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Sheldrake on Psychics

September 22nd, 2008 Posted in Paranormal, Psychology

I stumbled across this video of Rupert Sheldrake, renowned researcher into the paranormal, talking about how terrible it is that mainstream science ignores claims of psychic powers.  He seems to be advocating the Brian Josephson-style position that these things are undeniably proven beyond reasonable doubt, but all scientists are ignoring it because they presume it’s all nonsense. I’ve just included a few comments on his lecture here.

After the sob-story about how scientists ignore the evidence, he presents a series of meta analyses. Now, the thing about these that is, to my mind, very interesting, is that quite a lot of the experiments found are, of course, null results.  If there is indeed a measurable psychic effect then you wouldn’t expect many null results.  Assuming psychic powers are real and measurable, you would obviously expect some null results simply because of the stochastic nature of the trials, but not as many as you seem to get.

The problem with meta analyses is that the more studies you include in a meta analysis, the more likely you are to include one or more dodgy (either inadvertently biased or deliberately fraudulent) studies which will skew the results massively. I think that this is what is happening here.  If you have a series of, say, 100 studies, you will probably get a few dozen that never get published because their results are uninteresting (already skewing the results). You will get a few that are published despite uninteresting results, and you will get a few published with statistically significant results. After all, out of 100 studies, you would expect about ten with “1 in 10” type statistical signficance and 1 out of the 100 with 3-sigma (1%) significance. That’s just statistics – nothing to do with the existence of psychic phenomena.  But the point is that all you need is a handful of dodgy experiments out of this huge number, through either deliberate fraud or accidental bias, and you can massively skew the results.

It has been said that pets, most notably dogs, seem to have a sense of when their master is coming home. Sheldrake himself performed several studies of this effect. Why is it that dogs are much more psychic than humans, given that humans seem to have no such sense of when loved ones are coming home? This is especially suspicious when Sheldrake then later in the video claims that telepathy might have evolved due to the benefit of being able to sense the feelings of children and hence becoming better parents. I agree with this wholeheartedly – if telepathy is possible, then there is a selective pressure for it that is clearly strongest in humans, as we have the closest and lengthiest bond with our children of any animal; we also have the most developed brains. So it mystifies me that animals should be so much better than us at a task like this. Unless… it isn’t actually true. 

Psychic telephone calls are another linked phenomenon. Again Sheldrake claims to have evidence that human beings can sense who is about to call them. Most of this phenomenon is simply down to the effects of confirmation bias – you remember only those occasions when this happens, and don’t even register the millions of times when you think about someone and they don’t call. Sheldrake, however, complains that this isn’t true and has carried out an experiment that calaims to show that there is a real and measurable effect. Without having seen the experiment it’s impossible to tell what was wrong with it; just like it’s impossible even for a professional magician to explain how a magic trick is done until he’s seen it peformed in person, because eyewitness accounts often mislead.

Sheldrake’s claim that paranormal phenomena are now going through the phase that electromagnetism went through prior to Maxwell’s laws and then the advances in physics in the twentieth century, is clearly false; the one enormous difference between electromagnetism and psychic powers is that electromagnetism had very clear, demonstrable effects that were consistent, massively significant and undeniably real. Psychic powers do not.

The bottom line is, and will remain, that anyone producing conclusive evidence for psychic phenomena will win James Randi’s $1 million prize (though the paranormal proponents will continue to use that cowardly and pathetic excuse that the money doesn’t exist or it’s not winnable), not to mention the Nobel prizes for physics and biology, and a place in the annals of history.  I wonder why nobody has done so yet? Sensible investigations of psychic phenomena turn up time and time again with null results.  In order to overturn all that, you have to produce something truly impressive – a really significant result with impeccable scientific methodology.  Where is that study?  If psychic phenomena are real, then there should be dozens of them.

What I’d like to see is a study that takes place with a skeptic on board that nonetheless seems to generate a positive signal. Some studies have happened, but always the skeptics come out saying “there was no significant result” and Sheldrake, or others, say that there was.  Is it a case of looking for signal in the noise and, if you look at enough indicators, you’re bound to find one that, by chance, shows a significant signal? Isn’t it odd that whenever a skeptic replicates Sheldrake’s experiments, the result is always null (and, in that case, they show how Sheldrake achieved his dodgy false positive by using predictably non-random sequences within the trials).

On a final note – Sheldrake does bring up a number of good points about how people dismiss claims without evaluating them properly. He has something to teach us there, I think. Though I take the opposing point of view that we can’t waste time looking at every pseudoscientific theory one meets because there are simply far too many of them and so many of them have been proven wrong; we should perhaps decide the few to investigate based on the strength of the evidence presented.

If anyone wants to invite me to observe a parapsychological experiment then I’d love to see what goes on.

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