazy as it gets.

    And you would think that the whole ‘poor indians forced to have an education and live a life of wealth and health’ argument would already have died out..

    Love the blog btw. And I also apologize for any grammatical errors!

  9. Roger Bigod says:

    I once took a course in microeconomics from a guy who’d studied at the London School of Economics. He was bright and taught the course well. The best part was a list of seven criteria for an efficient market — things like absence of monopolies and externalities. Obviously any market you can think of violates several criteria, but it’s an excellent framework for analyzing policy interventions.

    What made it pathetic was that the only experimental result was a study suggesting that an industry with oligopoly (energy) led to overinvestment (too many gas stations), as the theory predicts. To be fair, for most of the concepts it is easy to see real world examples that confirm the theory, and there are no doubt many empirical studies around. But it wasn’t remotely like a science course, with the intricate counterpoint between theory and experiment.

    There’s also the pretentious bogosity of the “Nobel Prize in Economics” (awarded by a bank). And the political contamination that it tends to go to theorists whose inspirational ideas lead to people getting mowed down in soccer stadiums. When they’re not assuring us that the recent housing bubble was the best of all possible worlds.

  10. bethanyrunkel says:

    Adding on to ccbowers:

    I too wonder if and when men will be the ones who need to have their rights defended. I’m thinking of examples like teaching and nursing. It’s vastly more difficult for a male to secure a teaching position in an early childhood or elementary setting than it is for a woman. I think this is probably true to a lesser degree with nursing as well. I don’t want to see anyone suffer discrimination, but the day men have to begin fighting for equality will be a curious one.

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