The other day I received a newsletter from my friend Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, the Cambridge University biologist who has spent many decades exploring extrasensory perception among humans and also animals, and has amassed an impressive amount of evidence demonstrating that there is, after all, something to all of this.
He’s also not been shy about speaking up when mainstream scientists are being . . . well, unscientific.
In the newsletter Sheldrake was taking on the noted skeptic Stephen Pinker, the Harvard University professor who’d stated his new book Rationality that telepathy and other forms of extrasensory perception were so implausible that there was no need to bother examining the evidence.
Sheldrake had challenged Pinker to a debate over this issue, which Pinker politely declined (not enough ‘bandwidth’ in his schedule, he said), but Sheldrake wasn’t done.
He noted that in Pinker’s recent BBC radio series, ‘Think with Pinker,’ Pinker had passionately argued for debates in which, said the BBC website, ‘beliefs are treated as hypotheses to be tested on the basis of evidence, rather than dogmas to be defended.’
As Sheldrake pointed out, Pinker is ‘keen to expose other people's beliefs to critical thinking, but what about his own?’
This is probably the nub of the problem with science and medicine, but also with our society: that belief is considered the equivalent of truth and that any evidence to the contrary must be dismissed – even demonized – as ‘misinformation.’
True science is supposed to be a journey without a compass. Any true scientist must be willing to suspend disbelief and follow his experimental data, even if it leads him to false trails or takes him to a place he never intended to go.
Even if it upends every last one of his most cherished beliefs.
The other important point here is to remember, always, that science is by the very nature of scientific inquiry, a story without an ending.
Although the vast majority of scientists ascribe to the belief that the nature of reality has largely been written, with just a few final details to be added in, new evidence constantly emerges, demanding that we tear up some of the chapters that have come before.
And every so often those addendums are so explosive, so threatening to our current worldview that we are forced to insert blank pages and fill them in all over again.
Evidence, for instance, for telepathy or other types of so-called ‘parapsychology.’
This must have been the case with Sheldrake, a Cambridge University biologist who could have chosen a cushy job as an Oxbridge don but instead chose instead to walk down the far less certain path of the open-minded investigator.
Starting in 1996 and for the following two years, Sheldrake carried out a survey of more than 1,500 papers in leading scientific journals to discover how often the researchers had used truly scientific ‘blinded’ methods, where neither the researchers nor the patients know who has received which treatment.
The reason for blinding experiments in science is to eliminate ‘the experimenter effect’ – an acknowledgment that the beliefs and expectations of the researchers can tend to taint the result.
In Sheldrake’s survey, it turned out that not one of the studies of the physical sciences were blinded, and only 0.8 per cent were blinded in biological sciences. In psychology just 7 per cent were true scientific studies, and medical sciences, just 24 per cent.
Sheldrake then examined studies of parapsychology. As it happened, a whopping 85 per cent of them had been blinded studies.
The most ‘scientific’ of scientific papers were those on parapsychology – out in front by a country mile.
This study was carried out independently by another team in 2004, which again found that parapsychology had more than double the scientific methodology of medical sciences.
In other words, a majority of the scientific papers on mainstream science and medicine were not scientific.
Blind beliefs control the sciences and they control medicine. The late Dr. Robert Mendelsohn was one of the earliest to call out medicine as a religion.
‘Medicine is not based on science,’ he wrote in his book Confessions of a Medical Heretic, ‘it’s based on faith.’
The same holds true for modern science and its current dogma, largely made up of received wisdom and compounded by peer review, which tends to reinforce the orthodoxy and block new ideas.
Which is why the current scientific worldview remains largely the following:
As the psychologist William James famously said, ‘If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn't seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.’
There are a swarm of white crows circling around parapsychology, around medicine, around every one of these ideas in mainstream science – and also in our daily news and daily lives about what assumptions are, in fact, true.
As Sheldrake put it in his debate challenge to Pinker: ‘I would be happy to argue that it is more rational and scientific to look at the evidence than to ignore it.’
Now that sounds like an idea that we should all be able to agree on.
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