by UnHerd
Tuesday, 6
July 2021

Rupert Sheldrake: Science does not tolerate dissent

Freddie Sayers spoke to the biologist about the dogma of scientism
by UnHerd

The concept of scientism, the quasi-religious belief in science and scientists, has risen in prominence over the past year. It has been a theme explored in many UnHerd interviews, ranging from Matthew Crawford, who detailed the ways in which science has evolved from a mode of inquiry into a source of authority, to Richard Dawkins, who dismissed scientism as a “dirty word”. 

To author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake, it means something different: “It is the idea that science can solve all the problems of the world,” he tells Freddie Sayers in today’s LockdownTV. “Where science becomes a religion and that it’s humanity’s salvation. The scientists are the saviours of the world.”

The religious fervour with which phrases like ‘following the science’ and ‘trust the experts’ have been uttered and adhered to over the course of the pandemic would seem to underscore Sheldrake’s point. But according to Sheldrake, who has spent his entire career researching controversial or ‘fringe’ areas of science, the phenomenon is “nothing new”. As he himself has experienced, the scientific community does not like entertaining radical or dissent opinion, and goes out of its way to snuff it out:

The scientific world has always had a culture of pushing down dissenting ideas. It’s not pluralistic. I mean, most worlds – political, religious, sports – are pluralistic. You get different points of view, and you expect it in politics, in courts of law, you have the prosecution and the defence. In science, you don’t. You have the idea of the magisterium, the expert opinion, the Orthodox view, which has never been particularly tolerant of dissenting views. 
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

One might therefore expect him to be sympathetic to those who have been dismissed as cranks and charlatans during the Covid debate. But curiously, he admits to having a rather “conventional” view when it comes to the pandemic:

I’ve been vaccinated and I was very glad there was a vaccine, but in other unconventional areas of science I do research, I often encounter irrational opposition, especially from people who now say they follow the science. They very often don’t follow the science when it doesn’t agree with their opinions or prejudices.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On the increasing acceptance of non-orthodox viewpoints:

People who have religious or spiritual practices, generally speaking, live longer, happier, and healthier. This has not been lost on some of the new atheists. For example, Sam Harris, as a new atheist, is now giving online meditation courses. So in the last few years, there’s been an opening up of what you could call this liminal area in between science and religion, where spiritual practices can actually be studied scientifically.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On his own religious journey: 

I went through a Dawkins-type atheist phase that lasted at least 10-15 years when I was at school and doing research at Cambridge. But I was drawn back to a more religious view, partly through psychedelic experience, partly through travelling in India, partly through taking up meditation, and yoga. And to my surprise, I found myself drawn back to a Christian path, and so I was confirmed in India at the age of 36, in the church of South India, and I’m now a practising church going Anglican.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

On ‘evangelical atheism’:

Evangelical atheism is a Christian heresy, as indeed secular humanism is…Instead of worshipping God, they worship humanity…Humanism is a form of speciesism: everything has to be done for human good, and doesn’t do much good to other species on the earth… Look at the current struggle for human rights – trans rights, gender rights – where does that come from? A secularised version of the Christian view that everyone’s equal in the sight of God.  
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

Should religion be eliminated?

It would be an incredibly cultural impoverishment… The meaning and the structure that religions give to people’s lives, not only help them, but they have measurable effects. That’s why all these studies on religious practice show very clear results from thousands of scientific papers all around the world. The people who have religious practices are happier, healthier and live longer than those that don’t. So I think personally, that militant atheism should come with a health warning.
- Rupert Sheldrake, UnHerd

Join the discussion

  • I was dissappointed that Rupert would not acknowledge the scientism prevalent around covid.

  • Renaming Lockdown TV how about UnLock TV if the aim is to get particular views open to scrutiny?

  • I am really torn by this interview.
    On one hand, he starts strong and makes many reasonable points. The way he defines scientism is eloquent and seems highly relevant to the world today. The comparison of science and realms like law, politics and sport is good. He looks and sounds like the epitome of a rational, reasonable man, even saying that he has no time for people who claim a dead person told him to avoid the vaccines. Yet he is also reflective and willing to consider the benefits of consciously adopting a religion. There could be a lot of valuable ideas to unpack here and indeed Freddy repeatedly prompts him to go deeper into those areas.
    But … he doesn’t want to. His beef with the scientific orthodoxy is not as you might imagine to do with COVID, modelling, vaccines, masks, ivermectin, doctors vs scientists or any of the other topics where the establishment is currently under fire.
    No, his beef is that it’s too hard to get funding for his research into whether dogs are telepathic. That’s what he means by “unconventional research”. But, note, it’s not impossible to get such funding – he has apparently published his research on telepathy in “peer reviewed journals” and there are two or three universities in the UK that are willing to fund this, like the University of Northhampton. The justification for researching this topic is that “if you mention the word telepathy, most people say oh yeah I’ve had telepathic experiences”.
    I don’t really know what to make of this. It can be viewed two ways:

    1. ESP/telepathy is real and these researchers are brave mavericks who are swimming against the academic orthodoxy to bring us the truth.
    2. The fact that the government is funding research into ESP is additional evidence of the general decline of academia, and the fact that two groups of researchers are busy calling each other pseudo-scientists/scientismists (or whatever) is neither here nor there because it’s ultimately us suckers outside the public sector who pay for it all regardless of who “wins”.

    Scott Alexander has a fascinating essay on parapsychology which is probably worth reading as a followup to watching this interview. The gist of it is that for better or worse, governments do in fact fund parapsychological studies and lots of those studies appear to find evidence that ESP exists. Moreover, this problem is extremely difficult to solve because every time the “real” scientists laugh off the results as obviously the result of bad study design or whatever, the parapsychologists come back with what looks like better studies that resolve those complaints. Because there appears to be nearly nothing academia won’t fund this has been going on for decades and has reached absurd heights, in which Daryl Bem and others are now presenting large meta-studies filled with randomized controlled trials that conclude ESP is a small but real effect.
    The conclusion here is not that ESP is actually real. If it was, we presumably would have evidence of it from outside the world of academia. The conclusion is that it’s really easy for scientists to produce research that supports whatever conclusions they want. In an environment where there are no mechanisms to detect fraud, and in which criticizing mistakes in research just causes the mistakes to mutate rather than the research to genuinely improve, attempting to improve the usefulness of research outcomes is a thankless task.
    And this is the core problem with Sheldrake’s views. There are lots of genuinely good points to make about the corruption of research, the conflation of science with institutional authority and so on. But what he wants is to be paid to research things that are very likely to be useless. Medical science, despite its flaws, is actionable: you can at least in theory read a research paper and then cure someone with the knowledge contained within. Research that pre-supposes the existence of a mind separate from the body may or may not be valid in some philosophical sense, but it’s not actually useful for anything, nor is detecting a P=0.05 effect suggesting telepathy in dogs. If it was useful he could find funding from outside of government sources and use it to create a terrifying group of billionaire superpower-wielding X-Men or something. No such group exists which is pretty good evidence that ESP is not actually real and parapsychology is just more noise being churned out by a grossly over-funded state-run research endeavor.
    So. We need people to criticize the scientific institutions. But we probably don’t need it to be by people who are actually benefiting from the corruption of the existing system, who see little to complain about in COVID research and whose primary complaint is that Wikipedia keeps deleting their articles on mind reading dogs. It needs to be criticism by people who remember that at the end of the day academia doesn’t spring from nothing like a natural phenomenon: it’s your local barman, bus driver, cleaner, office worker, son daughter mother and brother who pay the cheque for all this.

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