88. Scientific Community Unfair to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, Imperial College London Dissertation Asserts
Faced with choosing a prominent figure for his Science and Society Masters dissertation, Phillip Stevens avoided the obvious. Instead of Kepler, Newton, or Darwin, Stevens chose controversial British biologist, and Perrott-Warrick Scholar, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. “I’d known about Rupert Sheldrake and I found him very interesting”, Phillips said.
Although skeptical of Sheldrake’s theories, Phillips focused on how Sheldrake was being judged, “I wanted to be impartial as to whether he was right or wrong and instead go on and look at whether he’d been treated fairly.”
What he discovered surprised him. Stevens found that despite an unblemished academic record and a research fellowship at the Royal Society, Sheldrake faced public scorn from colleagues for publishing his theory of morphic fields which suggests a living, developing universe with its own inherent memory. “There was a review in the journal, Nature in which the editor, John Maddox said that the book, A New Science of Life, should be burned”, Stevens said. “You’d think that that sort of attitude towards what was just a theory would be out of date and would be seen as you know, unscientific. But in fact, it damaged Sheldrake’s career, not John Maddox’s career.”
But the biggest surprise came when Stevens looked at Sheldrake’s collaboration with skeptics like Dr. Richard Wiseman. According to Stevens Wiseman failed to follow normal procedures scientists use when collaborating and reporting their results.
“Wiseman actually did repeats of Sheldrake’s results. He never denied this, but he only admitted it, I think, ten years later. I mean, in normal experiments, if you repeat someone’s results, you say it. And there didn’t seem to be any reason for him not to say, ‘I’ve repeated his results. These experiments work. Sheldrake wasn’t wrong.’ And you know what? Sheldrake was a Research Fellow at the Royal Society. I would hope that when he has some experiments and tests things he’d get it right because he’s from one of the best institutions of science in Britain and in the world. So I really don’t know why Wiseman took so long just to say, ‘Yes, the patterns in Sheldrake’s works were repeated in my own.'”, said Stevens.
Read the complete dissertation here.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko we’re going to talk about science and skepticism. You know, a few months ago I received an e-mail from a gentleman in the UK who was completing his master’s dissertation on the philosophy of science. He had chosen Rupert Sheldrake as the person that he was going to profile as part of his dissertation. I had done a couple of interviews with Dr. Sheldrake, as well as delved into the research that he had done with skeptic Richard Wiseman, who’s a professor in the UK as well.
So this gentleman, Philip Stevens, wanted to get some background information, wanted to get my thoughts and I have to say, when I first spoke with Philip I really didn’t think that this would all lead to a very fair, even-handed review of exactly what had occurred. You know we’ve dealt with that quite a bit on this show. So I was really quite pleasantly surprised when Philip completed his dissertation, sent me a copy, and I read it and it really affirmed just about everything we’ve been talking about here. It’s really obvious to anyone who looks at the research, really looks at the accounts that the individuals have given.
We’ve hashed it out a couple times before on this show but I think it’s worth looking at an objective person from the outside who came in and just asked the question, “How does science deal with controversial theories like those of Sheldrake’s? Can someone like that expect a fair treatment when they step outside the bounds of the existing paradigm and propose a theory that doesn’t fit with what other people think?” And hopefully we’ll get a little bit of insight into the answer to that question with my interview with Philip Stevens.
Philip Stevens: Well, I’m Philip Stevens and I’ve written a dissertation on Rupert Sheldrake, specifically Rupert Sheldrake and how the scientific community view him. And whether they view him fairly or not. It was part of my MSC at the London Center in Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, Philip, thanks again for joining us today on Skeptiko. You know, just to fill our listeners in, you originally contacted me because our show has done several broadcasts, interviews, with both Dr. Sheldrake and some of his collaborators on his experiments. So as a little bit of a background you contacted me and we had a chat. Then you were nice enough to send me a copy of your completed dissertation.
I thought since it really covered a lot of the topics that we’ve talked so much about on this show, I thought it would be really interesting to share some of what you discovered with our listeners. So maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit more about this dissertation topic, how you came to it, and what were your, I guess, preconceived ideas going into it. And maybe some of the advice you got from your advisors going into it.
Philip Stevens: Well, as part of my dissertation, I had to do a piece of original research on something that no one had really touched on before. For a long time I’d known about Rupert Sheldrake and I found him very interesting. Actually he had come up in the course, so I thought he might be someone that I’d like to talk to. I originally heard of him years before, like five years before I’d even started in university. He was on a British daytime TV show talking about the sense of being stared at and demonstrating some of his experiments.
It surprised me that this experiment seemed to be revolutionary in a way. He was proving that ESP or telepathy existed. And yet, he wasn’t giving a lecture to the Royal Society. I think he was on “Richard and Judy,” which was like a magazine show that was on in the afternoons. I didn’t know really whether to believe it or not so my brother and I actually went outside the second the show was over and we tried to replicate his results. And we actually did replicate them. So that sort of said there was something interesting here. I wasn’t convinced by it but I thought, ‘Well, it’s something that should be investigated.’
I actually didn’t think about it for a long time until I started at university and they said, “Try and think of this subject.” So I thought of Rupert Sheldrake because he seemed like someone who could be investigated and someone who actually perhaps needed to be investigated. So I had the luck and I’ve found out there hadn’t really been any research done on him in the past. Not on a sociological, sociology of science level. In fact, when I started the dissertation and I decided I wanted to interview him and I asked him through e-mail initially whether he knew if there had been any research done on him in the past, he said, “No, to the best of my knowledge you’re the first,” which was exciting.
Alex Tsakiris: Philip, let me ask you this. Going into this you said you were somewhat open-minded but in general were you skeptical of the whole kind of ESP business? Are you pretty much kind of a New Age kind of guy that does psychic readings and that kind of stuff? Or were you more on the skeptical side? Where would you put yourself in that continuum, if you will, of skeptic versus believer?
Philip Stevens: Well, I’d say I was a skeptic but you know, I think the term “skeptic” I’ve come to realize has been hijacked, for want of a better word and it’s now the term for non-believer. And I wouldn’t say I was a non-believer. I wouldn’t say I believe it completely. I’d say I was somewhere in between the two, which I consider to be a skeptic.
I mean, I’m reminded of what my old physics teacher used to say. He said, “A true scientist is skeptical but not cynical, is open-minded but not gullible.” So I think I was in that area. But often the people who I investigated in the dissertation who criticize Sheldrake, I don’t see as skeptics so much as just non-believers, as opposed to believers. Which isn’t, in my opinion, the same as a skeptic. So they call themselves skeptics but I don’t think they are often.
Alex Tsakiris: Well tell us a little bit about the approach you took methodologically and what questions you really had going into it. And then we’ll kind of get into what you discovered.
Philip Stevens: Okay. Well, straightaway I decided that I didn’t really want to talk about whether Sheldrake was right or wrong because I’m not a research scientist. I have a Master’s in Science through the Sociology of Science and the Philosophy of Science areas, so it’s not really physical science. And also, I mean, whether he was right or wrong is something that can be discovered in the future perhaps. What I wanted to do was be impartial as to whether he was right or wrong and instead go on and look at whether he’d been treated fairly.
You can have people being wrong and still be treated unfairly and of course throughout history there’s been scientist who have been correct and treated unfairly. So that was my main focus and really that was all the advice I was given by my supervisor. And my other scientists at my university was to not really concentrate on whether he was right or wrong but to look at whether his evidence, his theories, his research, were looked at fairly by the scientific community.
Alex Tsakiris: So how did you go about answering that question?
Philip Stevens: Well, the first thing obviously is to look and see the history of Rupert Sheldrake, where he came from, his theory, his research, and see how scientists looked at him initially with his more conventional theories and how that changed as his theories changed and his research went to field that are called paranormal.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So just kind of you have the same guy, same credentials, same background. How is he treated differently when his areas of inquiry change, right?
Philip Stevens: Yes. And in fact there was one very specific event when he published his book, A New Science of Life. Before then he was a Research Fellow at the Royal Society. He’d been a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard. He was an elector at Cambridge. So he was very much at the center of science. He was as in the mainstream as you could get. And then he published this book, A New Science of Life, with this theory of morphic resonance which was quite different to all the other theories, to put it mildly. Initially the reviews of his book were, this is an interesting idea, perhaps it’s not right but it should be investigated.
Then there was a review in the journal, Nature by the editor, John Maddox, in which John Maddox said that the book, A New Science of Life, should be burned. Or at least he asked the question, should this book be burned? He never actually said this book should be burned, but he hinted that if book-burning was allowed, this would be a very good candidate for it.
You’d think really that that sort of attitude towards what was just a theory, really, would be out of date and would be seen as you know, unscientific. But in fact, it damaged Sheldrake’s career, not John Maddox’s career, bizarrely. From then on, Sheldrake was seen as someone who had gone beyond the pale of conventional science. Rupert Sheldrake just continued to fight his cause to say, “Look, this is what I think. These are my theories.” He developed experiments to try and test his theories.
As these experiments went on, he realized that perhaps something that could test his theory, something that could maybe prove his theory was phenomena such as the sense of being stared at, do dogs and other pets know when their owners are coming home, and then telephone telepathy. So he began to test these things. I think at the point the scientific community was kind of saying, aha, you see? He’s testing these paranormal claims. He is beyond the pale. Then he entered the whole area of paranormal research and parapsychology which already had a lot of taboo linked with it and so him going there in the eyes of many scientists was just a natural progression from having a beyond the pale theory to doing research into beyond the pale issues.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so you’ve kind of set the groundwork there, laid out the case of here’s someone who publishes a controversial book and strangely gets criticized in a rather inappropriate way scientifically as this discourse normally goes on. And yet it seems to kind of blow back on him instead of the reviewer. Then tell us a little bit about your findings in terms of the actual experiments and how those are treated inside the scientific community and Sheldrake’s reaction to it.
Philip Stevens: It’s interesting. There seems to be different levels of skepticism when it comes to Sheldrake’s theories. There’s a group of scientists who just without looking at it, without reading any of the research, say no, this is wrong. This can’t happen. And therefore just reject it. I think there was an interview Sheldrake did on BBC Radio where he was interviewed by a well-known skeptic. They had a debate. I think it was Peter Atkins from Oxford. Sheldrake said, “Well, have you read my paper on telephone telepathy?” And Peter Atkins said, “Oh no, but I’d be very suspicious of it.”
“You haven’t even read my paper. Why do you say it’s all rubbish?” And he used purely theoretical reasons to dismiss it. I mean, using theoretical reasons, they’re fine. But you still need a reason for Sheldrake getting positive results. I don’t think Atkins or these other scientists who reject it without looking at it would do this with any other field of science. I mean, I can’t imagine Peter Atkins, who is a chemist, going on to debate another chemist about a theory without reading his theories, without reading his papers. So it seems to be a different rule with Sheldrake and his work. So that’s one group of scientists.
Then there’s others who do look at his research, do go into it, but for whatever reason they look at it in a way that is so skeptical that it’s just unfair. I mean, there was something that I think you picked up on, was an interview with Richard Wiseman on the Skeptical Guide to the Universe when Richard Wiseman says, “Oh, I don’t think Sheldrake’s experiments on dogs are good enough to eliminate normal reasons.” And he lists these normal reasons.
The experiments Sheldrake set up were specifically designed to not be affected by those normal – I think it was cueing of the dog was Wiseman’s idea of what could explain Sheldrake’s positive results. Of course, Sheldrake had created an experiment that prevented this, prevented the cueing. Actually, I wrote that bit and then I listened to Skeptiko, and you’d picked up on exactly the same quote that I had.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, the other thing we focused on on the show and on the interviews with Wiseman and then the subsequent interview with Sheldrake was that Wiseman just seemed to quite clearly break normal scientific protocol with regard to collaboration, just in some really fundamental ways.
I mean, you’re collaborating, you agree on a set of standards and protocols, and then to arbitrarily change those protocols and then publish your results with the different protocols than you agreed upon, without consulting your collaborator, seems to me just completely – I don’t know, it’s just outrageous, really. Again, there seemed to be no blow-back. When I first looked into this that’s the one thing that really kind of surprised me is that it just seemed rather clear and there was virtually no blow-back on Wiseman for clearly kind of stepping outside the bounds of how these things are normally done.
Philip Stevens: Yes, and in fact there’s one thing that I pick up on in the dissertation is that Wiseman actually did repeat Sheldrake’s results. Now, he never denied this, but he only admitted it, I think, ten years later. I mean, in normal experiments, if you repeat someone’s results, you say it. And there didn’t seem to be any reason for him not to say, ‘I’ve repeated his results. These experiments work. Sheldrake wasn’t wrong.’
And you know what? Sheldrake was a Research Fellow at the Royal Society. I would hope that when he has some experiments and tests things he’d get it right. Perhaps his interpretation is wrong, but I’d hope that the protocols set up are good because he’s from one of the best institutions of science in Britain and in the world. So I really don’t know why Wiseman took so long just to say, ‘Yes, the patterns in Sheldrake’s works were repeated in my own.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So, Philip, what do you make of the overall message in this? That the overall landscape? Why are we so kind of fixated on this taboo of parapsychology, ESP, and anything that even hints at a non-material world and especially with Sheldrake, I think he’s gone to great lengths to not inject any kind of spiritual aspect to it or anything like that. There’s quite a bit of research that does kind of venture into that territory but why is there such a hard and fast line in the sand in terms of this taboo of science?
Philip Stevens: Well, I think the world is set up in a certain way and scientists believe, or a good number of scientists. I don’t want to say scientists and that’s just everybody in science. I think a good number of scientists see the world in a materialistic way, and certainly the laws of science at the moment, or the accepted laws of science at the moment, say we live in a materialistic world. I think some of the research results that Sheldrake and other parapsychologists get really questions part of that theory.
There’s often a criticism of these parapsychological results that, “Oh, if this is true, if telepathy or ESP really exists, then it will mean a rewriting of the science books. A rewriting of the laws of physics.” I mean, Sheldrake says, “Well, no. Perhaps it will need tweaking but not really a complete rewriting.” I think there is a fear that well, if the materialistic idea of the universe, the materialistic paradigm, isn’t true then as a scientist I’ve based my entire life on teaching this thing and for it to be wrong that would be very traumatic in several ways.
So I think a lot of scientists who are vocally against research into this field are afraid that their idea of the universe might be wrong. I mean, it might not necessarily be wrong. It might be that, as Sheldrake often says, it needs changing, tweaking. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened throughout the history of science, the laws of physics, the laws of science having to be changed.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I think what’s also curious is, what do you make of the fact that the criticism seems always to come from one area of science, and I have to put that science in quotes because it’s a softer science and that’s “psychology.” I mean, you don’t hear the hard physicists criticizing these ideas because they’re right there. I mean, if you look at current, cutting-edge physics theory it’s certainly way out there and anything but materialistic, really, in its foundation. So don’t you find it curious or what do you make of the fact that psychology seems to have kind of grown this little skeptical bent that needs to push so hard against these ideas?
Philip Stevens: I don’t know. It’s interesting. I think Dowell Blan of Cornell University has written a paper – I think I’ve read a paper on this where they did a survey of scientists from all fields of science and asked do you believe in the paranormal and survival? He found that, as you say, cosmologists and I think quantum physicists were far more accepting of the idea that these things might exist than psychologists.
Psychologists ranked the lowest. I think he said that it’s because psychologists deal with people generally and people tend to lie. He thinks that perhaps because people want to believe these things, perhaps psychologists think that people lie about these things or they self-delude themselves. Now I don’t know if that’s true but it’s an interesting theory.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Philip, what has been the result of your dissertation? How has it gone for you? I understand that you’ve published it and you’ve received your degree, which is great news. Anything else that you would like to report that’s come of the dissertation?
Philip Stevens: Well, the final marks haven’t been given yet.
Alex Tsakiris: Oh, right, right. But just let me interject and say that you are in the process of getting those, but you have given us permission to publish it here, so anyone who’s listening can find a copy of the dissertation on the Skeptiko Web site. I’m sorry, please go ahead.
Philip Stevens: You saw it on Skeptiko first.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Yeah, we’re breaking a world-wide kind of news breaking story.
Philip Stevens: Well, I found the dissertation very interesting to write. To start off, I have a BENG. a Bachelor’s in Engineering so it wasn’t my first dissertation. Certainly I found it quite exciting to write it and to do this research for the first time. To go through all these episodes in Sheldrake’s life and write a short biography of him. I mean, I have to thank lots of people who gave me material, who said, “Oh, yes, I know about Rupert Sheldrake.” Several people in UCL said, “I know about him, I’m a great fan of his. I’ve collected lots of papers and clippings of his.” So they gave that to me and it was just a mine of stuff that I could go through and look at.
I think there is something about doing research on somebody that no one else has done research on before. I mean, a few of my classmates were doing people like Keppler. They were doing interesting new ways of looking at him. They had hundreds of papers on Keppler. For me, this is the first paper on Sheldrake ever done. In fact, the dissertation starts with a quote from a TV series that did a biography of Sheldrake in which they said, “Sheldrake is either the greatest charlatan in the history of science or he is Einstein and Darwin combined.”
It was sort of, “Well, I’m doing the first sociological report on him, so perhaps if he is the next Darwin or Einstein, in a hundred years people will look back and say, ‘Oh, we should do papers on Sheldrake. Oh, who was the first person to do a paper?’ They might pull out and read mine.” That’s a claim to fame.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, perhaps. Although I have to say I think that kind of hyperbole only contributes to the problem. I mean, I don’t know if it’s you know – I don’t know what to make of that when we have to kind of deify or vilify. There can’t be anything in between like interesting theory, let’s check it out, you know?
Well, great work and again, we’ll publish and provide a link to the dissertation online. Philip, congratulations with your fine dissertation and thanks so much for joining us today on Skeptiko.
Philip Stevens: Thank you.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Philip Stevens for joining me today on Skeptiko. If you’d like a link to his full dissertation please visit the Skeptiko Web site. That’s at skeptiko.com. You’ll also find links to all our previous shows, a link to our forum, and an e-mail link to me.
Much, much more coming on future episodes of Skeptiko. Be sure to stay with us for that. And until then, bye for now.