Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sheldrake vs. Dawkins

The March 2008 issue of Fortean Times has an interesting article by Rupert Sheldrake titled "Richard Dawkins calls." In it, he describes his meeting with Dawkins for the filming of a segment originally planned to be part of Enemies of Reason, broadcast in August 2007. Apparently very little was filmed and nothing was used of the meeting.

Sheldrake was to be interviewed as a defender of scientific evidence for telepathy, which Sheldrake has studied with empirical research, and written and published papers about. (Sheldrake is perhaps best known for his theory of morphogenetic fields, which he wrote about in his book A New Science of Life, which a reviewer for Nature called "the best candidate for burning there has been in years." He believes that the more an idea is used, the easier it becomes for others to think of--along the lines of the "hundredth monkey" phenomenon which was a myth originated by Lyall Watson and promulgated by Ken Keyes, Jr., and debunked by philosopher Ron Amundson.) According to Sheldrake, he was promised that "this documentary, at Channel 4's insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil? was" and that "We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry."

But when the meeting occurred, it quickly came to an end because, according to Sheldrake, Dawkins said "I don't want to discuss evidence. ... There isn't time. ... It's too complicated. And that's not what this programme is about." (A charitable and likely accurate reading of what "that" refers to is specifically evidence for telepathy, though Sheldrake seems to suggest Dawkins means evidence of any kind.) Sheldrake reports that Russell Barnes, the director, also "confirmed that he was not interested in evidence either." (Again, probably referring specifically to evidence for telepathy, rather than evidence in general.) Sheldrake responded that "If you're treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it's not irrational to believe in it. I thought that's what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn't interested in taking part in another low-grade debunking exercise." To which he reports that Dawkins responded, "It's not a low-grade debunking exercise. It's a high-grade debunking exercise." I don't see how anyone can reasonably disagree with Sheldrake's statement.

Sheldrake told them he had received assurances that this would be "a balanced scientific discussion about the evidence," and when Barnes asked to see the emails in question, he showed them. Sheldrake writes, "He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left."

UPDATE (April 25, 2008): Rupert Sheldrake has posted "Richard Dawkins comes to call" on his website, which looks to be more-or-less the same as the FT article. William Dembski has pointed to this article as evidence that Richard Dawkins has done the same kind of duping that he has complained about when the producers of "Expelled" did it to him, but I don't think they're quite the same in a number of respects. While Dawkins was (to his discredit) uninterested in the scientific evidence underlying telepathy that Sheldrake wanted to discuss, footage from Sheldrake wasn't used in the final documentary. The case would have been parallel if Dawkins had pretended to be interested in the scientific evidence, completed the interview, and then used the footage in such a way as to criticize and ridicule Sheldrake. And it would have been parallel to how P.Z. Myers' footage was used in "Expelled" only if Dawkins had conversed with Sheldrake about the scientific evidence for telepathy and then used excerpts from it in a film on another topic that hadn't been mentioned. (Myers wasn't asked questions about intelligent design, only about the relationship between religion and science.)

UPDATE (June 8, 2008): P.Z. Myers has weighed in on this controversy at Pharyngula, arguing that Sheldrake's evidence (which hasn't been discussed, so far as I can see) doesn't count as evidence because of a lack of a plausible mechanism. I disagree that lack of a mechanism means that anomalous data doesn't count as evidence--it is reason to reject a proposed explanation, but it's not a reason to deny that there is anomalous data.

UPDATE (June 15, 2008): Sheldrake responds to Myers:

[W]ith such a farrago of prejudice, ignorance and arrogance, it’s hard to know where to begin. It doesn’t really seem worth replying to people who aren’t interested in the facts but simply in venting their rage.

Myers has not taken the trouble to read any of my experiments on telephone telepathy nor any of my other research on the subject and is obviously as bigoted as Dawkins himself. For example when he refers to my experiments as "exercises in gullibility, anecdote and sloppy statistics" the only thing he refers to is an attack by some sceptics on my staring research based on a fallacious argument which I’ve already refuted in the Skeptical Inquirer.

He has not taken the trouble to look at the telephone telepathy or email telepathy experiments, published in peer-reviewed journals, which are based not on anecdotes but on randomized controlled tests. Then he accuses me of not proposing any theory for telepathy, which in fact I have done. But there’s nothing one can do about ranters of this kind, who are beyond the reach of science and reason.

Some of the comments following his blog are equally sad and remind me of the low level of debate found on the Dawkins website where people vie with each other in their prejudice, sneering and nastiness.

I do believe he has a point.

1 comment:

Reed said...

I had seen the show a while back and don't recall any in-depth treatment of paranormal or extraordinary claims. Not that it could readily have done so -- it was a brief series (less two hours total?) that covered a breadth of material.

It sounds like they shouldn't have engaged Sheldrake in the first place.