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Gulfs in Science

by Guy Lyon Playfair

There’s nothing like a session devoted to telepathy, near death experiences, and the distant mental influence on living systems (DMILS) at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) to set the usual sceptics buzzing as angrily as hornets whose nest has just been trodden on.

“Theories of telepathy and afterlife cause uproar at top science forum” The Times (6 September 2006) headlined its shamefully tendentious coverage of the event, careful reading of which reveals that such uproar as there was took place offstage, evidently orchestrated by some anonymous press release writer who had persuaded four high-profile paranormal-bashers to provide the tediously familiar soundbites they keep ready for such occasions.

“I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense,” declared Lord Winston, a former BA president who must have forgotten the serious and properly done studies by the late Professor Robert Morris presented just three years previously, at the 2003 BA meeting chaired by Winston himself.

Geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer conceded that “you’ve got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale,” adding that “it’s quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view.” By convincing, he presumably meant negative.

Veteran debunker Richard Wiseman was upset by the fact that the speakers all had positive attitudes. “This is not a balanced panel,” he grumbled, forgetting all those television programmes in which he has appeared with no sign of an anti-sceptic in sight.

Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins sought the last refuge of a sceptic in a tight corner – ad hominem attack. “There is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy,” he stormed, adding the even more potentially defamatory comment that “neither speaker has a reputation for reliability”.

There were in fact three speakers – neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick, biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake and psychology professor Deborah Delanoy. Atkins did not specify, perhaps wisely, which two he had in mind, and his own reputation for reliability took something of a knock in the discussion broadcast by BBC Radio 5 that followed the session. When asked if he had actually studied the evidence for telepathy, he promptly replied “No.”

“Paranormal studies subverted by the fool and the charlatan” went another Times headline, to a background piece by Lewis Smith and Hannah Devlin which sought to dismiss the 124-year-old Society for Psychical Research on the basis of a single case of fraud from the 1880s (uncovered by SPR members themselves); and to condense the four decades of research by pioneer parapsychologist J.B. Rhine into a single (unnamed) experiment which was ”later discredited when it was shown he had misunderstood the laws of probability.” No, it wasn’t. In fact, in a comment that has been widely quoted for some 70 years, Burton Camp, who was president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics in the 1930s when Rhine began to publish, clearly stated that – “If the Rhine investigation is to be fairly attacked it must be on other than mathematical grounds.”

Paranormal studies have indeed been subverted – by mendacious reporting of a kind not normally associated with The Times, once the flagship of the ‘serious’ press but now just another tabloid.

If the BA is looking for a theme for a future meeting, it might bear in mind one of the more sensible comments on the ‘uproar’, from former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams, writing in The Independent (9 September):

“The extraordinary thing about [Atkins’s] outburst is his apparent refusal to recognise a phenomenon that is commonplace. Almost all of us have had the telephone experience [of knowing who is calling before we pick up the receiver as reported by Sheldrake] while countless others have had premonitions of death or disaster.” Scientists’ refusal to take such things seriously was, Ingrams said, a sign of their reluctance to admit that “there are quite a lot of things going on that science cannot explain.” Referring to the BA meeting, he added “You couldn’t have a better proof of the great gulf that separates scientists from the rest of us.”

Why this gulf? A gulf widened on this occasion by the well publicised opinions of scientists on a subject other than their own – at least one of whom admits to not having even examined the evidence for what he sought to condemn. There must be more to it than mere rejection of the unexplained. Scientists are quite happy to discuss such seemingly wild improbabilities as time reversal, multiple reality or wormholes in space, for all of which there is far less experimental evidence , if indeed any, than there is for telepathy. Yet dare to utter such words as telepathy, psychokinesis or near-death experience at a meeting of an association which by definition is dedicated to the advancement of science, not the destruction of its more distant frontiers, and the cats pounce on the pigeons and tear them to pieces.

Science can hardly be expected to advance when certain areas of considerable interest to the general public are declared off limits by those whose knowledge of the areas in question is at best distorted, at worst nonexistent. Parapsychologists are accustomed to having their views challenged by uninformed and prejudiced sceptics. The latter, on the other hand, are often allowed to express their negative views unchallenged. Perhaps the BA could consider a future session at which Bodmer, Atkins and Wiseman are invited to explain their attitude to psi research, and to present the evidence on which their attitudes are based, while three academically qualified members of the Society for Psychical Research , which has six full professors on its council, are invited to do the same?

This should be followed by a discussion based on facts and evidence rather than prejudice and ignorance, If Atkins and co can do no better than they have so far, who knows – The Times might even have a genuine uproar to report?

The same afternoon, BBC Radio 5 Live brought Rupert together with Professor Atkins live on air. You can find here the transcript of the Atkins-Sheldrake discussion, in which Professor Atkins admitted that he had not studied any of the evidence, and felt no need to do so.