Potshots from a sceptical scientist

 

SCIENCE:The Science Delusion, By Rupert Sheldrake, Hodder & Stoughton, 382pp. £19.99

THE SCIENCE DELUSIONis the latest book from Rupert Sheldrake, a noted biologist and former Cambridge don. Dr Sheldrake is well known in science for his work in developmental biology, but he is more familiar to the public for his controversial views on psychic phenomena such as telepathy and extrasensory perception.

From the title, one might have expected a religious polemic against Richard Dawkins, the scientist and atheist who wrote The God Delusion. Sheldrake does have a bone to pick with Dawkins, but his concern is not with the interaction of science and religion but with certain assumptions that he believes are hampering the practice of modern science.

The writer’s main target is the philosophy of materialism: the belief that all reality is physical in nature. He argues that this philosophy is both widespread and unexamined in modern science and that it hinders progress by causing working hypotheses to harden into rigid dogma. Examples of such dogma are the assumption that the laws of nature are fixed, that nature is purposeless, that all matter is unconscious and that human consciousness is simply a byproduct of the physical activity of the brain.

Sheldrake examines these and other assumptions in detail. He gives an excellent introduction to each hypothesis, describing how it developed in the context of the history and philosophy of science. Questioning how such hypotheses harden into accepted truths, he invites the reader to consider alternative world views. Along the way he introduces his own philosophy, a theory known as morphic resonance. In essence, this posits that the fundamental constituents of nature are not matter and energy but self-organising systems that resonate with their environments.

In this world view, atoms, molecules and cells are not unconscious material but have patterns of behaviour. The author uses his theory to examine whether the universe is alive, whether the laws of physics are habits that change and evolve, whether all biological inheritance is material and whether the mind is really confined to the brain. In the most controversial chapter, he suggests that his theory can offer an explanation for disputed phenomena such as telepathy and precognition.

Many readers will find the author’s thesis fascinating, if a little far fetched. The book is beautifully written, with scientific and philosophical concepts described in clear language. Each chapter ends with a useful summary and a list of probing questions for materialists.

There are also some major flaws in the book, however. The most obvious is that much of the material that Sheldrake cites as evidence for “scientific dogma” is drawn not from scientific literature but from reviews in popular science magazines. Most scientists would argue that such publications offer only a superficial version of scientific theories and that many of the “dogmatic principles” that Sheldrake identifies are in fact open questions in scientific research.

This straw-man approach is most noticeable in the discussions of modern physics. Sheldrake asserts that the principle of the conservation of energy has become unquestioned dogma in physics; in fact, the principle is the subject of intense research in fields such as cosmology and particle physics. (It is thought to be linked to a deep symmetry of time in nature.) Indeed, Sheldrake’s discussion of energy conservation in the context of the big-bang model shows a poor grasp of modern cosmology.

Similar criticisms apply to a chapter on the fundamental laws of nature. The investigation of possible variations in the fundamental constants of nature is a thriving field of research in physics; it is not assumed that these laws are inviolable, as claimed by the author. (A good example is the recent “faster than light” neutrino experiment at Gran Sasso National Laboratory, in Italy, and the planned reruns in the US and Japan.) Sheldrake’s description of such experiments displays many misconceptions.

A second major issue is the writer’s description of the methodology of science. Instead of engaging with the views of sociologists of science such as Harry Collins and Bruno Latour, Sheldrake cites their views uncritically as support for his own beliefs. The result is a rather unbalanced view of scientific practice that emphasises the failings of the individual scientist, and understates how science overcomes these limitations using the principles of scepticism, repeatability and universality. For example, a lengthy discussion of experimenter bias fails to mention the simple laboratory procedures used to minimise such problems. (It is interesting that the discovery of anthropogenic – or human-influenced – global warming, a scientific discovery of huge importance to society, merits only one paragraph.)

The most enjoyable and controversial part of the book is the section on psychic phenomena. The writer describes many intriguing experiments that he and others have performed to investigate phenomena such as telepathy, premonition and precognition, in animals and in humans. A little research, however, shows that, in many of the experiments Sheldrake cites, the experimenters themselves dispute the results. Much of this work has been criticised by scientific bodies and remains controversial.

All in all, this is a highly original and thought-provoking book. The writer poses a clear and incisive challenge to modern science that scientists and nonscientists alike will enjoy, whether or not they agree with his conclusions.


Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and writes the science blog Antimatter. He is a former research fellow of the science, technology and society programme at Harvard University