‘The Science Delusion’ by Rupert Sheldrake

‘The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry’ by Rupert Sheldrake, Coronet 2012

Review by Robert M Ellis (written in 2012)

To launch the Reformation of Christianity, Luther nailed ninety-five theses to a church door. To reform science, Rupert Sheldrake identifies ten dogmas of modern science and explains why they are limiting and rigidifying scientific investigation. Tellingly, it is no longer new ‘truths’, but ways of escaping from the net of assumed ones that are now the instruments of reform. However, this book ought to be just as influential as Luther’s theses in reshaping a great Western tradition. Written by an experienced scientist with a string of establishment credentials, its importance lies not so much in the scientific evidence it puts forward (though there is plenty of this) as in the philosophical possibilities it opens. As I shall explain, I think these possibilities are very much in harmony with Middle Way Philosophy.The Science Delusion2

The book offers a central challenge to the way that the mechanistic model has continued to dominate Western science, despite that model’s inability to explain a wide range of evidence. Sheldrake offers a striking variety of evidence of what the mechanistic model cannot explain. There is our inability to explain ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. There are the mysterious patterns of crystal formation. There are the limitations of genes or even of epigenesis to fully explain inheritance. There is the lack of evidence for memory as a material trace in the brain, and the degree of evidence for both human and animal telepathy.

In relation to these phenomena Sheldrake distinguishes scientific method, which would openly investigate the grounds for any fruitful theory that could explain them, from mechanistic assumptions, which constrain scientists from any investigation that does not fit their metaphysical scheme. There is no necessity for science to adopt mechanistic assumptions, and it seems to be now reaching the edges of ways that it can fruitfully investigate whilst tied to them. For example, Sheldrake explains how physics is getting increasingly speculative, genetic technology is no longer considered a strong investment, and neuroscience has yet to convincingly explain the relationship between mind and brain.

Of course, we would only be justified in switching from one base theory to another if there is a new theory that explains the evidence better than the old. Sheldrake offers such a theory in the form of morphic resonance. Morphic resonance is his term for the way in which self-organising systems (e.g. crystals, cells, plants, animals) tend to influence each others’ form. The greater the similarity of form to start with, the greater the influence, regardless of distance in space or time. He suggests that genetic similarity is dependent on this process, and that memory amounts to morphic resonance between our minds at different times. It explains, for example, why rats who have learnt to run a maze in one place appear to make it easier for other rats elsewhere to run the same maze, and why the ability to do IQ tests is steadily rising. It also explains why closely linked people can have telepathic contact, and how we feel a sense of being watched when we cannot observe the observer.

Morphic resonance appears to be an interesting and fruitful hypothesis. Sheldrake does not call it any more than a hypothesis, and certainly does not claim it is proven. His book is thus primarily a protest against a widespread refusal amongst scientists to take such a hypothesis seriously because it conflicts with mechanistic assumptions. Sometimes such hypotheses are just ignored, at others a selective scepticism is used to dismiss them, applying exacting standards far beyond those applied to mainstream materialist theories, and at other times they are just dismissed on a priori grounds rather than examined.

I found it easy to sympathise with Sheldrake’s position, because I have had very similar experiences putting forward, not scientific, but philosophical theories which challenge widespread assumptions. Some people do not examine your work at all because they immediately assume you are a crank, even if you can offer academic credentials. Others dismiss it at the first difficulty using selective scepticism, setting the bar far higher than they would with a conventional theory: “Extraordinary theories demand extraordinary evidence” Sheldrake was told. But to demand (ill-defined) “extraordinary” evidence is pretty much tantamount to rejecting the theory outright whilst keeping its advocate stringing along out of politeness. Whatever evidence is offered, it is very unlikely to ever be “extraordinary” enough, so the goalposts just keep moving. Just as even the voice of God booming from the heavens would not necessarily convince an atheist of his existence, no amount of evidence about unexplained effects will ever be enough to shake mechanistic science when it is actually held as a metaphysical commitment rather than as a provisional basis of investigation.

Sheldrake’s approach to this situation for the most part is to insist on the primacy of evidence, with relatively little discussion of the philosophical issues it raises, and whilst I wish him luck with this approach, I also think that it is only really with philosophical change that the method of science will be made more amenable to evidence. Quite what Sheldrake is up against is illustrated by a couple of stories he tells about Richard Dawkins (neither of which are to Dawkins’ credit). In one, Dawkins states dogmatically “Morphic fields are not material and therefore they don’t exist” (p.184), and in another Dawkins refuses to discuss evidence when interviewing Sheldrake for a TV programme about telepathy (p.256).

As I have been arguing in the Middle Way Philosophy I have been developing, there is only one way of overcoming dogmatism, and that is with provisionality. Provisionality is incompatible with metaphysical positions, because such positions exclude a priori any recognition of their own fallibility. Denying a metaphysical position (i.e. asserting it to be false) does not avoid dogmatism, because metaphysical theories are not amenable to evidence either way. Mechanistic physicalism is such a metaphysical theory, so merely offering counter-theories, however well evidenced, will not convince people of its falsity, given that they can always interpret the evidence offered in terms of a mechanistic model. Just as any state of affairs, including the worst imaginable evil, can be explained by theologians in a way that is compatible with God’s existence, so the most apparently bizarre evidence about dark matter or telepathy can be explained by mechanistic scientists in a way that is compatible with a mechanistic model by extensive confirmation bias.  

As with any metaphysical belief, if you look closely and critically at physicalism it becomes difficult to explain why anyone believes in it other than for dogmatic purposes. It is not even as though physicists have a clear understanding of what matter consists in, but they have evaded this difficulty by distinguishing between materialism (belief that everything can be understood in terms of material stuff) and physicalism (belief that everything is subject to observable physical laws). Physicalism consists more of an attachment to mathematical models which are believed to explain the underlying processes of the universe than to a belief in a certain kind of stuff. Yet mathematical models can only be applied to the physical universe on the basis of fallible measurements and philosophical assumptions about the significance of those measurements. So-called physical constants, as Sheldrake shows, are actually variables which scientists regularly shove into the constancy they assume they ought to have (p.88-93). The most consistent mathematical model may turn out to have little or no relationship to reality, if one first allows oneself to consider the apparently unimaginable possibility that it might not.

Phenomena such as gravity and electro-magnetism are just as mysterious as matter – so why is morphic resonance so difficult to stomach? Pace Richard Dawkins, nobody knows what gravity is or that it is ‘material’: it is just a label that helps us to explain observed processes according to consistent physical laws.  Gravity, like other such forces, can only be detected or measured by its effects. It seems odd, then, that when scientists like Sheldrake hypothesise about other kinds of forces that are also not directly observable but which help to explain available evidence better than previously available explanations, they are apparently so often dismissed out of hand.

Perhaps morphic resonance is so quickly rejected because of the threat it poses of a Luther-like overthrow of the papal authority of mechanistic neo-platonism. Perhaps, too, we should remember the ways that metaphysical beliefs form dualistic pairs, and gain a lot of their currency by merely denying the opposing view. Physicalism, despite its theoretical claims not to be mere materialism appealing to a final definite stuff, gets a lot of its appeal from its denial of the possibility of immaterial stuff. Neuroscientists, despite not knowing what the brain is made out of, often assert with conviction that minds are made out of whatever it is that brains are made out of and not the opposite, whatever that they take that to be – souls and spirits and suchlike. They assert that minds must be subject to physical laws as we understand them, despite the fact that physical laws as we understand them are inconsistent (still divided between Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum physics) and the brain is such an incredibly complex and little-understood manifestation of any kind of physical process. As Sheldrake points out, no biologists actually put their biological theory in terms of chemistry and physics. The reducibility of one level of explanation to another, and thus the supposed unity of mechanistic science, is purely theoretical and not at all helpful in practice, for we can prove neither reducibility nor supervenience.

So, Sheldrake’s book is immensely valuable as a critique of mechanism in science, and a necessary reminder that science can become dogmatic just as religion can, for those who are inclined to be lop-sided in their scepticism. It is also very interesting as a source of new alternative hypotheses, centered around morphic resonance. Those who react against Sheldrake often seem to be taking these hypotheses too strongly as rival dogmatic claims, but Sheldrake is very careful not to make exaggerated claims for his hypotheses.

I did find the hypothesis of morphic resonance a very fruitful one, though, in potentially helping to explain the nature of integration and objectivity. One conceptual problem that can be found in the theory of integration is that of what exactly is being integrated. If one puts Sheldrake’s morphic resonance together with Iain McGilchrist’s work on the right and left hemispheres of the brain, however, one could suggest that although it is the right brain that is much more sensitive to morphic resonance, it is the degree to which the left brain can participate in this resonance that enables integration of desires, meanings and beliefs. The left brain left to itself is liable to use representational, mechanistic, and generally metaphysical ways of understanding and interpreting experience, but if the right brain can communicate its more holistic understanding of form to the left, then the left brain is able to modify its understanding through greater connectivity of ideas.

Whether or not this idea turns out to work as an explanation on closer investigation, the whole concept of morphic resonance seems an extremely rich one. It explains how our apparent selves at different times are unified by memory. It explains our sense of empathy, which is greater for those things that are closer to us in form but less for those things that are very different. It also explains our objectivity, as the adequacy of our experience in examining the world is broadened by our openness to morphic resonance rather than a mere representational model. Obviously it does not provide a complete explanation for any of these phenomena, but it does potentially provide another piece in the jigsaw. For example, if ourselves at different times are unified by morphic resonance in providing memory (as well as, Sheldrake suggests, anticipation) then we also need a recognition of the necessary role of the brain in picking up such resonance.

There are a number of limitations in this book, but then one would expect limitations and approximations in a book that breaks new ground. To expect a perfect account is to raise the bar unrealistically high. I felt that the main lacuna in Sheldrake’s book was philosophical. He does not explore the immense epistemological implications either of moving beyond the mechanistic scientific world-view or of adopting the hypothesis of morphic resonance.

What are the philosophical grounds on which we should accept or reject a new hypothesis of this kind? It is not enough to put all the emphasis on evidence, given that evidence is usually interpreted in relation to pre-conceived theories. Nor is it enough to merely insist dogmatically on a theory. As I have argued in my writings on Middle Way Philosophy, justification arises not just from coherence with existing beliefs and with evidence, but from a recognition of the fallibility of the theory. Sheldrake makes it clear that mechanistic science often does not recognise its own fallibility, and to that extent lacks justification. On the other hand, Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance is only put forward as a hypothesis with a good deal more provisionality, so it passes that test. The arguments for how well justified it is will depend more on aspects of its coherence.

One thing that seems missing from Sheldrake’s account of morphic resonance is an explanation of when it doesn’t happen. For example, if morphic resonance accounts for memory by linking our selves at different times, what accounts for the failure of morphic resonance when we forget? The mechanism for not connecting may, as I have already suggested, involve some kind of interference from the left hemisphere of the brain, but Sheldrake does not attempt to clarify this point. Without an idea of when it should or should not happen, the hypothesis becomes scientifically unfalsifiable.

It may well be the kind of hypothesis that is better tested by individuals in experience than in a formal scientific context. In a formal scientific context, falsifiability has to consist of specific predictions that can be publically and preferably repeatedly observed that would disconfirm the theory. It may well be that morphic resonance cannot be falsified in this way, because the conditions when it would not occur cannot be fully specified. For example, in trying to account for telepathy, it is not enough to use morphic resonance to account for inexplicable cases. If morphic resonance is to advance from being a hypothesis into being a theory it will need to explain in what circumstances telepathy does not occur. Why, for example, am I not aware my wife’s thoughts and feelings at this moment, when she is in another room out of sight and earshot? In the cases that Sheldrake offers, when he says that telepathy occurs in a statistically significant number of cases (which prevent us from dismissing telepathically transmitted ideas as merely held coincidentally by both parties), why does it only occur on those occasions rather than all or most of the time?

However, if morphic resonance remains the best available explanation for such phenomena as telepathy, when they do occur, we can simply recognise as individuals that we have no clear idea of the principles of falsification that would apply to them. We can nevertheless apply a requirement of falsifiability for ourselves as individuals, by maintaining our own expectations of how that theory will prove useful to us in experience, within a certain time-frame that we define for ourselves. The theory would be falsified in this instance if it ceased to provide fruitful explanations for experience, or if it was superseded by a better theory.

Many of Sheldrake’s critics appear to have made a philosophical misjudgement about the kind of theory he is putting forward. It is not an alternative mechanistic theory, so it is not fair to judge it by mechanistic standards. On the other hand it is not pseudoscience: it is not a matter of wishful thinking, or ad hoc hypotheses, or appeals to traditional authority. Homeopathy could aptly be described as pseudoscience because it makes specific predictions which are not disconfirmed when its sugar-pills perform no better than placebo. Creationism is a pseudoscience because it persists in offering unfalsifiable alternatives to the better-evidenced and more coherent theories offered by evolutionary biology. Morphic resonance is not a theory that should be lumped in with such bad company, because it does not make such precise claims, because it is pursued without metaphysical certainties, and because it recognises its own fallibilities. It is a hypothesis that opens up new possibilities for exploration, both scientific and philosophical.

One example of the narrow expectations of some of Sheldrake’s critics is found in Richard Wiseman’s comments on the Jaytee experiments conducted by Sheldrake[i]. Wiseman argues that there are other possible hypotheses that could explain the frequency of the dog returning to the porch, such as the dog’s increasing anxiety after the owner has been away for some time. There are similar objections to Sheldrake’s experiments on people’s ability to detect when they are being stared at, again based on the possibility of alternative hypotheses. However, all this shows is that Sheldrake’s case is not fully proven. From a philosophical point of view, no scientific case is fully proven – there are just some cases better evidenced than others. Alternative hypotheses are always possible: the question is whether these hypotheses are intended mainly as ad hoc attempts to defend mainstream theory, or whether they offer fruitful further predictions. The value of Sheldrake’s experiments, as Sheldrake himself seems to acknowledge, lies in showing the need for further investigation by opening up matters that many scientists seem to have considered closed.

The arguments between Sheldrake and his critics particularly seem to indicate to me the importance of psychological criteria of objectivity. Sheldrake’s scientific objectivity does not consist in the details of his investigatory technique in particular cases, but in the balance he manages to strike between putting a coherent case for his interpretation of the evidence and recognising the fallibility of his hypotheses. As far as I can judge – from a standpoint that is, of course, mainly philosophical rather than scientific in any technical sense – Sheldrake tends to strike that balance much better than many of his critics do.

11 thoughts on “‘The Science Delusion’ by Rupert Sheldrake

  1. Hi Robert,

    As always there are certain things that I agree with here and certain things that I have some issues with.

    Personally, I find Sheldrakes hypotheses unconvincing but I will not go into these in any detail here. What I will say is that he has been exploring them since the 80’s and has yet to convincingly show that they exist. This may be, as he would suggest, that his theories threaten the scientific institution, but I am not convinced. Having said that, he is entitled to pursue his theories as he sees fit.

    Sheldrakes criticisms of science seem to me to stem from the fact that the scientific community does not share his theories. Science is mechanistic because it has to be, if that means that there are things that Science cannot explain then so be it. We might not know what gravity is, and we may not be able ever explain it but we do know that it exists, we have been able to predict its effects throughout the universe and can use it to our practical advantage. The same cannot be said for theories such as Morphic Resonance, which – apparently not being mechanistic cannot be proved or disproved- a little like God. Science accepts that it does not understand things like dark matter and we may never know, I don’t understand the impatience for explanations, which often result in theories like Morphic Resonance, that can only ever be hypothetical (without mechanistic proof). I should also say that because Science explains the world mechanistically it does not have to follow that everything is mechanistic.

    Sheldrake seems to believe that ‘Science’ dismisses phenomenon, that it can not understand, as illusory (dogma #10). Well, let’s look at acupuncture, the ancient Chinese tradition of inserting needles into certain points around the body to relieve certain conditions. When studied, acupuncture has been found to work for many conditions and is now employed to good effect by the NHS (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Acupuncture/Pages/Evidence.aspx). Why it works is not understood but the traditional explanation is that it helps unblock the flow of Qi (or life force) around the body. While there is evidence that acupuncture works there is no evidence for the existence of Qi (which is not the same as saying the Qi is illusory). Acupuncture’s efficacy does not require an explanation and one may never be found. This tells us two things, that are in contradiction to Dogma #10. Science studies and utilizes phenomenon that it cannot explain and consequently science does not dismiss unexplained phenomenon as illusory.

    Having said all of this I agree that there need to be changes in the way that science is studied, presented and perceived, there is a science delusion but it is not quite as Sheldrake presents it. There is an established order in Science and it seems that it be stifling for those on the fringes, making it difficult for truly imaginative and creative science to flourish. Nearly all of the truly great Scientific breakthroughs have ‘gone against the grain’ and challenged the status quo, but these events are rare. For all of the great successes there must be myriad accounts of those that have challenged, failed and been rejected to the historical scrapheap. In his book Free Radicals – The Secret Anarchy of Science, Michael Brooks (quantum physicist and consultant at New Scientist magazine) argues that while Scientists have ‘colluded’ in a ‘cover-up’ to present themselves as unbiased, level-headed logicians that follow the rules of the scientific method, many are actually unruly mavericks (not unlike Sheldrake) that will do anything to make new discoveries and usurp their rivals. He gives many anecdotes of this which include, among others, Einstein, Watson and Crick. I won’t spoil the book but he does conclude by suggesting some ways in which Science might move forward, such as calling into question the usefulness of the peer review system.

    Science needs people like Sheldrake and I think that there are plenty of them, as there have been since the beginnings of Natural Philosophy in the 16th century, but in the end Science is about results. While Genetics and Neuroscience might not be able to explain every interaction in the body and mind (and don’t claim to), they do offer us the best hope for many diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s and, as with acupuncture and Qi, they will do this whether Morphic Resonance exists or not.

    Science does need to change and to be challenged but a Lutherian revolution might not be the best path to take, after all that only resulted in the same Dogma with different clothing. Despite what they say (and probably believe) many scientists are dogmatic, and I include Sheldrake among them, but in the end planes fly, diseases are cured and we might even send people to Mars! I think that the Middle Way should embrace science and watch with interested eyes as it fails and succeeds and eventually progresses. Every generation believes that they have come to the limits of Scientific knowledge and every generation, so far, has been wrong. It is probably best to not second guess. I think that the Middle Way Society is quite capable of challenging arrogance and dogma within science without the need for theories such as Moprhic Resonance, that might only serve to support a desired world view. Yet Science needs to be understood as a whole, not as just the neat ideas and results that it often leads to, and it needs to be understood as just one part of human understanding and experience – which is what my first blog will, eventually, be about.


    1. Hi Rich,
      Thanks for these comments. I very much agree with “Every generation believes that they have come to the limits of Scientific knowledge and every generation, so far, has been wrong. It is probably best to not second guess. I think that the Middle Way Society is quite capable of challenging arrogance and dogma within science without the need for theories such as Moprhic Resonance, that might only serve to support a desired world view.” There is no way that I wish to support morphic resonance as anything beyond an interesting and challenging hypothesis, and I hoped that was clear from my review. Middle Way Philosophy certainly doesn’t “need” morphic resonance. However, I do think that science “needs” alternative theories of the kind Sheldrake offers, and that it should treat these far more positively.

      You say that “in the end science is about results”, but I don’t see how these results can ever consist in more than a degree of justification – perhaps a very high degree of justification. Sheldrake’s results are inconclusive, but mainstream science is also less than 100% conclusive. Positively, yes, I put my faith in mainstream science. If you offered me a medical treatment based on morphic resonance I would be dubious about adopting it. But his results are interesting enough to open up a closed case, and that’s where their significance lies.

      I don’t understand why you say that “Science is mechanistic because it has to be”. I don’t this is consistent with your acknowledgement of changes in scientific history. Ancient science was not mechanistic, and future science may well be post-mechanistic. In my post ‘The Third Phase’ recently I brought together some indications that science may be potentially moving into a post-mechanistic phase. The test of this would be that it would leave behind the assumption that all phenomena were in principle predictable, and thus base its judgements on a balancing between evidence and ignorance rather than merely on correspondence with apparent evidence.

      I do agree with you that science can identify patterns in phenomena without theorising unseen forces to explain them. Not only has Sheldrake not shown that morphic resonance ‘exists’, but no scientist has ever ‘proved’ that hypothesised entities beyond experience ‘exist’. Claims about existence are metaphysical rather than scientific. Nevertheless, we can provisionally use terms like ‘gravity’ or ‘the unconscious’ for unseen elements that appear to have a clear explanatory value. At present I’d agree with you that there is considerably less evidence for morphic resonance than there is for gravity – but these are different points on a scale, not absolutes.

      My stress where science is concerned is always to emphasise that it cannot represent how the universe actually is, and a lot of the way people talk about it often seems to slip into this model. It seems to require constant effort to stop science being interpreted naturalistically. Nevertheless, I think it’s well worth that effort, and it’s deeply in the spirit of science at its best to remain in a sphere of genuine (rather than token) provisionality when considering all theories, whether radical or mainstream. Even if Sheldrake’s hypotheses were completely unhelpful and had no relationship at all with evidence (this would be putting it too strongly, as far as I can tell – but I have no expertise in the details), he would still have great value as a scientific gadfly.

    2. Rich,

      I agree with the general thrust of your comment, but I feel obliged to point out that, at least in my neck of the woods (literally North America, but virtually the area of the blogosphere that I inhabit), the efficacy of acupuncture is still challenged.

      For example, see this article, plainly titled “Acupuncture Doesn’t Work”, by Steven Novella in the Science-Based Medicine (SBM) blog, which concludes with:

      The debate really isn’t over whether acupuncture is an effective placebo (it is), or whether placebo effects can alleviate pain (they can), it’s whether it’s anything more than that, and more substantively, whether its pain-relieving effects are predictable, consistent and repeatable.

      Whatever bias Novella (or other SBM regulars) has against the theoretical origins of acupuncture (e.g. its basis in premodern Chinese medicine and “Qi energy”), I will give him the benefit of the doubt that, if the results of this research program were more conclusively favorable towards a specific, greater-than-placebo effect from acupuncture, he would admit it.

      Mind you, in that scenario, I also suspect that Novella would offer “naturalistic” (non-Qi-based) theories for its mechanism, but that seems like fair game to me, particularly if the “naturalism” in play here is of the methodological, rather than metaphysical, kind. In other words, that he merely seeks an explanation that coheres (or “sits well”) with other theories that are firmly grounded in scientific research.

  2. Robert,

    It seems that we are basically in agreement, at least with the fundamentals. There definitely needs to be a change in the way that science is presented by the media and taught at schools (history suffers from the same issue). Of course many scientists don’t help and as Michael Brooks suggests they are perpetuating a myth and believing their own hype. Also, I should have acknowledged your own caution when discussing Morphic Resonance in your review.

    I may be misunderstanding the term mechanistic, so I’ll explain what I mean by “Science is mechanistic because it has to be”. I mean that science has to break the universe into component parts to study and understand it, this could be the human body or motion of an object in space, which the ancients definitely did do, e.g. with the four elements; earth, water, air, fire. However, by doing this it does not have to follow that everything is actually separate from everything else – each constituent could just be a part of a whole. If one believes that each part is not intrinsically related then that is a personal, philosophical choice and should not affect the results of an experiment.

    Hi Jason,

    ‘The debate really isn’t over whether acupuncture is an effective placebo (it is), or whether placebo effects can alleviate pain (they can), it’s whether it’s anything more than that, and more substantively, whether its pain-relieving effects are predictable, consistent and repeatable.’

    I wouldn’t disagree with this, but the first part is discussing what the mechanism might or might not be, which supports my suggestion that science does not claim to know, and the second part questions how predictable, consistent and repeatable it is – which fits into what I know about the use of acupuncture in the NHS (for whom I work). My experience is that it is offered to people with certain types of chronic pain and for some it works well and for others it does nothing, so it is unpredictable and inconsistent. Nevertheless, it is deemed by the NHS to be effective for enough people to at least be offered. Here is the page that lists the studies that the NHS has used to come to this conclusion http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Acupuncture/Pages/clinical-trial.aspx (I have not read them) :).

    Anyway, even if acupuncture turns out to be less useful than we have thought, my point that it’s use be the medical community contradicts dogma #10 still stands. Another, more conventional treatment, that also does this is the use of Propofol as a general anaesthetic. It definitely works – when given at a certain dose you will lose consciousness for a short time. What is interesting is that we don’t understand how it works. There are various theories, as there are with acupuncture, but none have been proven. For practical purposes it is only important that it works and has been shown to be safe, when used correctly by people that know what they are doing.


    1. Rich: Acupuncture has “gone mainstream” here in the US, as well. For example, my private insurance company covers such treatments (whereas by contrast it does not cover the MBSR course that I’ve enrolled in).

      But I feel obliged to add that this fact would hardly satisfy Novella and other critics within the “scientific-skeptical” community, so long as the treatment in question fails to meet their standards for a scientific basis. On the contrary, it’s partly what attracts their critical attention to the research and reporting (along with whatever suspicions they hold towards claims that are marketed as “traditional”, “alternative”, or “complementary”).

      In this sense, you might say that Novella is also a “scientific gadfly” (to borrow Robert’s term from his comment above), although his similarity to Sheldrake appears to end there.

      1. A correction to my first post: That quote actually comes from a comment (ostensibly, a well informed one), whose conclusion was somewhat weaker than Novella’s, which can be summed by this:

        …after decades of research and more than 3000 trials, acupuncture researchers have failed to reject the null hypothesis, and any remaining possible specific effect from acupuncture is so tiny as to be clinically insignificant.

  3. Hi Jason,

    This is a good example of scientists not agreeing with each other. The media often presents scientists as one group of mysterious people that present what they see as ‘the truth’. A news report might start with the words ‘Scientists say…’ followed by a gross misrepresentation of some recent research.

    As a non scientific person these disagreements can be bewildering, especially when one or more parties might have an agenda. Climate change is the classic example and the Badger cull that is occurring in the U.K at the moment is also a good one – one side does not want Badgers to be shot, others want to protect their cattle herds from TB and others want to make profit.

    As an aside, there was recently a quite big debate regarding the use of Homoeopathy in the NHS – it was debated in parliament. Consequently, the NHS no longer provides this as a treatment and their website states that:

    ‘There has been extensive investigation of the effectiveness of homeopathy. There is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition’.

    Which is very different to their synopsis of acupuncture:

    ‘Currently, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as a treatment option only for lower back pain. NICE makes this recommendation on the basis of scientific evidence. Read the NICE 2009 guidelines on low back pain.
    There is some evidence that acupuncture works for a small number of other conditions, including migraine and post-operative nausea. However, there is little or no scientific evidence that acupuncture works for many of the conditions for which it is often used. More scientific research is needed to establish whether acupuncture is effective against these and other conditions.
    There is no scientific evidence for the existence of Qi or meridians. More research is needed before acupuncture’s method of action is fully understood’.

    MBSR is offered in some NHS trusts but not all. I would not be surprised to see it become much more widely used in the near future.


    1. Rich:

      As Edzard Ernst (a career researcher of complementary and alternative medical claims and an advocate for evidence-based medicine) put it, “one would expect such results [from these acupuncture studies], if one considered that acupuncture is a placebo-treatment.”

      Still, insofar as the placebo effect is characterized by pain relief (and other subjective conditions), what’s the problem, right? I suppose the answer depends on how one feels about the procedure and its cost.

      For my part, downing a sugar pill sounds like a more pleasant way to achieve that effect, compared with being stuck with needles, but then doctors and pharmacists who deal in such products would seem to risk opening themselves up to charges of fraud.

  4. I am on the email list for the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University, which are often compiled by the well known skeptic Chris French.

    The email that I received today reads as follows:

    Hi All,

    Below is a self-explanatory message from Dr David Barrett. As most of you will know, I disagree with Rupert Sheldrake about lots of things but I strongly support his right to present his arguments and evidence freely. Indeed, I have several times hosted talks by Rupert as part of the APRU Invited Speaker Series and, whether one agrees with him or not, his talks are always interesting and thought-provoking. You can find two examples here:


    I have signed the petition David refers to and I urge you to consider doing likewise.

    Best wishes,


    I fully support the general aims of TED, but they are wrong to silence speakers whose ideas are challenging to the scientific orthodoxy.

    I’ve heard longer versions of Dr Rupert Sheldrake’s TED talk on the Science Delusion three times (twice at Goldsmiths, once at the London Fortean Society), and have heard him challenged on his talk in Q&A sessions and in personal conversation, and have heard him defend his stance. He may be right or he may be wrong on each of the ten main points he makes; that is far less important than the fact that he is asking awkward questions.

    He has said that he would be happy to be shown to be wrong, to be given answers to his questions; that is a scientific attitude. The people who run TED, who conveniently hide behind anonymity, are stifling debate, they are saying which questions it is permitted to ask and which it is not; that is not being scientific. It is censorship.

    Whether you are a scientist or not, I would urge any of my friends with academic qualifications to take a stand for freedom of speech in academic debate, by signing this petition to the organisers of TED.


    Dr David V Barrett

    I think that this is a refreshing example of how scientists (that clearly do not agree) can behave, and also demonstrates that Sheldrake is not always as marginalized as he sometimes appears to feel. I will be signing the petition.


  5. “Just as any state of affairs, including the worst imaginable evil, can be explained by theologians in a way that is compatible with God’s existence”

    This is a caricature of the Biblical perspective. Theologians are flawed but the quote shows a confluence to two very different phenomena: theologians, and God.

    Guilty of another “scientific” dogma that presumes a good God cannot create a universe of independent moral beings. A criticism also borne of the morality robbed from the moral universe inherited through culture from Christ. (I did not say “Christianity”).

    1. Hi Trutherator,
      You have misinterpreted me in two ways. I was not discussing a Biblical perspective, but the arguments offered by theologians – though of course theologians often appeal to a biblical perspective. Secondly, I have not assumed that a good God cannot create a universe of independent moral beings. If God exists and is perfect, then of course that would be within his power. However, we do not have any more justification to believe in such a transcendent being (without recourse to dogma) than we have to deny it. God in experience is a mysterious archetype, not a source of crisp revelations on the basis of which certainty could be erected.

      Morality also cannot be seriously understood as only inherited in a culture from Christ. If that was the case, then presumably only explicit followers of Christ could be moral. Even Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe that, but gave pagans the benefit of at least a second-class morality. Morality, I’d suggest instead, has to be encountered in experience, not simply deduced from a dogma that has been passed on by a particular tradition.

      If you’re critical of dogma and want to convince anyone, rather than just creating fruitless altercations, it pays to be even-handed and also scrutinise your own dogmas. Also, applying the principle of charity, don’t assume people are on ‘the other side’ (in this case, presumably atheism or secularism) when they are sincerely trying to practise the Middle Way.

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