A couple of weeks ago I noted a minor brouhaha developing between James Randi and Rupert Sheldrake: in a randi.org post titled “Bull**** Artist?“, one of Randi’s underlings described a “rawtha angry letter” written by Sheldrake to The Skeptic. At the time I asked Rupert Sheldrake if I could publish the letter (given that he’s one of the least “angry” individuals you’re likely to meet), but after conferring with Chris French (prominent UK skeptic, scientist, and editor of The Skeptic), Rupert suggested that we just wait for Chris to publish his letter (and Randi’s reply) on the website of The Skeptic.
Chris French has now published the letters as promised. As I expected, Rupert Sheldrake’s letter is not “angry” in tone (“disagreeing” does not equal “angry”). What he does do is question Chris French’s “reverential” interview questions when talking to James Randi, with no challenging of his qualifications or approach to skepticism:
Randi is often rude and offensive. Unfortunately many of his fellow sceptics let him get away with it, and treat him with adulation. His presence on the cover of the new-look Skeptic together with Chris French’s uncritical interview helps to build up this iconic status. Randi may have done a useful job in exposing fraudulent showmen, but he has no scientific credentials, and has made fraudulent claims himself. (For one example, see http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/randi.html.)
One of Sheldrake’s more incisive points is that Randi “awarded” him a ‘Pigasus Award’ in 2007 for his research into telephone telepathy, saying “this man’s delusions increase as time goes by, and he comes up with sillier ideas every year.” The point to note being that Chris French has worked with Sheldrake on that very same research.
Randi’s response is odd. It goes on at length about Sheldrake misquoting him (referring to a brochure handed out during a workshop at The Amazing Meeting, when Sheldrake doesn’t seem to attribute the quote to him apart from a minor link (which is probably justifiable given that Randi handed out the brochure at a workshop he was hosting). He then explains how Sheldrake misrepresented his lack of research into animal ESP, failing to mention that he has previously apologized for his lack of research (“it was rash and improper of me to do so”) after being advised to present his evidence by the JREF Scientific Advisory Board. He follows that up by saying that Sheldrake’s accusation that he (Randi) hadn’t watched the tape of his canine telepathy research was “not true”, going on to say that “A colleague of mine in Europe told me that he’d seen the tape record.” WTF?
Sometimes I think Randi counts on his readers just taking his word for things, rather than actually reading background information (borne out by the comments to this story in which a number seem to think that Sheldrake didn’t account for long-distance hearing in his experiments). Also see my comment below pointing out specific examples.