Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I’m sure regular followers of The Weiler Psi are familiar with Rupert Sheldrake due to Craig’s detailed reporting of the TED controversy. Sheldrake has often been a target of the radical pseudo-skeptical movement, having won the Pigasus Award for research into telephone telepathy and been described by the somewhat ironically named “RationalWiki” as “one of those incorrigible scientists who, whilst having a perfectly good PhD in biochemistry, prefers to spend much of his time on parapsychology”.
Sheldrake’s 1981 book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation was described by John Maddox, senior editor of the journal Nature, as “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years”. In this book Sheldrake presented his hypothesis of Morphic Resonance. Rather than explain the concept myself, I’ll let Dr Sheldrake tell you about it in his own words.
Up until the publication of A New Science of Life, Sheldrake had been a respectable plant physiologist with a promising career and the recipient of various academic honors including a fellowship at Cambridge. The controversy following the uproar in the journal Nature almost put an end to his academic career and made him persona non grata within the mainstream scientific establishment. He hasn’t shied away from controversy since that time, publishing books that not only question mainstream science but which also examine the materialist philosophy so critical to maintaining the current paradigm.
In 1999, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home was met with disdain from the likes of James “The Amazing” Randi. An article in the January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine quoted Randi as saying “We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail.” Randi later admitted that no such research had ever been carried out by JREF. In an attempt to debunk an experiment involving Jaytee, a dog who was videotaped going to the window in anticipation of his owner coming home, Randi made the following statement: “Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.” As it turned out, James Randi had never seen any tapes of that experiment. He now admits that statement was also a lie.
Richard Wiseman is another outspoken skeptic who took issue with the “Dogs That Know” experiment. Wiseman, with the very gracious cooperation of Rupert Sheldrake and Pamela Smart (Jaytee’s owner), was given the opportunity to try the experiment out for himself using the same equipment and the same dog. Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s results. But not being one to let data get in the way of a lucrative career as a media skeptic, Wiseman chose to misrepresent his own findings as well as those of Sheldrake.
In 2006, Alex Tsakiris finally managed to get the truth from Wiseman during a Skeptiko podcast. Wiseman can be heard to say “I don’t think there’s any debate that the patterning in my studies is the same as the patterning in Rupert’s studies.” In a 2011 interview with Alex Tsakiris, Sheldrake characterized Wiseman’s apparent dishonesty as being “propelled by this very deep belief system”. Sheldrake went on to suggest that Wiseman is convinced “that the materialist world view has to be true and that it’s equivalent to science and reason”, which helps to justify ignoring any evidence in conflict with such beliefs.
It’s difficult to understand the vitriol that the self-proclaimed “skeptical” movement directs at such a well-credentialed and soft-spoken academic until you realize that Dr Sheldrake is more than a match for any of the nonsense they substitute for reasoned arguments. A case in point is a 2004 Royal Society of Arts debate in London between Rupert Sheldrake and Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist from University College in London known for taking a skeptical stance. Wolpert was unable to argue the case against the existence of telepathy because he was sadly unfamiliar with the topic in question. At one point in the debate, Sheldrake showed a video of recent experiments suggesting evidence for Psi. Lewis Wolpert looked away from the screen, thus ensuring his ignorance of the topic. Rupert Sheldrake claimed an easy victory.
Sheldrake’s reasoned response to the charges leveled at him by TED’s Anonymous Science Board is another example of his ability to offer meaningful arguments and insight while under attack from what could best be described as “internet bullies” under the auspices of TED. Sheldrake’s anonymous opponents were unable to offer anything more in response than an insincere retraction of their original false claims. You can hear Dr Sheldrake discuss the situation with Alex Tsakiris in a 2013 Skeptiko podcast.
The following video is an old favorite of mine. It’s Sheldrake’s Google Tech Talk on The Extended Mind from 2008. The reason I picked it is that he mentions experiments people can do for themselves to learn about Psi. He doesn’t ask anyone to take his word that Psi exists, he tells people to go out and do their own investigations so they can make up their own minds. Sheldrake has a number of experiments anyone can participate in and try out for themselves listed on his website.
My favorite part of this video is at the end where Sheldrake answers questions from the audience. Keep in mind that some of the audience members are unfamiliar with parapsychology. One person asks Sheldrake about what situations are more favorable to Psi. Sheldrake mentions things such as being relaxed, working with people you feel a connection to in telepathy experiments and the sheep-goat effect. Sheldrake also addresses the issue that Psi research doesn’t require a lot of money, and it isn’t that difficult a topic to consider, but that research has sadly been held back by a nonsensical taboo.
I enjoy listening to Sheldrake most when he is involved in dialogues, answering questions and interacting with people. He elevates a discussion and really shines when he engages others in conversation. I would highly recommend listening to the Trialogues with Rupert Sheldrake, Ralph Abraham and Terence McKenna. An introduction to the Trialogues can be found on the Skeptiko website, and the complete recordings are available here.
For anyone interested, more information about Rupert Sheldrake can be found on his website. There are also many videos on youtube that feature Dr Sheldrake, including a recent video of him at the 2013 Electric Universe Conference where he discusses his most recent book Science Set Free.