I went to Rupert Sheldrake’s lecture about The Science Delusion at the SPR recently. I’ve read the book, and heard/read/seen various interviews, etc, so I’m familiar with the ideas. But it was worth hearing him speak in person. Considering his reputation as a heretic I’m struck by how relaxed and confident he seems. He’s not at all the ranting type; on the contrary, he comes across as reasonable and utterly convinced – with good reason, as he has so much actual evidence to back up his claims.
So it didn’t surprise me when he said that he talks to sceptics, and that they seem to be genuinely interested. There’s apparently a regular Sunday ‘service’ for atheists at Conway Hall in London. It sounds rather dull; obviously atheists don’t go in for dressing up and singing, so it’s just a sermon on the evils of superstition, and suchlike. When they billed a talk on telepathy and how it doesn’t really exist Sheldrake sneaked in and sat at the back. People in the audience started whispering and turning round, and eventually the speaker invited him up to make some remarks of his own. This sounds absurd – try imagining a bishop stepping down from the pulpit and asking Richard Dawkins to take his place - but Sheldrake says he got a receptive response. And indeed, once you start talking about actual experiences, and actual scientific research, why would anyone not be interested?
Earlier he’d been talking at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, debating with Nicolas Humphrey (ubersceptic psychologist) and Julian Baggini (atheist philosopher). He told us that he’d bumped into Daniel Dennett there, and took the opportunity to ask him whether he thought parapsychology was a pseudo-science. Of course it’s a pseudo-science, Dennett replied gruffly. However, pressed by Sheldrake, he declined to defend that assertion in a public debate – unsurprisingly, as I don’t think he knows much about it. Sheldrake now wants to put the same question to other sceptics, to get them to define their position. He says he has already asked Professor Chris French who, by contrast, thinks parapsychology is a genuine science.
After the talk at Hay-on-Wye he says he was buttonholed by Bronwen Maddox, the daughter of the late John Maddox – the editor of Nature who made him famous by denouncing his book on morphogenesis as ‘fit for burning’. The family were having guests round to their home nearby, to which Dennett had been invited, and they insisted he join them. Not altogether as one might expect, the Maddoxes were friendly and genuinely interested in his ideas. Bronwen’s brother Bruno remarked that Sheldrake had been a big name in their household when they were growing up – they were used to hearing him being discussed over breakfast.
That’s the thing about militant sceptics. When someone comes up with something they really really don’t like, what they ought to do is to keep quiet and let it pass. But they can’t help themselves – they get all excited and start shouting and gesticulating, so that the people they want to defend from such evil nonsense wake up and start to take an interest. Maddox did Sheldrake a big favour with his public rant. Now the same thing has happened with the TED controversy. Far from being downcast by his talk being bumped, Sheldrake was delighted with the result. Traffic to his website has soared, and all kinds of people have got in touch with him, never having heard of him before.