Sunday, May 30, 2010
A researcher who turns his back on traditional science is British biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake. As a young and esteemed scientist at Cambridge, he caused some commotion in 1981 when he published A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation. The book, and a New Science article published before it, got a strong but mixed reception (Freeman, 2005).
Sheldrake champions the morphic resonance thesis, which suggests that the phenomena of existence becomes more probable the more times they occur and that biologic evolution and behavior therefore are adapted to patterns defined by previous organisms. He is of the opinion that the laws of nature, for instance, should be regarded as changeable habits evolved since the birth of the planet (Wikipedia, 2006) – subsequently, existence and nature has no conformity to law.
The discussion was settled when Nature published an editorial in September 1981, attacking Sheldrake's theories and condemning them for being unscientific. It was suggested that Sheldrake was trying to bring magic into science and his book was nominated as suitable for book burning. The Nature article wrecked Sheldrake's academic career and since then, he is more or less excommunicated from the world of science (Freeman, 2005).
Sheldrake's response has been to go his own way, in several respects. He publishes his theories and research in popular science books aimed at layman audiences (Wikipedia), he runs his research from home (Sheldrake, 2006), he does field studies on phenomena others would try to isolate in the laboratory and urges the public to conduct private research (Sheldrake, 1994) with the help of ready-to-use experiment designs which can be downloaded from his website (http://www.sheldrake.org).
To fit Sheldrake into any traditional science can therefore not be done. He is trained in natural science but is strongly influenced by everything from Goethe to Eastern mysticism. Sheldrake's activities can be viewed as an attempt to change paradigm, from a science springing from a physical reality to research more open to a non-physical dimension (Freeman). He himself describes his world view as "holistic" and is of the opinion that the current direction of science lends support to the view that everything is connected. In addition, he defines his field of research as "everyday mysteries," which are best studied in their own contexts, i.e. in everyday life and not isolated in a laboratory (Sheldrake, 2006).
At the same time, Sheldrake shows many signs usually associated with pseudoscience and "cranks," signs described by Goode (2000) among others. He condemns his critics as being dogmaticly prejudiced, as opposed to "sound" skeptics who are willing to accept his theories at large but express views about details. In his opinion, most scientists suffer from "tunnel vision" but he himself has a broader outlook on things and the phenomena he studies are real for other scientists too but the dominating scientific culture forces them to deny them (Sheldrake, 2006). So Sheldrake displays an ill-concealed conviction of his own excellence and the notion of a widespread scientific "conspiracy" preventing the real truth from being disclosed.
So is it reasonable to examine the work of Sheldrake according to traditional scientific criteria? Yes, for several reasons. First, Sheldrake is making traditional scientific claims of truth; even if his research methods may be considered as unorthodox, Sheldrake claims his hypothesises kan be tested and confirmed by the real world. He further claims that his experiments can be replicated by anyone anywhere, with similar results. It is therefore justified to put Sheldrake's methods and the results he has achieved under scrutiny. This can be done according to prevalent criteria since Sheldrake claims his research satisfies these (Sheldrake, 2006).
Secondly, a considerable part of Sheldrake's undeniable popularity is the fact that he has a researcher's authority, i.e. he is presumed to have reached his conclusion by scientific method. He is also expected, as a researcher, to be motivated by a strong desire to find out what reality is, rather than prefering it to be a certain way. Thus, Sheldrake is presumed to differ from other researchers philosophically, but not methodologically.
Finally, Sheldrake has gained some popularity among other parapsychologists. In the news bulletin of the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research, it is stated that Sheldrake is "viewed by many, inlcuding many here in Sweden, as one of the more exciting and promising researchers in parapsychology" (SPF, 2005), that he is "very good at conducting experiments on quite ordinary phenomena" (SPF, 2003), and the American parapsychologist Daryl Bem (2006) claims that, since 1986, Sheldrake has "constantly improved his experiments to eliminate sensory leakage." Thus, there is a general as well as methodological appreciation of Sheldrake as scientist. Scrutinizing Sheldrake's research may therefore also indicate a level of methodological awareness in other parapsychologists.
In the following blog posts, I will look into Sheldrake's experiments on telepathy - the 2003 study Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy in particular. Stay tuned.
[ Read the second part ]
Note: This text was first published in Swedish in 2007 on the Swedish Skeptics forum. It is still available here.
Bem, D., (2006). Sheldrake och hans kritiker: Känslan av att vara iakttagen. Notiser och Nyheter, 33. Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning.
Freeman, A., (2005). The Sense of Being Glared At. What is It Like to be a Heretic? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, (6), 4–9.
Goode, E., (2000). Paranormal Beliefs. A Sociological Introduction. Prospect Heights: Waveland.
Sheldrake, R., (1994). Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. London: Fourth Estate.
Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL http://www.abc.net.au/rn/inconversation ... 754367.htm.
SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2003). Notiser och Nyheter, 19. URL http://parapsykologi.se/nyheter/2003/2003-09.html.
SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2005). Notiser och Nyheter, 29. URL http://parapsykologi.se/nyheter/2005/2005-09.pdf.
Wikipedia, (2006). Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake.