Richard Dawkins interviewed Rupert Sheldrake on Sheldrake’s remarkable assertions about the existence of psychic abilities. Here’s Sheldrake’s rationalization:
He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s. In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for well over a century. However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”
Hang on there. Notice the devious twist?
Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. So what does Sheldrake do? He simply asserts that the idea that people can read minds over long distances for the ever-so useful purpose of occasionally detecting who is making a phone call (What? We have awesome telepathic powers that do nothing more than act as a flaky version of caller ID?) is not an extraordinary claim … on the basis of the unlikelihood that people could possibly be deluded about their own experiences. The man is nuts.
People fool themselves all the time. Millions claim that Jesus talks to them; other millions claim to be following the will of Allah. People believe in UFOs and Bigfoot and that the moon landings were a hoax. It is not at all extraordinary to suggest that human beings are eminently capable of swallowing truly crazy stuff.
On the other hand, Sheldrake’s telepathy lacks a mechanism and doesn’t even make sense. His ‘experiments’ are exercises in gullibility, anecdote, and sloppy statistics. His “morphic resonance” babble is embarrassingly gullible nonsense.
And I’m afraid Sheldrake is grossly in error in the way he pursues science. You can’t just simply carry out a Fortean exercise in collecting odd anecdotes and unexplained phenomena. You have to propose mechanisms — you need to make hypotheses that can be used to guide tests of the idea. What is the mechanism behind the claimed ability of people to sense who is calling them on the telephone? Having some suggestion about how it works would allow investigators to design experiments that block the effect, or better yet, enhance the effect.
I can guess why Dawkins turned down Sheldrake when he insisted on presenting his “evidence”. It wasn’t evidence. Evidence is data that provides support for a proposition: Sheldrake has no testable proposition, no mechanism, no quantitative description of a measurable phenomenon. He has self-selected collections of numbers, addled by poor experimental design and confirmation bias, and all he’d do is reel off streams of context-free numbers accumulated in the absence of a quantifiable thesis. I’ve read enough of Sheldrake’s work to know what a godawful load of substanceless bollocks he can spew at will.