Rupert Sheldrake is a fascinating writer and original thinker. I first read his book ‘7 Experiments that could change the world…’ about 20 years ago and reflected that he was the only scientist I had read who had insights that the laws of science may not be as they appear. Sound familiar? The hegemony of science and its great successes can make science a victim of its own success. Contrary to the ostensible position of science that it is utterly independent and open minded to seek the truth, only certain corridors are open to new ideas in science. Thus Rupert Sheldrake’s insight is that if new ideas are contrary to the present dogmas of science, they are given no platform. The philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) observed that a paradigm shift occurs when a theory of science is overturned but until then the platform for that theory is vigorously defended to the extent that other theories may be dismissed prematurely or not given any platform. A good example of this syndrome was demonstrated by the work of pioneer biologist Lynn Margulis who proposed endosymbiosis as the basis for the origin of the eukaryotic cell – the first complex cell for all complex life. This was a controversial theory as it proposed a merger of microbes (bacterium and an archaeon) as the origin of the first complex cell and not Darwin’s natural selection. Thus by challenging one of science’s sacred dogmas -Darwin’s theory- she had obviously outraged some making her ‘platform for this theory’ unduly difficult to secure.
What is most peculiar about the syndrome is that the online Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of the scientific method is ‘A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses: criticism is the backbone of the scientific method’ . If criticism is essential then so much the weaker is science from denying a platform to proponents of new theories. If any theory – be it scientific or public policy applied to science – is robust and sustainable then surely it can be tested – any flaws defects fallacies or invalidity can be removed by testing the hypothesis. Kuhn’s work showed that working within existing theories is necessary but by repelling ‘outsiders’ great theories can be lost. Einstein was an instance of an outsider (working in the patent office as a clerk) breaking scientific paradigms. Another instance was the Swiss schoolmaster Balmer whose equation formed the basis for Bohr’s great triumph – the equation for the energy loss of an electron in Bohr’s new model for the atom. Testing a theory requires that a platform be given to new ideas to either extend existing science or remove outdated science. This state of affairs is even more important when you consider Rupert Sheldrake’s insight into the “Priests of Science” who advise governments and society regarding the many important issues in our lives. If unfair biases and ‘outrage’ over new ideas prevent testing of existing science and emergence of new science then governments and society will suffer. A restructure of how society engages with the scientific community may be the solution. Now, people virtually deify science, speaking of it as the authority for all knowledge in our world but they have forgotten that it is more a methodology to find knowledge than a gatekeeper of knowledge. Sheldrake sees that science has become too materialistic – only the ‘physical’ can be tested and the ‘metaphysical’ is to be given no platform. Yet the metaphysical continues to contribute to scientific (and other ) ideas. Gellman and Sweig’s pure mathematics predicted the symmetry in quarks. Leibniz’s metaphysical monads may contribute to models of reality. Higg’s work on the boson pre dated its discovery. Rupert Sheldrake has not only made a major contribution to the philosophy of science but a contribution as to how society should engage with the scientific community with respect to public policy and thereby deliver better outcomes.