|Style over substance|
|Putting the psycho in|
|Men who stare at goats|
|By the powers of tinfoil|
Rupert Sheldrake (1942–) is a British former scientist (very former, as in not doing science any more) who, since the 1980s, has preferred to promote his own pet theory of everything called "morphic resonance". Sheldrake believes that "memory is inherent in nature" and that "natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind", and that this "morphic resonance" also explains "telepathy-type interconnections between organisms". Unsurprisingly, nobody in science takes Sheldrake seriously. However, he has written several books targeted at the general public.
One can group Sheldrake's claims about phenomena caused by "morphic resonance" into two broad categories:
- The first category includes real phenomena such as biological heredity, animal and plant development and behaviour — Sheldrake thinks the scientific theories that real scientists have developed to explain these are incorrect because they can't explain everything in detail, or at least because he doesn't understand them.
- The second group are phenomena which (almost) certainly don't exist outside of Sheldrake's imagination — namely various parapsychological claims involving memory, telepathy, perception and cognition — particularly psychic dogs.
Most of Sheldrake's ideas are clearly pseudoscientific nonsense. Morphic resonance is extremely vague and ill-defined, and can only really be described as whatever Sheldrake says it is. Crucially, it is not falsifiable, and therefore not testable (although some have tried).
Sheldrake's 2012 book, The Science Delusion, is an anti-scientific rant in which he applies postmodernist hyperscepticism to conventional science, accusing mainstream scientists of adhering to "scientific dogmata", such as the constancy of the speed of light. Ironically, Sheldrake fails to apply any sort of scepticism to his own ideas, which he promotes uncritically, despite there being no evidence for them.
Background and credentials
Sheldrake's early career showed a lot of promise. A grammar school boy, he went to Cambridge University to study biology. A degree was followed by a Ph.D., and then some post-doctoral work; he was elected a Fellow of Clare College. Had he continued along the standard career path, and engaged in conventional research, he may well have become a quite respected professor.
However, in mid-career, and over a gradual period starting in the late-1970s and finishing in the mid-1980s, Sheldrake dropped out of engaging in the scientific process. He has held no academic positions since then.
The dropping out process started with a career break travel to India, where he spent some time in a Christian monastery. Then, instead of returning to his original research programme, he wound up doing crop physiology research for an agricultural institute in India — considerably less prestigious than world-renowned Cambridge. He also discovered that instead of doing real science, writing books about New Age woo was much more profitable.
Sheldrake continues to claim that he is a scientist, but he clearly doesn't follow the scientific method.
Sheldrake and his supporters like to appeal to authority based on his credentials, often describing him as a "Cambridge University biologist". To someone without an understanding of how science works (for example those without a background education in science), this may seem impressive. Further confusion arises because Sheldrake likes to use terminology that sounds impressive, and some points should be particularly noted:
- Sheldrake describes himself as having been a "Research Fellow of the Royal Society". The Royal Society's Research Fellowship — essentially a grant for researchers in the early stages of their research career — can easily be confused with the highly prestigious election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. Sheldrake has not been elected FRS.
- Some of Sheldrake's work has been funded by the Perrott-Warrick Project, a fund set up in the early-20th century to fund research in parapsychology, which Sheldrake points out is "administered by Trinity College, Cambridge". However, the involvement of Trinity is limited to organising the finances — nobody at Trinity has any involvement with the committee that decides how the money is spent, and consequently Sheldrake has held no position on the faculty at Trinity. The then-Master of Trinity, Lord Rees, has on the record disowned Sheldrake and distanced him from Trinity, playfully suggesting that as a former fellow of Clare College, it was Clare that should receive "undiluted credit" for his work.
- Sheldrake claims to have authored "more than 80 articles in peer-reviewed journals" . However, excluding articles in pseudojournals that clearly weren't peer reviewed, the true number is actually less than half (helpfully they're on his website so you can count 'em).
These facts don't stop media organisations from incorrectly referring to him in inaccurate and flattering terms. Even the BBC, who should know better, referred to him as "Professor Rupert Sheldrake". The Daily Mail, who often don't know better referred to him as a "Cambridge University Biologist". His own publishers referred to him as "one of the world's most preeminent biologists".
A New Science of Life
Sheldrake's first book was published in 1981. Sir John Maddox reviewed it for Nature, writing: Sheldrake's book is a splendid illustration of the widespread public misconception of what science is about. In reality, Sheldrake's argument is in no sense a scientific argument but an exercise in pseudo-science.
However, what was picked up on by many was the title of the review — "A book for burning?", which played into the public's natural revulsion against book burning. Maddox concluded that the book "should not be burned but put firmly in its place among the literature of intellectual aberrations", although he did earlier suggest that it was "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years". This small part of the review provoked some controversy and this publicity opportunity has ever since been exploited by Sheldrake and his publishers. In fact, the review seemed to propel Sheldrake from being a nobody who had written a nonsensical book that most scientists would ignore to a nobody who could sell many copies of books to the general public, while infuriating anyone concerned about the public understanding of science. For any prospective future editors of prestigious journals, it was exactly how NOT to write a hatchet job review.
Sheldrake has devoted much thought and speculation towards trying to find causes for some of life's more peculiar and spooky occurrences: such as how dogs seem to know their owners are coming home, how separated siblings sometimes seem to experience symptoms of the other's illness despite living in a different continent, and how it takes bloody ages to try and get a protein to crystallise, but once one lab manages it, lots of others seem to be able to with ease.
Science generally has no explanation for observations of such happenings, and indeed scientific wisdom would suggest there can be no causal reason for them and they are simply flukes and/or people seeing patterns which are not there. Sheldrake, however, has developed the concept of the "morphic field" in an attempt to "explain" them.
According to his 1981 book A New Science of Life, such a field would make it so that once a species has evolved, the next species to evolve would look something like it, apparently due to the Universe having a memory since it is alive.
None of Sheldrake's ideas are his own. In his book A New Science of Life (1981) the reader can get a good understanding of where he has pulled his paranormal ideas from. He was influenced by the "organismic" philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (p. 17), the vitalism of the biologist Hans Driesch who proposed the existence of a life-force in organisms called "entelechy" (pp. 48-50) and the Lamarckism of the psychologist William McDougall (pp. 188-194).
In 1960, Ninian Marshall published a paper titled ESP and Memory: A Physical Theory. In the paper he proposed a hypothesis of "resonance", which basically said there is some kind of mysterious energy in nature that can explain biological mysteries and telepathic experiences. It's clear that Sheldrake's "morphic resonance" was influenced by this paper. In his book Sheldrake mentions the Marshall paper only in a footnote (p. 210) but admits that his own idea is similar to it in "several important" ways.
In January 2013, Sheldrake and the pseudohistorian Graham Hancock gave lectures at the TEDxWhitechapel in East London. In his lecture, Sheldrake criticized modern science, listing what he called "ten dogmas of modern materialist science" that he feels are assumptions without evidence. He also advocated a conspiracy theory that the scientific community have ignored and suppressed evidence for psychic phenomena and other woo topics because they are materialists. A video of the Sheldrake lecture was published on the TEDx YouTube channel which later received criticism from various scientists for promoting pseudoscience. In response, the TED staff issued an official statement explaining that TED's scientific advisers have questioned whether Sheldrake's list of ten dogmas "is a fair description of scientific assumptions" and said "there is little evidence for some of Sheldrake’s more radical claims, such as his theory of morphic resonance". The advisors recommended that Sheldrake's TED talk "should not be distributed without being framed with caution".
The video of the talk was moved from the TEDx YouTube channel to the TED blog, accompanied by framing language and a cautionary introduction. Woo-meisters such as Craig Weiler quickly accused TED of "censorship" and repeated the conspiracy theory that the scientific community is suppressing Sheldrake's ideas. In his blog post on March, 2013 entitled "The Psi Wars Come To TED" he accused the TED staff of being atheists and deliberately censoring Sheldrake, prompting the TED staff to issue a statement that, "The reason people are upset is because they think there has been censorship. But it's simply not true. Both talks are up on our website."
Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
In October 2013, Sheldrake described GSoW as "a commando squad of skeptics" and claimed the group had "captured the Wikipedia page about me" and was "rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation."
However, no such organized conspiracy to take down Sheldrake's page appears to exist.
Sheldrake has an entire section of his website dedicated to "skeptics", that is, people critical of his ideas.. He also has a FAQ section, which includes various half-truths, including claiming support from the scientific community (if so, please name them, Rupe). But wait, I thought the scientific community was suppressing his ideas! So which is it?
His latest book is The Science Delusion (2012) in which he concludes modern science has turned into materialism and is being constricted by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The book promotes a conspiracy theory that the scientific community is made up of materialist skeptics who have deliberately ignored evidence for psychic phenomena and other woo topics.
Sheldrake is the owner of the anti-skeptic site "Skeptical Investigations" which claims to debunk skeptics. It is actually a woo haven for all kinds of crank ideas and pseudoscience. The website claims psychokinesis, fraudulent mediums (such as Eusapia Palladino), ghosts, reincarnation, telepathy and other woo topics have all been scientifically proven. Cranks featured on the website included Craig Weiler, Victor Zammit, Guy Lyon Playfair and Chris Carter. It also has a section entitled "Links to Outstanding Websites" which links to dubious sites such as SCEPCOP owned by
Winston Woo Winston Wu.
- Gerhard D. Wassermann (a parapsychologist who proposed a similar idea to Sheldrake's in 1956)
- Rome Viharo
- Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
- Official website
- Ted talk
- Video of Rupert stating his hypotheses were inspired by his LSD "acid trips".
- "Overhyped". Nature 443: 132. 14 September 2006
- Belief Mon 2 Jan 2012. BBC.
- The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God Goodreads
- Maddox on Sheldrake Sir John Maddox, 1981
- Adam Rutherford on Sheldrake "A book for ignoring Sheldrake persists in his claims, despite the fact that there's no evidence for them. This is bad science" Theguardian.com
- Read "Morphic Resonance" for yourself
- Ninian Marshall. (1960). ESP and Memory: A Physical Theory. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Vol. 10, No. 40. pp. 265-286.
- The debate about Rupert Sheldrake’s talk
- TED conference censorship row
- Links to References on Skeptics (yes, that's the original page name)
- The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake also see Rupert Sheldrake’s Alternative Science
- Skeptical Investigations