Monday, April 23, 2007

Many people claim expertise on psychic phenomena such as telepathy. But few can boast top-notch scientific credentials.

That’s what separates Rupert Sheldrake from the New Age pack. A botanist who earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge University and later studied at Harvard University, Mr. Sheldrake has earned an international reputation for applying scientific method to quasi-scientific subjects.

Mr. Sheldrake spoke over the weekend at the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology conference at the Westfields Conference Center in Chantilly, winning a standing ovation from the crowd of 350 and demonstrating why he’s the world’s foremost go-to guy on all things paranormal.

Mr. Sheldrake, 60, abandoned a successful career in plant biology to advance a theory he calls “morphic fields and morphic resonance,” which holds that living beings inhabit unseen fields through which they can unconsciously transmit and receive information.

He says that’s why so many people say they can sometimes tell who’s calling before they pick up the phone or why dogs seem to know when their masters are coming home. He cited interviews with hunters who say they never look directly at their prey for fear that the animal will sense their stares and flee.

Rather than rely on anecdotal evidence, Mr. Sheldrake has conducted thousands of experiments aimed at testing the validity of such phenomena. In one trial involving two subjects, one of whom was blindfolded, he found that people successfully say whether they’re being stared at 60 percent of the time, higher than the 50 percent accuracy that would be expected if they merely guessed.

In an experiment on telephone telepathy, he had subjects decide who was calling from a list of four prospective callers. The rate if it were random chance would be 25 percent, but his subjects averaged an accuracy rate of 40 percent.

The experiment works best, he said, when the subjects have a close emotional tie. In a special aired on British TV, he conducted the trial with five sisters. Their accuracy rate was 50 percent.

“I think what this shows is that we’re much more interconnected with our environment than we think we are,” Mr. Sheldrake said.

His detractors, led by members of the British scientific community, are legion. An article in Salon referred to him as “a heretic in the church of science.” A Canadian blog, the Tyee (, likened his theory to that of the Force in “Star Wars.”

His most prominent critic, John Maddox, editor emeritus of Nature magazine, called one of Mr. Sheldrake’s books “the best candidate there has been for book burning in many years.”

Mr. Sheldrake has challenged his critics to repeat the experiments on their own. “It’s extraordinary how this huge, rich body of experience has been excluded from science just because it doesn’t fit with the accepted theory of vision,” Mr. Sheldrake said.

The skeptics, as he calls them, haven’t slowed him down. His speaking calendar is full, and his research is now being funded by Trinity College, Cambridge. He has published 10 books, the latest being “The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.”

His latest experiment involves e-mail telepathy. He said he’s now in discussions with Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google about developing a test that would be easily accessible from their Web sites.

The idea would be to bill the experiment as a way to ” ‘find out how telepathic you are — take this easy test,’ ” said Mr. Sheldrake. “I think it’s something that could catch on in a big way.”

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