Horgan on Buddhism
Sceptic Balloons (by Phil Brisk)

Sheldrake and Dawkins

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.

Sheldrake says

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.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

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."

By being the kind of person your post indicates he is. So then the question should be: why do you find yourself defending a person like this?

"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."


Assuming that Sheldrake's account is fair. Although I can imagine Dawkins doing something like this, it's worth bearing in mind that there are usually two sides to a story. Sheldrake's book looks very interesting though.

I don't know if you've been following the hub-bub around Dawkins' refusal to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig, but it has a similar feel to this story here. The commonality I see is that Dawkins doesn't seem confident in his ability to win on purely intellectual grounds and so resorts to what amounts to smears. He seems to traffic in appeals to emotion while he criticizes that same tactic in others.

>"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."

By being the kind of person your post indicates he is. So then the question should be: why do you find yourself defending a person like this?<

I was about to say *exactly* the same thing. Robert, you have surprised me, you really have. 8(

It's not only Dawkins. This kind of ambushing is sadly common. We've had it happen with too many interviews about near-death experiences, despite assurances of faith and good will from producers. Then the show pops up with a really hostile and quick skeptic who can slice, dice, and grill a media amateur in seconds. Or the show is edited to make the NDE people, even the most talented researchers, look foolish. It has been so bad that Bruce Greyson, despite his reputation and scholarly credentials, refuses to do any more television.

I guess it's down to motive. This is what happens when folks 'decide' they know 'the Truth©' - and almost any method is acceptable to ensure their own view of reality triumphs.

Perhaps such people feel that the end justifies the means. There are certainly some areas of life where a person could feel justified that they have found the truth however it is surely unwise to refuse to consider an alternative put by a rational, reasonable individual.How else do we learn?


Nancy, that's shocking to hear, but perhaps not surprising. A pity, as if experts are reluctant to take the risk television debate will become ever more sterile and polarised.

'Robert, you have surprised me, you really have.' That's OK Julie, I wouldn't want to be too predictable :). I confess to admiring Dawkins as a writer and a communicator, even if I profoundly disagree with him. But with this sort of thing he goes far too far, obviously.

All this is fuelled by long habits of "one right answerness" in the West, ultimately stemming from monotheism. I made that point on my blog here for example, and suggested that we can simply become polyparadigmatic whenever we like.

I agree Dawkins on his own ground is a great thinker and writer -- esp. the early stuff. Unfortunately his own ground is a little smaller than he imagines. :)

"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.

The first thing that popped in my mind when I read this was a quote from a near death experiencer that I read somewhere:
"God put Atheist's here for a reason."

Okay. If so, I'm sure He had his reasons for putting Dawkins here. Was it to keep us honest, or to give us something to do? :-)

Original thinker? Fine writer? Are we reading the same Richard Dawkins?

I agree with Karl. I don't see Dawkins as an original thinker or a particularly good writer.

The comments to this entry are closed.