Rupert Sheldrake

Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception


Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception


by Rupert Sheldrake


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.

Richard Wiseman started his career as a conjurer, and like Randi is a skilled illusionist. His has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an expert on the psychology of deception. He is a Fellow of CSICOP/CSI, one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics, and is currently Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.

When my experiments with Jaytee were first publicized in Britain in 1994, journalists sought out a skeptic to comment on them, and Richard Wiseman was an obvious choice. He put forward a number of points that I had already taken into account, suggesting that Jaytee was responding to routines, or car sounds or subtle cues. But rather than argue academically, I suggested that he carry out some experiments with Jaytee himself, and arranged for him to do so. I had already been doing videotaped experiments with this dog for months, and I lent him my videocamera. Pam Smart, Jaytee’s owner, and her family kindly agreed to help him. 

With the help of his assistant, Matthew Smith, he did four experiments with Jaytee, two in June and two in December 1995, and in all of them Jaytee went to the window to wait for Pam when she was indeed on the way home.

As in my own experiments, he sometimes went to the window at other times, for example to bark at passing cats, but he was at the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not. In the three experiments Wiseman did in Pam’s parents’ flat, Jaytee was at the window an average of 4 percent of the time during the main period of Pam’s absence, and 78 percent of the time when she was on the way home. This difference was statistically significant. When Wiseman’s data were plotted on graphs, they showed essentially the same pattern as my own (Figure 2.5). In other words Wiseman replicated my own results.

I was astonished to hear that in the summer of 1996 Wiseman went to a series of conferences, including the World Skeptics Congress, announcing that he had refuted the “psychic pet” phenomenon. He said Jaytee had failed his tests because he had gone to the window before Pam set off to come home. 

In September 1996, I met Wiseman and pointed out that his data showed the same pattern as my own, and that far from refuting the effect I had observed, his results confirmed it. I gave him copies of graphs showing may own data and the data from the experiments that he and Smith conducted with Jaytee. But he ignored these facts.

Wiseman reiterated his negative conclusions in a paper in the British Journal of Psychology, coauthored with Smith and Julie Milton, in August, 1998. This paper was announced in a press release entitled “Mystic dog fails to give scientists a lead,” together with a quote from Wiseman: “A lot of people think their pet might have psychic abilities but when we put it to the test, what’s going on is normal not paranormal.” There was an avalanche of skeptical publicity, including newspaper reports with headlines like “Pets have no sixth sense, say scientists” (The Independent, August 21, 1998) and “Psychic pets are exposed as a myth” (The Daily Telegraph, Aug 22, 1998). Smith was quoted as saying, 

”We tried the best we could to capture this ability and we didn’t find any evidence to support it.” The wire services reported the story worldwide. Skepticism appeared to have triumphed.

Wiseman continued to appear on TV shows and in public lectures claiming he had refuted Jaytee’s abilities. Unfortunately, his presentations were deliberately misleading. He made no mention of the fact that in his own tests, Jaytee waited by the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not, nor did he refer to my own experiments. He gave the impression that my evidence is based on one experiment filmed by a TV company, rather than on more than two hundred tests, and he implied that he has done the only rigorous scientific tests of this dog’s abilities.

Instead of plotting their data on graphs and looking at the overall pattern, Wiseman, Smith and Milton used a criterion of their own invention to judge Jaytee’s “success” or “failure”. They did not discuss this criterion with me, although I had been studying Jaytee’s behaviour in detail for more than a year before I invited them to do their own tests, but instead based it on remarks about Jaytee’s behaviour made by commentators on two British television programmes, who said that Jaytee went to the window every time that his owner was coming home. In fact, he did so on 86 per cent of the occasions. And one of these programmes said that Jaytee went to the window “when his owner Pam Smart starts her journey home.” In fact Jaytee often went to the window a few minutes before Pam started her journey, while she was preparing to set off. Based on these TV commentaries, Wiseman et al. took Jaytee’s “signal” to be the dog’s first visit to the window for no apparent external reason. They later changed this criterion to a visit that lasted more than two minutes.

Wiseman and Smith found that Jaytee sometimes went to the window at Pam’s parents’ flat for no obvious reason before Pam set off at the randomly-selected time. Anytime this happened, they classified the test as a failure, despite the fact that he waited at the window for 78 percent of the time when Pam was on the way home, compared with only 4 percent when she was not. They simply ignored the dog’s behaviour after the “signal” had been given. 

In addition to these experiments at Pam’s parents’ flat, they carried out a test at the house of Pam’s sister, where Jaytee had to balance on the back of a sofa to look out of the window. The first time he visited the window for no apparent reason coincided exactly with Pam setting off, and her sister remarked at the time, on camera, that this was how Jaytee behaved when Pam was coming home. But Jaytee did not stay there for long because he was sick; he left the window and vomited. Because he did not meet the two-minute criterion, this experiment was deemed a failure.

On another British television programme called “Secrets of the Psychics”, Wiseman said of Jaytee, “We filmed him continuously over a three hour period and at one point we had the owner randomly think about returning home from a remote location and yes, indeed, Jaytee was at the window at that point. What our videotape showed, though, was that Jaytee was visiting the window about once every 10 minutes and so under those conditions it is not surprising he was there when his owner was thinking of returning home.” To support this statement, a series of video clips showed Jaytee going to the window over and over again, eight times in all. The times of these visits to the window can be read from the timecode. They were taken from the experiment on shown in Figure 2.5 (June 12). Two of these visits were the same clip shown twice, and three took place while Pam was actually on the way home, although they were misleadingly portrayed as random events unrelated to her return. Looking at the graph of the data from this test, it is obvious that Jaytee spent by far the most time at the window when Pam was on the way home: he was there 82 percent of the time. In the previous periods his visits were much shorter, if he visited the window at all.

Wiseman, Smith and Milton said that they were “appalled” by the way some of the newspaper reports portrayed Pam Smart. But although they helped initiate this media coverage, they considered themselves blameless: “We are not responsible for the way in which the media reported our paper and believe that these issues are best raised with the journalists involved.” They also excused themselves for failing to mention my own research with Jaytee on the grounds that it had not yet been published when they submitted their paper to the British Journal of Psychology. They therefore created the appearance that they were the only people to have done proper scientific experiments with a return-anticipating dog. Also by publishing their paper before I could publish my own – I spent two years doing experiments, while they spent four days – they claimed priority in the scientific literature for this kind of research. To put it mildly, these were scientific bad manners.

Wiseman still tells the media, “I’ve found plenty of evidence of unscientific approaches to data, but have never come across a paranormal experiment that can be replicated.” In an comprehensive analysis of Wiseman’s approach, Christopher Carter has shown how he adopts a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to psychic phenomena, viewing null results as evidence against psi while attempting to ensure that positive results do not count as evidence for it. Carter has documented a series of examples, including the Jaytee case, where Wiseman uses “tricks to ensure he gets the results he wants to present.” He is, after all, an illusionist and an expert in the psychology of deception.

Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

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