_ A few years ago, a friend of a friend was at a party, talking to the local druid (actually, he’s a chief druid; he leads The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). The druid broke off the conversation with a brilliant line: “Excuse me, but I can sense that someone is trying to get through to me on the telephone.”

The recipient of this snub reported it to my friend as evidence of just how sensitive, perceptive and spiritual the druid was. My friend reported it to me as an example of how being deluded about your insight has unexpected payoffs: who hasn’t longed for a way of brushing off someone in a way that would inspire admiration rather than irritation?

I would put Rupert Sheldrake in the same category as my local druid. He is utterly convinced he has insight, is not afraid to express it, and has won no end of admiration as a result.

Many scientists and science-lovers have been moaning over the past week about the publicity given to Sheldrake’s new book, The Science Delusion. It has been positively reviewed in the Guardian, and a gushing, uncritical profile in the Observer this weekend also drew exasperated sighs. But not from me: I have long since learned to accept defeat at Sheldrake’s hands.

The truth is, Sheldrake has cannily tapped into a very human foible. That’s why most people think that he is almost certainly onto something when he tells us about a mysterious force that pervades all of nature, something that connects us all. L Ron Hubbard managed something similar.

A few years ago, I tried to read Sheldrake’s seminal book, A New Science of Life. We were due to debate each other at the ICA in London, and I thought I should do him the courtesy of reading his work.

ANSoL is about questions that don’t yet have answers from science. Sheldrake helpfully provides a near-universal answer: “morphic resonance”. Morphic resonance is an influence that allows cells to develop in the myriad necessary ways, gives people a psychic connection to others, enables dogs to know when their owners are coming home, and so on.

This is the passage that caused me to stop reading:

“Morphic resonance is non-energetic, and morphogenetic fields themselves are neither a type of mass nor energy. Therefore there seems to be no a priori reason why it should obey the laws that have been found to apply to the movement of bodies, particles and waves. In particular, it need not be attenuated by either spatial or temporal separation between similar systems, it could be just  as effective over 10,000 kilometres as over a centimetre, and over a century as an hour.

The assumption that morphic resonance is not attenuated by time and space will be adopted as a provisional working hypothesis, on the ground of simplicity.”

It's such a ludicrous assumption, based on something explicitly designed to be untestable by science, that there’s really no point going any further.

When the debate came, although I hadn’t finished reading Rupert’s book, I had read many refutations of his science and experimental reports, and was confident that I could persuade the audience that Rupert really wasn’t a voice worth paying much attention. Which makes it all the more galling that, really, I came off quite badly.

We talked about his experiments, and I tried to point out the flaws in his design and thinking. I was obviously successful because two-thirds of the way through the chair, Vivienne Parry, took an audience poll. “Who’s feeling sorry for Rupert?” she asked. Almost everyone in the audience – my wife included – put up their hands.

I had to laugh. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but it seemed clear the audience weren’t interested in what’s logical or rational, or about how a scientist should go about these experiments and exercise caution about drawing extraordinary conclusions. They were there because they were interested in being told what they wanted to hear.

Thanks to evolution, we have a hard-wired sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s why people want to feel connected to everything else in nature, past, present and future. Morphic resonance taps into this. Science fights against it, to try to establish what is really the case. But if people don't want to expend that effort, they won't.

Afterwards, when Sheldrake and I sat side by side for a book signing, his queue went out of the bookshop and round the corner. Mine wasn't really a queue, just a gathering of half a dozen people.

Of course it’s frustrating to be less popular than Rupert Sheldrake, but I have learned to relax: you can't beat the astrologers, you can't beat Deepak Chopra, and you can't beat Sheldrake. Plus, it won’t last long. Rupert Sheldrake is the Cliff Richard of pseudoscience (non-Brits, forgive me). He is getting old and irrelevant, and so are most of his admirers. Just as no one covers Cliff’s songs, no one else will pick up Sheldrake’s scientific mantle. Mistletoe and Wine is already a thing of the past, and Morphic Resonance will soon go the same way.



10/02/2012 16:33

A deep relief to encounter a sensible and cogent response to Sheldrake's absurd and stupendously overrated book.

14/02/2012 20:04

It so happens I was at the dialogue between you and Dr Sheldrake - It was clear that your male ego took a beating but I hadn't realised to what extent until you revealed, that having discovered intelligent debate with him merely exposed you, that you have been waiting all this time to vent your jealousy and personal venom in juvenile blogs and scatlogical twitterings, more appropriate to the playground than in the scientific arena. It is a shame that you are reduced to being personally insulting and childishly demeaning. Of course people were more interested in his book for the simple reason that it's more interesting. The queue waiting to buy his book was a demonstration of common sense, but for you it was clearly a deeply humiliating experience, indeed so much so that I and others couldn't help feeling sorry for you, alas not quite sorry enough to change the queue we were in.

Ralph Schneider
24/06/2012 10:16

I have read and enjoyed Free Radicals but your blog entry above rather disappoints me. Apart from the unscientific ad hominem attacks on Sheldrake, which may be on a par with those you mention in your book, you seem to be unaware that the universe is a continuum - all things are connected, which the poorly-named Chaos Theory merely affirms as did the earlier, more poetic phrase: "when you nod your head, you move the stars". While the assumption Sheldrake would have us make, which you quote above, does seem outlandish, the idea of "morphic resonance" seems no more outlandish than that a particle's behaviour can be instantly mirrored by another a universe away, which is current orthodox scientific doctrine.
And please don't presume to pontificate on astrology - people should know that any scientist would be pilloried by their peers if they even appeared to investigate the subject, and hence they remain embarassingly but respectably and safely ignorant on it (unlike Newton, for example). Just as thermometers don't cause temperature change and clocks don't cause time to change, but are indicators, so too the positions of the planets are indicators of the forces (which are running through us now) which put them there. Of course Pluto, for example, exerts negligible pull on us, but it is held in position millions of kilometers away by the sun and this force passes through us. That's a starting-point for you to think about, but I doubt you will because you have too much to lose if you were seen to be scientifically open-minded and investigative on the subject. "Scientists" tend to think newspaper horoscopes represent astrology, because it suits them to look no further, but they could be no more erroneous and ignorant. Investigate scientifically, rather than judge a subject by its crank adherents and ignorant detractors, and eschew the cheap unedifying shots which do nothing to enhance your intellectual standing.
There is no more important truth, for any field, than that all things are connected and continually changing. Experimental anomalies and even "morphic resonance", or example, can be understood much better from this perspective.

29/06/2012 16:49

You tell Michael to "investigate scientifically" and yet you clearly do not know what you are talking about. Science is not an explanation, it is a method... a method based on hypothesis-testing for which you need reliable evidence. You happily cherry-picking quantum examples to set up a straw man argument that since we don't know everything, then Sheldrake must be right. Do you not think that if there was one shred of reliable evidence, that we'd all be pursuing these magical beliefs? After all, if only partially true, they'd warrant a Nobel prize.


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