Apr 21, 2013

Of TED, Militant Atheists, and the Revenge of Woo

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The controversy over TED's censorious nature just refuses to die. Over the past week, Deepak Chopra stepped into the fray and incorporated the voices of a number of credentialed scientists who aren't as easy to dismiss. Chris Anderson was forced to defend himself once again and in the very public forum of The Huffington Post. And once again, he didn't come off real well.

Chopra's initial volley can be found here. He and his co-authors -- Stuart Hameroff, Menas C. Kafatos, Rudolph E. Tanzi and Neil Theise -- took direct aim at the radical atheist contingent that seeks to suppress, not only theistic religion, but spirituality more broadly. This New Atheism, which has staked a claim on the sciences, refuses to allow any possibility of non-local consciousness to creep into discussions of science.

Freedom of thought is going to win out, and certainly TED must be shocked by the avalanche of disapproval Anderson's letter has met with. The real grievance here isn't about intellectual freedom but the success of militant atheists at quashing anyone who disagrees with them. Their common tactic is scorn, ridicule, and contempt. The most prominent leaders, especially Richard Dawkins, refuse to debate on any serious grounds, and indeed they show almost total ignorance of the cutting-edge biology and physics that has admitted consciousness back into "good science."

Militant atheism is a social/political movement; In no way does it deserve to represent itself as scientific. . . .  Dawkins, who has a close association with TED, gave a TED talk in 2002 where he said the following:

"It may sound as if I am about to preach atheism. I want to reassure you that that's not what I am going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as this one, that would be preaching to the choir. [scattered laughter] No, what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism."

In a society where militant atheism occupies a prestigious niche, disbelief in God is widespread, but it isn't synonymous with science. In his mega-bestseller "The God Delusion," Dawkins proclaims that religion is "the root of all evil." He describes teaching children about religion as "child abuse." He spoke publically on the occasion of a papal visit to London calling for the Pope to be arrested for "crimes against humanity." To propose, as Dawkins does, that science supports such extremist views is an errant misuse of science, if not a form of pseudoscience.

The arrogance of Richard Dawkins never ceases to amaze me. Chris Anderson, though, is showing himself to be a real contender on the self-important arrogance front. In his response, he trivializes the detailed post by Chopra, et al., referring to it as "your note," and reduces it to a series of questions that weren't asked but that he'd clearly rather answer than the points posed. It's always easier to win an argument with straw men than real people with nuanced views.

Anderson, once again, manages to show that he doesn't quite know what's going on or exactly why he's excluded these particular speakers from the TED "brand." A response from Chopra that includes commentary from eighteen working scientists underscores the incoherence of his position. Physicist Theresa Bullard points out, for instance, that his response blatantly contradicts the guidelines against "pseudoscience" he's defending.

In the TED reply they say:

"Nothing would excite us more than to include talks which offer a credible contribution to understanding [consciousness] better. Such talks could use the third person language of neuroscience, the first person language of experience or spirituality. We've carried plenty of each. We're hungry for more.

Yet in their guidelines to their TEDx organizers regarding the "Red Flags" of "Pseudo-science" topics to watch out for they specifically list:
  • The neuroscience of [fill in the blank] -- not saying this will all be non-legitimate, but that it's a field where a lot of goofballs are right now
  • The fusion of science and spirituality. Be especially careful of anyone trying to prove the validity of their religious beliefs and practices by using science

As she notes, use of terms like "goofballs" also undercuts TED's credibility. It's unprofessional, it's ad hominem, and it's more than a little childish. Such name-calling, however, is de rigueur amongst the New Atheist defenders of the materialist paradigm against all comers, no matter how credible. If they're all just "goofballs," you never have to actually debate them or in any way address their arguments. You can just dismiss them.

As discussed, debate with Rupert Sheldrake is assiduously avoided -- apparently because he tends to win. In the one case where he went head to head with Dawkins, the evidence of Sheldrake having cleaned his clock ended up on the cutting room floor. One of the juicier details in Chopra's rebuttal is that his take-down of Dawkins was also hidden, in this case by TED.

I'm grateful for the even-handedness that you say TED displays in matters of atheism, religion, and science. In 2002 I spoke directly after Dawkins, mounted a vigorous riposte to his main points, and received a standing ovation. His talk appears in full at TED's website. Mine doesn't, nor can it be found with a Google search. I'd be grateful to see it restored as a gesture of TED's lack of censorship.

I'm not a huge fan of Chopra but his arguments against New Atheism and scientism are impressive.

As I've pointed out more than once, it's easy to look smart if you only argue against straw men and caricatures of religion rather than intellectuals and scientists who hold a wide range of spiritual beliefs. I am increasingly of the opinion that New Atheism and materialist science can't win on an even playing field. So they continue to demand a different standard of evidence for "extraordinary claims," effectively putting a thumb on the scale. And they refuse to debate non-materialists who might beat them. When they, usually accidentally, end up head to head with people who debate their points and win, they kick the footage down the memory hole. And now we know that TED is fully complicit in that agenda.

A recent article on Reality Sandwich by osteopath Larry Malerba explains the difference between science and scientism and how TED is participating in the suppression of important scientific and medical advances.

Science was originally conceived of as a systematic and organized method of studying and learning about the world around us and within us. Eventually, it came to mean the study of the "natural" world, where natural meant the material world of physical objects. Over time it became co-opted by persons invested in an objectivist, reductionist, mechanist worldview. Subjectivity as defined by personal experience and most forms of consciousness became taboo and unworthy of the efforts of real scientists. As such, anything other than the strictly material world was out of bounds as a subject of scientific scrutiny. Nature was thus severed from its connection to all subjective aspects of human experience.

Conventional medical science in particular has been badly hampered by this same materialistic dead end ever since. By definition, it is unable to seriously investigate emotion, thought, imagination, dreams, consciousness, bioenergetics and other factors that can have a profound effect upon health and illness, without appearing to be unscientific. The origins of this, of course, was the perceived need for medicine to distance itself from the superstitious thinking that it equated with religious doctrine. The irony is that modern medical science itself has become doctrinaire in the process.

Scientism is an ideology that attempts to apply conventional scientific principles to fields of knowledge where it has no business being. Scientism is an exaggerated belief in the knowledge that science provides and the ability of science to use that knowledge to solve all manner of problems, human and otherwise. Hardcore scientism asserts that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge. Only science can provide access to truth. All other forms of human inquiry and experience are not to be trusted.

. . .

In a single fit of hysteria over its precious reputation, TED has done a serious disservice to countless individuals on the cutting edge of the emerging new medical paradigm and, in the process, has gone running into the arms of the left wing fringe of medical scientism. TED may be unwittingly doing the bidding for an organized community of skeptics who are known to raise hell in calculated ways in order to press their anti-alternative medicine and anti-consciousness studies agenda. 

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed militant atheist Jerry Coyne is taking credit for influencing TED... except that he's not... except that he kinda is. He is quite sure that "woomeister" Deepak Chopra is talking about him. (Note the characteristic use of dismissive name-calling.)

I will claim, with some justification, that I am one of the “angry, noisy bloggers who promote militant atheism” who lobbied TEDx to do something about those videos. But what Chopra & Co. don’t know is that other people, who don’t fit into his pejorative category, worked behind the scenes to oppose the serious presentation of woo at TEDx. I have no idea what influence I had on the talks’ sequestration—if any.

Do you get it? He's definitely one of noisy bloggers but he has "no idea" if he had influence. He'd just like to think he did. And yet, somehow, he knows what went on behind the scenes -- those super-secret machinations that can't be revealed to plebes like Chopra or, say, me.

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