I've had a love affair with science for most of my life. As a child, I constantly asked questions about the world around me. When I was in high school, I realized that there were jobs where you could get paid to ask questions and search for answers. I also learned that there is a foolproof method for finding these answers - and that method is science.
I spent 10 years in university with the intention of becoming a psychology professor, and I dove headlong into the scientific method. I ate, breathed, and slept research. And, for the most part, I agreed with my teachers that science was an amazing tool to help us understand the world.
But the more experience I got with the scientific method, the more I realized that it too has flaws. These flaws aren't immediately visible to those who aren't deeply immersed in science as a profession, but they're there.
Over the years this gut feeling started to nag at me. I felt like there had to be a better way to "do science" but I couldn't (and still haven't) figured out what that better way is. I grew frustrated with academia and I've had an on again, off again relationship with the ivory tower for almost a decade.
There are lots of issues with how academia operates on a practical level (you can read my opinions about this topic here). But at a larger, macro-level I think that science itself has a major problem.
What is this problem?
Science is currently operating like a dogmatic religion.
For the past couple hundred years, we have been living within a materialist / physicalist / reductionist / mechanistic paradigm which suggests that the universe operates like a big machine. In other words, the universe is made up of physical components that fit together and operate in predictable ways, like the gears of a clock. Matter, space and time are primary. Consciousness is the result of neurons. Everything is, in some way, physical, and we can unbiasedly study these things using the scientific method.
In some ways, this materialist paradigm is correct, and it has led to huge technological advances. But in other ways, this paradigm is limiting our progress. And the worst part is that many people, scientists and non-scientists alike, are treating this paradigm like a religious belief system.
If, as a scientist or layperson, you dare suggest that there might be other factors beyond matter, space and time that are involved in our physical reality (for example, by studying topics such as consciousness, psychic phenomena, or mystical experiences) you run the risk of being metaphorically burned at the stake by having your research rejected, your reputation tarnished, and perhaps even losing your job.
I'll give a few examples.
In 2016 a neuroscientist named Arnaud Delorme published an article called Prediction of Mortality Based on Facial Characteristics. The study examined whether a group of 12 mediums (i.e. people who claim to be able to communicate with the deceased) could tell whether a person was dead or alive based simply on viewing the person's photograph. The mediums' average accuracy on the task was 53.8%, where 50% was expected by chance (which was a statistically significant result). The study was very well-designed and it was published in a prestigious journal (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience).
A few months after the study was published, the authors were informed that the article was going to be retracted. This is a very serious situation in academia - usually articles are only retracted in cases of fraud or other unethical practices. Authors are typically given the reason why their article is being retracted, and they are also given an opportunity to respond to the retraction. However, in this situation, the authors were never informed why the article was being retracted, despite repeated efforts to communicate with the journal editor. (You can read the retraction notice on PubMed here, which gives no information about why the article was retracted).
In his recent book Real Magic, Dr. Dean Radin (who was one of the authors on the retracted paper) suggests that the article was retracted because the journal editor "...agreed that it was important in science to be tolerant of phenomena thought to be improbable, but it wasn't proper to be sympathetic to impossible ideas." To this day the authors have not been given an explanation for the retraction.
Another example also comes from a recent study published by Dr. Radin. In 2018 Radin and his colleague Julia Mossbridge published a study called Precognition as a form of prospection: A review of the evidence. In the article, Mossbridge and Radin review research suggesting that in some cases, people seem to be capable of perceiving/predicting the future - sometimes consciously and other times at a subconscious or subliminal level. These studies suggest time-reversed effects, where the future is potentially impacting the present. These results fly in the face of the current scientific paradigm which suggests that time only moves in one direction (forward).
Understandably, the article received many responses from other academics, some sympathetic, others not so much. In one rebuttal, Dr. Samuel Schwarzkopf argues that scientists shouldn't even bother coming up with non-materialist hypotheses about precognition because precognition is implausible. In other words, Schwarzkopf suggests that scientists should only examine hypotheses that are plausible based on current scientific understanding. Specifically, he states that, "The plausibility of a hypothesis depends on whether an observation is consistent with our current understanding of the world."
But my question is, who decides the nature of our "current understanding of the world?" In most cases, our current understanding of the world is governed by the overarching zeitgeist. And in science, the current zeitgeist is materialism.
If scientists never developed hypotheses that challenged the current zeitgeist, then humanity would not have made much progress over the years. Yet for some reason, when scientists develop hypotheses that challenge the materialist zeitgeist, they are often subject to ridicule and accused of being "non-scientific."
To me, this is no different from other periods in history when individuals made scientific discoveries that went against church doctrine. These individuals were often jailed, and sometimes even executed for their findings. Take Galileo for example. In 1610, Galileo published a paper that described his hypotheses about heliocentrism (namely that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around). Galileo ended up being condemned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for the crime of heresy, and was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment (house arrest) until his death.
If you think I'm making too severe of a comparison, think again. In 1981, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge- and Harvard-trained biologist, published his first book A New Science of Life, in which he questioned many fundamental ideas about conventional biology and physics. John Maddox, who was the editor of Nature at the time (Nature is one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world) reviewed Sheldrake's book by stating that, "This infuriating tract...is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years." He added, "Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy."
Wait a second. Heresy against science? When did science become a dogmatic framework that can evoke accusations of heresy?
These types of criticisms are common when it comes to the scientific study of phenomena that don't fit neatly within our current materialist paradigm. I know people who have lost their jobs and/or grant funding for studying these types of topics. Personally, I've written many grants on yoga and mindfulness in schools where I was asked to design or edit my proposed studies in ways that didn't make sense in the real world, but that reflected "good science" (i.e. strict, quantitative randomized controlled trials). The outcome of these revisions would be to either conduct meaningless research or risk losing funding if the revisions weren't made (basically a lose-lose situation). I've even had students in my classes argue that we shouldn't study phenomena like mystical or transcendent experiences because psychology "already has a hard enough time establishing itself as a science."
But phenomena are phenomena. And if they are psychological phenomena, then they fall within the scientific study of psychology. For example, we've spent decades studying the hallucinations and delusions reported by people who struggle with schizophrenia. These phenomena are bizarre, and they don't often make sense, but we study them nonetheless. People who experience mystical states and/or psychic phenomena don't often meet the criteria for schizophrenia - so what exactly is it that these people are experiencing? This is a research question that falls squarely within the realm of science.
In my opinion, many people, from tenured professors to first year undergraduate students, are operating within, and sometimes blindly following, a dogmatic scientific belief system. These individuals proudly describe themselves as unbiased, objective, logical, rational people. It's as if they don't realize that their (supposedly) unbiased, objective, logical, rational opinions actually represent rigid adherence to the current scientific paradigm. In Real Magic, Dean Radin refers to this as scientism, which he describes as "a dogmatic belief that a narrow interpretation of today's scientific worldview is infallibly correct."
Throughout every phase of human history we thought we "had it right." Ancient humans believed in gods and goddesses. More recently, humans believed that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. At every point, we believed our theories were infallible.
So the question is, are we really so arrogant to believe that we have it all figured out right now?
As Bernardo Kastrup recently wrote in an article in Scientific American,
"Every generation tends to believe that its views on the nature of reality are either true or quite close to the truth. We are no exception to this: although we know that the ideas of earlier generations were each time supplanted by those of a later one, we still believe that this time we got it right. Our ancestors were naïve and superstitious, but we are objective—or so we tell ourselves. We know that matter/energy, outside and independent of mind, is the fundamental stuff of nature, everything else being derived from it—or do we?"
Listen, as a "good scientist," I'm totally open to the idea that materialism might be right. But I'm also open to the idea that it might be wrong. Experiments and mathematics within a variety of disciplines, including psychology and physics, are suggesting that there is more to this universe than we currently understand. We need to pay attention to this evidence instead of blindly tossing it aside.
On social media and elsewhere, I often encounter situations where someone is trying to defend an idea or position. When asked why they endorse a particular belief, their answer is, "Because science." In other words, the person is suggesting that some scientific study proved their point, thus the case is closed.
(The meme "Because Science" was popularized in a YouTube channel that uses science to answer pop culture questions. Many people use versions of this meme to argue against "non-scientific" claims).
When people use the "Because Science" argument, I can't help but wonder whether they actually read the science behind their argument. Did they closely examine the study design, statistics, and conclusions? In many cases I would guess that the answer is no.
This type of reasoning is similar to fundamental religious beliefs, in which believers blindly follow the advice of a priest/guru/pastor without asking why. These days, many people blindly follow scientists as if they are gods, and science itself as if it is a bulletproof system, without stopping to think about or fully examine the information they're being given.
Most scientists are aware that "science" itself can be altered and massaged to produce the kinds of results that the scientist is looking for. This can happen in cases of outright fraud, where researchers publish fake data, but it also happens at more subtle levels. Anyone with at least some training in statistics knows that you can go on "fishing expeditions" with your data in an attempt to find statistically significant results. Within psychology, the field is undergoing a "replication crisis" in which researchers are finding that the results of many psychological studies are difficult to reproduce in other labs. At a quantum level, experiments suggest that particles behave differently when they are observed, so perhaps the entire observation process affects our results in ways that we don't yet understand.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of me receiving my PhD. It's taken me an entire decade to realize that, while I received an excellent education, the things I was learning, and the way in which they were taught, were heavily influenced by the overarching materialist paradigm. Topics like transpersonal psychology and parapsychology were not available to study at the universities that I attended. In rare cases a professor would give some lip service to these topics by briefly describing them and then completely dismissing them as non-scientific. In some ways, I feel like I was brainwashed rather than educated.
Don't get me wrong - many of my professors were (and are) fantastic scientists, and some of them are pushing the boundaries of their fields and calling for better science on a variety of levels. But my education was so deeply entrenched in the materialist paradigm that for many years I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I thought that doing "good science" meant only conducting certain types of studies with quantitative (i.e. numeric) data.
I now realize that this is only one part of science.
The other part of doing good science involves being open-minded - even to hypotheses that seem implausible. It means being aware of alternative types of research methods and study designs (like transpersonal research methods and mixed-methods designs). It means combining our well-known, rigorous quantitative methods with other approaches, ideally by collaborating with others instead of working in isolation. It means being open to multiple ways of knowing, including intuition and body-based knowledge. It means being aware of the ways in which your research transforms yourself, your participants, and the people who read your work. It means owning up to your preconceived biases. It means publishing your studies even when your results don't confirm your hypotheses or are not statistically significant. It means working with integrity and being transparent with your data and results. It involves remaining curious, and retaining the sense of wonder that brought you to science in the first place.
I recently signed a more extensive contract with the University of New York in Prague. I don't have a full-time, tenure-track position, but I'm going to be teaching a few more courses and I'll have a bit of time to devote to research. I'm teaching undergraduate courses in positive psychology, research methods, and mind-body-consciousness, and I'm teaching a Masters-level course on career development. In all of these courses, I hope to open my students' minds to alternative ways of thinking about science, in addition to the excellent scientific methods that have already proven themselves over the years.
Research-wise, I'll be continuing to study yoga and mindfulness for youth, but I'm also hoping to start studying topics within transpersonal psychology, specifically consciousness and synchronicity. These topics are not widely accepted within mainstream psychology, and I'm not sure what level of "witch burning" I might encounter. But I think that topics like consciousness and synchronicity hold keys to our understanding of the universe, and I'm willing to risk my professional reputation in search of these types of answers. And, as a good scientist, I intend to publish my results whether they support my hypotheses or not.
I also intend to stay open to the idea that science is not the be all, end all of Truth. As the British physicist and mathematician Sir Oliver Lodge wrote,
"Science, in a narrow sense, is by no means the only way of arriving at truth - especially not at truth concerning human nature. To decline to be informed by the great seers and prophets of the past, and to depend solely on a limited class of workers such as have been bred chiefly within the last century or two, would savour of a pitiful narrowness, and would be truly and in the largest sense unscientific...
Truth is large, and can be explored by many avenues. All honour to those who, with insufficient experience but with the inspiration of genius, caught glimpses of a larger and higher truth than was known to the age in which they lived, and who had the felicity of recording their inspirations in musical and immortal word - words such as the worker in science has not at his command - words at which he rejoices when he encounters them, and which he quotes because they have given him pleasure."
And so I encourage everyone - scientists and non-scientists - to be open-minded and tolerant of others whose opinions (or results) might differ from yours. And the next time you want to use "Because science" as an argument, especially to discount ideas that might seem "out there" or "woo-woo," make sure you truly understand the science behind the claim that you're making.
*For those interested in learning more about post-materialist science, check out The Academy for the Advancement of Postmaterialist Sciences as well as an article published in New Ideas in Psychology called Toward a postmaterialist psychology: Theory, research, and applications, and the upcoming book Expanding Science.*
*You might also be interested in this Call for an open, informed study of all aspects of consciousness published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, as well as this article from Scientific American that discusses whether consciousness is universal*