A few weeks ago, The Irish Times published my review of The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, the former Cambridge don and enfant terrible of science. Sheldrake was a prominent name in evolutionary biology in the 1970s but he has since become a controversial figure because of his espousal of disputed phenomena such as telepathy, precognition and extra-sensory perception.
Overall, I found the book fascinating but flawed. I didn’t feel the author offered any real evidence for his central thesis: that a strict philosophy of materialism (the belief that all reality is physical in nature) has hindered progress in science and caused working scientific hypotheses to harden into rigid dogma. Most of the evidence offered for this contention consisted of a critique of the methods of science reminiscent of practitioners of the discipline known as science studies; almost no attempt was made to engage critically with these views or to explain why the scientific method has been so successful.
I also found that some of the basic science was flawed, especially in the sections on modern physics. Most of the material cited as evidence for ‘scientific dogma’ was not drawn from the scientific literature, but from review articles in popular science magazines. Such publications offer only a superficial version of scientific theories and I would argue that many of the ‘dogmatic principles’ identified by Sheldrake are in fact open questions in scientific research.
Meanwhile, I found the author’s own pet theory of morphic resonance a bit far-fetched. In essence, this theory posits that the fundamental constituents of nature are not matter and energy, but self-organising systems that resonate with their environments. In this worldview, atoms, molecules and cells are not unconscious material, but have patterns of behaviour and habits. Sheldrake uses this 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. He also suggests that the theory can offer an explanation for phenomena such as telepathy and precognition.
Overall, these discussions were fascinating, especially the descriptions of experiments attempted to test the theory. However, the experiments are also highly controversial; indeed, a little research shows that in many cases, the results are hotly disputed even amongst the experimenters themselves!
You can read my full review of The Science Delusion on The Irish Times website here. I was surprised to see that the book received rave reviews in both The Guardian and The Independent. However, neither review was written by a scientist. Indeed, there seems to be something of a culture divide here; Sheldrake’s views are enthusiastically embraced by people who know nothing of science, while scientists themselves are less impressed. Is that because we are fatally blinkered or could it be that we know what we are talking about?
Reading the comments, I should probably make it clear that I think the answer to the above question is the latter. It seems to me that Sheldrake makes the classic error of rejecting well-established science that is backed by very strong evidence, whilst embracing highy questionable theories that are backed by very flimsy evidence…funny how these often go together