Skip to main content

The Science Delusion – Rupert Sheldrake ***

Half of what’s in this quite chunky tome is excellent – the trouble is that I suspect the other bits, which aren’t so good, will put off those that really should be reading it.
The fundamental message Rupert Sheldrake is trying to get across is that science typically operates in a very blinkered, limited way. And he’s right. He shows very convincingly the way that time and again scientists refuse to look at anything outside of a very limited set of possibilities, not because there is good evidence that these particular avenues should be ignored, but simply because of kneejerk reactions and belief systems.
Of course science can’t examine every silly idea, fruitcake theory and dead-end observation, but the closed-mindedness of many scientists is quite extraordinary, and certainly not scientific. And in bringing this out, Sheldrake has a lot to offer in this book. He examines a whole range of assumptions that are generally made in science and never questioned – and this is a brilliant thing. We’re talking basic things like universal constants staying constant, energy being conserved, whether consciousness is purely a product of the matter in the brain and so on. I’m not saying these are assumptions are necessarily wrong, but it’s too easy to get into the habit of thinking that they shouldn’t be questioned. We quickly forget that they are assumptions.
Sheldrake also shows powerfully how some professional skeptics simply have no interest in looking into claims for anything outside of our current scientific understanding (telepathy, for example). He cites a wonderful example where he was brought into a TV programme with Richard Dawkins. He did this on the assurance that this would would involve the discussion of the evidence for and against telepathy. ‘I suggested that we actually discuss the evidence,’ says Sheldrake. ‘[Dawkins] looked uneasy and said “I don’t want to discuss evidence.”… The director confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence.’ Debunking without evidence isn’t science, it is little more than name calling, and assuming it’s true, Richard Dawkins ought to be ashamed.
Another great example is pointing out how little science, outside of medicine (and parapsychology) makes use of blind experiments. It has been demonstrated time and again that if experimenters have an expected outcome, they will influence the results of the experiment. A good example was an experiment using rats in a maze. The experimenters were split into two, one set given highly intelligent rats, the other given slow rats. Not surprisingly, the intelligent rats completed the mazes very significantly faster. Only they were both the same type of rats. The only difference was the experimenters’ expectations. When physicists undertake an experiment (the hunt for a Higgs boson, say), they are not usually open minded, they are looking for a specific outcome. It’s rather scary to think just how much they may be biasing the experimental outcome (and what’s published – at least 90 percent of data isn’t) towards the results they expect.
So there’s good stuff in here that everyone working in science, or thinking about science, ought to consider. But then there’s the downside. We’ve all got friends who are obsessed with their hobbies. And whatever you are talking about, they will bring in their pet topic. So you might be discussing the banking crisis and your friend who is a bus enthusiast pipes up, ‘Yes, and it’s amazing what an effect it has had on bus timetables.’ Reading a Rupert Sheldrake book, you are always thinking, ‘Please don’t do it, Rupert. Don’t mention it, Rupert. Please!’ But inevitably along comes morphic resonance and morphic fields.
The thing is, Sheldrake is a legitimate scientist who came up with an idea that has been largely ignored or ridiculed. Morphic resonance (apart from sounding far too much like a weapon the Borg would use) is actually not a bad idea and deserves further investigation. But as soon as you bring your pet unsupported scientific theories into a book it degrades the rest of it. Morphic fields might illustrate well the kind of problem with assumptions and conventions that Sheldrake is trying to highlight, but because they are so speculative, they simply get in the way. He should have left them out.
Similarly there is quite a lot here that will put the backs up of many readers. Material that seems supportive of anything from homeopathy to the concept of chi (qi) in ancient Chinese medicine. The trouble here is that Sheldrake seems to be confusing two things. It is perfectly possible that there are phenomena like telepathy that exist (at least in perception) but aren’t well explained by current scientific theories. But this doesn’t mean that you should give any support to totally fictional theories that have no basis in observation and what we do know about science. We may well need new ideas, new mechanisms – but not hauling out hoary old ideas that are long past their sell-by date. He should have trimmed this guff out, which would not in any way have weakened the main thrust of the book.
Overall, then, a valuable and powerful message, but one that is almost certainly going to be lost to those who most need to hear of it because of the unfortunate trappings that have also been included.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. Too kind by far. Sheldrake is saying nothing new. As an ancient Greek might have said "Life is short, and art long, opportunity fleeting, experimentations perilous, and judgment difficult." Any decent scientist knows that better than Sheldrake. Dawkins was right to be dismissive.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…