by UnHerd
Tuesday, 6
July 2021
Video
14:39

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

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Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago

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.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

If what you took from this is he wants free money to research dog telepathy I think you are using your own subjective bias rather than his to find your conclusion.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

An example paper is:
“EXPERIMENTAL TESTS FOR TELEPHONE TELEPATHY”, 2003, Sheldrake & Smart
which notes in the conclusion:

“In experimental research on dogs that know when their owners are coming home, we have done tests at distances from 5 to 45 miles, with no indication of any decline with distance in telepathic influence of the owners’ intentions on the dogs (Sheldrake and Smart, 1998, 2000a, 2000b).”

(fortunately the Telephone Telepathy paper appears to have been funded by charities of various kinds rather than the government!)
His criticisms of science seem to mostly come from this angle – that this sort of research gets neglected. Hence the absence of discussion about the problems in COVID research, despite Freddy’s best effort to drag the interview in that direction. It’s hard not to view the interview through the same lens.

Last edited 10 months ago by Norman Powers
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I do agree, most of what he seems to be intersted, like the dogs, is silly, and I fear his attempts at using science to work with spiritual, or paranormal, is very misguided indeed.

But I like his way that a belief in science does not mean a belief in ultimate are incompatible. That that is his main push, that the two are not mutually exclusive. He is a kook, and I would not wish his funding to increase as I think research in ‘Paranormal’ is a bad thing for many reasons.
But I do agree that the Mind is more than the Brian, and pointing out that is why I liked the interview.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Fair enough then!

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
10 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

…..Sheldrake’s ideas about morphogenesis are really what deserve serious attention, not the suggested experiments whether such physical fields exist, which as here, naturally attract a degree of derision.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
10 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

mmmm, it seems that you are starting from the view that the results of his research will be useless…. hence the government will waste money on this….. what makes you so sure it will be useless????

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
10 months ago

I did allow for the possibility that ESP is real in my comment. As I said, if their claims are true then they’re mavericks who will go down in history as heroes.
But it seems incredibly unlikely that we’d have evolved the ability to use powers so exotic they break all known physical laws and create time-travel paradoxes, but not so well that these powers are actually visible or consciously accessible. Just judged by evolutionary theory alone that’s quite a stretch.

Colin Quinsey
Colin Quinsey
10 months ago

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

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
10 months ago

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

It's Personal
It's Personal
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

… or “UnLocked TV”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

Good guest – I skipped the previous Dawkins/Freddy talk as I find Dawkins a total creepshow, and so may have liked this guy more as his book, and jabs, are obviously directed at the scientist-ist and Militant Atheist Dawkins. I studied ‘The Selfish Gene’, and know Evolutionary Biologists have a weird mindset. Bret Weinstein, who Freddy also did, is one too – an Atheist Mechanismist, a universe of ‘God as a Clock-maker’, but without the God bit…., or Dawkin’s ‘The Blind Watchmaker,’ So it is fun to hear the opposite science side of the coin.
The minute 9:45 – 10:45 was a good beginning, the mind as greater than the brain.
But he lost me at hallucinogenics as I feel they are a great cloud on the issue of what is ultimate because they fool the brain, they totally fake reality in a very believable way, they are the charlatan, not the truth. They are the convincing con man Shaman, not enlightenment, rather the opposite.

Anyway, having seen a great deal of the world, the religious, spiritual, human, and a really great deal indeed of Nature, I am very suspicious of his sort of nod towards Pantheist Spiritualism that he kind of hints at. I feel his direction without the anchor of Christianity would be dark indeed. CS Louis and his wonderful book ‘That Hideous Strength’ is the most frightening book ever written on what happens when science and spiritual join without the goodness and restraints of God.
So, a good talk, but I took nothing from it in the end but for how the system censors any unorthodox thinking from the media. He lacks any kind of unified point. He needs to work on some kind of ontological argument sort of thing, like a ‘what it all means’, rather than snips which together build nothing coherent I could get, but that mechanical science fails in seeing truth (which it does). I guess I should read his book, but doubt I will as I am past interest in philosophy, and am now just in the Annie Dillard, spiritual, mind set of life: ‘Seems we just set down here, and don’t nobody know why’ with a Christian bias.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago

I am in almost complete agreement with him and his views.

I do believe that there is more NOT understood in the brain and mind than IS. If we are exploring things that were dismissed as pseudoscience in the past, and if it is being rejected by old mainstream scientists like Richard Dawkins, then it leads me to believe that they (old science) are actually AFRAID of being toppled over and that’s why they are sticking so religiously to one view & shutting down possibilities of new way of looking at things. The world WAS flat before it WAS round.

I do believe that this FEAR among mainstream scientists leads them to group together to protect themselves from an attack of being proven wrong. Hence we may be at the cusp of new discoveries and new science. The science that challenges us, is also humble and thus progressive. In the future, perhaps the old science of the ‘matter’ may be laughed at as a dogma especially the medical science where the human body cannot be disassociated with its mind. There is an incredible amount that is misunderstood or not understood at all ie not been ventured into.

I may not agree with his view that technology is bringing more of us together ( like for church services) because physical human contact is rooted in our biology. You cannot satisfy it with zoom calls. But I agree that our world wide travel obsession needed curbing and we have to wean ourselves away from travelling afar regularly in order to have a holiday.

All said I can’t help feel annoyed that it had to come to this lockdown to come to terms with our obsessions, that science/ purveyors of science could have handled it better. I’ve lost much faith in them.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
10 months ago

A great discussion. As a follow-on, I would so love to hear Freddie interview either Jacques Vallee or one of two SUNY Albany physicists — Kevin Knuth or Matt Szydagis — on the UFO phenomena.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
9 months ago

To me, it’s obvious that science cannot explain everything, and any intelligent child would be able to tell you that. That is, before they start taking science classes. I had very severe hepatitis when I was working for Save the Children Fund in Sudan in 1982, nearly died, and had a Near Death Experience which lasted several days, or longer. During this time (when I could hardly get out of bed to dag myself to the toilet a few steps away), I felt that I was hovering above my bed, and could see myself lying there, and I felt extremely happy, although happy is much too small a word to describe how I felt. So I’m very open to the idea that science is useful but finite, and that there is an infinity of other stuff out there which works all the time, and cannot be described as scientific in any classical sense. Like, for example, a dog knowing that its master is going home.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
10 months ago

I don’t know. “Towards Enlightenment TV” or “TETV” maybe? Hard to think of a name that doesn’t sound “holier than thou.”

h w
h w
10 months ago

NAME CHANGE SUGGESTION:
UNLOCKED TV