I talked recently about Deepak Chopra describing how he was 'ambushed' by Richard Dawkins for his 2007 Enemies of Reason films on Channel 4. The film makers hadn't told him it was Dawkins he was going to be talking to.
Another putative 'enemy of reason' was Rupert Sheldrake, who in his new book describes a similar encounter. He talked about it at the time, and Greg Taylor published it here. But it's so extraordinary it's worth repeating.
Sheldrake was emailed by a Channel 4 researcher to say that Dawkins wanted to talk to him to discuss his research on unexplained abilities of people and animals for a new TV series. Sheldrake wasn't keen, because he knew it would be one-sided. Not so, said the researcher - they were now much more open minded: 'We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry.'
So Sheldrake agreed. Dawkins duly turned up with a film crew and the exchange started. Dawkins said they probably agreed about many things, but it worried him that Sheldrake was prepared to believe almost anything. Sheldrake replied that it worried him that Dawkins was so dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.
One all. Dawkins then said he would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn't any evidence for it. He complained that if it really occurred it would turn the laws of physics upside down, and added , 'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.' Sheldrake pointed out that most people have experienced telepathy, and suggested that the claim that they are deluded about their own experience is itself extraordinary. Where was the extraordinary evidence for that?' Dawkins took it for granted that people want to believe in 'the paranormal' because of wishful thinking.
They agreed that controlled experiments were necessary and Sheldrake started to talk about the work he had been doing on telephone telepathy. The previous week he had sent Dawkins some of his published papers.
I suggested that we actually discuss the evidence. He looked uneasy and said, 'I don't want to discuss evidence.' 'Why not?' I asked. He replied, 'There isn't time. It's too complicated. And that's not what this programme is about.' The camera stopped.
Sheldrake pointed out that he had made it clear that he wasn't interested in taking part in another low-grade debunking exercise. 'It's not a low-grade debunking exercise; it's a high-grade debunking exercise,' said Dawkins. The director asked to see the emails Sheldrake had been sent. He read them 'with obvious dismay' saying that the assurances Sheldrake had been given were wrong. So they packed up and left.
in no other field of scientific endeavour to otherwise intelligent people feel free to make public claims based on prejudice and ignorance. Yet in relation to psychic phenomena, committed materialists feel free to disregard the evidence and behave irrationally and unscientifically while claiming to speak in the name of science and reason. They abuse the authority of science and bring rationalism into disrepute.
I suppose a certain amount of subterfuge is needed if you want to get your opponents to open up to you on camera. Although as I recall from the film, his various 'enemies' - Christian evangelists, alternative healers, etc - seemed only too happy to talk to him, perhaps not knowing who he was, and caring less. But he surely can't have imagined that Sheldrake would passively submit.
I often find myself defending Dawkins, as an original thinker and fine writer. I rather dislike the caricature of him as a zealot. But God, does he ask for it. This sort of behaviour is so childish and grubby. Sheldrake is a trained biologist pursuing evidence-based science and it's hard to forgive Dawkins for treating a fellow scientist with such disrespect.