134. Dr. Rupert Sheldrake on the Persistence of Richard Wiseman’s Deception

Biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake expresses dismay at latest claims made by Skeptic Richard Wiseman in his recent book, Paranormality.

paranormalityJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. A distinguished biologist, Dr. Sheldrake is the author of several books including, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. During the interview Mr. Tsakiris and Dr. Sheldrake discuss the latest claims of Skeptic Richard Wiseman:

Alex Tsakiris: When someone hears you say Richard Wiseman’s portrayal of your research is deceptive, well, it sounds so horrible.  But in this case, the deception is so obvious, the misinformation so outrageous, that it’s hard to understand how he assumed he could get away with it. But then again, of course he’s going to get away with it. He’s gotten away with it for years.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, it’s outrageous. Wiseman’s research on psychic pets was entirely parasitic on my research. He portrays himself as this kind of heroic debunking figure who goes in and exposes people who fool themselves about their dogs and so forth.  But, in fact, his own tests show an even bigger effect than I’d observed. Incredibly, he then appeared on TV and made press releases, wrote a scientific paper in a scientific journal, claiming to have refuted the effect we both demonstrated.  It is completely outrageous, but as you say, he’s got away with it before. He’s been exposed before, but that seems completely irrelevant to him.

Alex Tsakiris: What is going on here? What do you think is really behind this? Because it’s easy to spin out of control with conspiracies and all sorts of strange ideas.  What’s your best guess, having been in this for as long as you have?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Personally, I think it’s just what Wiseman said it is. I think it’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that. He accuses people who are interested in psychic phenomena and do research in an open-minded way of being fooled or of self-deception, but in fact this is the kind of thinking he’s engaged in. Basically, Wiseman is a dogmatic materialist. People who are materialists aren’t people who don’t believe anything; they’re people who have a really strong belief that the mind is nothing but the brain, that the free will doesn’t really exist and we are just robots. He tries to prove that in this book.  I think it’s as simple as that. He’s dogmatically committed to that point of view. He firmly believes it. Therefore, the evidence must be flawed. People must be either deceiving themselves or deceiving others. So I think we have to see that we’re dealing here with a fundamentalist belief system of people who pretend to be scientific but are not.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s website

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Today we welcome back to Skeptiko biologist and author, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. Now, many of you know that Dr. Sheldrake has been nice enough to join me on Skeptiko several times in the past. He’s a real hero of mine-not just for his innovative and imaginative ideas and research, but for his clear, straightforward manner of talking about controversial science and those who oppose it. So I’m really delighted, Rupert, that you’ve joined me on Skeptiko today.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Alex Tsakiris: There’s a lot to talk about and a lot of interesting topics that I think we can get into. But before we get in there and talk about the interesting stuff, we have to cover some of the unpleasant basics of this latest round of disinformation–I really don’t know how else to label it-from Dr. Richard Wiseman regarding your work and a book that you published a while back titled, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.

It explores this mysterious telepathic link that seems to sometimes be formed between animals and their owners and it’s something that you’ve researched for a long time and have documented and spoken about and published about a great deal. Tell folks a little bit about that research and the original book.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, the research really was designed to look at the idea that telepathy and other psychic abilities, like premonitions and the sense of direction, are part of biological nature. If humans have them, we have them not because we’re special or supernatural but because they’re natural and these are normal abilities which occur in animals. So as a biologist I thought, “Well, if these phenomena exist at all they should exist in animals.”

That’s where I looked for them and I collected more than 5,000 case histories from people who work with animals, including dog trainers, police dog handlers, blind people with guide dogs, riders, etc., and also vets and cat owners. I found that many people had noticed things that suggested that animals could pick up their intentions.

One of the easiest to test scientifically was the claim that many people make that their dog or cat knows when they’re coming home and goes and waits at the door or window. The people see it waiting there and they know when the absent person is on the way. I found that there had been virtually no research into this. Skeptics dismissed it as being a natural routine or the dog picking up sounds from the person coming home like a familiar car engine or smells from miles away or whatever. They explained it away.

But I did proper experiments to test this. We had people come at random times in unfamiliar vehicles and we filmed the place where the dog waited. We found that with a dog called J.T. that 85% of the occasions when the owner was coming home, the dog was indeed waiting for her. He started when she decided to come home, before she even got into the vehicle, and he waited there most of the time. This happened at random times of day in different vehicles, taxis and other vehicles, that she’d never been in before.

We built up a body of evidence from this and other dogs showing that there seems to be a real ability and that it seems to be a matter of the dog picking up the person’s intention. So that’s really the background to this.

Alex Tsakiris: What intrigued me all along was that you devised a brilliantly simple experiment that can pull anyone in who’s ever had an encounter with a dog or an animal and can immediately understand what you’re trying to do. You really did a great job with this and I was immediately interested in your research. But at the same time, what hooked me-I don’t know if it hooked other people-was the reaction that you got from the other side, that side of the scientific community that really reacts so strongly when anyone suggests that the underlying assumptions we have about human consciousness might not be exactly the way that they are.

In this case, Richard Wiseman was that guy who stood up to create that deception, disinformation, so if you could, go back and tell us a little bit about the first round of Richard Wiseman and Dogs That Know. I think that provides an interesting historical backdrop to what’s just happened recently.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: When I was doing this research there was a program about it on television, based on an experiment that was done by Austrian State Television, showing that J.T. really did do what I had found him to do. They filmed it with a TV crew. It was a science unit and they did a proper experiment. It worked dramatically.

J.T. didn’t go to the window when she wasn’t on the way home and he waited there when she set off to come home at a random time, even before she got in the taxi. Now, skeptics were asked to comment on this and Richard Wiseman was and is one of Britain’s leading media skeptics. He said it was just a matter of routine or it must have been familiar car sounds. He made all the standard criticisms, which were things I’d thought of in the first five minutes that I’d taken an interest in the subject, which we’d already ruled out.

So I invited him to do some tests of his own, which he did, and they gave essentially the same results. In my tests the dog was at the window about 4% of the time when Pam wasn’t coming home, taking all the time she was out apart from just before she went home. When she was on the way home, in my own randomized experiments, the dog was at the window about 55% of the time, on average. In Wiseman’s tests the dog was at the window 4% of the time when she wasn’t coming home-the same as my own-and 78% of the time when she was coming home. This shows an even bigger effect than I’d observed.

Incredibly, he then appeared on TV and made press releases, wrote a scientific paper in a scientific journal, claiming to have refuted the dog’s ability by saying he’d given a false alarm before she set off to come home and therefore the rest of the data could be discounted.

He then produced a video clip which he’s just put out again on the Internet as part of his book launch, showing the dog going to the window and it makes it look as if the dog just goes over and over again and there’s no pattern or reason and it’s just coincidence that it’s waiting at the door when Pam’s coming home. It’s deeply deceptive.

His own data shows, as you’ve shown by discussing them with him on Skeptiko, that in fact he replicated my own results. But you wouldn’t guess any of that-you wouldn’t know that he admitted this on Skeptiko in his new book. The new book, Paranormality, which is just being launched here in Britain, starts with the very opening sentence as:

“As I gazed deep into the eyes of J.T. several thoughts pass through my mind. Was this cute little terrier really psychic? If not, how did he manage to make headlines around the world? At that precise moment, J.T. gave a small cough. He leaned forward and vomited on my shoes…”

Alex Tsakiris: Well, we have to give him some credit for his writing style, which he’s always had…

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Oh yes, he’s a good writer. This book is excellent light entertainment.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s just a deception.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: The whole book is a deception. Richard Wiseman started his career as an illusionist, a stage magician. His Ph.D. was on the psychology of deception. In this book he suddenly practices what he preaches. What he tells us is that people see what they want to see and he instructs his readers in the arts of deception so they can fool their friends and carry out code readings and pretend to have psychic powers. Interestingly, he even shows people how they can air-brush away the past.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Whenever you say someone is deceptive or someone is air-brushing history, it sounds so horrible that people immediately dismiss it and say, “Hey, you must have a grudge. You must have something against Richard Wiseman.” But anyone who looks into this case, the deception is so obvious in this case. The misinformation is so clearly outrageously obvious that it’s just hard to understand how he can even think he could get away with it.

But then again, and now we get into the interesting part that we’ll talk about in a while-and that’s that of course he’s going to get away with it. He already has gotten away with it for a number of years. If we look at historically the history of psi and the history of parapsychology research, people have gotten away with it over and over again. So there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t be emboldened in this effort that he’s doing because it’s built on a history of this kind of misinformation.

But before I get too far with that tirade, I’d like to break down in very simple terms, some of the misinformation that we have here. What I’d direct your attention to, if I could, is his representation of how he first came to know Pam and J.T. because here’s a case where you talk about air-brushing someone out of history, you are not even mentioned as being a part of this experiment with this dog, J.T. and with her owner, Pam Smart. I mean, you’re not even mentioned. This is all Richard Wiseman if you read his book, correct?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes. I come in as an end note. He says that I also did some experiments with J.T. and came to different conclusions. That’s the only mention. Most people don’t read the end notes. And it sounds as if here’s a preposterous claim on television about a psychic dog. He investigates it. He then claims that he’s shown that it doesn’t really exist and that’s the end of the matter.

He doesn’t mention the fact that he did four tests altogether. I did 200. I’d been doing it for a year before he appeared on the scene and the only reason there was a TV show at all was because I’d organized an experiment to test this for the science unit of Austrian State Television.

Alex Tsakiris: Correct me if I’m wrong-he doesn’t mention that he used your camera!

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I know. The whole thing was entirely parasitic on my research. Then he portrays himself as this kind of heroic debunking figure who goes in and exposes people who fool themselves about their dogs and so forth.

It is completely outrageous, but as you say, he’s got away with it before. He’s been exposed-there was an article by Chris Carter published only a few months ago, detailing his exceptions in detail, with blow-by-blow accounts, exact quotes, etc., but that’s completely irrelevant. It’s as if none of that has happened.

He’s now creating the illusion that the whole thing’s been dismissed and that’s the end of psychic pets. It’s just a matter of people fooling themselves.

Alex Tsakiris: What is going on here? What do you think is really behind this? Because it’s easy once you get into this and understand the extent to which this is misinformation, it’s easy to spin out of control with conspiracies and all sorts of strange ideas. What is really going on here? What do you think? What’s your best guess, having been in this for as long as you have?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Personally, I think it’s just what Wiseman said it is. I think it’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that. He accuses people who are interested in psychic phenomena and do research on them in an open-minded way of being fooled or of self-deception.

Basically, Wiseman is a dogmatic materialist. People who are materialists aren’t people who don’t believe anything; they’re people who have a really strong belief that the mind is nothing but the brain, that the free will doesn’t really exist and we are just robots. He tries to prove that in this book–we are deceived by our senses into believing things that fit with our pre-existing beliefs.

I think it’s as simple as that. He’s dogmatically committed to that point of view. He firmly believes it. He’s totally convinced that the mind’s in the brain and none of these things are possible. Therefore, the evidence must be flawed. People must be either deceiving themselves or deceiving others. So I think we have to see that we’re dealing here with a fundamentalist belief system of people who pretend to be scientific but are not.

And in fact, I only realized this today when I was reading his book. In fact, what this is is something that pretends to be scientific but which is not. And the word for that is pseudo-science. What we’re dealing with here is a particularly virulent form of pseudo-science. It’s propelled by this very deep belief system and because they’re so sure they’re right, so convinced that the materialist world view has to be true and that it’s equivalent to science and reason, then there’s not really much point in wasting time on evidence you know in advance must be false.

Alex Tsakiris: I can’t help but wonder that there is something more to this. It doesn’t have to be conspiratorial in the way that we normally think of it, in terms of a bunch of guys meeting in a smoky back room or anything like that. But the fact that certain people of a certain stripe–an Atheistic, dogmatically materialistic stripe–are put in a position where they have the microphone, are promoted. Ideas are spread more widely.

Other people are treated differently or at a lower level that we don’t even see. They don’t get advancement, don’t get the next grant, and don’t get even a job in academia. I do have to wonder if there isn’t some degree of the system taking over and promoting a certain set of ideas and directly opposing another set of ideas. Again, looking at the broader brush of history, this has happened over and over again.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I think that’s true. I think that’s the situation we’re in. I mean, Wiseman’s book for example, which doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny at all, has had a fantastic run of publicity here in Britain. It was featured in the Guardian-in one of the chapters there’s an article. He has an article in a very recent the New Scientist. Again, no critical response; no one putting another point of view. He’s been on the BBC; he’s had huge, full-scale, national publicity here in Britain about this book, with very little chance for anyone to say anything opposing it.

But I don’t think it’s so much a conspiracy as the fact that many people within the scientific world, and especially the science journalists, are committed Atheists and materialists. They have a world view. They think that the scientific understanding of the world-their view of the world-is science and reason. Everyone else’s view is muddled or prejudiced or illusory. I think honestly they’ve convinced themselves that they’re propagating the truth and that other people are stirring up muddles and delusions and so forth.

Now I think the reason Wiseman’s gotten a pretty free run with the British media is that the people who control the liberal media–the New Scientist, Guardian, and so on–most of the people in charge of those are, in fact, people who share his views and for whom what he’s saying is music to their ears. They want to promote it.

It’s just as if the Guardian was run by dogmatic Roman Catholics and someone came along with some statements from the Pope, they’d give them high publicity. So if the BBC was run by the Vatican, then the Pope would be getting all this air time, not Richard Wiseman.

But the fact is that people who control the media here in Britain, and I think in the U.S.–it’s a similar thing with the New York Times, New York Review of Books and the main intellectual media-on the whole tend to be strongly influenced by people of the materialist and Atheist world view and they’re therefore favored. They promote people whose views agree with their own.

So I think that’s just the way it is and we do have a kind of intellectual establishment which has this set of prejudices, dogmatic belief systems, which make it hard for genuine science, genuine inquiry to get a fair hearing. Suddenly they make it impossible for it to get any fair funding because there is no official funding for any of these unorthodox fields of research, even though most members of the public are actually very interested in them.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me push that a little bit further and play it out a little bit further. It’s speculative; I understand that, but I have to wonder if this idea that lies underneath your research and lies underneath a lot of the other psi research and certainly the near-death experience research that we’ve looked at on this show doesn’t get at a very unsettling proposition for our current society the way that it’s formed. I know that sounds kind of grandiose, but it is.

And the idea that our consciousness isn’t just a product of our brain, that our consciousness does violate our basic understanding of how we experience the world in terms of spacetime and maybe our consciousness extends beyond our death.

All of these ideas are not only hard to process personally but if we step back and look at them in terms of the impact they would have on our society, on our institutions, I think they’re very threatening. So I can’t help but wonder whether or not there is someone who’s looked around the corner a little bit and said, “You know what? That’s not really a great idea for what we’re trying to advance here in terms of our materialistic, capitalistic system, in terms of our organization that we have, Western society.”

Again, that’s kind of a very broad, broad area but I just wonder if you have any thoughts on that.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I think this particular conflict of views goes back a long way. It goes back at least to the 18th century and the French Revolution. Then there was a very strong anti-religious movement. You know the French Revolution tried to suppress the Christian religion. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was turned into a Temple of Reason. They thought that science and reason represented the way forward and that religion and superstition were what held humanity back.

And that’s essentially enlightened world view. Now it has certain good things about it. I’m all in favor of science and reason but I don’t see that that necessarily means that one has to reject all other ways of looking at the world. I think the problem is that this Enlightenment rationalism has hardened into dogma.

The reason it’s so difficult to criticize it is because the people who defend it, who advocate it, who believe it, don’t really believe it. The point is that if you really believe the materialist world view, it means you have no free will, as Wiseman says in this book. When you look at these psychic things and you realize how people are fooling themselves it reveals us, as he says, to be the robots that we really are.

Now, does he really think he’s a robot or does he just think that people like you and me are robots because we’re influenced by evidence he doesn’t think exists? Well, if he’s just a robot, if he has no free will or if it’s just his brain that’s doing things, then the whole of the legal system collapses because it depends on people making choices, being guilty or not guilty. If there’s no real choice then we couldn’t have a legal system. The whole educational system collapses. And indeed, science collapses.

There’s no point in trying to persuade people with evidence and reason in science if they’re totally conditioned by the activity of their brains and have no free will and they’re simply robots. It’s essentially a self-contradictory point of view. It’s incredible, in fact. And yet this extraordinary, dogmatic point of view has come to occupy the highest pinnacles of the academic and intellectual world.

I think the reason they can’t see how weak an argument it is, what a completely inconsistent world view it is is because in reality I don’t think anyone really believes it. I don’t think Wiseman thinks he’s a robot who has no free will. I don’t think he believes that for a minute.

Alex Tsakiris: We’ve reached some kind of equilibrium there that I think needs to be maintained in order for the system to not be threatened. Just as you said that the legal system is threatened by a true understanding of what it means not to have free will, the legal system and our industrial system and our military system is threatened by the idea of a spirit world. Of a consciousness that extends beyond this life in this world.

As an example, if reincarnation is true–and I’m not saying it’s true-but if reincarnation is true what does that mean to go drop bombs on other countries and unsuspecting civilians in the streets? What does it mean if we all are connected in some way? What does it mean to pollute other parts of the world?

There’s some fundamental re-thinking that needs to go on that I kind of think we like to not get into too much. So this idea of maintaining this status quo, this equilibrium, even if it doesn’t make sense, even if we have a dogmatically Christian group on one side and a dogmatically Atheistic group on the other side, at least we have balance and we can keep the train on its track.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I think it’s partly like that. I think part of it is just a matter of psychology of belief. You know, a lot of people have grown up in the intellectual world. It’s more common in Britain and Europe than in America because a lot more people are religious in America. Not necessarily Christian right-wing Fundamentalists-there are a lot of liberal Christians, liberal Jews, and liberal Muslims. So not all religious people are dogmatical fundamentalists by any means. But it certainly suits materialists to portray them as such.

Here in Europe, that point of view is rather overshadowed by this kind of Enlightenment rationalist point of view. Many people who have been educated into Enlightenment rationalism, as I was myself-it was part of my scientific education-what’s in it for people is they think, “We’re smarter than everybody else because we’ve seen through all these illusions. All these other people are going to church and kneeling and praying and stuff and it’s all just stuff going on inside their heads. There’s no God out there. It’s all just an illusion inside their brains. They’re short-circuiting some various pleasure circuits, causing release of serotonin or something by their prayers which is not really doing anything out there in the real world.”

So it’s the sense that science and reason have risen above religion and superstition and people who have that world view think of themselves as a superior education as opposed to the uneducated. Clever as opposed to stupid. Bright as opposed to dim. And there’s a lot in it for people to believe that because it puts flatters their self-image and gives them a sense of being superior to others.

I think there are personal reasons why people believe in it, too. I think they’re mostly personal reasons rather than the system as a whole because when I give talks in scientific institutions, which I do quite often, I find the number of people within science-even in unprofessional scientists-who have the kind of dogmatic Dawkins or Wiseman type position–are eventually a minority. Most people are actually fairly open-minded.

It’s not as if the whole science community believes that or is desperate to keep this materialist show on the road. They have to go along with it to hold down their job because that is still the kind of established orthodoxy. I think that it’s rather like Russia under Brezhnev. It’s orthodoxy to which you have to pay lip service but which isn’t necessarily something which you deeply believe. I think a lot of people pretend to believe it. Some really do. Dawkins certainly does. He’s an evangelist for this point of view. So is Wiseman. But most scientists are actually a bit more open-minded and looking for something new.

I think what’s really important is that we have to move on beyond this dogmatic, narrow materialism. Quantum physics alone shows us that it’s not an adequate view of the world, let alone psychical research. So I think we have to move on beyond it and that’s where the really exciting growth in science is going to be. But we’re still stuck within this dogmatic orthodoxy.

Alex Tsakiris: I’m glad to hear that you’re still an optimist. That’s encouraging. I look at history and I look at William James on and I say, “There’s really no guarantee that we will advance.” There isn’t, is there? I mean, we could easily just run past this little run that psi and parapsychology seems to be having and it could be just a mere bump in the road. We could go on, business as usual, for another hundred years.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I don’t think so actually. I’m writing a new book at the moment which is called, The Science Delusion and the subtitle is, Dispelling the Ten Dogmas of Materialism and Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry. I think materialism has ten distinct dogmas which is what I question in this book and show that when we go beyond and science opens up it gets much more exciting. I think the reason we’re going to have to question them is they’re not working.

For example, the Genome Project which told us that the human genome would lead to a new era in medicine and we’d soon be able to have totally personalized medicine and there would be a huge range of new drugs and products come out of it. People speculated literally hundreds of billions of dollars on this and practically all of them lost their money because it’s come to very little. We now have the problem called the Missing Inheritability Problem where the Genome Project simply turns out to have very, very little predictive power. It’s led to more problems than it solved.

And consciousness studies show that the materialists’ attempts to understand the brain, which people 15 to 20 years ago thought we’d soon figure out by means of brain scans, etc., that consciousness itself is an impenetrable mystery from the materialist point of view. And consciousness studies is now really getting going. It’s an exciting field of science. It simply doesn’t fit the materialist model. Neither does the Genome Project and reductionistic molecular biology. It’s just running into problems over and over again. It’s simply not delivering.

So I think science is stuck. Although newspapers constantly tell us of new breakthroughs, that’s not what’s really happening. In medicine, too, there’s a dearth of new drugs that are coming out of drug companies that are really more expensive versions of existing ones. There’s very little that’s really new coming out. I think that this kind of science we’ve got at the moment, this materialistically reductionist kind of science, is running into the ground.

And it is in physics, too. We’ve got superstring theory with 10 dimensions or M-theory with 11 that are untestable. We’ve got cosmologists adopting a multiverse theory, postulating trillions of unobserved universes for which there’s not a shred of evidence. Over and over again, science is no longer confidently going forward with discovery after discovery. It’s reaching a kind of dead end; it’s in a kind of cul-de-sac.

I think that, together with the rising health care cost crisis and economic crisis and stuff is going to lead a major, major shift in world view. I always have been an optimist. It may seem like extreme optimism to think that at the moment, but I think it’s closer than it ever has been. I think we’re going to see a really big change quite soon.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, that certainly is the future that I’d like to imagine. So this new book, what’s the title of it again?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: The new book I’m working on is called, The Science Delusion: Dispelling the Ten Dogmas of Materialism and Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry. It won’t be out until next year.

One thing that will be out sooner than that and is worth mentioning in this context, Alex, is that my book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home is coming out in a new edition in the U.S. next month in April.  The new edition includes an Appendix called, Controversies and Inquiries, and in it I summarize my various encounters with skeptics over the years, including Richard Wiseman.

So I’m hoping that that will enable people to see just how the debate actually goes. Anyone who’s interested in the phenomenon can actually look at the reactions of the skeptics. What comes out from looking at the big picture of these case studies of skeptics is that not only don’t they know the evidence, they don’t want to know the evidence. Over and over again it turns out that the evidence is irrelevant because they think they already know the truth.

Alex Tsakiris: We’ll certainly keep an eye out for that. Dr. Sheldrake, once again, thanks so much for joining us today on Skeptiko.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: A pleasure.