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Debunking the Debunker – Richard Dawkins and Spin

November 18th, 2008

Do you remember the two TV series that had Richard Dawkins debunking religion? I’m all for challenging beliefs and testing ideas, but something about the programmes unsettled me. He wasn’t picking on people of the same intellectual calibre as himself, so he ‘won’ every argument. But at one time he started talking to Deepak Chopra, a doctor and scientist too, and he seemed decidedly uneasy. Chopra was making valid points that began to make Dawkins’ position look less secure and the interview ended in a strangely abrupt way.

At the time I remember thinking “Why doesn’t he debate with someone his own size – like Rupert Sheldrake?” And now I’ve found this account of an interview that was never screened – on Rupert Sheldrake’s site.

Just as I (and many others) thought – the Dawkins programmes were not made in the spirit of science but of spin.

Here is the article from

Richard Dawkins is a man with a mission – the eradication of religion and superstition, and their total replacement with science and reason. Channel 4 TV has repeatedly provided him with a pulpit. His two-part polemic in August 2007, called Enemies of Reason, was a sequel to his 2006 diatribe against religion, The Root of All Evil?

Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?

The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”

I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.”

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?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

Richard Dawkins has long proclaimed his conviction that “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans”. Enemies of Reason was intended to popularize this belief. But does his crusade really promote “the public understanding of science,” of which he is the professor at Oxford? Should science be a vehicle of prejudice, a kind of fundamentalist belief-system? Or should it be a method of enquiry into the unknown?

Rupert Sheldrake

If you’re not familiar with Sheldrake’s work, have a look at this fascinating talk:

12 Responses to “Debunking the Debunker – Richard Dawkins and Spin”

  1. Hi Philip. I commented on this on your Facebook page, but thought I would repost part of it here…

    I’m reading a fascinating book called “Theology for Pilgrims” by an esteemed theologian who is doing for … Read morereligion and theology what popular science writers do for science – try to bring it down to a simple level for laymen like myself to understand. The first chapter is an essay about Dawkins’s work, particularly “The God Delusion”, where he characterises religious belief as unthinking irrationality. The author says he read this with a sinking feeling, looking around at the scores of books on his shelf dating back centuries, and testifying to the amount of deep intellectual thought what was being dismissed with a wave of Dawkins’s hand. His point was that Dawkins has no more remit or expertise to judge the validity of religion than a non-scientific person would have to peer-review one of his articles on biology.

    Reading your account is a real eye-opener. I know programme-makers have agenda and spin programmes to serve a purpose, but to ask for evidence, and then when given the chance to examine evidence say that the show “isn’t about evidence” really boggles the mind. And yet Dawkins is being lauded as some kind of champion against “irrationality” that he defines religion as. Talk about delusion of the crowds!

  2. Science is not a fundamentalist belief system, it is a methodology. If a person beleives a phenomenon is real, and wishes to demonstraste this, then it is for them to provide verifiable evidence for it.

    You do not acheive anything by convincing those who want something to be true. It is when you convince those who insist on good quality evidence first that you acheive anything in science. This is as it should be, and it can be a long journey.

    Science has accepted such things as time-dilation, which goes totally against our everyday experience of the world. It has done this because it was verifiably demonstrated to be the case. Indeed a GPS could not work if we did not take it into account.

    Are you defining such insistence on good quality verifiable evidence as fundamentalism?

    • Sadly cursuswalker, there are too many people people who “belief” in Science (Science-ism, if you would). They see a bunch of numbers they don’t understand, coming from a source (sometimes indirectly) that has a magical labcoat and clipboard and thus it Must Be The Truth.

  3. I think the point is that in Sheldrake’s case, Dawkins was not interested in examining evidence which was being offered to him, as that was “not what the show was about”. I.e. it was not about a reasoned discussion, it was about polemic, which is probably not the impression Dawkins would like to get across.

  4. Cursuswalker – Paul’s got it. I believe we should be as hard-nosed and scientific as we can – that is what Sheldrake was trying to do and Dawkins was avoiding – or so it seems. Have you seen Sheldrake’s site? Some fascinating stuff there – particularly the staring experiements.

  5. I will take a look Philip, though I am also interested in Dawkin’s take on this.

    If there is genuinely convincing, and rigourous,evidence for any of these effects then it is worthy of consideration.

  6. Yes, I found it really interesting too. I enjoy reading lay science books, including Richard Dawkins, and so I too will be digging in to his works.

    His website looks great for exploring too. 🙂

  7. I have just watched the Sheldrake talk too – really fascinating – will have to check out his web site. Thanks for posting this. His theory of the extended mind and mental resonance is interesting with regard to your blog; there have been coincidences, already mentioned – you posting stuff that folks are already reading or are already presently drawn too. Who knows what connections we all make with each other, as Sheldrake says, ‘consciousness is a shared phenomenon’, and I really do agree with him about it existing outside the boundary of the brain.

    The staring thing is so true. I once had this on-going thing with my mum-in-law’s cat ‘Rocking Sidney’ (don’t ask!). I would start to feel uncomfortable and know that Sidney would be staring, which when I looked, of course she was, in a very spooky, knowing, cat way. She would do it a lot and I started to think that Sidney was messing with my mind! She would have made an effective FBI agent. I always got the feeling she thought I was rather inferior – which I undoubtably was – that stare of hers was rather withering. Cats are extraordinary creatures. Anyone who has lived with and built bonds with them would be fascinated by Sheldrake’s ideas.

    I find Dawkins’ approach very alienating.

  8. Two articles analysing Sheldrake’s methodology and approach to Science that may be of interest:

    His use of feedback during the staring experiment is particularly flawed and demonstrates that sequence learning was taking place. If you want to see how to test the paranormal truly rigourously then I recommend this documentary on dowsing:

  9. So, don’t listen to either Sheldrake or Dawkins right?
    Dawkins uses science to justify that big chip on his shoulder about religion.
    And Sheldrake uses scientific methods that are a bit blurry around the edges.

    Well, one things for sure (with or without scientific testing), they’re fallible human beings, like any scientist…

  10. Philip,

    At this point I must point out a fundamental flaw in your methodology.

    You saw a public broadcast and expected it to contain more that entertainment designed to sell advertising (preferably by drawing in as many viewers as possible).

    The criteria for a media Show is entirely different than any form of factual, scientific, spiritual or religious examination/exposition. You of all folks must be aware of this, no?

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