Do come in, the door is wide open

So what is the British Association for the Advancement of Science up to?

Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged. Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA’s decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics…Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference.

So what did the organizers have in mind? Were they just trying to get more media attention? Were they trying to be more “fair”? Or what? It would be interesting to know.

Other scientists said that while discussion of the subject was acceptable, the panel’s lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists. Several members of the BA said that they would raise the matter with its ruling council…Lord Winston, the fertility specialist, said: “It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists.”

It should be peer-reviewed, in other words. Other researchers should try to replicate Sheldrake’s results. Inquiry should be properly conducted. You know – the usual boring routine.

The Indy gives a suggestive comment by one of the organizers of the panel.

Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Sussex and the organiser of the paranormal session, said:”We at the British Association feel we should be open to discussions and debates which are seen as valid by people generally inside and outside the scientific community.”

Ah. Ah yes. Do you. Notice all the wiggle language there – feel, open, seen, as valid, outside, community. In other words, the issue is not cognitive but emotive; it’s political and moral, about being open and inclusive as opposed to closed and excluding; it wants to include what people see “as valid” as opposed to, say, what they legitimately consider valid; it (again) wants to be open and inclusive to people outside the “scientific community” as well as inside it; and it wants to treat the whole thing as an exercise in community-building or expansion or cohesion as opposed to an epistemic one. “We at the British Association feel we should be open to fuzzy woolly wishful ideas that are seen as valid by people outside the cold excluding rejecting overintellectual elitist scientific community, and we want to join their community and make it bigger and more accepting and democratic and warmer and better.” That’s what that sounds like. More of the old “science excludes ideas that millions of people see as valid and that is fascism” routine. No wonder Atkins and Winston and the others are furious.

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