Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
The New Republic carried this headline on one of their articles: Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted, And Is Not Like Galileo by Jerry Coyne. My jaw dropped. It’s no surprise that Coyne authored the piece of course, his blog writing is full of such hysteria and slander. In fact, this is a reprint of one of his blog posts. What shocked me was that no one at the New Republic thought that this type of slander was out of line. Here’s the first paragraph:
Rupert Sheldrake is a pseudoscientist who has made his name promoting various kinds of woo, including telepathy (including in dogs!), immaterial minds, and his crazy idea of “morphic resonance,” a Jung-ian theory in which all of nature participates in some giant collective memory. (He was once a real scientist, trained in biochemistry and cell biology at Cambridge, but somewhere went off the rails.)
If I were an editor this kind of writing would sound all kinds of alarm bells in my head. I wouldn’t allow a skeptic to be referred to in this way on my blog. It’s too emotional and insulting. I’d demand a much more thoughtful piece. Had the editors at New Republic bothered to check, they would have found that Coyne has no standing for calling Sheldrake a pseudoscientist.
I’m assuming that he is referring to Sheldrake’s work on animal telepathy, the staring studies and the various experiments that tested his theory of morphic resonance. Coyne has no expertise in these areas and is not qualified to comment on them. He has never done any parapsychology experiments and his name does not show up in any of the peer reviewed literature commenting on Sheldrake’s work nor has he ever demonstrated any expertise in parapsychology.
Many scientists are skeptical of Sheldrake’s work. Those who have either commented on his work in peer review or attempted his experiments include: Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Chris French, Anthony Atkinson, Steven Rose, Robert Baker and David Marks, to name a few. NONE of them have ever referred to Sheldrake as a pseudoscientist or characterized his work as pseudoscience in a peer reviewed paper where they would have to prove that assertion. If you take the time to actually go over Sheldrake’s work, there is nothing about it that justifies the pseudoscience label. Nichts, nada, zip, zero.
Not only that, Sheldrake has supporters among other scientists. Marc Bekoff, PhD in animal emotions commented on Sheldrake in this very recent Psychology Today blog article:
While many people question Dr. Sheldrake’s and theories I think it is premature to discount and to dismiss them. His research has been published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and by well-known publishers and while some of his discoveries cannot be explained by more traditional science this does not mean they are incorrect. In a nutshell, Dr. Sheldrake has collected detailed data on different patterns of behavior that can readily be explained by his theories of morphic resonance and morphic fields that are summarized here.
All I can say about the rest of Coyne’s article is that it maintains the same abysmal level of accuracy. Predictably, the New Republic got creamed in the comment section of the article. Most readers recognized what the editors hadn’t: that this was just a hit piece. It was the sort of drivel that should have stayed on Coyne’s blog, where he preaches to the skeptical choir.
In the article Coyne also accused Deepak Chopra of being a pseudoscientist, which Chopra responded to. And here is where it gets absolutely nuts: they gave Coyne room on the article to respond. Right at the top they give Coyne equal billing. This news site is doing everything it can to slant the discussion in a certain direction and they’re not even being subtle about it. (I submitted a rebuttal to New Republic based on the fact that my Wikipedia articles were being discussed, but of course, they passed on that.) Nevertheless the overwhelming bias of New Republic is at least quite obvious.
Other mainstream publications are more subtle. Chopra recently wrote an article about militant skepticism which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post. The Chronicle simply vanished the on line article by not referencing it anywhere that I could find it and it’s my hometown news source. The Huffington Post shoved what is essentially a philosophy of science article into the Religion section because Chopra mentioned God once or twice. (Sheldrake has also been dumped in Religion by Huff Po.) Sheldrake also had a blog post about militant skeptics and Wikipedia that Huffpo rejected. (He later published this on his own blog.)
According to my sources, the Huffington Post now has a medical advisory board whose function seems to be keeping out as much alternative medicine as they can get away with. The Huffington Post bloggers who specialize in alternative and complementary medicine say that it’s much harder to get an article published now that this mysterious medical board has gotten control.
It is very easy for the skeptics to get taken seriously and published, and they are allowed to spout whatever unsubstantiated crap they can think up, while everyone else is held to a different standard. It’s a bias that’s built into the system that is cultural, not scientific.
The good news is that this state of affairs can’t last. The controversy is heating up and it will continue to get hotter. Jerry Coyne’s article tarnished the reputation of New Republic and certainly the dirty trick of allowing him to respond to Chopra in Chopra’s article did not go unnoticed either.
This is what change looks like. Coyne had to respond because Rupert Sheldrake and Deepak Chopra are fighting back. And the article pretty much demonstrates the strong Us vs. Them dichotomy in action. The comment section is equally polarized. This is only the beginning of what will eventually be a much larger and nastier fight in the near future as more scientists and intellectuals join the fight against the cultural mindset of ideologue skepticism. As for New Republic, since they have clearly chosen sides, it marks this publication as being useless for science articles, since they will cherry pick those that already conform to their beliefs and cannot be counted on to be either objective or fair.
They are not a large publication, so they could potentially end up suffering for this if they do not learn from this mistake. The skeptics who support them are not a large enough group to sustain them. If they are abandoned by the scientific progressives, who simply move on to better sources of news, that could adversely affect them in a big way. What the New Republic doesn’t understand is that explicitly siding with Coyne could lose them the readers who took the other side. As a publication, you don’t want to do that too often.
We live in interesting times.