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.