British flakes

Today's time-waster while I wait for the first coat of sky blue to dry in what used to be the study is reader-baiting. The targets are citizens of the U.K. The subject is the paranormal.

I ask you, what's with the enduring popularity of belief in ghosts, telepathy, and other such flaky beyond-belief stuff in Great Britain? To be fair, it's not as bad as creationism in America, not by a long shot. The British Isles are the birthplace of John Locke, David Hume and Bertrand Russell, after all, and the legacy of the Enlightenment continues to burn brightly in England, for most part. But still, there seems to be a soft spot for soft pseudo-science across the pond and I'd like to know why.

What got me started on this phenomenon was a story in today's Independent: "Scientists angry after platform is given to 'charlatan's fantasy'."

Leading scientists have criticised Britain's premier public forum on science for hosting a series of lectures on controversial research into the paranormal that suggests the possibility of mental telepathy and the existence of consciousness after death.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) was sharply rebuked yesterday for allowing paranormal researchers to have a public platform at its annual Science Festival, held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Mainstream scientists expressed surprise that the BA had invited Rupert Sheldrake, who investigates paranormal experiences, and Peter Fenwick, a retired neuropsychiatrist who investigates near-death experiences, to its annual meeting.

You kind of knew Sheldrake was going to be involved, didn't you? This time, he was presenting "findings" that showed people can correctly anticipate which of four close friends would give them a ring on the phone. He says his subjects managed a 45 per cent accuracy rate, and reportedly claims the odds of that happening by chance are "a thousand billion to one against."

I'm going to call bullshit on that by pointing out the study involved just 63 "recruits" and unless there was an awful lot of phone calls, the odds against 45 per cent accuracy are nowhere near one in a thousand billion. (The story doesn't include a mention of size of n.)

The Independent could have been more skeptical of the math. More skeptical (sceptical) at least, than BA conference organizer and pyschologist Helen Haste, who said: "We at the British Association feel we should be open to discussions and debates which are seen as valid by people generally inside and outside the scientific community." Which means what exactly? But we did get this "however" from one Professor Peter Atkins, of Oxford University, who said there was no reason to suppose that telepathy or the afterlife was anything other than a "charlatan's fantasy." And this rebuke:

Lord Winston, a former president of the BA, said that he knew of no properly conducted studies indicating that telepathy and the paranormal were anything other than nonsense. "It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields," he said.

Again, America's got a lot to answer for these days when it comes to public understanding of science. There was that depressing reminder in the form of a poll on belief in evolution, after all. But I doubt the American Association for the Advancement of Science (of which I am a member) would host a conference on either telepathy or creationism. And wven less likely to do so without a rebuttal. So what gives?

Curiously, there is an interesting way to illustrate on one hand just how far from respectable science Sheldrake is, and on the other, how widespread paranormal belief is in England. It's all packaged nearly in this abstract, which currently tops Sheldrake's website:

Psychic Pets: A Survey in North-West England
by Rupert Sheldrake and Pamela Smart
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 61, 1997

A telephone survey was carried out in Greater Manchester to find out how many pet owners had observed seemingly psychic abilities in their pets. 46% of dog owners claimed their animals knew in advance when a member of the household was on their way home, compared with 14% of cat owners. Most of these animals reacted 5 minutes or less in advance, but a substantial proportion reacted 10 minutes or more in advance of the person's return. 69% of dog owners and 48% of cat owners thought there pets knew when they were going out before they showed any physical signs of doing so. 53% of dog owners and 33% of cat owners thought their pet responded to their thoughts or silent commands; and similar percentages thought their pet was sometimes telepathic with them. Just over half of those who had kept pets in the past thought that some of these animals were telepathic. More dog than cat owners claimed to have had psychic experiences themselves, and a higher proportion of "psychic" pet owners claimed that their pets exhibited psychic powers than "non-psychic" owners. The potential for experimental investigations of the seemingly psychic powers of pets is discussed.

Note that we're talking about observations of seemingly pyschic pets, not actually evidence of pyschic pet power. And this kind of research gets him into a top-flight "scientific" conference?

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Yes, there must be something dangerous about bland food and warm beer... look what happewned to Arthur Conan Doyle. He created the world's first "scientific detective", but turned to a search for faeries and the paranormal before his death. This calls for some more research - anyone got grant money for a trip to England?

Check the Reuters article on Sheldrake. It's not nearly as skeptical as the Independent article. Maybe it's been dumbed down for hte US audience...

Rupert Sheldrake, whose research is funded by the respected Trinity College, Cambridge,...

"The hit rate was 45 percent, well above the 25 percent you would have expected," he told the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. "The odds against this being a chance effect are 1,000 billion to one."

No mention of what sort of reception he received from the BA.

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 06 Sep 2006 #permalink

Only 45% accuracy? I'm way more psychic than that.

I can predict the next call to my cellphone with 95% accuracy: it will be my wife.

It's a shame that the BA didn't take the opportunity to rip Sheldrake's 'research' to shreds.

J-Dog - once upon a time when faeries roamed Britain ;-)food may have been bland but nowadays people tend to like spicier food like curry and belief in faeries has died out - maybe ther's a connection? Surely someone could work out a grant application on the lines of Diet and Belief in the Paranormal? And why stick to the UK? Here in Japan food is pretty bland and belief in paranormal is quite widespread. Could be the basis for a comparative study?

Honestly, I don't see any more supernatural nonsense here in the UK than I did in the US (particularly in California). 'Unsolved Mysteries', anyone? But let's not let such trivial details stand between us and a few sneeringly heeelarious beer/fairy jokes.

Please see my book "Psychology's Occult Doubles" (now unfortunately out of print), which is entirely about the history behind and the motivations of people to believe in things such as phrenology, psychical research, or (cue Tom Cruise), Scientology.

By Thomas Leahey (not verified) on 07 Sep 2006 #permalink

Amazing. You know that the study is bogus without even reading it. Nor did you mention the successful replication study conducted by Lobach and Bierman at the university of Amsterdam.

There is a word for people who reject the result of scientific experiments out of hand without investigation. It is not "scientist". It is "dogmatist". And it shows a complete lack of doubt or skepticism in your own understanding of the world.

You can do better than this.

Note that we're talking about observations of seemingly pyschic pets, not actually evidence of pyschic pet power. And this kind of research gets him into a top-flight "scientific" conference?

Perhaps next time you might dig a little deeper and find the papers that demonstrate scientific evidence that the pet owners are, at least in some cases, correct in their assessment of psi ability.

Sorry for the follow up, if I put two hyperlinks in a post it tends to get trapped by the ScienceBlogs spam filter.

Here I show the data collected by arch-skeptic Richard Wiseman which corroborates Sheldrake's findings.

Of course I expect this to be ignored by the pseudoskeptics. My latest post on AMNAP about the neurological correlates of confirmation bias will help explain why. . .

Matthew that study is bogus. But go on thinking dogs somehow tap into invisible brain waves and such. You know the fact that you disparage a man of Randi's character speaks volumes about your own.

Simply put. Your dogmatic that it all is true no matter how goofy the claim.

Matthew that study is bogus.

Because. . .

But go on thinking dogs somehow tap into invisible brain waves and such.

You do know that "invisible brain waves" are what make fMRI possible, don't you? However it has nothing to do with telepathy, as far as I know.

You know the fact that you disparage a man of Randi's character speaks volumes about your own.

Randi disparages his own character through his actions.

Thats all you have against Randi that he was mistaken about a fellow for a panel? The man does a great service for humanity and you side with the charlatans. Prove your case.

Your a troll or an idiot and perhaps both.

Matthew that study is bogus.

Because. . .

You must prove your case. Give repeated examples of these ideas being successfully reproduced in controlled experiments. Until then why waste time debunking what hasn't even the strength to stand yet.

It's akin to photographing fairies in the backyard. But thats what you probably do on the weekends.