Sheldrake vs. Pigliucci

May 31, 2022 • 9:15 am

Remember Rupert Sheldrake, a notorious quack who combines his pseudoscience with an extraordinarily thin skin, so that when his quackery is called out, he cries that his “good” scientific ideas are being unfairly suppressed?  He’s still here, which disturbs both Pigliucci and me. The good news is that serious scientists have dismissed Sheldrake’s ideas a long time ago, and it’s only the credulous public that keeps him going, for he says what they want to hear.  Also, he doesn’t rant, but speaks with a Received English accent, which makes him seem saner than he is.

I used to post about Sheldrake all the time (see pages at this link), as his ideas were so unbelievably crazy that I couldn’t resist. Further, he was given the platform of a TEDx Whitechapel talk in which he expounded scientific misconceptions, and when TEDx moved the talk from their YouTube channel to another site because of its errors, Sheldrake claimed censorship.  As Massimo Pigliucci notes in the article below:

Like many purveyors of pseudoscience, [Sheldrake] suffers from Galileo syndrome, the belief that he is a lonely genius who sees further than anyone else, but whom the scientific establishment fights against in order to preserve the status quo.

Click below to read Pigliucci’s critical take on Sheldrake, who’s still hanging about like a bad penny.

In many ways Sheldrake resembles Deepak Chopra, another self-styled “misunderstood genius”. Among Sheldrake’s questionable ideas are that of “morphic resonance”, the notion that people can sense when others are staring at their backs, as well as the claim that dogs can be psychic. But let Massimo outline some of these (all have been debunked or explained as naturalistic phenomena):

But let’s get to the substance of what Sheldrake has been claiming now for decades. Back in 1981 he published a book, A New Science of Life, which prompted a devastating review by John Maddox in Nature, part of which is quoted at the beginning of this article. That’s where Sheldrake proposes his notion of “morphic resonance,” an entirely new phenomenon that is meant to account for both known and still unexplained phenomena, from biological heredity to the alleged “fact” that when a rat learns to navigate a maze in a laboratory other rats, in other locations, mysteriously acquire the same knowledge.

The notion, as much as one can make any sense of it, is that the entire universe is actually a living thing (Sheldrake also endorses the idea of panpsychism) characterized by a “morphic field” that makes all these things (and many more thereof, including telepathy) possible through a kind of diffused memory.

Morphic fields are reminiscent of the Jungian (itself pseudoscientific) notion of archetypes, with the difference that Jung limited his particular bit of empirically unsubstantiated speculation to the human subconscious, while Sheldrake goes cosmic.

The idea of morphic resonance — like pretty much all of Sheldrake’s ideas — is also not at all original. To begin with, it closely resembles the long discredited concept of a vital force, or élan vital, proposed by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, and actually tracking all the way back to first century BCE Stoic Posidonius of Apamea. I don’t know whether Sheldrake is aware of these forerunners, but he does acknowledge the influence of the neo-vitalist Hans Driesch and his philosophy of entelechy (a term originally coined by Aristotle).

Needless to say, but let’s state it clearly anyway, there is absolutely no evidence that life forces, morphogenetic fields, and related concepts have any correspondence with the real world. Accordingly, Sheldrake hasn’t been able to publish his ideas in real scientific journals. Which I’m sure he attributes, conveniently, to a worldwide conspiracy against him.

Then again, some of his claims have been subjected to test even when the pertinent evidence (and only part of the methodology) appeared only in Sheldrake’s own books. For example, psychologist Richard Wiseman has investigated multiple claims made by Sheldrake, and found them wanting. In a paper entitled “The Psychic Pet Phenomenon: A Reply to Rupert Sheldrake” Wiseman tried to replicate an experiment carried out by Sheldrake using a “psychic pet,” which turned out to be a dog named Jaytee. The claim was that Jaytee would hang around the porch of his owner’s house for longer periods whenever the owner was on his way home. Wiseman’s explanation of the alleged phenomenon is far more prosaic than dog telepathy: the data is consistent with a dog’s natural waiting behavior, and specifically with the tendency of the dog to prolong visits to the porch the longer the owner had been away. As Sam Woolfe puts it in a critical article on Sheldrake, “this is evidence of a dog anticipating the arrival of their owner, instead of knowing it through psychic abilities.” Physicist Freeman Dyson (quoted by John Greenbank in an article Philosophy Now) added:

“Recently Rupert Sheldrake did some interesting experiments on ESP in dogs. Dogs are much better than humans for such experiments. Dogs are dumb, they are not interested in the outcome of the experiment, and they do not cheat. Unfortunately Rupert Sheldrake is not a dog. He is human, and his essential role in his experiments makes his results questionable.”

Wiseman, in his near infinite patience and intellectual honesty, also checked another of Sheldrake’s bizarre ideas. In his book, The Sense of Being Stared At, Sheldrake claims that after tens of thousands of trials, 60% of the subjects reported a feeling of being stared at when they, in fact, were. This would be higher than the expected rate by chance, which is 50%. But Wiseman repeated the experiment and found no statistically significant deviation from the 50–50 rate. Naturally.

Sheldrake has also argued that the speed of light has been dropping over time, a view for which there is absolutely zero evidence. If you go to his talk (link above), he claims that this change in the speed of light “is the most embarrassing episode in the history of science”. (There was no change.)

Yet despite the fact that he’s a palpable quackpot, Sheldrake still gets invites to talk. As Massimo notes in the article, Sheldrake has been invited to the “How the Light Gets In” Festival at Hay in Wales, a generally serious venue that I spoke at once. In fact, Sheldrake has been invited several times, and for no good reason that I can see. It’s not to demonstrate quackery; it’s because Sheldrake’s message, which is antimaterialistic, pro-panpsychism, teleological, and gives a purpose for nature, is like cream to those cats who demand purpose in their science.

Here’s Sheldrake being asked about the supposed death of New Atheism. Instead of answering the question, he immediately goes back years to kvetch about his “banned” TEDx talk, which clearly still smarts, and to argue that his “cancellation” (his talk wasn’t removed, just put on a new site) was in fact the beginning of the death of New Atheism. This is a man who vastly overrates his own influence.  The “Galileo Syndrome” is quite evident.

It’s ironic that in the Facebook clip above, Sheldrake mentions the “reproducibility crisis” in science as an example of how science is unreliable, for none of Sheldrake’s own contentions have been replicated.

In a way I feel sorry for Sheldrake, who must wake up each morning feeling aggrieved that his greatness hasn’t been recognized. But on the other hand I despise his pushing woo and dissing science when there’s no substantive basis for his assertions. In the end, I agree with Massimo’s assessment (The Science Delusion is one of Sheldrake’s books.)

. . . the scientific approach to understanding the world has been around for five (if you count from Galileo) or 25 centuries (if you count from Pre-Socratics like Thales of Miletus). And for all the “alternative ways of knowing” that people like Sheldrake keep throwing up, it has been extremely successful and unparalleled. Meanwhile, none of the alleged alternatives has produced anything other than vague and untestable speculations. That’s why, in the end, I have to agree with Greenbank, who writes:

“The Science Delusion, is disturbingly eccentric. Fluently superficial, it combines a disorderly collage of scientific fact and opinion with an intrusive yet disjunctive metaphysical program.” (Philosophy Now)

h/t: Daniel

20 thoughts on “Sheldrake vs. Pigliucci

  1. >Sheldrake has also argued that the speed of light has been dropping over time, a view for which there is absolutely zero evidence.

    In fact, I’m not even sure if this is a coherent idea, as the meter is defined in terms of the speed of light and the definition of a second.

    1. I disagree with your objection. That would be like saying that someone’s weight is increasing because the kilogram prototype is evaporating (true story, it is!). SI units were redefined in 2019 to more constant, natural definitions, but if it turned out that the speed of light was not constant, then people would find a different standard to define them. So, Sheldrake’s idea is still wrong, but not incoherent for the reason you voiced.

  2. I thought Sheldrake proposed “moronic resonance,” a phenomenon where by when one moron starts spouting Deepity Woo other morons within the Sheldrake Radius begin to resonate at the same frequency.

  3. Sheldrake has two talented sons: Merlin, who is a (real) biologist, and wrote an excellent book about fungi called ‘Entangled Life’, and Cosmo, a musician, about whom I know less. Just goes to show that being bonkers isn’t necessarily a heritable trait.

  4. I’m amazed at my dog’s ability to tell the time of day and the day of the week based on his observations of our routines, but I’m sure no psychic phenomena are required.

  5. My father was a big fan of Sheldrake, and found his arguments convincingly scientific. He also found Sheldrake’s complaints convincing, accepting the idea that the scientific community was like a social club, or maybe a poorly run business. The elites in power would just shut down nonconformists and outsiders without actually looking at what they were saying. There’s all this great stuff being ignored because the person promoting it is the “wrong” kind of people. Sheldrake’s good science was also too threatening to the status quo. It shook the foundations of the hegemonic world view of the establishment.

    I think this romantic story is every bit as appealing to some people as a Universe infused with Meaning. The combination has timeless appeal.

  6. Also, he doesn’t rant, but speaks with a Received English accent, which makes him seem saner than he is.

    We Americans tend to be overly impressed by that pronunciation. Hell, back in the old days, before law school, when I was doing the occasional boat delivery, I got set up on some trips by a Brit yacht broker based in Ft. Lauderdale who could push overpriced boats all day long on Yank suckers based on little more than his plummy accent.

  7. … it closely resembles the long discredited concept of a vital force, or élan vital, proposed by French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1907 book Creative Evolution, and actually tracking all the way back to first century BCE Stoic Posidonius of Apamea.

    If I’m not mistaken, the late-19th/early-20th century British mathematician Lord Kelvin was taken with vitalism, too.

  8. I wonder what would happen if there was a debate (or even just a conversation) between Sheldrake and Jordan Peterson. I am sure it would be hard to listen to for long.

  9. I agree with others here that people who ascribe paranormal solutions to things they do not understand is not practicing science.

    As for dogs, I have a puzzler. My wife has Fridays and Saturdays off. On those days, she gets up early and meets some of her friends and their dogs for a hiking trip in the mountains and/or to the river. The dogs play, and usually get ice cream. The dog lives for those trips. Needless to say, he comes into the bedroom excited early on those mornings. Like a kid on Christmas. sometimes at 0400. But not on days when she goes to the clinic. Interesting, but I always figured she stays up a bit later when she in not going to work the next day, and the dog notices.

    But there is this. Dr. Blank was away at a medical conference last week. Still, long before sunrise on Friday, the dog drops a toy on my head as I slept, and barked at me when I would not get up. He did it Saturday morning as well. There is nothing he could get from my behavior, I go to bed at the same time every night, and do pretty much the same things every day. I often don’t know or care what day it is. But the dog apparently does, and it is sort of vexing.

    1. Where’s the puzzle? When the dog ma is away, it becomes your job to provide the entertainment. The dog explained this, and it’s not his fault if you just didn’t get it. 😉

    2. Not perplexing at all. Dont forget that the dog perceives how your wife spends nearly every day doing certain things except for two days of the week. The dog, being mentally equipped to remember the behavior and routines of humans, doesnt have to count to five to know that the routine varies on two days….after a long stretch of a different routine. One of our former dogs not only knew when we were going out of the house (easy to see), but knew WHETHER OR NOT SHE WAS BEING TAKEN ALONG.(Luggage not involved). If we were taking her, she would jump up and down joyously in anticipation. When she wasnt being taken, she lay on the floor, quiet, ears, down, accepting her fate. She was always right.

  10. The last time I visited the Natural History Museum in London, I’m sorry to report that its shop was selling Sheldrake’s books.

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