A Reply to Michael Shermer, by Rupert Sheldrake

The following is an open letter from Rupert Sheldrake to Scientific American, in reply to the recent 'Skeptic' article by Michael Shermer which discussed Sheldrake's research. Feel free to email Sci-Am with your own thoughts on Shermer's column (more information on this topic can be found in my own essay 'The Shermer Sham', from December 2004).

In his attack on my work (“Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American, November), Michael Shermer asserted that “Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.” But who is the believer and who is the skeptic?

I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in. Genuine skepticism involves an attitude of open-minded enquiry into what we do not understand, and this is the approach I try to follow.

Shermer ridiculed the hypothesis of morphic resonance by claiming I proposed a “universal life force,” a concept I have never used. He also misrepresented the evidence for the sense of being stared at. Experiments showing that people can detect when they are being stared at from behind have been widely replicated, with results that an independent meta-analysis has shown to be highly significant, as summarized in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (June, 2005), to which Shermer referred. He tried to give the impression that the case rested on unsupervised tests by people using the experimental protocol on my web site (www.sheldrake.org), but this is not true. My own summary of the evidence and the independent meta-analysis by Dean Radin did not include the data from these unsupervised tests, but relied instead on the results of many thousands of trials already published in peer-reviewed journals.

Shermer also referred to data from a staring experiment by Colwell et al, of Middlesex University, London, which showed a significant positive effect that could not be explained in terms of sensory clues. He mentioned that Colwell et al. suggested that this effect might be attributable to non-random features of the randomization sequences used in their experiment, but he omitted to mention that their suggestion has already been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing. The results were positive and highly significant statistically, whatever the randomization method.

Shermer’s partisan approach is like that of a politician trying to win an election. Readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts.

Rupert Sheldrake
London, England

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gchaowu's picture
Member since:
1 November 2005
Last activity:
8 years 21 weeks

I've seen Shermer on TV and he has made conclusions using limited data in the past, and sometimes using very unscientific method trying to prove his believes. I just read the recent issue of Scientific American and I'm glad to learn he's the one who's having problems, again.

There is so much we still need to learn beyond our five senses. I remember there was one high school girl trying to disprove people who can sense energy with their hands. The article was published on a medical journal and was brought up by TV talk shows. The experimenter placed her hand above experimentee's left or right hand and were asked to tell without using their eyes. I later figured that people who sense energy probably rely heavily on their eyes. They just don't know the fact.

Try to balance yourself on one foot without eyes open. Blind people can probably do this better than the others.

Faolan's picture
Member since:
27 October 2005
Last activity:
9 years 4 weeks

Hmm.. I remember once my grilfriend at the time and I were playing around with a small keychain LED light, when I got the idea to test if she was able to accurately perceive whether or not the light was on when I shined it against her leg, and she had her eyes closed.

Amazingly, for about the first two minutes of me attempting to randomly flick on and off the light, she would always get the answer correct. I didn't tell her about this until about 5 minutes into the experiment, at which stage we started trying again. The results were no where near what they had been, and seemed to correspond much more closely to what one would expect of chance.

I'm inclined to believe that you're right when you say that we are able to perceive more than we would typically attribute to our "5 senses", even if our brains do filter this information out a lot of the time.

(Heh, of course, this experiment hardly stands up as rigourous in any way, since we were just joking around in very uncontrolled circumstances. But still, it was interesting.)

Haufoldos's picture
Member since:
1 May 2004
Last activity:
5 years 11 weeks

"I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in."

Well said.