The Telepathy Debate
Telepathy Debate Hits London:
Audience Charmed by the Paranormal
John Whitfield, Nature, January 22, 2004
Scientists tend to steer clear of public debates with advocates of the paranormal. And judging from the response of a London audience to a rare example of such a head-to-head conflict last week, they are wise to do so.
Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London, made the case against the existence of telepathy at a debate at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London on 15 January. Rupert Sheldrake, a former biochemist and plant physiologist at the University of Cambridge who has taken up parapsychology, argued in its favour. And most of the 200-strong audience seemed to agree with him.
Wolpert is one of Britain’s best-known public spokesmen for science. But few members of the audience seemed to be swayed by his arguments.
Sheldrake, who moved beyond the scientific pale in the early 1980s by claiming that ideas and forms can spread by a mysterious force he called morphic resonance, kicked off the debate.
He presented the results of tests of extrasensory perception, together with his own research on whether people know who is going to phone or e-mail them, on whether dogs know when their owners are coming home, and on the allegedly telepathic bond between a New York woman and her parrot. “Billions of perfectly rational people believe that they have had these experiences,” he said.
An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out – Lewis Wolpert, University College London.
Wolpert countered that telepathy was “pathological science”, based on tiny, unrepeatable effects backed up by fantastic theories and an ad hoc response to criticism. “The blunt fact is that there’s no persuasive evidence for it,” he said.
For Ann Blaber, who works in children’s music and was undecided on the subject, Sheldrake was the more convincing. “You can’t just dismiss all the evidence for telepathy out of hand,” she said. Her view was reflected by many in the audience, who variously accused Wolpert of “not knowing the evidence” and being “unscientific”.
In staging the debate, the RSA joins a growing list of London organizations taking a novel approach to science communication 1. “We want to provide a platform for controversial subjects,” says Liz Winder, head of lectures at the RSA.
1. Giles, J. “Museum breaks mould in attempts to lure
reluctant visitors”, Nature, 426, 6, (2003).
Further material on the RSA Telepathy debate, including the full text from the meeting and an audio tape of the debate, at Dr. Sheldrake’s website.