Letter to Scientific American November 2005
in reply to Michael Shermer
by Rupert Sheldrake
In his attack on my work (Rupert's Resonance, Scientific American, November), Michael Shermer asserted that "Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic." But who is the believer and who is the skeptic?
I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in. Genuine skepticism involves an attitude of open-minded enquiry into what we do not understand, and this is the approach I try to follow.
Shermer ridiculed the hypothesis of morphic resonance by claiming I proposed a "universal life force," a concept I have never used. He also misrepresented the evidence for the sense of being stared at. Experiments showing that people can detect when they are being stared at from behind have been widely replicated, with results that an independent meta-analysis has shown to be highly significant, as summarized in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (June, 2005), to which Shermer referred. He tried to give the impression that the case rested on unsupervised tests by people using the experimental protocol on my web site, but this is not true. My own summary of the evidence and the independent meta-analysis by Dean Radin did not include the data from these unsupervised tests, but relied instead on the results of many thousands of trials already published in peer-reviewed journals.
Shermer also referred to data from a staring experiment by Colwell et al, of Middlesex University, London, which showed a significant positive effect that could not be explained in terms of sensory clues. He mentioned that Colwell et al. suggested that this effect might be attributable to non-random features of the randomization sequences used in their experiment, but he omitted to mention that their suggestion has already been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing. The results were positive and highly significant statistically, whatever the randomization method.
Shermer's partisan approach is like that of a politician trying to win an election. Readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts
Shermer ends his piece:
Sheldrake responds that skeptics dampen the morphic field, whereas believers enhance it. Of Wiseman, he remarked: 'Perhaps his negative expectations consciously or unconsciously influenced the way he looked at the subjects.' Perhaps, but wouldn't that mean that this claim is ultimately nonfalsifiable? If both positive and negative results are interpreted as supporting a theory, how can we test its validity?
I have never claimed that "skeptics damped the morphic field". What I pointed out was that in the Wiseman-Schlitz study, by maximizing the experimenter effect by taking part as a participant in his own experiments, Wiseman could get the results he expected. But the situation is asymmetrical. Schlitz could not have obtained positive effects if people could not detect when they were being stared at. And in most research on staring effects, like Wiseman's own initial experiments, and in my own tests, the experimenter is nether a starer or participant.
My hypothesis of morphic resonance is eminently testable, and potentially falsifiable. So is my research on the sense of being stared at and telepathy. It is Shermer's skeptical claim that is unfalsifiable. Any evidence that goes against his prejudices is ignored, misrepresented or dismissed, while he is credulous about the claims of skeptics.