The Sheldrake phenomenon

Richard Dawkins interviewed Rupert Sheldrake on Sheldrake's remarkable assertions about the existence of psychic abilities. Here's Sheldrake's rationalization:

He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn't any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s. In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for well over a century. However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would "turn the laws of physics upside down," and added, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

"This depends on what you regard as extraordinary", I replied. "Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?"

Hang on there. Notice the devious twist?

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence. So what does Sheldrake do? He simply asserts that the idea that people can read minds over long distances for the ever-so useful purpose of occasionally detecting who is making a phone call (What? We have awesome telepathic powers that do nothing more than act as a flaky version of caller ID?) is not an extraordinary claim … on the basis of the unlikelihood that people could possibly be deluded about their own experiences. The man is nuts.

People fool themselves all the time. Millions claim that Jesus talks to them; other millions claim to be following the will of Allah. People believe in UFOs and Bigfoot and that the moon landings were a hoax. It is not at all extraordinary to suggest that human beings are eminently capable of swallowing truly crazy stuff.

On the other hand, Sheldrake's telepathy lacks a mechanism and doesn't even make sense. His 'experiments' are exercises in gullibility, anecdote, and sloppy statistics. His "morphic resonance" babble is embarrassingly gullible nonsense.

And I'm afraid Sheldrake is grossly in error in the way he pursues science. You can't just simply carry out a Fortean exercise in collecting odd anecdotes and unexplained phenomena. You have to propose mechanisms — you need to make hypotheses that can be used to guide tests of the idea. What is the mechanism behind the claimed ability of people to sense who is calling them on the telephone? Having some suggestion about how it works would allow investigators to design experiments that block the effect, or better yet, enhance the effect.

I can guess why Dawkins turned down Sheldrake when he insisted on presenting his "evidence". It wasn't evidence. Evidence is data that provides support for a proposition: Sheldrake has no testable proposition, no mechanism, no quantitative description of a measurable phenomenon. He has self-selected collections of numbers, addled by poor experimental design and confirmation bias, and all he'd do is reel off streams of context-free numbers accumulated in the absence of a quantifiable thesis. I've read enough of Sheldrake's work to know what a godawful load of substanceless bollocks he can spew at will.

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"I made it clear from the outset that I wasn't interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise." Richard said, "It's not a low grade debunking exercise; it's a high grade debunking exercise." "

I'm not sure about the rest of the scientific community, but I know in my soft-science (cognitive psychology) we refer to "debunking exercises" as a testable null-hypothesis. And, if I remember correctly, testing a null hypothesis is pretty darn important to the scientific method.

You would think that Sheldrake would be eager to throw a few testable null-hypothesis at his claims. =)

But surely, PZ, we should "teach both sides." What are you afraid of? Let the children decide. Stop the censorship. Teachers should be free to present the "strengths and weaknesses" of your orthodoxy. Let's have a little bit of "academic freedom" here. Why do you persecute those with whom you disagree? This is blatant "viewpoint discrimination."

(I'm buckin for a job at the Discovery Institute.)

This happens often enough that it doesn't surprise me any more. I decide to call someone on the telephone, put my hand on the phone, the phone rings and it is the person I was going to call. Sometimes the phone rings while I am looking up the person's number. It is kinda spooky!

Quite often, when someone calls, I know who it is before looking at the caller ID. I think it is a matter of situational awareness, and a limited number of potential phone callers. Nothing paranormal involved.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Did you ever see the TV program "A Glorious Accident"? Solo interviews with Stephen J. Gould, Daniel Dennet, Freeman Dyson and Sheldrake, followed by a roundtable discussion. After talking about homing-pigeon telepathy, Sheldrake says something to the effect of "What if the sun has conciousness? Why dismiss that out of hand?" The look on Dennet's face was priceless.

I think it is a matter of situational awareness, and a limited number of potential phone callers. Nothing paranormal involved.

Posted by: Jim Thomerson | June 8, 2008 2:10 PM

I was in the middle of commenting on the fact that Sheldrake's assertion simply ignores the fact that we can sometimes perform deductive reasoning without being fully aware of it. (i.e., The phone rings and we - almost involuntarily - sort through the possibilities, and posit a guess as to who is calling - and sometimes the guess is correct. But, then again, sometimes it isn't.)

But you beat me to it...

By brokenSoldier, OM (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Arguments for paranormal phenomena depend on supplementary arguments that (e.g.) telepathy or precognition are not practically usable. Otherwise the stock market, horse racing, etc. would be dominated by seers, to the point that they'd have to be closed down since no one else could win.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Re deductive reasoning -
I was hanging out with a few friends and one of them heard her cell phone ring. Before she even picked it up she said "Who could that be? All the people who ever call me are here."

You have to propose mechanisms -- you need to make hypotheses that can be used to guide tests of the idea.

I agree with the second clause of this sentence, but not the first. Consider the Law of Universal Gravitation - Newton proposed no mechanism but, after noting that the inverse square law explained the motion of the moon, presumably hypothesised that the same law applied to the planets - for which observations supplied the evidence to substantiate this. "I feign no hypotheses... It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained"

Later, Henry Cavendish's experiments with masses in his laboratory - following up another hypothesis! - demonstrated that gravity wasn't just a 'heavenly' force. (Not that there's anything special about the results of experiments performed in a laboratory as opposed to observations made in nature - just a means of getting more control, I suppose.)

Certainly the proposal of a mechanism might suggest further experiments, however.

I sure hope that guy doesn't know what I'm thinking now.

How come moron Sheldrake didn't see that knife coming by way of telepathy? These demented morons are so easy to put down through sheer logic and forceful demands to put up or shut the hell up. I have Mackay's book, and is still current as applied to today's insane crap of the masses.

It is not at all extraordinary to suggest that human beings are eminently capable of swallowing truly crazy stuff.

That's not half are crazy as what they have been known to put up the other end.

Woohoo! Good to see other people than me have read that book this century.

It's not even that it's not all that extraordinary to suggest that humans are eminently capable of swallowing truly crazy stuff, it's been verified in many studies. Here's a good article on false memories:
http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm

...and a relevant quote from said article:

In Missouri in 1992 a church counselor helped Beth Rutherford to remember during therapy that her father, a clergyman, had regularly raped her between the ages of seven and 14 and that her mother sometimes helped him by holding her down. Under her therapist's guidance, Rutherford developed memories of her father twice impregnating her and forcing her to abort the fetus herself with a coat hanger.The father had to resign from his post as a clergyman when the allegations were made public. Later medical examination of the daughter revealed, however, that she was still a virgin at age 22 and had never been pregnant. The daughter sued the therapist and received a $1-million settlement in 1996.

I mean, if people can be fooled into believing they have been raped, impregnated, and subsequently had an abortion with a coat hanger, it's really not a stretch to believe that some people can be fooled into believing that they have telepathy.

That said, it seems to me that telepathy isn't completely out of bounds of physics. I mean, it would certainly be possible for people to communicate with neither sound nor visible light: we could, for example, use radio waves. A region of tissue with rotors attached to magnets and lots of nerve tissue near the surface of the skin would do pretty well. Of course, we have no such organ, but some limited form of radio transmission of information is not completely nonsensical in principle. Though many of the claims these nutbags make, of course, are (such as that humans have such a capacity, or the various ideas that wouldn't work even in the presence of some other communications medium than those we can make use of).

By Jason Dick (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

It's really simple. First we need evidence that telepathy exists, even if it only exists in one out of a thousand. Then we need to verify the evidence. Then, as telepathy *is* "extradinary, we need to discover how it works. First we need to explore "ordinary" mechanics that could result is in extraordinary results (for example, perhaps telepathy is folk being so astute and aware of body language and empathy they can read very very specific thoughts and feelings to an uncanny degree; i.e. "psychics" are several standard deviations above average at empathy intuition that if it where the equivilent of I.Q they'd have be above 220) and *then* we'd start turning physics on its head.

Write now let's start by looking for evidence. *looks under couch* None here? How are you guys doing?

If telepathy were real, I suspect that we'd have evolved deeply ingrained behaviors and social practices around it, without even knowing it was there. And, of course, science would have figured out how it worked back around the 1940s.

Put another way - even the ancients, who didn't know how brains and hearts worked, understood that you didn't want your brains bashed out or your heart pierced with a spear. 100% of the time. If mankind had an innate telepathic ability, even very simple behaviors like kids playing "hide and go seek" would be different. Our interactions with animals would possibly be very different. For example, a simple behavior like riding horseback would have possibly "evolved" without the need for bits and reins.

One of the true but misleading doctrines of logic is "you cannot prove a negative" and this often comes up when we're confronted with woo-woo thinking and religion. But it's actually possible to make very strong arguments that the negatives are, in fact true by asking "what if the inverse were the case?" and examining what the world would be like if it were. For example "what if prayer worked?" Well:
- Las Vegas would still be a single gas station in a desert
- Mortality statistics for one of the faiths would be significantly skewed
etc.

These are not 'absence of evidence' they are, in fact, evidence of absence.

If there were anything in telepathy or precognition, natural selection would've gone crazy with it because it'd be so beneficial. Unless, of course, the necessary genetic mutations have only just occurred, which is statistically unlikely.

By Richard Harris (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Richard Harris writes:
If there were anything in telepathy or precognition, natural selection would've gone crazy with it because it'd be so beneficial

Unless it came with some other costs (which it would)like increased skull size, awkward highly-visible antennas, massive metabolic impact, or whatever. It would sure make for an interesting arms race. Predators and prey would be rewarded at various times for either being in "listen only" mode.

All of these things would result in massive behavioral changes in hunting, mating, and other behaviors. The impact would be clearly visible and that's why I'm guessing science would have found it by the 1940s - it would represent a huge unexplained hole in physics at the very least. If telepathy had anything to do with our brains (since we're talking about transmitting thoughts I'd rather expect it would!) then some kind of effect or activity would be inescapably measurable with a PET scan or other brain scans.

When someone talks about stuff like telepathy as if it's real, and points out that 'science doesn't understand everything yet' I usually explain that for telepathy to be real it would be as if someone was to discover a previously unnoticed continent in the Atlantic, in 2008. Is it possible? Well, maybe, but it'd be vastly harder to explain how something so significant escaped professional notice until just now than it is to simply dismiss the idea as "extremely unlikely." Scientists who want to search for hithertofore undiscovered continents should not be discouraged from doing so (it's their life, let them waste it as they see fit) but in scientific terms it's like betting your house on very very long odds at Las Vegas because of a hunch.

"You have to propose mechanisms"
I agree with #10. You do not need a hypothesis about mechanisms to describe something. Once you have shown it exists, they will certainly come. But if I had two people who could read each other's thoughts I could claim the one million dollar prize, from Randi, become famous and get the scientific community a twitter without having to explain by what mechanism they did it.
Electric shock therapy has been used for a long time for depression, it works, I still don't think anyone knows exactly why.

Wait. Spallanzani? Wasn't that the guy who made Coppelia?

Methinks Sheldrake would do well to read some Feynmann:

I remembered the time I was in my fraternity house at MIT when the idea came into my head completely out of the blue that my grandmother was dead. Right after that there was a telephone call, just like that. It was for Pete Bernays -- my grandmother wasn't dead. So I remembered that, in case somebody told me a story that ended the other way. I figured that such things can sometimes happen by luck -- after all, my grandmother was very old -- although people might think they happened by some sort of supernatural phenomenon.

If there were anything in telepathy or precognition, natural selection would've gone crazy with it because it'd be so beneficial.

Damn. Richard beat me to it.

This is, I think, one of the best arguments against telepathy ever. (Other than "What's the mechanism?" and "It contradicts all the evidence we have about how the mind works," of course.)

If telepathy existed -- even to a tiny degree -- it would confer an ENORMOUS selective advantage. Both for survival and, need I say, for reproduction. A tiny amount of telepathy would be far more useful than a tiny amount of camouflage, a tiny amount of a wing for gliding, a tiny amount of language. It would have been selected for so fast it would have made everybody's head spin.

The knowing is calling before answering the phone is an old one. And one that has been refuted time and time again.

Most people have a fairly small number of people who call them regularly, and quite often those people will tend to call on the same day of the week, and at a similar time. Also one reason for calling is to tell people some news. Well if you know a friend was having a job interview that day it would not be a total surprise if they called that evening.

When you take the above into account, along with the fact people remember when they guessed right and not when they guessed wrong.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

This comment is anon - you'll find out why in a sec.

"What is the mechanism behind the claimed ability of people to sense who is calling them on the telephone"

For a number of years after I broke up with my first wife she had the uncanny ability to know when I was going on a date, and ringing me either just as I was heading out the door or actually during the date. It was stunning, we would only talk occasionally about our affairs, and sometimes she wouldn't contact me from one week to the next, but then call me at exactly the worst time. One time this extended to her calling me in the middle of a lunch date in a different country.

She no longer has that magical ability thankfully.

I mentioned this to a female acquaintance a few months ago and she explained it me as "we can tell, you guys change your behavior when you're playing up. You get distant and non-committal and it makes us suspicious"

So no telepathy there, just lots of cues from the real world that allow someone to intuit a hypothesis.

Forget the whole "people can fool themselves" angle: "Most people say they have experienced telepathy"? Really, "most people"?

By Citizen Z (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

I wrote:
Newton proposed no mechanism but, after noting that the inverse square law explained the motion of the moon, presumably hypothesised that the same law applied to the planets - for which observations supplied the evidence to substantiate this.

Kepler had already identified the orbits of planets as ellipses, of course - Kepler's Laws were known to Newton, and were a basis for Universal Gravitation.

What a difference there is between science and woo-woo.

Be careful about comments on Sheldrake. I wrote a short article on him and got more hate mail from it than I have from those who are offended by my Atheism.

The woo-woos will pronounce you guilty of a skeptic's "disconfirmation bias!"

The sheer amount of tap-dancing performed by people trying to justify Sheldrake's poor work is on par with the verbal gymnastics performed by many Texas politicians.

Sheldrake is of course a nutcase and JM is also correct that there is no commandment in science that one must present a mechanism. That is ignorant in the extreme.

Still, the question of what is meant by extraordinary is clearly a political one and a deft bit of verbal judo by Sheldrake. Any unproved hypothesis is by definition extra-ordinary. Who gets to decide? Typically it is left to entrenched authority. They often have their own biases and prejudices. Or they simply are defending their own legacy. Ideas that represent a new paradigm must either do battle or wait for the old farts to die off.

But if I had two people who could read each other's thoughts I could claim the one million dollar prize, from Randi, become famous and get the scientific community a twitter without having to explain by what mechanism they did it.

If you actually had 2 people who could do that, you'd be a fool to reveal the capability for a measly $1million. Think bigger. Think Wall Street.

Once you'd pocketed a couple hundred million, you could donate some to JREF and use the rest to finance your congressional campaign. And, of course, make sure you spread your genes around as vigorously as possible by covering lots of willing females; it'll be easy since you can read their minds... ("OH honey.. I got you a green Porsche 911 and let's go see Penn and Teller!" - squeeeal!)

As others have pointed out - even limited telepathy would be such a huge advantage, you'd be the proverbial one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Which is exactly why eyes are such a popular adaptation. :D

If there were anything in telepathy or precognition, natural selection would've gone crazy with it because it'd be so beneficial. Unless, of course, the necessary genetic mutations have only just occurred, which is statistically unlikely.

The ability to process and communicate with abstract language is a bit like telepathy, isn't it? And abstract reasoning is a bit like procognition, no?

I mean, if we consider that telepathy *might* exist we must consider it a natural rather than a magical phenomenom, right? Hence it'd have both evidence and natural mechanics?

We don't consider language and reason "extraordinary" as it is very common in humans. And things that do exist in humans that are very rare and "extraordinary", such as genius or savantism or synesthesia, we consider rare extensions of "ordinary" mechanics. They aren't "magic".

Right now, I'd say there's no evidence and no mechanics for telepathy. I'm *willing* to consider an argument that the appearance of telepathy could be akin to something like being a "genius" at personal empathy and emotional intuitiveness, or some rare neurological perception like synesthesia (although exactly how it'd work is a bit beyond me; perhaps automatic sherlock holmes like deduction being percieved as smell or something weird like that-- actually that'd be pretty cool; wouldn't it? Make a good sci-fi story). However, there's utterly no evidence.

My daughter is fifteen years old. Up until last week, she didn't have a cell phone (yeah, I know, today that's child abuse). If the phone rang between four in the afternoon and nine at night (her friends knew not to call her after nine (and my large size, beard, and penchant for cowboy hats has most of her friends scared), I would pick up the phone and answer "K------'s answering service, how may I help you?" Half her friends are convinced I'm psychic. And my success rate was about 80%. The only time I didn't do that was at (give or take) 7:30. That was the time my brother-in-law would call, so I just pick up the phone and say "Hi, D---------. How ya doin'?" He just thinks I am strange.

I think the phone call deductive reasoning hypotheosis is right on.

So no telepathy there, just lots of cues from the real world that allow someone to intuit a hypothesis.

This raises an interesting question, and one to which I have devoted some thought, if not actual investigation. There is a common trope about "women's intuition," and I've always considered myself intuitive (I've even been called a "witch" - meant in a good way) and thought that this ability has helped me to avoid some dangerous situations. But I've always thought of it as more of a skill - of reading social/behavioral clues - rather than an innate ability. It seems to me that it's beneficial for women, and members of other subordinate groups, to be able to read - even if not entirely consciously - certain clues. This helps people in these groups both to accomplish their ends and to recognize potential threats (e.g., when a man is on the verge of a physical attack).

But I've long wondered: If women are indeed more intuitive (and I don't know whether or not this is true), is it possible for one gender to have developed a greater potential for this through evolution, or is it entirely an acquired skill? Or does the potential for it exist among both women and men, but develop only among those for whom it is more needed (as recent studies concerning empathy, etc., would suggest)? Has there been any research done on this?

I've listened to the Trialogues at the Edge of the Millennium (it's on google video) with Sheldrake, Terence McKenna and the mathematician Ralph Abraham. It's not "science"; it's psychedelic esoterica, speculations about a disembodied consciousness, historicism etc., and it is hugely enjoyable. I recommend it.

I don't understand this "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". The fact is that they just require sufficient evidence, meaning that it needs to be more conclusive than something that fits with current knowledge, but nothing really extraordinary.

Suppose we were to find some people who (with all of the proper controls) could be consistently 50% right or higher about the others' (truly) random picks, when only 25% would be expected by chance. Would that be extraordinary evidence? Certainly not in the usual sense of statistical inference. Maybe just because it would truly be unexpected it could in a sense be considered to be "extraordinary", yet it would be ordinary evidence according to the rules of science.

My main point is that, without an understood mechanism, it's true that the standards of evidence are somewhat higher. However, one might even see that as happening because there is contextual evidence already existing for the phenomena that fit with current physics, while the statistical inference for telepathy would have stand alone. So in some sense I doubt that any extraordinary evidence is required at all, just what is needed for a bare inference sans existing mechanism.

This does matter, because I really don't think that the new ought to have to pass higher hurdles than whatever might be considered to be "sufficient". I'm afraid that saying that "extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence" suggests, and possibly excuses, prejudice against new science. Yet I believe that the only basis for requiring greater evidence for that which does not have mechanism is the entirely sensible fact that claims that fit current physics have a tacit evidentiary basis which the "extraordinary" claims, such as telepathy, lack.

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

Sigmund, Holbach,
Come on, Sheldrake's either a fool or a fraud, but sneering at him for being stabbed in the leg is simply unpleasant.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

I don't understand this "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". The fact is that they just require sufficient evidence, meaning that it needs to be more conclusive than something that fits with current knowledge, but nothing really extraordinary.

I think all this means is extraordinary claims require more scrutany.

Example: A Newfoundlandian claiming "There was a moose in my backyard this morning" would require almost no evidence to be believed. Simply a guy whom you trust saying so would probably be enough.
A Montrealean claiming "There was a moose in my backyard this morning" would probably be met with a "No way" but a footprint in the mud is probably sufficient evidence.
A Hawaiin claiming "There was a moose in my backyard this morning" would probably be met with "Your a @#*-@!$# liar!" and a foot-print, moose-dropings, leaves with dental indentations matching moose teeth, and a photograph would probably be scoured several times for falsification and even then it probably wouldn't be enough evidence.

Re #35, by SC:

It seems to me that it's beneficial for women, and members of other subordinate groups, to be able to read - even if not entirely consciously - certain clues. This helps people in these groups both to accomplish their ends and to recognize potential threats (e.g., when a man is on the verge of a physical attack).

I intend no insult to women and their fabled intuition, but dogs (of both genders) are good at reading our emotions. It's what they do for a living, as it were. No magic involved, however.

dogs (of both genders) are good at reading our emotions

And that is perfectly consistent with the thrust of my comment. Where on earth did you get the impression that I was implying anything magical? I was talking about the capacity to read subtle behavioral clues. Please read my remarks again.

If we had telepathy then we wouldn't need telephones.

By bigjohn756 (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

P.S. If it's the "witch" that threw you off, I meant that in a sort of this-is-how-unscientific-people-typically-interpret-intuition-woo-of-the-gaps kind of way.:)

Re #42 The day is surely not far off when it will be possible to have a mobile 'phone implanted in the body and activated by thought (like the recent experiment with a monkey activating a robot arm). Then we will have telepathy.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Re #43 by SC:

Relax. I'm on your side. I was just giving an example of yet another perfectly natural instance. I guess I didn't express myself very well. (If you were really intuitive, you'd have known that.) And that, too, is an attempt at humor; it isn't intended to be insulting.

Extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence.

Oh, PZ, do think about that stupid statement from Sagan for a moment. Even if one is extremely generous to the late astronomer in offering the broadest possible interpretation, there are only two logical possibilities:

1. "Extraordinary evidence" simply means "scientific evidence".

2. If "extraordinary evidence" does not simply mean ordinary scientific evidence, then the "extraordinary claims" statement is false. I find it very hard to believe that you, Dawkins or any of the science fetishists here would reject genuine, peer-reviewed, reputable journal-published scientific evidence for telepathy that you accept for everything else.

Now, Sheldrake may well be a nut; I've never heard of him anyhow. But it's hard to take your dismissal seriously when you invoke an illogical chestnut like the "extraordinary claims" nonsense. Just out of curiousity, just what would constitute "extraordinary evidence" for the supernatural, and what would distinguish it from "ordinary evidence"?

PatrickHenry,

I took no offense, and of course fully predicted that this would be your response ;).

Several years ago it was shown that a fMRI could read thoughts. What if telepathy has a similar mechanism? Up until recently nobody believed there was magnetite in the human brain but now respectable studies are being published. Maybe magnetite or a substance yet to be investigated is involved. Declaring science can't explain such things and so we don't need to look is strangely like intelligent design.

(I suppose I'm kinda feeding the troll here, but no matter.)

VD: "extraordinary claims" just means "claims of very low prior probability"; "extraordinary evidence" just means "more and better evidence than would be needed if the prior probability were higher, which ends up being an extraordinary amount because the prior probability is so low"; the prior probability for claims of telepathy like Sheldrake's is (at least for me, and I expect for Richard Dawkins and PZ too) extremely low because for his claims to be true it seems that lots of what currently appears to be well understood and well verified science would have to be terribly wrong.

So, e.g., the fact that Rupert Sheldrake claims to have done some experiments that show evidence of telepathy is not enough evidence (for me at least; I can't speak for PZ or Dawkins), because other explanations for that such as incompetence or fraud seem more likely. But a sufficient accumulation of well-conducted, carefully checked research could of course change my mind.

It's impossible (for me at least; I can't speak for PZ or Dawkins) to answer the question about "the supernatural" because that's so vague a term. Some supernaturalist claims are more improbable / extraordinary than others.

There is nothing "illogical", or even very difficult, about any of this.

VD, you evidently have a very naive idea of the way science works. If a psychologist submits a paper with experimental evidence that (say) bilingual subjects do better on a word-recall test if given the words to remember after reading a story in which translations of those words occur, then reviewers will, quite reasonably, accept a result at the 1% level (i.e., results showing a difference that would occur by chance no more than 1 in 100 times). The finding would fit with existing theories about how the mind, and the world in general, work. If the psychologist submits a paper claiming, on results of the same statistical significance, that performance on the task is improved if the experimenter stands on his head for half an hour before running the experiment, the reviewer would, equally reasonably, reject it. It is much more plausible that that 1-chance-in-100 event has occurred, than that our entire understanding of the world, based on centuries of rational enquiry, is wrong.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

A Hawaiin claiming "There was a moose in my backyard this morning" would probably be met with "Your a @#*-@!$# liar!" and a foot-print, moose-dropings, leaves with dental indentations matching moose teeth, and a photograph would probably be scoured several times for falsification and even then it probably wouldn't be enough evidence.

I might also check whether a local zoo was missing a moose and whether there was a wealthy practical joker around. However I agree it would probably be like the Palo Alto black mamba (last seen crossing highway 101 at high speed).

A Hawaiin claiming "There was a moose in my backyard this morning" would probably be met with "Your a @#*-@!$# liar!" and a foot-print, moose-dropings, leaves with dental indentations matching moose teeth, and a photograph would probably be scoured several times for falsification and even then it probably wouldn't be enough evidence.

The Hawaiian's attitude is certainly understandable, but actually says nothing about what's required to establish the facts. When my four year-old brother walked in the house and said there was a monkey in the crab apple tree in our front yard, I didn't believe him for a second and continued with what I was doing. When my mother went outside, came back in, and wanted to know if I had any ideas for catching a monkey before it bit someone, I figured that was sufficient evidence that, against all my assumptions, there was in fact a monkey in our tree. In Minnesota.

And there was. It turned out to be a monkey named Wolfman Jack who had escaped from the Como Zoo a few weeks before.

Declaring science can't explain such things and so we don't need to look is strangely like intelligent design. - tguy@248.
Who has said anything like that? Attempts to demonstrate telepathy, clairvoyance etc. go back well over a century, and "successes" never seem to be repeatable. Yes, we should remain open to the possibility, but there is a long history of apparently strong results in parapsychology which have later been shown to be unreliable. Try googling "Rhine fraud" for example.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

So, one unverifiable anecdote of an unusual occurrence is supposed to illustrate the nature of scientific evidence?

Vox Day has always been good for a laugh.

It's amusing to see how the same logical fallacies and word-twisting and fantasizing evidence is used by ufologist, moon landing deniers, psychics, and creotards.

slang (#56):

It's amusing to see how the same logical fallacies and word-twisting and fantasizing evidence is used by ufologist, moon landing deniers, psychics, and creotards.

There's a Tolstoy pastiche in that: "All bad science is alike. Each bit of good science is good in its own way. . . ."

Any unproved hypothesis is by definition extra-ordinary.

Nonsense.

And not just because proof doesn't exist in science in the first place.

Who gets to decide? Typically it is left to entrenched authority.

Nonsense. The evidence gets to decide. If it isn't compatible with the hypothesis, the hypothesis is dead, and I haven't even mentioned Ockham's war ax razor yet.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Take plate tectonics as an example. Yes, there was resistance, but it lasted less than 10 years. Probably less than 5, I'm not familiar with the relevant literature. If the establishment had needed to die out, the debate would still be ongoing.

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

VD, you evidently have a very naive idea of the way science works.

I do so enjoy how science fetishists tend to assume that no one could possibly understand a fairly simple and well-known process rather than entertain the possibility that they didn't understand what they read.

If the psychologist submits a paper claiming, on results of the same statistical significance, that performance on the task is improved if the experimenter stands on his head for half an hour before running the experiment, the reviewer would, equally reasonably, reject it.

You're not talking about science here, you're talking about editing. Or, if you prefer PZ's terminology, you're talking about the profession of science and not the scientific method. One repeatable experiment that works consistently is all that's required to turn the scientific world on its head. Or, are you still rejecting the scientific evidence that cloning animals is possible because the experiment hasn't been repeated enough yet?

"extraordinary claims" just means "claims of very low prior probability"; "extraordinary evidence" just means "more and better evidence than would be needed if the prior probability were higher, which ends up being an extraordinary amount because the prior probability is so low"; the prior probability for claims of telepathy like Sheldrake's is (at least for me, and I expect for Richard Dawkins and PZ too) extremely low because for his claims to be true it seems that lots of what currently appears to be well understood and well verified science would have to be terribly wrong.

Wow, you sound almost like you know what you're talking about! Now, what are those probabilities? And how low must the probability be to qualify as "extraordinary"? If you can't do the math, I suggest you'd do well to avoid the quantitative terms that suggest a level of accuracy that you simply can't provide. We've been discussing this very topic over the last two days at my blog and a few folks there are insisting that "extraordinary evidence" simply means "scientific evidence". Now, you're saying it means "more and better evidence". Do you mean more and better scientific evidence or more and better evidence of any kind? And how do you define "better"?

From the sounds of it, Sheldrake merely has a bit of inconclusive testimonial evidence supporting his hypothesis. I very much agree that it's not enough to establish grounds for accepting telepathy; I disagree with the idea implied here that his evidence is sufficient for an ordinary claim. Does anyone really think it is?

horrobin:

Did you ever see the TV program "A Glorious Accident"? Solo interviews with Stephen J. Gould, Daniel Dennet, Freeman Dyson and Sheldrake, followed by a roundtable discussion. After talking about homing-pigeon telepathy, Sheldrake says something to the effect of "What if the sun has conciousness? Why dismiss that out of hand?" The look on Dennet's face was priceless.

Found it!

Part I

Part II

I think that it's extremely unlikely (about as unlikely as a deity) that telepathy exists, but I don't believe that if it WERE to exist it'd be a strange violation of the laws of physics;

If the rudiments of a transmitter/receiver array had suddenly mutated in the human brain (and it's not impossible to fathom - some mutation of the optic nerve or something to that effect) at a time when true natural selection pressures determined gene frequency, then the possibility of that array becoming refined enough to complex communication would definitely exist; as a bio-electronic system, such a development would not be impossible for the brain to evolve.

Nick Gotts @ 38 I'll sneer, and with ridicule, at anyone who purports to have magic powers, and is then rendered helpless in the face of stark reality when those "powers" fail him at the most importune moment. He may have thought himself invincible from such physical attacks because his mind was his guiding power, but even his mind let him down, and this was when he first became unhinged. I'll bet he was on his way to Sedona, Arizona to communicate with a whole town of wackos and engage in mass levitation. No quarter to irrational minds.

From the sounds of it, Sheldrake merely has a bit of inconclusive testimonial evidence supporting his hypothesis. I very much agree that it's not enough to establish grounds for accepting telepathy; I disagree with the idea implied here that his evidence is sufficient for an ordinary claim. Does anyone really think it is?

I think the crucial issue, in most cases, is repeatability. The "extraordinary" in Sagan's phrase is what has not been shown to be repeatable as yet.

My previous post was questioning the "extraordinary" in relation to establishing a scientific claim, not about the odd hallucination or lie, etc.

It's understandable, of course, that someone doubts the claim that humanoid forms were photographed by the rovers on Mars, while the claim that rocks were photographed is not. Why? Because of the issue of repeatability. Rocks simply repeat what we've found in other (relatively) non-icy planetary systems. Humanoid forms, granted, are well-known on one planet circling Sol, however they have not been found to be native under Martian conditions.

Sagan no doubt meant well enough with his phrase, but it begs too many questions to be used as a guideline to understanding claims. For, there's nothing so "extraordinary" about telepathy that normal repeated scientific evidence (well-controlled conditions and results significantly above or below those of mere chance--not Sheldrake's, of course) couldn't give strong evidence in favor of telepathy. It just hasn't happened that way.

Likewise with humanoids on Mars. It wouldn't take too many repetitions to show that these exist, if they do. But to say that rocks exist on Mars wouldn't take as much solid evidence, since those are just a repetition of what have been seen around the solar system.

Repetition needn't be successive, I would note. Seeing a single penguin fly once would be good evidence that penguins fly. But if you had only one instance you might insist on several observations of it, or anyway, extremely good evidence from one observation (a single eyewitness wouldn't do, but a single shot of a penguin flying might be good enough, if the picture is unambiguous and so is the chain of possession of the film, tape, flash card, whatever--but do multiple viewers of a single footage count as repetition or not?).

Sagan's point is good, but it leaves too many questions to be asked of what is "extraordinary" both as a claim and as evidence. Roughly, the proper repeatability of evidence is all that is needed to establish a claim.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

Holbach, what you say would only have some justification if Sheldrake had claimed he could read minds at will. He has done no such thing.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

One wonders why Sheldrake isn't hounding entymologists and epidemiologists to work together to understand the obviously widespread epidemic of insect endoparasitic infect in humans known as 'butterflies in the stomach'? The evidence for its existence is quite ordinary: I don't know of anyone who hasn't experienced the phenomenon at least a few times.

As long as we're abandoning experimental rigour for the conviction of the gut anyway....

I well remember the controversy over plate tectonics and the drubbing Alfred Wegener endured over his allied continental drift. But as Science has shown, observation and reevaluation in the face of established facts have now proven the inconrovertible idea. Raw nature at work, not some imaginary ghost. Science rules!

Now, Sheldrake may well be a nut; I've never heard of him anyhow. But it's hard to take your dismissal seriously when you invoke an illogical chestnut like the "extraordinary claims" nonsense. Just out of curiousity, just what would constitute "extraordinary evidence" for the supernatural, and what would distinguish it from "ordinary evidence"?

When Sheldrake claims, "Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary," it is an extaordinarily stupid claim. How often does the phone ring on any given day, and how often can you make a pretty good educated guess who is on the other end, that turns out to be correct? How memorable is it when the guess turns out to be wrong? How much more notable when correct? This is no more remarkable nor extraordinary than our ability to be eager to fool ourselves when confronted with a good cold reader, using the techniques of any professional, fast talking performer, like James Randi or Penn Jillette, techniques Houdine used to fool Arthur Conan Doyle: People who need to believe in telephone telepathy or psychics count the hits and ignore the misses. It's a stupid human trick that enables people to believe weird things, as Michael Shermer describes it. To claim that there is mundane telepathy because a lot of credulous people don't examine the proposition, and to provide no basis for its mechanism, especially in the absence of any evidence that there is any phenomenon to investigate in the first place, is extraordinary question begging.

Nick Gotts @ 66 He may not have said so directly, but he was thinking that he could do it, but not getting through to the like afflicted. His opinions are well known, and it is just a matter of time, and mind, that he starts to exert his nonsense to a compatible audience. Small insane ideas eventually lead to the bigger ones, and then are latched onto by the insane rabble.

I've always understood the "extraordinary claims" motif as being a more artful and concise way of saying that "claims of something at wild variance with ordinary experience warrant heightened skepticism." On a purely epistemological level, I find it hard to dispute that, although there are probably many philosophical notpicks I'm unfamiliar with.

He may not have said so directly, but he was thinking that he could do it - Holbach

Hey, everyone, Holbach's a telepath!!!

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

It wouldn't do guys like Sheldrake much good if telepathy turned out to be a real phenomenon detectable by repeatable means. That would just make it into another biological fact like the ability of some fishes to navigate by sensing electric fields. The appeal of the supernatural depends upon certain events appearing forever on the edge of detectability. What we have here is a genre thing, a literary effect. The critic Tristan Todorov wrote a book about it several years ago, the Fantastic. If a writer wants to create this effect he or she needs to write a narrative in which it is never clear whether the amazing event was real or a fraud or an illusion. Only by keeping things in suspicion can the the reader be securely enthralled. Telepathy/astrology/auras/out-of-body experiences and much of the rest of the junk one finds in the metaphysics section of used book stores has this literary logic.

Nick Gotts: Silly man: it is obvious what your true opinion of this fiasco is.

Holbach, I've given you my true opinion: Sheldrake is either a fool or a fraud. I just don't think either of these faults means it's OK to sneer at him for being stabbed. You seem to have some difficulty with the idea that people might disagree with you about what is acceptable, without being believers in woo. Why is that?

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

The "Extraordinary evidence" requirement is applied to those claims where the probability of error or fraud are close to (or greater than) the probability that the claim is true. Such would be the case with any claim that would be inconsistant with known natural processes. (So would a monkey in a tree in minnesota based on the claims of a 4 year old.)

Telepathy clearly falls in the category of being inconsistant with known natural processes, and is even more suspect given the volumn of bogus claims made in the past.

horrobin: Yes, I remember the TV program "A Glorious Accident", and the incredulous look on Dennet's face after that remark by Sheldrake, Nick Gotts defender, and it reminded me of the Gaia controversy, an idea that Freeman Dyson was expounding about for some time. I still do not buy that crap; I always considered Dyson too mystical in my opinion.

And Nova @ 61: Thanks for finding those programs; a real treat to watch them again! Good man!

Sheldrake is either a fool or a fraud.

Why the false dichotomy? Can we unequivocally rule out the possibility that he is both?

I just don't think either of these faults means it's OK to sneer at him for being stabbed.

I can empathize with him, but given his espousal of morphogenetic resonance and all the other bunk he peddles, should he not have been able to avoid the situation in the first place via his extraordinary telepathic powers? I get to sneer at the psychic who cannot divine that he or she is about to be arrested by the bunko squad. His supernatural powers should have spared Sheldrake such an indignity.

Nick Gotts @ 75 Of course I disagree with the minds that hold such nonsense and have also offered my true and honest opinion. And of course I am not alone in this regard, as I am sure there are many others like me who detest such obvious nonsense and will gladly speak out about it in spite of opinions to the contrary. I am intransigent when it comes to religion and its myriad nonsensical offshoots.

Re #78. I have some background in computing and logic, and so tend to use "or" in an inclusive sense, so "A or B", means "A or B or both". I certainly don't rule out the possibility that Sheldrake is both a fool and a fraud.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Re #80. Thanks for the clarification and/or amplification.

Re #81. At least Sheldrake's drivel is falsifiable in principle, unlike the religious bilge peddled by VD. Of course, religious claims tacitly rely upon the bogus respectability of "the field" of parapsychology, wielding it as a crucifix against the scientists that have better things to do with such otiose blather, thus VD's scrambling to Sheldrake's defense, especially if he can attempt to get a dig in at Sagan.

VD in #60: From the sounds of it, Sheldrake merely has a bit of inconclusive testimonial evidence supporting his hypothesis.

"The plural of anecdote is not data." - Roger Brinner

woozy re #39: my dad had to explain a bear running into his car once. Thankfully for him, some of the fur got caught in the between the rim and tire (after that he got called an idiot for almost getting out of the car to check on the bear [note - it wasn't dead]). Which to get back on topic, without evidence your claims of extraordinary events are just claims.

Re #35, by SC: I've often wondered if telepathy is just a lot of mirror neuron or something akin to that - just someone picking up on someone else's feelings or on conflicting body language. Thus predicting an event (phone ringing) not possible, but picking up on the fact that something is emotionally troubled - doable. Not that I'm a neurologist, just random thoughts.

By evilbunnytoo (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Re #35, by SC: I've often wondered if telepathy is just a lot of mirror neuron or something akin to that - just someone picking up on someone else's feelings or on conflicting body language. Thus predicting an event (phone ringing) not possible, but picking up on the fact that something is emotionally troubled - doable. Not that I'm a neurologist, just random thoughts.

That's exactly what I'm talking about!

Ew, VD has infested the comments. Who's got penicillin?

Now, is there any constraint against non-human animals having telepathy, if telepathy was real? After there are other animals with brains, and with sensory apparatuses. So if humans were telepathic, why not other species?

Then there is the matter of the vast span of time since brains and vision and hearing came along. Just now is rather suspect timing. If telepathy required a certain minimum intelligence that would be one thing, but I can see no reason for that being the case.

It comes down to a matter of reliability. The claim is made that telepathy is reliable to a great degree. If that were true, then telepathy would be in use on a daily basis, and would have effects on society. Surprise birthday parties wouldn't, necessarily, become impossible. Planning for one would involve extra work. Lying, to use another example, would call for tricks we don't use.

So when evaluating claims of extraordinary abilities ask yourself, where is the impact?

If I am ever in a bar when I should probably be somewhere useful, I know for certain not only who is on the other end, but that my wife will call me before the phone even rings (yet I still try to misbehave; veeery interesting, but stupid)!

On the other hand, Sheldrake's telepathy lacks a mechanism and doesn't even make sense. His 'experiments' are exercises in gullibility, anecdote, and sloppy statistics. His "morphic resonance" babble is embarrassingly gullible nonsense.

PZ, given that Sheldrake's "morphic resonance" was initially invoked as the answer to developmental biology can you give us an idea of the progress that has been made in this field after Sheldrake gave up trying to do real science in the 1970s.

By Chris Noble (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

There's only four known fundamental forces, and only two of those (gravity and electromagnetism) work at any distance. Both of those are subject to inverse square law decay with distance, and are well understood in their effects if not underlying causes.
For telepathy to work, it must be mediated by one of those four forces, generated by a glob of protein/lipid gel and detected by same, and yet somehow these emanations have escaped reliable detection by every device known by science. And the signal must be reliably detected through a signal to noise ratio that would make radioastronomers drool with envy.
Or possibly it is mediated by some new force completely unknown to science even though it can be both generated and detected by those globs of protein/lipid gel - somehow we just never noticed it. Either way, I'm not buying.

I read a book on the history of ESP research once, a long time ago. Don't remember a lot of it, but one study did stick in my memory, though I can't remember it exactly any more.

There was a psychologist researching ESP in an American university in the 60's. She had a 'guess the symbol' test she gave to the first year psychology class every year for 10 years. Each test involved 100 attempts to guess which one of 4 symbols was being held up by the person administering the test (an older student usually). Also there was a small survey to investigate each participant's views on ESP.

By the end of the 10 years, the total data was exactly as expected, ie. the 'success' rate was exactly 25% (n= something like 30,000 data points). But when they split the data into 2 groups: one group being those that believed ESP definately or could possibly exist, and the other all those who believed ESP definately or probably didn't exist the data showed a different result. Those that didn't believe or denied ESP scored a little bit under 25% (with statistical power of something like a million to one odds of the result being just by chance) and the believers scored a little above 25% (with similar odds).

I know it sounds a bit like the fairies at the bottom of the garden only show themselves to those that believe, but I thought it was interesting and I don't think anyone has tried to replicated it. I think lack of funding stopped the project proceding and ESP fell out of favour as a valid research topic.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Sheldrake and his morpho-woo has come up before. Here's what PZ said the last time around. (The Wikipedia article mentioned in that post has been much improved since.)

I'm interested because Sheldrake and his audience seem to be completely oblivious to the progress that has been made in real science. He rarely if ever mentions homeobox genes and when he does he claims that they somehow switch "morphic fields" on and off.

"Morphic resonance" is still the powerful non-explanation that it was in 1981. Sheldrake doesn't do experiments in evolutionary and developmental biology even though this was suppoosedly the problem that lead him to develop(?) his non-theory. "Morphic resonance" is also supposed to explain the structure of molecules and galaxies but Sheldrake chooses to do experiments with psychic dogs and people who think they are being stared at.

I thought a comparison of the successes of real science and that of "morphic resonance" would be enlightening. I might also learn a bit more about evolutionary and developmental biology!

By Chris Noble (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Nick Gotts #38, be careful you don't fall off your high horse. I happen to think the stabbing was a particularly serious incident and one that (besides taking note of the attackers unstable behavior prior to the event) is pretty hard to predict. The point is that those who believe in telepathy postulate that such unpredictable events CAN be deduced by some unknown mechanism. While we cannot say that this should occur every time a supposedly 'telepathic' or 'psychic' individual faces such an event is it somehow rude or distasteful to ask why they NEVER seem to be aware of such impending disasters? Why was there no march of psychics through Washington and New York on the 10th of September 2001 demanding action to prevent the next days attacks?
Why do you even need to book appointments with them when you want to meet them?

PZ, I was wondering if you'd take a side tripe with me. Won't take but a moment, and it involves a matter that puzzles me.

It has to do with your listing the sasquatch along with Moon landing denial and ufo claims. It also involves a question which, at first glance, has nothing to do with bigfoot, but a bit of pondering should establish the connection.

My question is this: Are bears, of any species, capable of manipulating objects as a gorilla does?

Alan Kellogg - In the absence of PZ, I'll risk answering your question: no. Nearest is the giant panda (a bear according to current taxonomy), which has evolved a protruding wrist bone - the radial sesamoid IIRC - which it uses to hold its bamboo stalks. This is the "Panda's thumb". The tracks of any bear are easily distinguished from those of any ape, because they (bears) have the largest toe on the outside of the foot.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Nick Gotts: "I have some background in computing and logic, and so tend to use "or" in an inclusive sense, so "A or B", means "A or B or both""

Except that you also wrote: "*either* a fool or a fraud", the either states that an exclusive choice must be made. It is what the word means. If you had written: 'is a fool or a fraud' your inclusive 'or' would be plausible. However you used *either*, so it isn't.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

Peter Ashby@97. I disagree.

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 08 Jun 2008 #permalink

I'm pretty sure that in normal English you will find "either ... or" in both an exclusive and an inclusive sense and that neither is wrong, as such. That is why we don't do logic in a natural language. As a mathematician I would say it is still exclusive, as in the classic mathmo sentence "I'll either go to the movie or stay at home, but not both".

By Matt Heath (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

"The plural of anecdote is not data." - Roger Brinner

I'm not sure I agree with this common trope, actually. Surely if you collected 1,000 anecdotes from 1,000 different people and analyzed them, that would in fact be data. For example, sexual discrimination in the workpplace: ask 1,000 employees at a company for personal recollections of being promoted or not and the circumstances surrounding that, etc. Those 1,000 anecdotes are now the basis of you dissertation in sociology, no?

Of course, you need a good "n" value and a system of analysis before all your anecdotes add up to "data", but if a number of people all tell the same story, it's worth looking into at least why they percieve what they are reporting.

Many years ago one of the School Clubs I was a member of investigated telepathy. There was a shuffled pack of symbol cards, a "transmitter" and note taker in one room, and a "receiver" and note taker in a different room. The various roles were shuffled around between different "runs". Comparison of the "transmitted" and "received" symbols showed no correspondence beyond chance. A negative result and a boring anecdote, but counts against the "morphic field" hypothesis.

Around the same time me and my best friend would play Monopoly all summer holidays (a single game, with slightly modified rules). On a few memorable occasions when I needed a double six to win a lot of Monopoly money I would get a feeling of certainty that my dice throw would result in a double six. Some times I even said so in advance. Spooky, chance, statistical awareness, selective memory, or some other factor? Who knows? But one more interesting anecdote which could count towards the "morphic field" hypothesis.

Tricky things memory and belief. But like some of the other blog comments, I can't help feeling that our behaviour would be different if there was any substance to Sheldrakes claims (and yes I did read his early book, and yes it was cherry picking data to fit his hypothesis).

By DiscoveredJoys (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Tyler @ 71 wrote:

"..I've always understood the 'extraordinary claims' motif as being a more artful and concise way of saying that 'claims of something at wild variance with ordinary experience warrant heightened skepticism.' On a purely epistemological level, I find it hard to dispute that, although there are probably many philosophical notpicks [sic] I'm unfamiliar with."

Tyler, you are correct. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is just rhetorical flourish. What Sagan was getting at was what you elucidate above. Taking the sentence apart bit by literal bit completely misses the forest for the trees, so to speak. Since I is next to O on the QWERTY keyboard, I'll not nitpick with your spelling but assume it was an innocent typo ;-)

Wow, my first taste of the infamous VD. WTF is a science fetishist? Do they linger their tongues lovingly over their lab equipment?

Geesh, what a pompous, nasty, empty-headed dipshit VD is. Off to put an ice pack on my head to quell the pain and play with a kitten to get my joie vivre back.

Thanks Nova for the links. I watched both videos. In 3 hours, there wasn't a single sequence where Sheldrake opened his mouth and didn't attempt to be "unconventional". In the end, he just comes across as tedious, predictable, and neurotic.

Nick Gotts, #96

All quite true, bears do not have the equipment necessary to manipulate items as a gorilla does. Of course, obtaining that answer was not my sole motivation, i have one that is yet more sinister and duplicitous. :)

It's also a tad off-topic for this thread, just thought I'd raise questions in PZ's mind. :D

Otherwise the stock market, horse racing, etc. would be dominated by seers, to the point that they'd have to be closed down since no one else could win.

No, not if it only gave a marginal advantage. For example, the equivalent of a light sensing patch of skin as opposed to a lensed camera like eye. The fact that the psychic ability is not 100% reliable is not disproof of its existence. This also applies to Penn Jillet's impassioned objection to Nostradamus supposedly predicting the 9/11 attack (and the comment above about where were the psychics on 9/10/2001) Assuming for a minute that Nostradamus did indeed have visions of the future, surely he would have no idea what most of what he was seeing really was. Also, it is unlikely that each would have a little timestamp down in the corner to tell him when the events were taking place. So, the fact that we can only recognize a prophecy after the fact is not disproof that prophecy is possible.

I do not for a minute think that it is possible, just that this is not a good argument against it.

Surely if you collected 1,000 anecdotes from 1,000 different people and analyzed them, that would in fact be data. For example, sexual discrimination in the workpplace: ask 1,000 employees at a company for personal recollections of being promoted or not and the circumstances surrounding that, etc. Those 1,000 anecdotes are now the basis of you dissertation in sociology, no?

A systematic interview process is what makes it no longer a collection of anectdotes. What is meant by anectdote is stories from self-selected individuals with no statistical control. The fact that it is a personal experience does not mean it cannot be data. The difference between a collection of anectdotes and "data" is the collection method, not the personal experience itself.

When my son was younger, anytime the subject of psychics or anything paranormal would come up I Would tell him or his friends that I really had psychic powers and could read their minds. When the child would say "k, what am I thinking?" I would always reply with something along the lines of 'you think I can't do it" or "you think I am full of crap". It works well over half the time and they all figure out after a while that I knew they wouldnt belive me about being psychic. When I tried it on my daughter, she replied "no dad, I'm thinking Arby's"
As far as the phone thing. I have some close friends and family who I talk with at least once a week. Sometimes I think about them alot. every once in a while they call when I am thinking of them. I think it falls well within the odds. I have also had other weird stuff happen like slowing down for a green light then having a car run it from one of the sides. when most likely I saw a car moving from the corner of my eye and slowed down without thinking about it.
Real proof of psychic powers to me would be winning the powerball 3 times in a row, only buying one ticket each drawing.

I once had someone read my mind. I was 13 at the time and was out camping in Montana with a teacher of ours, a really cool woman who spent a log of her free time hiking by herself in the wilderness, busting broncos and hanging out on Native American Reservations. We were talking about something, my mind wandered off on a different track, and I started to ask her (out of the blue) what she thought about children brought up by wild animals. Before I could finish the sentence, she said, "Children brought up by wolves? I think it's fascinating".

It may well have been intuition on her part. I don't remember what we had been talking about before I started thinking about children brought up by animals, but it may have been Kipling (which led to the Jungle Book in my mind). She may have subconsciously followed my train of thought even as she was already talking about a different topic. My memory might also be playing tricks on me after 30 years. But if it was intuition, it was intuition on such a high level that it was just as amazing as telepathy. I mean, she spoke with complete confidence. When I asked her how she knew, she just said that sort of thing happened to her sometimes, as if it was nothing special.

It's also true that she said "wolves" instead of "wild animals", so she may well have been following my train of thought only as far as the Jungle Book and Mowgli.

As far as mechanisms go, I don't know enough about the topic, but I was thinking that, since the nervous system generates an electrical field, wouldn't it be possible for one person's brain to pick up and decode what another person was thinking? Assuming the two were in somewhat close physical proximity? I mean, we do have the ability to detect brain impulses through electrodes attached to the scalp and translate those impulses into instructions. Again, I don't know enough about this. It just seems less crazy to me than a lot of other claims.

By Mark Borok (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

It's all just human, romantic, wish-fulfillment thinking, is all. (Yeah, and it's a continuous danger to us all.)

I have read science fiction since the age of eight, and I would love, LOVE it if there were flying saucers and humanoid aliens we would talk with. But as someone who reads and follows science I know what most science fiction authors know, that flying saucers and humanoid-shaped aliens with comprehensible languages are just far, far too unlikely to exist, given the strange things we keep finding out about the universe.

What we need taught in schools is the ability to consciously know what our deepest desires are, and the knowledge that we, as individuals and as members of the human species, are just not that important to Universe; these two things would allow people to be aware of their fantasy-wishes, to know the liklihood of their being true (virtually nil) and so live and work in society far less dangerously.

Not so elegantly put, I fear -- maybe someone else can do better?

I don't think that the argument from evolutionary advantage actually works if morphic fields/resonance are as old as life itself. Instead of arguing for a few high grade telepaths (as conventionally thought of, with results worked out by PKD in The Golden Man), Sheldrake seems to be arguing for everyone having a very low grade power. But so does everything else that is alive, so it is actually no advantage to predator or prey. The rabbit is just as psychic as the owl, so their arms race proceeds on a different set of characters.

Pushed into the realm of inanimate matter, it becomes the woo version of the cosmic background radiation, pervasive, and anisotropic - so universal it is undetectable, like God.

I mean, we do have the ability to detect brain impulses through electrodes attached to the scalp and translate those impulses into instructions.
Just because we have the technology to do that does not mean it is in any way easy to do it. In fact it is rather quite difficult, the signals being measured are extrememely weak and need lots of processing to filter from noise.

I think Sheldrake really meant that a lot of people have had experience with telephony. When my dog starts calling me just as I am about to go home from work, I'll take Sheldrake seriously.

Most humans are "success remembered". They have all these anecdotes such as; "One time I said before X baseball player came to bat. I know he's going to hit a home run."
All the incorrect predictions are forgotten (99%) in place of the (1%) correct predictions.

By P.C.Chapman (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Nick Gotts I notice you made no points, no arguments, introduced no evidence. Therefore your disagreement is nothing more than hot air. You are therefore still wrong.

Try again.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

We were talking about something, my mind wandered off on a different track, and I started to ask her (out of the blue) what she thought about children brought up by wild animals. Before I could finish the sentence, she said, "Children brought up by wolves? I think it's fascinating".

As opposed to what, horses? Dolphins? Mice? Sounds less like The Dead Zone and more like Family Feud.

By Citizen Z (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

I wonder if someone here on this forum believes that beauty exists? On what grounds?

One other comment- why should this topic bring out so much sneering and general aggression? I think the brain is jealous- every one in their heart, not in their brain, senses more than a simple material random junk pile in this life.

Yes, you are deeply threatened by this. As you should be!

By John Doyle (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

I see some people are commenting along the lines of "silly Sheldrake -- if telepathy were real then you'd expect non-human animals to be doing it too, ha ha". Unfortunately, it turns out that Sheldrake believes pretty much that. For instance, he's claimed, apparently seriously, that pets have some mysterious ability to determine when their owners will return home.

I'm not sure whether the VD infection has cleared up now, but in case it hasn't: VD: (1) Yes, as it happens I *do* know what I'm talking about. Isn't it nice to know that one of us does? (2) It is not wrong to use vaguely specified quantitative terms such as "extraordinary", and neither doing so nor saying that such terms are shorthand for statements about probability "suggests a level of accuracy that you simply can't provide", and it's fatuous to suggest otherwise. (3) I do not feel the slightest obligation to agree with what you say "a few folks" on your blog say. (4) Scientific evidence is not different in kind from other evidence, but it happens that science provides far and away the best techniques we have for acquiring evidence of known quality, and therefore in particular if you sincerely want to find out whether something is supported by "extraordinary evidence" scientific investigation is often the best way. (5) I define "better" in terms of likelihood ratios, or whatever approximations to those are actually available. (6) Evidence even weaker than Sheldrake's leads people to believe (non-extraordinary) things all the time, and (since getting better evidence takes effort) rightly so. But very weak evidence can't justify very confident belief, which means that you should usually demand good evidence for things that matter a lot even if they aren't extraordinary.

About why those low low probabilities are so low, there's a very nice post at http://cosmicvariance.com/2008/02/18/telekinesis-and-quantum-field-theo… that describes in detail why a different paranormal power (Gellerian spoon-bending) couldn't be real without well-studied bits of physics being very wrong indeed.

I wonder if someone here on this forum believes that beauty exists? On what grounds?

The concept "beauty" certainly exists in human mind. We could prove that by discussing it. It is, however, a subjective human concept, not something that can be empirically measured. What we could measure is what different humans perceive as beautiful.

One other comment- why should this topic bring out so much sneering and general aggression?

Sheldrake is a liar. Lying tends to evoke hostile, angry responses.

People who are stupid enough to believe Sheldrake deserve to be sneered at.

I think the brain is jealous- every one in their heart, not in their brain, senses more than a simple material random junk pile in this life.

My heart doesn't sense anything, it just pumps blood.

I think the vague "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" trope is usually pulled out to contrast the difference between repeatable scientific evidence and story-telling. Most people who believe in paranormal, pseudoscientific, or religious claims do so on the strength of "eye-witness testimony" -- someone telling their experience, and interpreting it for themselves. As others have mentioned, this may be what's ordinarily considered good-enough evidence in social situtations, but isn't enough to establish psychic abilities.

John Doyle #118 wrote:

I wonder if someone here on this forum believes that beauty exists? On what grounds?

Depends on what you mean by "beauty." If by "Beauty" you mean a form of spiritual energy vibrating through the field of consciousness or something, then no. But abstractions, emotions, responses, and patterns exist even in a "material" universe. Don't be a greedy reductionist.

Sheldrake is claiming to do science, he's doing it poorly, and thus he's wide open to hostile criticism. We don't need to defend that, or explain it. On the contrary, his supporters need to explain why they apparently think his views should be treated with anything less.

To go back to the continental drift comment; drift was rejected because the mechanism was not known and there seemed to be no current evidence of continental movement. It was thought that moving continents would be like ships and throw up a bow wave as they sailed along. I took a graduate level geology course in 1959 where half a semester was spent debunking continental drift. No not-generally-accepted phenomenon is going to make much headway until a reasonable mechanism is proposed.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Wow, an appeal to one's own experience. How scientific. If only James Randi would stop being so closed minded and gave the million dollar prize to this guy who obviously sees the importance of personal experience...

This is just as bad as the "evidence for God is using your heart", yet they still wonder why they don't have any credibility in academia.

Apropos of nothing, I've done a thought experiment that could explain a form of "telepathy." There are certain sea predators, let's say an eel, that detect electrical signals from their prey, let's use a guppy. So, if we could ignore muscle's electrical signals (which I'm sure are much "louder" than the brain's) and focus on the brain's, perhaps the eel could evolve the ability to sense, via the guppy brain's synapses firing, whether the guppy is going left or right.

BAM! We have a psychic eel.

Personally, I'm hoping we get a built in iPod holder in Human 2.1

@#118 John Doyle --

I think the brain is jealous- every one in their heart, not in their brain, senses more than a simple material random junk pile in this life.

Yeah! Actually, just the other day, my medulla got so jealous of my heart that it threatened to cease cardiac signaling altogether. Scary stuff.

Of far more value is Rupert Sheldrake's concept of "morphogenetic fields," which pervade the universe. After one person has figured out how to ddo something, this field makes it easier for others to do the same thing. But its major focus lies in the development of life.

Why is this of more value to us? Because it is an alternative to Darwinian evolution! So the next time a creationist puts forth the false dichotomy of evolution and ID, you can spring Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields on him. (So the field is a crackpot idea---what is ID?)

Sheldrake's book, a copy of which rests in my collection of pseudoscience tomes, right along with "Hollow Earth" and "Too Hot to Handle" (cold fusion) is "A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation" (J.P. Tarcher, 1981).

I think Dr. Sheldrake actually has some interesting ideas. The telephone telepathy experiments don't rely on anecdotal information--you do a simple experiment where you guess which of four randomly-selected acquaintances is calling. He claims highly significant results when using familiar callers (interestingly, not strangers) [http://www.sheldrake.org/papers/Telepathy/exptests_abs.html].

We don't know much about how the brain actually functions. Dr. Robert Jahn (Dean Emeritus, Princeton Engineering & Applied Science) studied woo stuff for years in the PEAR lab at Princeton [http://www.princeton.edu/~pear/jahn.html]. He claimed that they found measurable "anomalous effects" (e.g., trying to influence the outcome of an electronic random number generator)--but they are very weak, so you'll not change your odds in Vegas by trying to influence the outcomes with your mind!

Sheldrake has a PhD from Cambridge in biochemistry, so I think he knows something about biology and the scientific process. I give him credit for thinking (way) outside the box.

"Morphogenetic Field"

What is that? Wonder if that's related to "thinking makes it so"?

What a WEIRD moniker. "Morph-" and "genetic". Referring to...what exactly?

Ooooh, but it sounds so technically sexy and sophisticated. That's all Rupert needs to go flying with it.

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

arp #127:

1. "I think Dr. Sheldrake actually has some interesting ideas."

2. "He claims highly significant results when using familiar callers (interestingly, not strangers)"

3. "He claimed that they found measurable "anomalous effects"...but they are very weak, so you'll not change your odds in Vegas by trying to influence the outcomes with your mind!"

4. "I give him credit for thinking (way) outside the box."

Thanks for a magnificent laugh!

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

bigjohn756 #42: "If we had telepathy then we wouldn't need telephones."

Hell, if we had telepathy we wouldn't have evolved language...and unless "we" were (all collectively) insane, the world would now be peaceful (or, at least, somewhat more coherent) under the influence of a single mind. No lies, no secrets, no political strategies...just a "me" instead of a "we".

What an exhaustively boring and lonely existence it would have been!

Telepathy to me is a wildly funny idea. It insists that minds communicate WITHOUT means. (Never mind that they occasionally pretend to serve up pseudo-mechanisms such as "morphogenetic fields" - that kind of thing is just a response dreamed up quell skeptics). But what's the problem? Why not simply acknowledge what the actual means already do? What d'ya know? Communication DOES exist: it's called language. Whoa. It really works. Must be something to that!

Same with ideas like "telekinesis". THAT insists that we can move objects (or alter or otherwise interfere with their natural behavior) WITHOUT any means. But why not simply acknowledge what the ACTUAL means already do? AMAZING BUT TRUE! It's MIRACULOUS!!! We CAN move objects around with our minds, by employing our muscles (governed by neuronal impulses and our sophisticated intentions) and our brain-child devices such as machinery, etc. THAT'S INCREDIBLE!

Quick! Write up a paper to publish in the very next issue of Mumbo Jumbo Journal of Extremely Fasionable 'Out-of-the-Box' Concepts. It will be New and Exciting! It will be a hit!!!

There is something oddly interesting that ties all of the claims of this ilk together, and it all boils down to the idea that the natural methods and mechanisms OUTSIDE the head are regarded as falling short of what the imagination performs INSIDE the head. It comes about from a basic frustration over the discovery that we can't control or influence the world outside of our heads as readily and effectively as we can control or influence our imaginary model-making fantasies.

Boo-friggin'-hoo.

All of that crap - telepathy, telekinesis, extra-sensory perception, clairvoyance, divination, supernaturalism, mysticism, sorcery, occultism, spiritualism, religious superstition and a thousand other wishful preoccupations - stems from a chronic inability of many people to observe the crucial distinction between what goes on inside their heads and what happens outside their heads. They pursue their obsession because it's so much easier to manipulate one's thoughts and imaginary scenarios than it is to influence the outside world - and they fervently wish to hold dominion over the external world with the same ease as they imagine they hold sway over their own minds.

The funny part of all of this incredibly wasted human effort is that all of it is performed and communicated EXCLUSIVELY under the aegis of real-world natural mechanisms - without which there would be no such thing as mental fantasy run amok either. (Occam's Razor strikes again).

By Arnosium Upinarum (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Yeah! Actually, just the other day, my medulla got so jealous of my heart that it threatened to cease cardiac signaling altogether. Scary stuff. - Etha Williams

I know what you mean. My brain is so jealous it's been trying to persuade my mouth to fur up my arteries and overload my liver for years!

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Peter Ashby@116. I really didn't think your quibbling worthy of more of a response, but since you insist. Suppose a political commentator says:
"The government will have to either raise taxes, or cut public spending", are they excluding the possibility that they might do a bit of both?

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink

Nick Gotts the way it is written, yes. That is what the words say. In practical reality of course not. But try arguing that in law or science or anywhere words have to actually mean specific things and you will be wrong. I am sorry if I took you claim to work in logic to mean that you realised that words have meanings to which they refer.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

Peter Ashby,

So X says "The government will have to either raise taxes, or cut public spending", everyone understands, as you admit they will, that they are not excluding the "bit of both" possibility, but you have the authority to tell them they are all wrong, the words don't mean what they were intended to mean and what everyone hearing them understood them to mean?

Here's a parallel one from science: "If the island gets colder, this population of mammals will evolve either thicker coats, or more subcutaneous fat."

Here's one from law: "M'lud, my client contends that the builder should have either come back and improved the exterior finish, or reduced his bill."
Or maybe you think the client would have complained if the builder had done both?

I did not say I worked in logic.

Words do not refer to meanings, they have meanings. See, I can quibble too.

I tell you what, Peter. Next chance I get, I'll make some obvious howler, which I'll mark for you by adding three exclamation marks. Then you can send a comment pointing out the error, and I'll send a response such as:
"Oh, how silly of me. Thanks very much Peter. You're so much cleverer than me."
Will that adequately sooth the wounded ego?

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

As opposed to what, horses? Dolphins? Mice? Sounds less like The Dead Zone and more like Family Feud.

If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that I said "What do you think about children brought up by..." and she supplied "wolves" as the last word in the sentence. As I recall, I actually said, "What do you think about..." and she completed the sentence, "Children brought up by wolves". I would not have been so surprised if she had simply guessed wolves.

By Mark Borok (not verified) on 10 Jun 2008 #permalink

arp at #127:

Sheldrake has a PhD from Cambridge in biochemistry, so I think he knows something about biology and the scientific process. I give him credit for thinking (way) outside the box

Unfortunately, regardless of Sheldrake's knowledge of biochemistry, his ignorance of biology and the scientific method is fairly total. In one of his early books, Sheldrake gaily asserts that biology is unable to explain why ostrich chicks develop calluses on their knees while still inside the egg. He thinks that his could not possibly be due to natural selection because the calluses are no use while the chick is in the egg. So it must be morphic resonance! Anybody who can't work out how natural selection works in this circumstance is clearly scientifically illiterate. Sheldrake is a tosspot.

Sam C@136. That's the very example used in the first explanation of the Baldwin Effect I ever came across! How extraordinary that Sheldrake should choose the same example! Must be morphic resonance at work ;-)

By Nick Gotts (not verified) on 11 Jun 2008 #permalink

As I'm reading this, I'm trying to understand the anger here. There are many things I don't believe but I don't troll the internet looking for those topics to vent vitriol. Why so much anger from a group of academic minded people?

By Matthew Clapp (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

"As I'm reading this, I'm trying to understand the anger here. There are many things I don't believe but I don't troll the internet looking for those topics to vent vitriol. Why so much anger from a group of academic minded people?"

Unchecked some beliefs lead to this:
http://abcnews.go.com/Health/DiabetesResource/story?id=4536593

Muddled or just plain erroneous thinking needs to be tackled, on the net especially.

By Hugh Troy (not verified) on 14 Mar 2009 #permalink