Friday, April 13, 2007

"Skeptical" or just dogmatic and ignorant?




Below is part of a transcript of an interview with Rupert Sheldrake and "skeptic" Peter Atkins:


The discussion started with the interviewer asking Rupert to describe his work on telephone telepathy, and on his similar test with emails. Rupert described the results. In the videotaped telephone telepathy tests, the average hit rate was 45% compared with 25% expected by chance, with odds against this being a chance coincidence of billions to one. . .

The discussion continued as follows:

Interviewer: However let’s talk to a leading scientist, Professor Peter Atkins, who is a biologist at Lincoln College Oxford. Professor Atkins why is all this a total waste of time in your view?

Atkins: Well, you can’t rely on any of these experiments. And by the way I’m a chemist not a biologist. But there is no serious work done in this field. The samples that people use are very tiny, the effects are statistically insignificant, the controls are not done in a scientific way. On the whole there’s just no point in doing it. There are no serious reasons for believing there should be an effect of telepathy anyway. There is no mechanism within modern science to account for it. There’s nothing that drives people to believe in it except sentiment, emotion, and things like that.

. . .

Interviewer: On the other hand when he produces his evidence, he said 25% was what you would expect, but what he got was 45%, that is remarkable.


Atkins: No, that’s just playing with statistics.


Interviewer: Let’s put that to Rupert. Rupert Sheldrake, he says you’re just playing with statistics. He doesn’t believe a word of it. What do you say to him?


Rupert: Well I’d like to ask him if he’s actually read the evidence? May I ask you Professor Atkins if you’ve actually studied any of this evidence or any other evidence?


Atkins: No, but I would be very suspicious of it.


Rupert: Of course, being suspicious of it in advance of seeing it is normally called prejudice.


Atkins: Yes, there’s always reason to believe in bizarre phenomena by looking into alternative explanations within the scientific milieu. For example people guessing, because of a particular time of day that someone’s going to call.


Rupert: These tests exclude that, you seemed to have missed the point of the experiments. They’re done by random selection. You know, I started from the kinds of objections you’re putting forward, that’s the starting point, then we try to go on and test those in rigorous scientific tests.


Atkins: But they’re not rigorous.


Rupert: How do you know? You don’t know a thing about it, you haven’t looked at the evidence. I think you’re talking from a point of view of prejudice, dogma and frankly lack of information. I would never presume to comment on your experiments in chemistry without reading them.



Notice that Atkins hasn't even read the research he is criticizing. Without reading, he comments that the effects are "statistically insignificant" while in fact the research shows extremely strong statistical significance of billions to one against the chance hypothesis. He also attacks the research for a flaw that is already addressed by the experimental design. Yes, the hubris of the dogmatics of orthodoxy is quite something to behold!

8 comments:

MindEnergy.net said...

And most of the listeners don't know that the "skeptic" doesn't know what he talks about and tend to believe him since he's more mainstream.

mavaddat said...

You can't just posit the existence of some entity whose whole structure does not accord with the established scientific paradigm without explaining the mechanism of action or how it is that such a new paradigm is useful.

Until people in the "psi phenomenon" research field are able to produce some interesting and useful results that use their findings, the majority of the scientific community will remain sceptical about its veracity--statistical significance or not.

M.C. said...

You can't just posit the existence of some entity whose whole structure does not accord with the established scientific paradigm without explaining the mechanism of action or how it is that such a new paradigm is useful.

That's why Sheldrake expounds at great length on the usefulness of morphic resonance in understanding a great number of holistic phenomena in his books The Presence of the Past and A New Science of Life.

I'd recommend you start with The Presence of the Past, as it is a clearer and more general elucidation of the theory. You should be able to find a copy at your university library.

M.C. said...

One more thing mavaddat,

This blog entry is a commentary on how Peter Atkins was criticizing a research paper he hadn't even read, making assumptions about the research paper that were demonstrably incorrect.

Surely you are not intending to defend Atkins actions by posting your response here, right?

mavaddat said...

Surely you are not intending to defend Atkins actions by posting your response here, right?

I think Atkins was clearly being lazy. Intellectual laziness is not defensible.

I will check out Presence of the Past, and get back to you. And you were right: my university library did have it.

mavaddat said...

As I have said before, I think that until those working in the psi phenomenon field are able to make positive predictions that are useful (as opposed to the apparently ad hoc approach being used now) people will continue to take a very lazy attitude toward the explanation of the phenomena in question. It just does not seem important.

To clarify what I mean by ad hoc explanations, Sheldrake seems to be willing to just look wherever he can to find hitherto inexplicable correlation-at-a-distance, and then he applies the theory of morphic resonance to it in retrospect as an "explanation" of the peculiar effect in question. This is not good science, however, since his theory isn't actually making any predictions about where we should expect to find morphic resonance at work. Thus, it seems the theory itself can never be useful, since it is always and only ever applied retrospectively.

M.C. said...

mavaddat,

Sheldrake offers predictions and conducts tests of those predictions of his theory, as covered in The Presence of the Past and A New Science of Life.

Patrick said...

Mav,

>> As I have said before, I think that until those working in the psi phenomenon field are able to make positive predictions that are useful[...] people will continue to take a very lazy attitude toward the explanation of the phenomena in question. <<

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding you, but there is a massive difference between knowing *how* something occurs and knowing *whether* it occurs. The latter does not require the former. Examples to illustrate this point include quantum entanglement, quantum jumping, various physical diseases, etc. We don't always know how to answer the *how* question, but we can answer the question of *whether* the phenomena are real (as opposed to illusory).

Atkins' response that (to paraphrase) "nothing in conventional science accounts for psi" is ridiculous and beside the point. Frankly, I'm tired of dogmatists dismissing evidence for psi by appealing to ignorance.

I'm not accusing you of that; just venting a bit :P