Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lying For Science Censoring Questions The Taboo 2

I've never been a close follower of TED talks, having occasionally listened to them on YouTube when the topic or the speaker interested me.   Most of them are too short to develop a topic past what an an online article will and it generally takes less time to read an article.   Most of my TED listening has been while doing the dishes.

Yesterday, while researching another part of this series about breaking the ultimate taboo,  reading about parapsychology with an open mind, I came across posts about TED caving into a campaign by Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers.   Coyne and Myers, who I've written about in the past, objected to a short TED talk by the accomplished biologist,  Rupert Sheldrake* who is also a promoter of the scientific study of tabooed ideas.

Going straight to the source, the first thing I did was follow links to the obscure corner of the TED site pages where they put Sheldrake's video.  I would guess they did that so they could claim that they weren't caving in and censoring it.

The talk was a mild mannered and reasonable short summary by Sheldrake of his book, Science Set Free.  Which I haven't read - I read his Morphic Resonance years ago, found it interesting and provocative but about which I came to no other conclusion.  I've never seen any reason to not read something before coming to a conclusion as to what it said, but that doesn't mean I'm going to come to a conclusion after reading it.  That is compared to the "Skeptics" who generally discourage people from reading the controlled scientific research in ideas on their atheist Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

In his talk, Sheldrake asks some interesting and provocative questions about various founding assumptions of materialistic reductionism.  He holds that the orthodoxy of materialist reductionism is an unfounded ideology, which it is, and that the ideological coercion of those holding it is bad for scientific inquiry.   Remember, in his talk he poses those holdings as claims to be investigated, and gives some rather interesting reasons for a couple of them to be opened up to questioning.   One is that the idea that "physical laws" held be in place today were fixed at the big bang and have remained unchanged for the entire history of the universe.  He asks, provocatively, why would we assume that stasis in physical law would be the case in an evolving universe.  He doesn't answer that question, he asks it.

One of the more interesting things he mentions is the possibility that the constants of physics might fluctuate in value.  Sheldrake mentions two of them,  the gravitational constant and the speed of light.  Being curious he did something extremely practical, something which I've never heard of anyone doing before, he looked up the old editions of physical handbooks that list the values of those constants.  He found that the measured speed of light listed dropped about 20km/s between 1928 and 1945, to rise again in 1948.  He noted that the differences were far outside of the stated possible errors by an enormous amount.

When he asked the head of the metrology office who was in charge of such things, that discrepancy was known to them but it was assumed to be an error.  The discrepancies in that reported speed are, routinely, averaged out because, after all, it is a given that the actual speed is a constant, unvarying figure.   Sheldrake's account of his interaction with him is quite funny and never cruel in the manner of the "Skeptics".

Rupert Sheldrake asks the obvious question of what if those values aren't due entirely to error but that there are fluctuations in the actual speed of light.  He doesn't answer the question, he asks it in considerable detail.  The extent to which he gives an answer is that he suspects that the value might not be constant.   Well, why not look closely at the question and find out where the evidence produced in that inquiry leads?   Perhaps it will lead to greater accuracy in measuring the speed of light which will then be found to actually be the constant it is held to be.

I looked at Coynes' blog and the first thing I noticed was, typical of debunkery, he lied about what Sheldrake had said.  The headline of his post says.  Rupert Sheldrake speaks, argues that speed of light is dropping!  If Coyne listened to the talk and understood what Sheldrake said, he'd have heard him say, unmistakably, that the lower REPORTED speed of light covered the specific period of 1928 to 1945, he said that the REPORTED speed went up in 1948.   So, in his talk he wasn't "arguing that the speed of light is dropping".   Which is far from a small error on Coyne's part and entirely in line with an ideological campaign of discrediting, not with even journalistic, nevermind scientific, accuracy.

Typical of the unedited, unmoderated Coyne, his post is unhinged and dishonest, misstating published research done by Sheldrake, making absurd characterizations of what he said.  I've noted Coyne's MO when he isn't being restrained by editors and professional standards before.  Coyne's primary interest in his magazine and blog writing isn't scientific, like P.Z. Myers, his primary subject matter is protecting his materialist-reductionist ideology.   Their fans believe that what they write comprises science.

I would go through his entire screed to refute him on a number of points but will go to how he continued to mischaracterize what Sheldrake said about the speed of light.  He asked one of his fellow ideologues, the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, for an explanation.  Carroll produced a graph and a list of reported speeds of light.   As Sheldrake noted in his response to being censored by TED, the list omits the period under question, going from 1926 to 1950.  But all Carroll did was restate that there was a variation in the reported speed of light, something which Sheldrake based his QUESTION on.  From what Coyne posts, it's unclear if Carroll listened to Sheldrake's talk or if, as I strongly suspect, he relied on Coyne's characterization of it.  If it was the later, Carroll is likely answering a distorted version of what Sheldrake said.

Carroll's answer that the speed of light HAS TO BE a constant because the rest of the current model of physics relies on it being a constant is, clearly, not dealing with the possibility that that model is incomplete.  One and only one time, has Sean Carroll deigned to respond to a question I asked him.  It was during a discussion of whether or not physics was on the verge of having a Theory of Everything.  My question was if there was a single object that physics knew comprehensively and exhaustively, if physics could completely describe any object at any scale in the physical universe in every aspect.   It took me 17 days of asking him that question over and over again and, finally, offering to never post another comment on his blog if he would answer it.   His answer was, as I knew it would have to be, "no".   In light of that fact, that physics doesn't know everything about any single object in the universe, the pretension that physics is on the verge of a Theory of Everything is absurd, on its face.   Those assertions are illogical and there is no level of science that can escape the necessity of logical coherence.

I think it would be a good idea of Carroll would go back and honestly find out what Rupert Sheldrake said before he joins his good buddy, Jerry Coyne (not to mention PZ) in trying to suppress his questions.   It would be the really scientific thing to do, the really honest thing to do. Maybe he might find out something that hadn't occurred to him before.  Or, maybe, he'll find a better way to measure the speed of light, not relying on a mere defining convention.  He mentions that in his response to Coyne, not seeming to realize that Sheldrake talked about it during his talk.  Though his and Coynes shared ideological position rests, largely, on such conventional definition.  "Skepticism" rests on those and related conventions, not on questioning, finding new evidence and following that where it leads.  It's as if they don't really have any confidence that rigorous inquiry will lead to confirmation of their assumptions.

*  Since most of the online mention of non-orthodox scientists such as Rupert Sheldrake is by ignorant ideologues who rely on a distortion of their record of scientific publication,  here is a linked index to just his conventional published biological research.

Papers on Hormone Production in Plants

Papers on Auxin Transport in Plants

Papers on Cell Differentiation

The Ageing and Death of Cells

Papers on Crop Physiology  (What I originally knew Sheldrake for)

Note in the following that even the "Skeptical" Inquirer has published him

Papers on Experimenter Effects

I would invite you to compare that to, say PZ Myer's publications record.

Update:  Here's how Rupert Sheldrake answered the point dealt with above:

Accusation 2:
“He also argues that scientists have ignored variations in the measurements of natural constants, using as his primary example the dogmatic assumption that a constant must be constant and uses the speed of light as example.… Physicist Sean Carroll wrote a careful rebuttal of this point.”

TED’s Scientific Board refers to a Scientific American article that makes my point very clearly: “Physicists routinely assume that quantities such as the speed of light are constant.”

In my talk I said that the published values of the speed of light dropped by about 20 km/sec between 1928 and 1945. Carroll’s “careful rebuttal” consisted of a table copied from Wikipedia showing the speed of light at different dates, with a gap between 1926 and 1950, omitting the very period I referred to. His other reference ( does indeed give two values for the speed of light in this period, in 1928 and 1932-35, and sure enough, they were 20 and 24km/sec lower than the previous value, and 14 and 18 km/sec lower than the value from 1947 onwards.

1926: 299,798
1928: 299,778
1932-5: 299,774
1947: 299,792

In my talk I suggest how a re-examination of existing data could resolve whether large continuing variations in the Universal Gravitational Constant, G, are merely errors, as usually assumed, or whether they show correlations between different labs that might have important scientific implications hitherto ignored. Jerry Coyne and TED’s Scientific Board regard this as an exercise in pseudoscience. I think their attitude reveals a remarkable lack of curiosity.

1 comment:

  1. Almost all particle physicists have seen plots shown in the official particle databook which look like this,
    Presumably, Sean Carroll in his professional career has seen many such histograms.

    A naive interpretation would be indeed that physical constants are changing.

    But the majority of working physicists who think about it just assume that either poor measurement techniques were used in the past or perhaps some data had been fudged to match consensus opinion in order to get published. Of course it's really embarrassing. But censoring people who point it out does not constitute good practice of science.

    IMHO, Sheldrake is correct on the physical constant data but wrong on his interpretation of it. Sheldrake does make a good point in his book "Science Set Free" that parapsychology has much higher experimental methodological standards than physics (such as publication of null results and blind analysis techniques). I've done work in both experimental physics and parapsychology and agree with Sheldrake on the existence of psi but disagree on physical constants.

    I'm agnostic on the other dogmas he reports, though mainstream physics has already let in violation of energy conversation through the properties of "dark energy" since the mainstream cosmological model has new dark energy being created continuously as the Universe expands. In this respect, the mainstream position has already become muddled.