Thursday, April 26, 2007

Telepathy Debate: Wolpert and Sheldrake

Here are some excerpts of a debate between Lewis Wolpert and Rupert Sheldrake at the London Royal Society for the Arts held in 1994:

Rupert Sheldrake: Thank you. Well, Lewis Wolpert and I agree on one thing, which is that we think the nature of science is based on evidence. He thinks there’s no persuasive evidence for telepathy. Of course, that depends on how easily it is to persuade somebody. There are many creationists who think there’s no persuasive evidence for evolution. If you have a closed mind and if you’re convinced you’re right, then no amount of evidence will make the slightest difference. I think that the question really is, what is the evidence for telepathy and that’s what I’m going to talk about. I, myself, think there’s a lot of persuasive evidence for telepathy, and I think that the experiments that have been done to test it have been far from pathological. . .

Professor Lewis Wolpert: . . .I have in front of me a paper by Richard Wiseman, Matthew Smith, and Julie Milton, actually done with your dog … (sorry, no, Pam Smart as your collaborator), with your dog, Jaytee, which you claimed, knew when (I think it was you) who were coming home, and their analysis of the behaviour of the dog, Jaytee, shows that the dog didn’t have a clue. It would go outside for all sorts of reasons, and, you know, there was somebody passing by, there was a cat in a nearby tree. It didn’t have a clue when you were coming home. So, here is a people, trying to replicate your experiment, and simply falsifying it. . .

Rupert Sheldrake: Well, I noticed that when the parrot film was showing, Lewis wasn’t looking at it! That film was shown on television … and in early stage of our investigations, he did the same then. They asked a sceptic to commentate. Lewis appeared on the screen and he said, “Telepathy is just junk … there is no evidence whatsoever for any personal, animal or thing being telepathic.” The filmmakers were surprised that he hadn’t actually asked to see the evidence before he commented on it, and I think, this is rather like the Cardinal Bellarmine, and people not wanting to look through Galileo’s Telescope. I think we have a level here of just not wanting to know, which is not real science … I’m sorry to have to say it, Lewis.

Let me come to his specific points. He said that in the telephone experiments we didn’t bother to find out the effects of distance. Yes we did. If you read the paper, we deliberately recruited people in England who had relatives living in Australia and New Zealand and South Africa. We tested it at distances right up to the Outer Hebrides, precisely to find out, is it distance-dependant. It’s not … distance had no effect. . .

Now, when we come to the case of the psychic dog, Jaytee, - the dog that belongs to Pam Smart who is here this evening - what we found in our experiments was that the dog - here are some averages from these experiments the dog … these are 10-minute periods after Pam went out … these are the number of seconds at the window, evaluated from the videotape by a third party who knew nothing else about the experiment in an objective measure at the time it went to the window. That is the first 10 minutes of her homeward journey, from at least five miles away. These are medium-length experiments and these are short ones. The dog did sometimes go to the window, when she wasn’t coming home, to bark at passing cats or look at commotions or disturbances outside or people arriving in cars, but it went to the window far more when she was on the way home and it started waiting, in the 10 minutes before she started off home, when she decided to come home or when she got a random signal on a pager to go home. It was highly significant it was at the window most when she was on her way home and it wasn’t just that it waited a certain time and then went there, because in these short experiments, you see it was at the window at long time, whereas at the same time after she went out here, it wasn’t. These results are highly significant, highly repeatable. We’ve done lots of them.

The case of Richard Wiseman and his colleagues is a very interesting one. Wiseman is one of Britain’s leading media sceptics. He is an informed sceptic, in the sense he reads the literature and knows what’s going on and he actually does experiments. However, he is a very committed sceptic who believes these things are basically impossible, and Wiseman went along to do these experiments with Pam Smart. He invented a criterion for the success or failure of the dog, which was, that it should go to the window, for no reason apparent to Wiseman … the first experiment it was 60 seconds. Then he changed the criterion to being two minutes for no apparent reason. If the dog went to the window for no apparent reason when she wasn’t coming home, it failed the test.

He published a paper in the British Journal of Psychology, saying it had failed the test. There’s the paper. He put a Press Release. It was in all the science correspondence that most of our broadsheet newspapers are committed sceptics (most of them). They’re very credulous when it comes to claims of sceptics. The papers were full of it. ‘Psychic dog fails test … Psychic dog fails to give scientists a lead,’ and so on! It was on the radio, it was on the television … the whole phenomenon was totally refuted and everybody bought it (who wants to believe that) and we’ve heard from Lewis, a categorical statement.

However, if you plant Richard Wiseman’s data on a graph, which he didn’t do in his papers, even though I sent him graphs before he submitted it, his data corresponds very precisely with my own!

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