SciAM interview with parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake




I’m a bit disappointed that SciAm would even host this. There is no meaningful “debate” possible about the existence of magical powers like telepathy (despite being a neat thing in fiction). And Horgan isn’t quite the skeptic he presents himself as – he is well known as the author of the wretched “The End of Science”.


“All those who believe in telekinesis raise my hand.”

  • Emo Phillips

(Kurt Vonnegut? James Randi?)
Lots of attributions for that one.


“And Horgan isn’t quite the skeptic he presents himself as – he is well known as the author of the wretched “The End of Science”.” That’s disingenuous nonsense - there is nothing in The End of Science that contradicts the position of skepticism Horgan presents in the article.


I’m just going to point out that Sheldrake like to spout off with all kinds of crazy shit, but as far as I know, he’s never actually presented any empirical evidence for any of it. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, I haven’t followed this any time recently. (“Morphogenetic fields” my ass)


Horgan says a lot of things in “The End of Science”. The one that got the most attention was that science was running out of interesting things to discover. Wrong, in my opinion, but not really wacko. However, he was also into that whole 1990s “science war” movement that tried to claim that science wasn’t really any different from anything else and had no inherent connection to reality. Horgan’s contribution to this bullcrap was to argue that much of science (such as theoretical physics) was what he called “ironic science” which has no basis in reality but was just pointless mindgames.

I do have a hard time believing someone like Horgan with such a “postmodern” view can really be a skeptic in the sense of requiring scientific evidence for phenomena. After all, to him, probably morphic fields are no weirder than quantum particles.


Sheldrake does, in fact, reference experimental data in his works. If one reads it, they will see that such data are actually at the core of his central hypothesis.


Hey, it’s a journalist and a pseudoscientist discussing telepathy. Seems legit. Do you think Scientific American can feature me talking to a fish about the nature of time travel?


Fish travel in time. Pseudoscientists fail at even autotelepathy.


Fish may have figured it out, but these guys are going to market it!

(apologies if this has been posted here before)


Surely you are familiar with the work of Dr. Peter Venkman?


I found the claims in “The End of Science” so far-fetched that I was sure he was shilling for somebody. But I couldn’t figure out who had a stake in claiming “there is nothing left for science to discover” and a cursory Google search didn’t find that he was taking money from any organizations with a vested interest in his point of view. It was odd. I’m still not sure what the point was. The very assured tone in which he pronounced the end of science was off-putting as well.


I’m curious about what, specifically, you’re referring to. In general, he’s not nearly as specific about his methods as would be required in a proper paper. If you’re talking about the “psychic pet,” if I recall correctly, it was a study of one dog, without proper construction to rule out competing hypotheses or get real statistically sound evidence. (eg. a really basic one, randomizing the amount of time before the owner returns home, is missing, IIRC) If you’re talking about his claims about proteins and “morphic fields,” none of the protein behavior he describes requires anything other than statistical thermodynamics to explain it. If its something else, please feel free to mention specifics of his data and methodology.


Wow. I haven’t read the book, but I can’t see how anybody with more than passing familiarity with any of the natural sciences could say that. In physics, there are areas, like statistical thermodynamics, where we understand the how and the why, but even there, I suspect that there are vast areas of implications of it that we haven’t figured out yet. There are also a whole lot of areas, like QM, where we have a very solid understanding of the how, and nothing but speculation about the underlying why (Schrodinger’s equation is still an empirical equation) and anything we confirm about the underlying why will necessarily tell us something about the how of something. There are also areas, like a lot of cosmology and gravity at very large scales, where we really don’t have a solid grasp of the how or the why. We haven’t even unified the two major theories of physics.

In biology, epigenetics revolutionized our understanding of heredity this century, and there are still vast swaths of dev bio and ecology that we barely understand at all.

I mean, the pace of fundamental discoveries isn’t even slowing down, and the pace of finding new applications is actually speeding up, and there’s a feedback loop at work, because better technology and more processor power allows us to investigate things that we couldn’t previously.


Heck, we haven’t even answered some of the simplest questions about our own biology yet–like “why do we sleep?”


Yes. The late editor of Nature, John Maddox, even wrote a whole rebuttal book titled “What Remains to be Discovered” which detailed these and more.


There is no meaningful “debate” possible about the existence of magical powers like telepathy

Why ?


Um, maybe because if any such powers existed there would be the same people winning lotteries every week and not just guessing Zener cards presented by the real life equivalent of Peter Venkman?


I am also very skeptical of any claims about “magic”. And as far as I know, there is no scientific proof of anyting near “telepathy”. But I don’t think any meaningful debate about the existence of such a thing is impossible. One could discuss past researches and their methods for example.
By the way, telepathy wouldn’t help anyone with lotteries, would it ?

What’s interesting about Sheldrake is that he is not completely eccentric and he is certainly able to conduct proper scientific researches. It seems he has been a serious and productive biologist for many years. I haven’t read his work about “telepathy” and such, but I am quite curious.


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