I’m getting my roughly one post per year about Alex Tsakiris, the host of the podcast Skeptiko, in early. In the past, I’ve written a lot about how Alex makes consistent mistakes about the scientific process and how science works in general. This post is not dedicated to that.
One of Alex’s high horses lately has been censorship (or perceived censorship), especially with respect to Wikipedia. On episode 236, “Rome Viharo, Wikipedia, We Have a Problem,” Alex talked extensively about the issue with respect to one of his heroes, Rupert Sheldrake.
The allegation is that Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page has been targeted by a few skeptics (he claimed by the Guerrilla Skeptic group, which has disavowed the Sheldrake editing). And, those skeptics have been acting in a most unfair way towards Rupert and his supporters. I don’t really want to get much more into this issue because it’s a side-issue for what I want to write about here. If you’re interested, listen to the episode.
What’s important for this blog post is just the basic context in which Alex makes two statements.
First Statement, ~27 min
The first of two statements I want to talk about starts about 27 minutes into the episode. I’m going to quote from Alex’s own transcript, which I haven’t verified, so it’s possible it contains an error or more (emphasis is mine):
I think that’s really the more interesting issue and I think we can sit on the sidelines and go, “Oh my gosh, isn’t this horrible and will things ever get better? These crazy skeptics!” The thing I always point out to people is the dogmatic skeptics, the fundamentalist Atheists, who these people represent, are really the tip of the spear for scientism. We always want to do like you did and say it’s really not a problem with science, is it? It’s a problem with scientific materialism. It’s a philosophical issue. No, forget it. It’s about science.
If we’re going to talk in general terms, science media has been completely co-opted by this point of view. The reason I’d come back and say it’s the tip of the spear is because you don’t see scientists rushing to the aid of Rupert Sheldrake just on principle saying, “Hey, this is a colleague of ours. This guy is clearly a biologist. He’s a Cambridge Fellow. We need to defend this.” No. They sit on their hands and silently cheer. Some of them sit on their hands and hope the arrow doesn’t point to them next.
So it’s really akin to what you were talking about with religious fundamentalism back when they were bombing abortion clinics. Of course there was an outcry of “Stop the violence” from other Christians. But there wasn’t too much of an outcry, right? There’s a lot of sympathy. “Well, we can certainly understand how upset people are by all those babies dying.”
So these frontline soldiers, these tip of the spear of an ideological debate, I think we have to be careful when we separate them and bifurcate and say, “Well, they don’t really represent science.” Yeah, I think they do. They form a pretty good representation of the crazy scientific materialism that really grips science as we know it right now. I don’t see any relief from that.
Wow. Logical fallacy of a false analogy, anyone? Alex is clearly making an analogy, saying that scientists not rushing to support Rupert Sheldrake and his Wikipedia page being edited is equivalent to Christians remaining quiet when abortion clinics are bombed in the name of Christianity. Not only is this a false analogy, it’s a fairly offensive one.
Here’s one way it’s wrong: Scientists, for the most part, have never heard of Rupert Sheldrake. Despite what Alex and Rome argued in the episode, Rupert Sheldrake by most measures would also NOT be considered a “practicing” or “active” scientist, or at least active biologist. I would guess that less than 1% of active scientists have ever heard of the guy — mostly the people who know of him are people in the paranormal field and skeptics. Of those very very few scientists who have heard of him, even fewer know what he does. Of those, even fewer actively scour Wikipedia to look up names. Of those, even fewer actively look at the Talk or History pages to even see if there have been lots of edits. and apparent “editing wars” going on.
So, we have a very small fraction of the population who are scientists, multiplied by a small fraction who have heard of Sheldrake, multiplied by a small fraction who know anything about him other than his name, multiplied by a small fraction who look at Wikipedia for him, multiplied by a small fraction who look at the Talk or History pages to investigate.
Compare that with the number of people who have heard of abortion. I knew what abortion was when I was twelve years old because it was a topic we could write on for a persuasive paragraph in English class. I would guess that by their teen years, almost everyone knows about abortion. But, let’s be generous and say that 50% of the global population knows what abortion is. Multiply that by around 2.1 billion Christians in the world. Multiply that by the fraction who read political news.
One of these is a bigger number than the other … my point is that there are an enormous number of Christians “in the know” about abortion clinic violence who can call it out, and there is a vanishingly small number of active scientists who know about Sheldrake, what he does, and what’s on his Wikipedia page, and what’s going on with the editing of it. Ergo, false analogy.
It’s a false analogy in another way because he has people speaking out about violence by people because of religion with respect to abortion clinics, and he’s comparing that with a guy throwing a hissy fit about what people are writing about him on the internet. Sorry Alex, but the bombing of an abortion clinic is a bigger deal to me than Sheldrake being unhappy that people point out on his Wikipedia page that he says and does a lot of stuff that is not supported by any reputable data.
Second Statement, ~44 min
The second statement I wanted to talk about for this post happens during Alex’s closing monologue, about 44 minutes into the episode.
What does this say about science? And I know I keep saying “science,” and people go, “Well, it’s not really science, science means this or science means that,” but I tend to disagree. I think this situation really speaks to the larger problem with the way science is applied. And I think – as I said in the show – the lack of support for Sheldrake, in a situation where the scientist should obviously be supported by his peers, speaks loudly and clearly that this is a problem with science in general. But maybe you disagree; I’d like to hear your opinion.
Well, I guess I was mistaken when I started this post and said it wasn’t going to deal with Alex’s lack of understanding of how science works. (And, that most scientists, and probably people in general, would not consider Sheldrake’s work in the last ~decade to be “science.” Doing an experiment on whether dogs are telepathic, or writing a book bemoaning what he calls “scientific dogma”, don’t count as “science” as far as most of us are concerned.)
First off, Alex Tsakiris is not a scientist. And, so far as I can tell, he has never taken a philosophy of science class. He is in no position to decide what is or is not science. When actual practicing scientists tell him he is wrong, that something is not science, he can of course disagree, but he will very likely be wrong. Yes, this is a bit of an argument from authority, but beware of the fallacy fallacy here — just because I used an argument from authority does not mean my argument is wrong.
Second, very, very rarely will scientists be drawn into any sort of public debate with respect to an actual scientist (as opposed to what Sheldrake is now) being “dissed” (my word). The most recent example I can think of would be Michael Mann and the huge amount of political pressure he faced in Virginia because of his research on climate change. Even then, I don’t remember many individual scientists coming forward to back him up, though I do seem to recall some professional scientific societies issuing statements about it. And Michael Mann was facing MUCH more pressure than Rupert Sheldrake: Political, social, financial harassment and threats versus a few people editing his Wikipedia page unfavorably.
I’m not sure there’s much else to say on this issue at this point. I decided to write this post when I heard Alex compare scientists remaining silent on Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page with Christians remaining silent on abortion clinic bombings. That was just so over-the-top and (I think) offensive that I wanted to put it out there so others knew about it.
The extra bit showing how Alex – yet again – does NOT understand how science works was gratuitous. But, as I said, I seem to consistently write about one post a year on something that strikes me about what Alex says on Skeptiko, so I got this year’s in early.