issue 27 :: September 2015

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SCIENCE: Rupert Sheldrake

Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, 288pg., Riverhead Books, 1995

Rupert Sheldrake has made a name for himself by advocating a bold pseudoscience philosophy based on his idea of magical “morphic resonance” fields that shape the behavior of all matter and people in the universe. This book does not directly concern his philosophy, and doesn’t even use the word “morphogenic,” but rather it mounts a sloppy, ill-informed, poorly-researched attack on scientists and the scientific method, enticing people who have never studied science (or people, like Sheldrake, who have had their crackpot ideas brutally rejected by mainstream science) to a hostile, anti-science ideology. That’s nice: a book on science by someone who hates science and loathes scientists. I may gift this book to some Texas politicians who have a similar nasty viewpoint. It would be very easy to convert the concepts of morphogenic fields into the Intelligent Design (i.e. Creationist) movement that opposes Evolution. Supporters of the ultra-right-wing Tea Party in America would also appreciate this book’s attitude of “how dare those elite scientists tell us what is the truth!” If that sounds overblown, Sheldrake had this to say at a recent debate with Michael Shermer on the nature of science: “There is no conflict between science and the existence of God; evidence from conscious experience renders belief in God reasonable.”

Sheldrake starts the book with a discussion on the problem of figuring out how birds, like homing pigeons, can return to their nests after long travels. One experiment shows a bird does not use magnetic fields. One experiment shows a bird does not use polarized light. One experiment shows a bird does not use local landmarks. How ever do they navigate? It must be magic! Surely you can figure how Sheldrake’s confusion: different species of birds use different methods or different combinations of methods, so an experiment on species x does not mean it applies to all other bird species. Sheldrake doesn’t provides species names in his discussions, merging every reported experiment (or every experiment he can find that can be manipulated to support him) into a grand, vague study on all birds. Dealing with particular species is something a normal scientist does, a normal scientist who rejects Sheldrake’s ideas, so Sheldrake refuses to use species names throughout his book, and hence, comes up with some strange mysteries that could be solved by making note of the different properties of different species.
Bird navigation turns into how dogs know when they are nearing home if you take them for a car ride. If this is a genuine phenomenon and not anecdotal tall tales (Sheldrake thrives on the anecdote), could dogs have been trained for millennia to be experts at picking up on subtle clues from their owners? Could it be that a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than ours and they can detect particular locations even inside a moving vehicle? No, it must be some sort of magic that science can’t explain. Sheldrake urges readers to start doing their own experiments. Just do them and write down results. It’s that easy! In a book about how to do science, Sheldrake never once mentions control groups, conformational bias or falsifiability, three things every scientist must know before considering an experiment, but Sheldrake hates science and the scientific method, so the routines needed to generate useful results are never discussed. Sheldrake just wants results, the sloppier the better, as those will challenge the scientific establishment. For a “Do-It Yourself Guide,” there is a surprising lack of information on effective scientific tools to figure out how reality works around us.
Next in the book, Sheldrake turns his attention to scientists, whom he strangely dismisses as “Platonists,” without at all explaining his insult. Well, if they are Platonists, Sheldrake is the perfect Aristotelian, Aristotle the pre-scientist who knows what is true and gathers or invents facts to support his position. One of Sheldrake’s gripes against scientists—he also mentions this in his TED-disavowed TEDx talk [“a TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific”]—is that scientists think, in some sort of conspiracy, that the so-called constants of nature, the gravitational constant and so on, are constant throughout time and space and no scientist can ever question this dogma. This is Sheldrake not reading the scientific literature again. It seems like Sheldrake has read one high school physics book and nothing else in the field. Scientists have questioned the idea of the stability of the fundamental constants for over a hundred years; Einstein, Dirac, Feynman and dozens of others have turned to the idea that these constants change over the history of the universe. Such changing constants would solve some problems in complex theories, but then create even bigger problems. And then there is the scientific data which has never found any evidence of such changes. For instance, a temporarily weaker gravitational constant just after the big bang would provide much the same purpose as various Inflation theories, but would also have other consequences that we do not observe, so scientists in the field of early-universe cosmology do not think the gravitational constant was different back then, with the evidence we have gathered so far. For the past decade at least two groups have been studying light that has traveled for billions of years to determine if the so-called fine-structure constant (actually a ratio of three fundamental constants; it is used to calculate the “fine-structure” in atomic spectra) has changed over that time. It’s a difficult task, and so far, there is little, if any, evidence to support the idea. These groups are wholly in the mainstream of science, they are not in danger of loosing their telescope time due to their researches. Has Sheldrake read much science? He seems horribly ignorant of what scientists actually do. How could he talk about changing fundamental constants and not mention the forays of Einstein and Dirac into this idea? That would be like Sheldrake arguing that scientists never think about particles that go faster than light, or a 5th force of nature, or extra-spatial dimensions.
Sheldrake thinks the gravitational constant is not constant, and thinks scientists are involved in a conspiracy to hide the evidence. (Wait: does Sheldrake think scientists don’t think the constants can change, or does he think they are involved in a conspiracy to hide the changing constants? Both! Does he read what he writes, or like a con man cold reading his audience, does he say anything to reel suckers in?) Without one mention of how difficult gravity experiments are to perform, he points how how measurements of the gravitational constant over the decades seem to approach a certain number... which is what you would think would happen, as scientists run into the same mechanical limits of the two basic methods for measuring the gravitational constant. But to Sheldrake, this is an insidious conspiracy. Sheldrake, not having read many physics books, doesn’t know that a gravitational constant changing in the past 100 years would have very noticeable effects on the orbit of the moon, effects no one is reporting. Is that part of the conspiracy? A young geoscientist studying tides has to sign on to the conspiracy? Sheldrake hates science so much, everything is a conspiracy against him. Sheldrake can’t be wrong, because everyone else is. His hatred and paranoia are both hilarious and sad.
Next we come to the meat of the book, and the basis of Sheldrake’s belief system. Because, as he reports in his book (page 108), fiction authors routinely use the cliché of people being able to tell when someone is staring at them from behind—even Sherlock Homes knows this true!—this must be a real effect and Sheldrake has undertaken a series of experiments to study it at face value. His experiments take the basic form of putting two people in a room, one behind the other. At certain intervals, a bell rings and the person behind either looks at the front person or not, and the front person notes if he is feeling stared at (from behind; he can’t see the person behind him) or not. Sheldrake reports consistently finding more correct positive results than would be expected than just random positive results. Magic that science can’t explain, right?
Well, I think readers of Monk Mink Pink Punk are smart enough to figure out the basic, important flaw in Sheldrake’s “experiment.” Yes, Sheldrake has no control group to compare against, for he walks into the experiment firmly convinced that this is a real effect. Without the control group and with Sheldrake’s extremely strong confirmation bias, the results are meaningless and only appear to show a mystery. The real mystery is why doesn’t Sheldrake know how to design a scientific experiment. What I would do, were I to perform this experiment, is put one person in a room and note how many times that person feels like someone is staring at them from behind under three conditions: when no one else is in the room, when there is one other person behind our subject who is completely ignoring (never looking at the subject) and when there is one other person behind our subject who is always looking at the subject. What are the results of that basic experiment? I say you can’t do Sheldrake’s experiment until you do this one. This type of experiment is particularly messy because different control groups of different ethnic and psychological backgrounds, people suffering from acute paranoia, for example, might give different results. Maybe there is a political dimension to this; people from police states or habitual pot smokers may be more likely to have paranoid feelings. Purely from an anecdotal perspective, the only times I ever feel that someone is staring at me from behind is when I am feeling self-conscious about my appearance or actions, right before or after I am about to speak in public, or when I know I have accidentally put on two different color socks. I think some portion of the population possesses an innate instinct of paranoia that can make us self-conscious and think that we are being stared at, even when no one is.
This control experiment is complicated because we will get more positive responses if we tell the subject there is someone behind them than if we don’t. Why doesn’t Sheldrake perform that experiment? Place the person alone in a room, but see how many positive results we get by telling the person there is someone staring at them versus telling the person nothing. My experiment would try to find evidence that is a real effect and not just a common example of social awareness, or even a basic evolutionary instinct of being on the constant watch out for predators or warring rivals. You can easily imagine ancient people who never looked behind themselves, or never felt that someone/something was behind them, might not survive as often as people who had the trait of looking behind them. How would you test a person who didn’t know the object of the experiment—testing if the subject can sense being stared at—that they were feeling stared at? By how many times they looked behind themselves? How would you know that they weren’t just looking for a clock? Or bored of what was in front of them? Sheldrake introduces a huge and easily foreseen bias by telling the subjects what Sheldrake is looking for. A part of the creativity of social psychology experiments is figuring out how to study people without the people purposely trying the give what they think the scientist wants. It’s a fascinating topic, and a common part of science that Sheldrake wants nothing to do with. Like Aristotle, Sheldrake knows what the answer is and designs the sloppiest, quickest pseudo-experiment to show his firmly-held belief. Science rejects his ill-conceived work and Sheldrake doubles down and says mainstream science is wrong about everything.
This book, instead of being a DIY guide of any practical value, contains no advice on how to set up an experiment, or how to fine-tune an experiment as you design it to rid it of flaws and biases. In physics you would develop ever more sophisticated ways of shielding from stray magnetic fields, or fluctuations of power supplies, or trucks passing five miles away, depending on the experiment. It would also be helpful to have a history of how various experiments were flawed and how those experiments were eventually fixed to produce useful data. All these topics have to be discussed with anyone who sets out how to do an experiment. Sheldrake offers nothing about repeatability by other scientists. Or Falsifiability! I’m not entirely convinced that falsifiability must be the heart of every experiment, but every experimenter or theorist should think of what situations, what experiments could disprove his ideas. That is a common train of thought in the physics books I’ve read (by Einstein, Feynman, Susskind, Smolin, Krauss, Thorne, Peebles, Turner & Kolb, t’Hooft, Greene, Sean Cantor, Lisa Randall in recent years). But Sheldrake never provides any tools of science, and without these tools, science loses its beautiful self-correcting progress.
It would become, like Sheldrake’s book, a mess of confused nonsense.
Review by Josh Ronsen.
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