Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted,...

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SCIENCE NOVEMBER 8, 2013

Pseudoscientist Rupert Sheldrake Is Not Being Persecuted, And Is Not Like Galileo

Rupert Sheldrake is a pseudoscientist who has made his name promoting various kinds of woo, including telepathy (including in dogs!), immaterial minds, and his crazy idea of “morphic resonance,” a Jung-ian theory in which all of nature participates in some giant collective memory. (He was once a real scientist, trained in biochemistry and cell biology at Cambridge, but somewhere went off the rails.)

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

I’ve crossed swords with Sheldrake before when I campaigned against his TEDx talk, which was filled with his crazy ideas. I and several others pointed out that what he said violated the mission of TEDx to present innovative but sound science. This resulted in TEDx taking Sheldrake’s talk off of their website and putting it in a special “time out” room for misbehaving woomeisters.

Sheldrake and his supporters always defend themselves as beleaguered scientists whose correct theories are unfairly attacked or neglected because they buck the current “materialistic paradigm.” That is, he thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo. The proper answer to this is given on the NeuroLogica website:

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, “Bedazzled.” Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

Last summer someone decided to fix Sheldrake’s Wikipedia article, which, edited by his supporters, had been promoting Sheldrake’s woo in violation of Wikipedia policy on fringe science and pseudoscience. Perhaps you don’t know about this policy, but you can read about it at the link. It begins like this:

When discussing topics that reliable sources say are pseudoscientific or fringe theories, editors should be careful not to present the pseudoscientific fringe views alongside the scientific or academic consensus as though they are opposing but still equal views. While pseudoscience may in some cases be significant to an article, it should not obfuscate the description or prominence of the mainstream views.

It’s a pretty good policy, and prevents people like Sheldrake and his deluded supporters from editing Wikipedia articles to give unwarranted credibility to their pseudoscience. And that policy allowed the rationalists to come in and clean up Sheldrake’s page, which they did.

Sheldrake eventually noticed his new, non-woo-spouting page, and responded in October on his own blog (“Science set free”) with a paranoid post called “Wikipedia under threat”. A sample:

This summer, soon after the TED controversy, a commando squad of skeptics captured the Wikipedia page about me. They have occupied and controlled it ever since, rewriting my biography with as much negative bias as possible, to the point of defamation. At the beginning of the “Talk” page, on which editorial changes are discussed, they have posted a warning to editors who do not share their biases: “A common objection made by new arrivals is that the article presents Sheldrake’s work in an unsympathetic light and that criticism of it is too extensive or violates Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy.”

If you want some amusement, have a look at the Wikipedia “talk” page on Sheldrake’s bio. It will give you a newfound respect for Wikipedia editorsas the skeptics are over there just trying to ensure, as per Wikipedia policy, that Sheldrake’s pseudoscience is not presented as credible science.

Sheldrake continues his rant on his blog, blaming the editing of his page on the “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” (GSoW), a group dedicated to policing dubious pseudoscientific claims and giving skeptics themselves decent Wikipedia pages. Sheldrake writes:

The Guerrilla Skeptics are well trained, highly motivated, have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules. The mastermind behind this organization is Susan Gerbik [sic]. She explains how her teams work in a training video. She now has over 90 guerrillas operating in 17 different languages. The teams are coordinated through secret Facebook pages. They check the credentials of new recruits to avoid infiltration. Their aim is to “control information”, and Ms Gerbik glories in the power that she and her warriors wield. They have already seized control of many Wikipedia pages, deleted entries on subjects they disapprove of, and boosted the biographies of atheists.

The “ideological agenda” here, though, is simply this: false or unsupported claims should not be presented as credible. If that’s an agenda, I’m all for it.

But Sheldrake is dead wrong in his accusations. The person who did most of the woo-removing edits of Sheldrake’s page, not a member of GSoW, has posted an article decisively refuting the claim that there is a Guerrilla Skeptic “conspiracy” to debunk Sheldrake. Tim Farley of Skeptical Software tools has investigated the edits thoroughly and confirmed that no Guerrilla Skeptics seem to have been involved.  Farley also checked with the GSoW boss, Ms. Gerbic, who denies involvement. Farley concludes:

. . . the central claim, that Guerrilla Skeptics are controlling Sheldrake’s bio, is demonstrably false.  It is a classic conspiracy theory. I asked Susan Gerbic directly, and she confirmed that Sheldrake’s bio was not on their current project list. But you don’t need Susan’s word, just search for the name “Sheldrake” at the project blog and you find only a post about a related article, and no indication they had worked on Sheldrake’s bio. (Believe me, they’re not shy about showing off their work – it’s part of their outreach efforts).

Look in the editing history of the people actually editing Sheldrake’s article, and you’ll find only cursory overlap with articles the Guerrilla Skeptics have bragged about editing.

So Sheldrake and Weiler et. al. are actually complaining about the wrong thing entirely! Instead of floating conspiracy theories about the Guerrilla Skeptics, they should be studying the Wikipedia rules and trying to understand why it is their edits keep getting rejected.

Finally, a humorous comment on my own website by “Julie,” a member of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia group, denies involvement:

Hahaha we didn’t touch his page, even with our minds! We have a list of pages we want to edit and Sheldrake isn’t even on it! Maybe that’s the real reason for his tantrum.

Great blog! Brings all the facts together. I had no idea the BBC were involved in criticising us so I just had a rant about their terrible reporting on the program’s Facebook page! I expected more from the Beeb. [More on the BBC below.]

I love the bit about “even with our minds”!

So Sheldrake not only paints himself as a martyr again, but singles out the wrong group for “persecuting” him.

Sadly, now the BBC World Service itself is being played a fool by Sheldrake, as they have put The Woomeister on their station to proclaim his conspiracy theories.

If you go here on the BBC, and listen to the 5-minute interview with Sheldrake (starts 8:02, ends 12:44), you’ll see the sympathetic ear that the BBC interviewer lends to Sheldrake, not questioning his claims in the least.

Much of what Sheldrake says in the interview is untrue, and it’s all in service of telling the world not to believe his Wikipedia page because it was sabotaged by Guerrilla Skeptics, which also is “distorting hundreds of pages on Wikipedia.” That is wrong, and Sheldrake should know better because that segment was broadcast on November 5, three weeks after Farley’s piece was published. Nor does the BBC interviewer talk to the Guerrilla Skeptics, seek any contrary views, or ask Sheldrake any hard questions. The interviewer apparently didn’t investigate this whole issue beforehand. It’s just dreadful reporting. To be fair, the BBC says that they’ll talk about the “reliability of Wikipedia and Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page” this week. If anybody hears that segment, let us know. [Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as "keen churchgoers."]

But I’m wondering why the BBC gives Sheldrake a voice at all. Why should their readers hear his paranoid rants? Would they allow a creationist to go on the air and argue that mainstream biologists are in a conspiracy to suppress the truth of a young earth and creation ex nihilo? Does a report of a new medical advance need to be “balanced” by the opinion of a homeopath?

Finally, Sheldrake’s American counterpart, Deepak Chopra, has written a piece on his own website decrying Wikipedia skepticism and the persecution of Sheldrake. Indeed, it takes one purveyor of pseudoscience to understand another. In a piece called “The rise and fall of militant skepticism,” Chopra writes:

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades. Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free. His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.

But you’d never know it from Sheldrake’s Wikipedia entry, which is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics. Since I am close to Sheldrake personally and have Wikipedia woes of my own, it’s not fair for me to offer accusations over the extent to which Wikipedia is under attack. But the skeptics have been caught in the act, which is the pickle they find themselves in, as I mentioned at the outset of this post.

You can read a detailed account in a series of online posts written by Craig Weiler at his blog The Weiler Psi. Confronting the militant pests at Wikipedia resembles taking hold of a tar baby, as Weiler relates in his most recent post, pointedly entitled “Wikipedia: The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play.” The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.

But the real loser is Chopra, whose own lucrative brand of woo is finally exposed as a lot of scientifically-sounding psychobabble.

Steve Novella has written a cogent takedown of the paranoia of both Chopra and Sheldrake on a post on Skepticblog called ”Chopra shoots at skepticism and misses.” Novella also has a few interesting words about whether the idea of God is a testable hypothesis.

There is, I suppose, a form of “militant skepticism” that is so skeptical that it won’t accept anything. But I’m not aware of anyone adhering to that view, except perhaps some postmodernists. Others are skeptical of some things that are, to all reasonable people, demonstrably true (there are some of these folks.) But the critics of Sheldrake and Chopra are not “militant skeptics.” They’re simply people who demand solid evidence for extraordinary claims of psychic phenomena and universal consciousness.

Let’s face it: we’ll never be free of people who lap up the woo of people like Chopra and Shedrake. There’s something about human psychology that is susceptible to this kind of stuff. All we can do is decry it as often as we can, and hope that those on the fence will listen to us. That is what Steve Novella and the Guerrilla Skeptics are doing, and more power to them.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website

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