The Island of Doubt

Time was when I wouldn’t have cared much if my alma mater had invited a New Age quack to give a lecture on the university’s dime. That was then. This is now. Under the very clever headline of “Pitching Woo-woo,” Vancouver’s online newspaper, The Tyee tells us that the University of British Columbia last week provided a platform for Rubert Sheldrake, he of the “sense of being stared at” theory of telepathy.

How sad is that?

The thing that really gets my goat is that UBC is trying very hard to be a top-rate research school. Its new tag line is “Canada’s Leading Edge.” The university has attracted some monstrous donations of late from those who want to help realize that dream by supporting the best kind of research programs imaginable. According to UBC’s research bumph page,

UBC was listed in a 2005 article in The Scientist magazine as one of North America’s top 10 universities for both the quantity and quality of life sciences patents issued.

And then they go ruin it all by implicitly endorsing the legitimacy of Sheldrake’s pseudo-scientific endeavors.

Sheldrake, for those who aren’t hip to his brand of silliness, is a botanist with a PhD and a decent-looking c.v. that includes a variety of reputable posts at reputable schools. But over the past few years he has focused on the idea that humans can sense when they are being stared through a variant of extra-sensory perception and something he calls a morphic resonance field. He’s also convinced that at least some other species of animals are psychic.

His research has been thoroughly debunked, of course. There’s arch-skeptic Michael Shermer’s take, for example:

Institute of Noetic Sciences researcher Marilyn Schlitz–a believer in psychic phenomena–collaborated with Wiseman (a skeptic of psi) in replicating Sheldrake’s research and discovered that when they did the staring Schlitz found statistically significant results, whereas Wiseman found chance results.

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? Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.

You know you’re dealing with the weakest of pseudo-scientific claims when you hear the old “skeptics are sending out bad vibes” argument. One might expect more of someone with a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge, but there you have it. I mean how is exploiting a morphic resonance field different from what that “I’m squishing your head” character in the Kids in the Hall did? (Canadians over the age of 35 will understand.)

The saddest things about the UBC affair is what it says about the department responsible, the School of Continuing Studies. From The Tyee:

Don Black, director of community programming for UBC’s Continuing Studies, which runs the speaker’s series, believes that because Sheldrake has a PhD, his views are credible, albeit controversial … although he admits that there is no panel of academics that might inform audiences more fully. And he didn’t consult UBC’s internationally respected science faculty before inviting Sheldrake — it’s not Continuing Studies policy to do so.

We aren’t legitimizing [speakers] or giving any support for Sheldrake’s scientific views — we don’t position him as being any more informed than other scientists,” Black says, adding that the program has no control over how the speakers use their affiliation with UBC to promote themselves.

As for the public, Black says their audiences tend to be well informed, and don’t need input from academics. But Black himself confused the fact that Sheldrake has a PhD from Cambridge with a belief that he teaches at Cambridge. And he was unaware that, among scientists, Sheldrake isn’t “controversial” so much as discredited.

Yes, there was a time when I would have shrugged off the whole thing. What I do care what UBC does? I’m a journalist with a degree in marine biology. My reputation rests on the quality of my work, not the street creds of the school that granted me a degree five years ago, right?

But I have to admit being disappointed. It’s too bad Sheldrake’s staring theory isn’t valid. Then all I’d have to do is figure out exactly what point on the compass to face, stare real hard in the direction of the UBC VP Academic’s office, and hope he gets the message.


  1. #1 Monado, FCD
    August 20, 2009

    “Morphic field”? I guess no one can refute you if you throw around undefined terms for undetectable, non-material “things”.

  2. #2 Monado, FCD
    August 20, 2009

    I, for one, found that my psychic sense of the presence of others totally disappears in an environment with enough white noise to cover the subaudible sounds of their approach.

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