George Walford: New Ideas

New ideas are still coming up, and are still being slapped right back down again. A maverick named Rupert Sheldrake has published a book entitled A New Science of Life; the Hypothesis of Formative Causation. According to a reviewer in TLS:

The most grotesque of Sheldrake’s proposed experiments is to check whether rats in one laboratory would learn a trick more readily if many rats elsewhere were trained to do it. On the theory of formative causation the native rats would slowly tune in on the morphogenetic field created by the successful training of the others.

The reviewer mentions experiments by W. McDougall, F. A. E. Crew and others which seem to support Sheldrake’s thesis, and we have to leave the validity of his ideas for the biologists to decide. The interesting thing for the ideologist is the response of Nature, which is that the tests Sheldrake proposes are:

Time-consuming, inconclusive […] and impractical in the sense that no self-respecting grant-making agency will take the proposal seriously.

This is indeed, as the reviewer comments, “an argument which may surprise those who thought that scientists were dedicated seekers after truth.” It is an argument put forward by no less an authority than Nature, and it suggests that scientists are in fact dedicated seekers after the favours of grant-making agencies.

But this is not the end of the story. Those grant-making agencies, if not staffed by scientists, are at least advised and influenced by them, and commonly by the most respected ones, the senior people in their fields. The argument Nature puts forward suggests that these scientists tend to turn down certain lines of research although they do not know (in the nature of the case they cannot know) what results they may produce. These scientists, the ones who set the standards of their profession, are not prepared to treat all untested propositions equally; some they reject before testing them. This goes to confirm that scientists, just as much as the rest of us, are motivated in their volitional activities by the attempt to validate the sets of assumptions, the ideologies, with which they are particularly identified. It is not that they set up their assumptions against the truth, but rather that for them as for all of us it is the assumptions held that determine what truth is taken to be.

from Ideological Commentary 17, March 1985.