Midweek Cuckoo: Rupert Sheldrake

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake is the man behind the theory of morphic resonance, the idea that the universe has a memory that affects all things at all times, transmitted instantaneously and without loss of energy by means of morphological fields. It’s a kind of Lamarckian memetics, applied to both animate and inanimate objects.

Thanks to this theory, Sheldrake firmly believes that dogs do know when you’re coming home, that you can actually tell when someone is staring at you, that you really do know who is calling before you pick up the phone, and that phantom limbs aren’t just a psychological problem. And more than that, he believes he can prove it scientifically.

Sheldrake claims that morphic resonance has some very interesting effects on the world, all of which should be measureable. For exampe it should be easier to do a crossword puzzle in the afternoon, because the mutlitude of people getting the answers right during the morning has created a common memory of the correct answers. He claims to have proven that this is true. And this, regarding crystals:

When crystals of a newly synthesized chemical substance, for example a new kind of drug, arise for the first time they have no exact precedent; but as the same compound is crystalized again and again, the crystals should tend to form more readily all over the world, just because they have already formed somewhere else.

Would you believe this man has a PhD in chemistry?

In his book Seven Experiments that Could Change the World, Sheldrake lists way in which the common man can prove that telepathy, manifested through morphic resonance, exists. He undertakes these experiments himself, supposedly showing that humans can telepathically sense who is about to phone or even email them. He also believes that you can feel when someone is staring at you, because when a person looks at something they not only interpret the photons impacting their retinas, but project the image back onto its source from their eyes. This is why you can feel someone staring at the back of your neck – you feel the image of the back of your neck being projected onto the back of your neck by the starer’s eyes. Makes total sense.

But despite the absurdity of his claims, his experiments seem to result in better than random results. This points to much deeper underlying flaws in the experimental regime, which others have pointed out. In direct response to the staring experiments, Marks and Colwell showed that Sheldrake’s ‘random’ sequences were not really random at all, but lacked a truly random number of repetitions. As the average person’s understanding of ‘random’ includes the mistaken idea that repetitive sequences aren’t random, when asked to give a random sequence people tend to avoid repetition. Adding to that the fact that feedback on the success of each guess is given to the guesser, the subjects were actually unconciously learning the sequence tendencies. When no feedback was given, or when true random sequences were used, the results were as good as guessing. Sheldrake responded, stating that both the Marks and Colwell results, and those by Robert Baker, were themselves scientifically flawed, but did not actually answer the claims that his own sequences were not random. Baker responded in turn, although I think he could have done better.

Frankly, there’s a very quick way that you can show that the feeling of being stared at is purely psychological. Baker was almost there, with his idea of sitting in a room and randomly staring at people for 20 minutes, then going up to them and asking if they’d felt like they were being stared at. The positive responses were strong, which i would expect because frankly, if you ask anyone out of the blue if they felt they were being stared at, their natural reaction will be to say yes. Humans are not very good objective sources. The double blind to this test would be to just sit in the room for 20 minutes without actually looking at anyone, and then go around asking people if they felt they were being stared at. I’ll bet the responses will be pretty much the same, regardless of whether you’re staring or not.

Frankly, it seems pretty obvious that Sheldrake isn’t taking human nature into account in his experiments. Add to that small sample sizes, inadequate catering for confirmation bias, and a strong wish to believe in woo, and you have a recipe for poor science. No wonder he refuses to participate in the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.

One might wonder how a man with a PhD in Chemisty, a discipline that requires careful and meticulous science, can be so convinced of something that so far has not been proved to anyone’s satisfaction, and so blind to the shortcomings of his own experiments. Personally, i think it’s more than a coincidence that he had his eureka moment and wrote his first book while rediscovering his faith in christianity. He even uses morphic resonance to explain the power of prayer. This is a man who wants to believe much more than he wants to do good science.


North Texas Skeptics


Scientific American

13 Responses to “Midweek Cuckoo: Rupert Sheldrake”

  1. Why do you find this surprising? Thousands of scientists believe in religion, an area that is completely devoid of proof, facts, predictability, and which does not respond to the scientific method.

    There will always be those scientists who abandon (or misconstrue) the scientific method in favor of what “feels good” to them. Just because you have been trained in a philosophy does not mean that you will use it all the time, even if it is known to get you results. Remember; scientific method is an approach to things, not a result in and of itself. It is very easy to get lost in superstition and myth even with the best of intentions. We *like* to believe there is more to the universe than cold, hard, facts. Reality hasn’t stopped humanity from making things up for the sake of comfort in all these thousands of years; consequently, I think you’re holding this man to too high a standard for any one person.

    Is it good science? No. Of course not. But is it surprising? No. Not really.

  2. there is usually no problem with people being religious and being scientists, if they can keep those two worlds apart. Humans are actually quite good at compartmentalising different thought patterns, so often people who apply no logic to their home life can be keenly logical in their professional life.

    It’s when people start trying to scientifically prove an article of faith that you start to notice those nice compartments break down, and people who think they are being objective actually become very biased.

    But you’re right, not surprising.

  3. Soooo…. essentially what you’re saying is that no matter how hard I stare at my coffee cup it isn’t going to fill itself is it?

    That’s just plain rude. *sigh*


  4. not unless someone takes pity on you and fills it for you. If find that’s the secret to the jedi mind trick… straing pathetically to reach something until someone notices and gives it to you.

  5. hmmph. i went through something similar recently, in trying to mentally move my coffee cup towards me from across the table. eventually i did succeed – however, i had to mentally trick my body into getting off its ass and reaching.

  6. None of you have actually bothered to look at his data, the experiments were conducted under strictly controlled scientific conditions, which have since been replicated and verified by sceptics of Sheldrake’s work. I’m sorry, but this is just pure ignorance on your part, and those of the people *ENTIRE POINT* of these experiments, so don’t you think he has taken the appropriate precautions to see that this is so??!! Try to *gasp* look at the facts before you dismiss someone as a “religious nut” or fraud etc (what religion has to do with this anyway I’m unsure, probably more of your namecalling pseudo-scepticism…)

    To summarise, none of your weak ‘verbal refutations’ actually hold any ground, and all have been ruled out under test conditions anyway. His experimental data remains valid to this day and nobody has yet to come up with standard physical explanations as to why the phenomenon of the sense of being stared at, actually occurs.

    Please feel free to comment on this, I will try to respond with any questions you have, but please try to use intelligence when posting and not continue to spread further ignorant misconceptions. I’m sure none of you will be able to put forward a decent refutation or explanation because none of you (including the poster of this Blog) have actually bothered to look at the data anyway!

  7. For some reason, the last post came out garbled and with some text missing, here is the original snippet with correction:
    “I’m sorry, but this is just pure ignorance on your part, and those of the people *ENTIRE POINT* of these experiments, so don’t you think he has taken the appropriate precautions to see that this is so??!!”
    …is actually:
    “I’m sorry, but this is just pure ignorance on your part, and those of the people commenting above. The *ENTIRE POINT* of these experiments is to rule out possible standard physical or orthodox explanations, therefore don’t you think he has taken the appropriate precautions to see that this is so??!!”

  8. “No wonder he refuses to participate in the JREF Million Dollar Challenge.”
    Also, with regards to this particular scent of horseshit, again if you actually BOTHERED to look at the FACTS, you’ll notice that the JREF challenge is completely rigged as the small print makes it impossible for anyone to actually ever win the money, despite any evidence being put forth as proof. If you don’t believe me, read up on it yourselves and then realise what pseudo-sceptics (at best!) these people are.
    A quick word on James Randi, the guy is an idiot. He recently published articles in various sceptic magazines about Sheldrake’s books about Morphic Fields and telepathy etc, dismissing it all as superstitious unscientific nonense, despite the fact that Mr.Randi is 1) not a scientist himself and proposed no intelligent refutation or explanation that was not already ruled out and 2) never actually looked at the data or even read the book!
    Go to sheldrake.org to read the responses to critics of this type by Sheldrake himself (who actually IS a scientist and HAS got the data to back up his claims!)

  9. haha! One of sheldrake’s brainwashed minions pays us a visit! I would take the time to suggest you follow your own advice and seek out the facts, but i doubt it would make any difference to someone who lists their URL as sheldrake.org. So instead I will make the only appropriate response to this kind of comment:

    /me falls off chair laughing

  10. What, exactly, do you feel is your qualification to asses Sheldrake’s research? I actually have an MSc, and have also taken the time to read two of sheldrake’s experiments quite thoroughly (i link to them in the post above). It is my personal assessment that his research is severely flawed. I wouldn’t have posted as such if I hadn’t done the required reading.
    Also, i have very carefully read through the JREF challenge before, I am fully aware of the rules and they are extremely fair. The only way you can fail to win the money is if you do not understand what a scientific test is (which Sheldrake has proven applies to him) or the thing you are trying to prove does not in fact exist (again, Sheldrake fits the bill). If you think that the rules are unfair, you are obviously not familiar with the scientific method, and obviously unqualified to assess Sheldrake’s work.
    Seriously, i understand that you really like Lord of the Rings (so do i) but that is fantasy. Magic does not exist in reality. I think you need to take some time to assess whether or not you are believing in Sheldrake’s results because you WANT them to be real, and closing your mind to all evidence to the contrary because it fails to match your pre-decided world view.
    When you feel ready to join the reality-based community, let us know.

  11. Charles Morgenstern Says:

    Did you say join the Reality-based community? As in String Theory? 8~) Im falling out of my Chair laughing.
    At what time in your past did you forget that ALL of the “Sciences” are based on a metaphysical pre-supposition called INDUCTION!!Duh!!!
    Rupert Sheldrake is a genius,is practising excellent Science,which,by anone’s standards far surpasses the current misdirected ignorami in Physics who subscribe to the fantasy called “String Theory”.
    Randi ,when you have thoroughly studied Kuhn,Feyerabend and Sheldrake,I will test you.If I observe you have learned anything from your studies,I shall award you a cash prize.I will also give you 1 free AStrological reading to help you with your life.

  12. i’m sorry, all science is based on induction? Did you even do any science courses at university, or are you basing this off what you’ve read on the intertron?

    Saying that string theory isn’t plausible just because you can’t understand it, is what’s known in logic as ‘an argument from incredulity’. Are you familiar with logic?

    ah but of course, by pointing out that you believe in astrology, you have already made it obvious that you are not capable of judging truth from fiction, so i doubt that you have the capacity to judge the quality of sheldrake’s ‘science’, or even that of string theory.

    And if you were serious about challenging Randi, you’d do it on his site, not here.

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