The Nutty Professor - Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and Telephone Telepathy.

According to Wikipedia Dr. Sheldrake once taught biology at Cambridge University before moving to India and joining a Hindu hermitage with mystic Swami Dayananda. Afterwards he moved back to London and late last year he was appointed to the Perrott-Warwick Scholarship for psychical research and parapsychology by the otherwise excellent Trinity College of Cambridge. Oddly enough, searching the Trinity College website turns up no mention of Dr. Sheldrake or the Perrott-Warwick scholarship, or any mention of psychical or parapsychological research.

Dr. Sheldrake is lately in the news for his announcement about Telephone Telepathy at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He presented to attendants at this meeting his evidence that people know who is calling them when the phone rings. According to the Yahoo news article:
Each person in the trials was asked to give researchers names and phone numbers of four relatives or friends. These were then called at random and told to ring the subject who had to identify the caller before answering the phone.
"The hit rate was 45 percent, well above the 25 percent you would have expected,"
...
However, his sample was small on both trials -- just 63 people for the controlled telephone experiment and 50 for the email -- and only four subjects were actually filmed in the phone study and five in the email, prompting some skepticism.
Undeterred, Sheldrake -- who believes in the interconnectedness of all minds within a social grouping -- said that he was extending his experiments to see if the phenomenon also worked for mobile phone text messages.
Notice that Dr. Sheldrake didn't address the problem of a too small sample size for his experiment, and instead immediately widened the experiment to include different tests. This is not a sign of good science! This isn't the first time Dr. Sheldrake has been accused of making unwarranted claims based on improper methodology. CSICOP took Dr. Sheldrake to task and debunked his Psychic Staring Effect experiment - where he claimed to show that people could tell, better than random chance, when someone was staring at them.

Dr. Sheldrake also wrote a book called, "Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals" (Amazon link) In this book he attempts to show that dogs can somehow psychically 'tell' when their owners are coming home. The methodology described by Dr. Sheldrake shows that he didn't even attempt to create a 'double blind' experiment, where neither owners, dogs, nor observers knew when the owner was coming home. Instead he allowed the owners of these dogs to record the observations of their pets. He again used a very small sample size.

Dr. Sheldrake meets several of the seven warning signs of bogus science published by Dr. Robert Park. (I quoted this list before in my Steorn blog entry.)
  • Instead of publishing to peer-reviewed media, Dr. Sheldrake writes popular books and makes claims and announcements pitched to the media.
  • His results are based on a small sample size, which is at the very limit of detection of effects.
  • He bases some of his conclusions on anecdotal evidence (for example, allowing a dog's owner to record their observations.)
  • He claims that Quantum Theory can explain psychic phenomena, which is a proposed new law of nature since Quantum Theory describes the subatomic, not macroscopic, universe.
  • He works in some isolation, well outside the mainstream science community.
Dr. Sheldrake does seem to consider himself somewhat of a skeptic, and is published at the Skeptical Investigations website. This isn't really unusual since the website is actually registered to Dr. Sheldrake. According to Dr. Robert Carroll, author of Skeptic's Dictionary, Skeptical Investigations only seems skeptical about skeptics who don't agree with the authors on their website. Authors on this website, according to Dr. Carroll, believe that science should be redefined so that it includes the paranormal and the supernatural.

What I find most interesting about Dr. Sheldrake's supposed skepticism is his refusal to cooperate with noted skeptic James Randi in Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. Instead of cooperation, Dr. Sheldrake has instead decided to belittle Mr. Randi, and has in Randi's words,
... expressed his fear about associating serious scientific research with a reward of this sort. Well, it's hardly unusual for a monetary prize to be offered to the first person to demonstrate some phenomenon or solve some problem in science. Does the name Alfred Nobel sound familiar?
I've got news for Dr. Sheldrake, I actually DO know who is calling me on my cell phone almost every time it rings. My success rate approaches 90 percent. It's called 'Caller ID', which is based on engineering and technology, which is in turn based upon science.

Science works - pseudoscience doesn't work.

9 comments:

Vickie said...

You know, it is a capital mistake to LIE about something when you can be so easily found out, sir. A very brief look at the Trinity College website reveals the following:

29th Nov 2006 17:30 Academic Perrott-Warrick Debate Perrott-Warrick Scholar Dr Rupert Sheldrake and Professor Chris French, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, will debate "DOES TELEPATHY HAPPEN?" Chaired by Professor Simon Blackburn. All are welcome (Old Combination Room).

Here is the page that this came from:
http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/index.php?pageid=45&ccatid=&previous=1&offset=75

There is also a link on the above page to Dr. Sheldrake's website. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't it seem likely that the College would know who is, and who is not, a member of its alumni? Why -- what a novel idea! It's a shame that you didn't take more than a second to look at Trinity's site. On second thought, maybe you didn't lie -- you were just lazy, and you didn't want to find Dr. Sheldrake on the College's site, so of course you didn't. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Calladus said...

Thank you for the information, Vickie. The searches that I preformed on the web site server last year never turned up the name of Sheldrake.

I still haven't found the university's department that deals with parapsychology. Are their any university sponsored peer reviewed papers on parapsychology? Perhaps I missed these too.

As for debates - they are not science and ultimately prove nothing.

Vickie said...

I haven't yet looked to see if there is an actual department of parapsychology.

Sorry if I got a bit hot under the collar. I don't know Dr. Sheldrake personally, but I have read some of his work & have seen him in some video interviews, and I have the distinct impression that he is very sincere in his beliefs. I understand that you didn't spot any info on him when you originally looked at the Trinity site. It's just a *very* serious thing to accuse someone of lying about his academic credentials. You really should watch that.

As for a debate proving anything -- no, of course it doesn't. However, I believe that it is possible for scientists to be just as close-minded as religious zealots, so again, I'd be careful about waving the flag of "science" a little too vigorously. It is one thing to try your best not to be gullible (and to take things with a grain of salt). It is quite another thing to close your mind in the name of scienc in order to totally discount ideas that are not currently accepted.

Thanks for posting my comments.

richard said...

I've read a lot of Sheldrake's work and listened to him speak on many panels etc. and while it is all very interesting I think the very nature of the work makes it very elusive to scientific scrunity. So I am certainly not convinced of it within a scientific material perspective.

That being said for it to be proven within the realm of science requires not just his work but that of other very ambitious and willing peers who unfortunately are more than likely extremely biased. This is tricky work and hats of to Mr. Sheldrake for pushing it forward in the face of opposition.

I think in the end those who critisise and have not tried these experiments themeselves are really just blowing smoke.

Anonymous said...

I am an atheist and a skeptic, but I can only relate my experience with my now deceased dog, Nikki.

Nikki had been traumatized and also suffered from neurological impairments. I was basically the only human she trusted, and we developed a bond that I will cherish for the rest of my days.

Nikki would tell whenever I was coming home from any number of locations. The difference was that my husband reported her reactions (anticipation, going over to the door and laying down waiting etc.). What was odd was that she would react the moment that I mentally thought "Well, I'm heading home now" to nobody in particular.

It occurred whether I was ten minutes away or 1 1/2 hours drive away from home. It was my thinking of returning home that seemed to trigger her response.

I don't know what it means, only that the bond between myself and this animal was very close and special. The distance between us did not matter, but my thoughts did.

I believe it takes a special dog and human bond for this occurrence, which seems to be very rare.

We did not at any time consider this a study or research. We would simply mark down the times she reacted and when I started the car for home.

I can't explain it to this day.
Sharon Hutchinson

Patrick Turmel said...

Calladus, Vickie had a very strong point. Libel against academic credentials is a very serious action. I am stunned by your statement "As for debates - they are not science and ultimately prove nothing." - debates are linguistic logical equations and its downright silly to denounce debate as that create the SAME close-minded 'self-biased assumption-proven' thinking that is pseudoscientific thinking! So in your world pseudoscience is fought by other pseudoscience?! Side A= "I beleive X" & Side B= " I do not beleive X", same methodology for both sides- ridiculous. As far as "
I still haven't found the university's department that deals with parapsychology." - if you thought scientifically you should know that lack of proof is not a form of proof. That is called in logic "Argument by Ignorance". It seems this is applied liberally to your writings. I do not know if Sheldrake's works are accurate or true, as such I can not say one way or the other, but being a scientist ( yes, that's right- PhD & Professor of Cognitive Science: Université Laval, Canada. ) I will not deny all validity based on nebulous comprehension, or a lack of understanding on MY part.
If you would like to be "scientific" prove your points- (btw: read up on logical fallacies so you won't reduce your own arguments more than those you oppose! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logical_fallacies#Material_fallacies)
Have a nice day!
~Patrick Turmel, PhD.

Calladus said...

lack of proof is not a form of proof.

Exactly.

Byron said...

I'm probably late to this party, but I have a couple of comments. I read through Dr. Sheldrake's paper at:

http://www.sheldrake.org/papers/Telepathy/experiment_tests.pdf

The first issue that struck me was the following statement in the methodology:

"If the randomly-selected caller was not available, the trial was cancelled."

I would contend that a) The call receiver would more often choose a caller that the call receiver was more familiar with or closer to, and b) Callers who were not close or more familiar with the call receiver would would have a higher probability of canceling, or not being available. If the above two speculations are true, then it would create a statistical bias for the call receiver guessing the people they are familiar with. If all the raw data was available this could be checked.

My second issues is that I'm not convinced that Dr. Sheldrake sufficiently addresses the issue of session cancelation ("optional stopping"). I think it would have been more appropriate for the call receivers to not have any confirmation of a success or failure from the caller. So, the caller would make the call, the call receiver would then make the guess, but the two would never speak to each other.

Calladus said...

Dr. Turmel, debate is not a “linguistic logical equation”. What you describe is an argument in formal logic, often backed up by mathematical expression and syllogism. Debate uses different formal rules and is based upon the art of persuasion. When Sheldrake (and others) ask to “debate” with scientists, they expect to do so in front of a general audience, thereby swaying them via form and charisma.

However, even a “linguistic logical equation” can describe something that is not true. Even the more rigid math and logic used in physics can describe things that are not real. Theoretical physics is an excellent example of this principle – past theorists have sometimes “proven” things in theory that are not true in reality. This is where experimental evidence is necessary. Just because an expression is a “logical equation” doesn’t mean that it corresponds to reality.

You are absolutely right that lack of proof is not a form of proof – however it IS a lack of proof, and any argument based upon that lack is nullified. If you believe otherwise, then let me assure you that the Invisible Pink Unicorn, god of the universe and disinterested creator of you and I has told me personally that you are wrong.

I am glad that you wish me to improve my ability to recognize logical fallacies. I’m working to improve myself in this regard. From your text, I can see that you’ve used the “appeal to authority” fallacy as applied to yourself, and that your argument about proof is a “burden of proof” fallacy.

As for the “argument from ignorance” fallacy – you have misapplied it. I do not, and DID NOT assert that Sheldrake’s claims are false because they cannot be proved. I DID claim that his methods are highly suspect and that he meets many criteria that other scientists say usually indicates poor science. You should read Dr. Feynman’s excellent essay on “Cargo Cult Science” and note the similarities between Sheldrake and the things that Feynman warns against. In falsely applying “argument from ignorance” you are actually guilty of an “ad hominem” fallacy.

Now, I will admit that I wrote this Sheldrake entry in haste. It was my first exposure to Sheldrake. I did read one of his papers on dog telepathy (I no longer recall where I found that, possibly on his website). His website, “Skeptical Investigations” seemed to me to be rife with paranoia and conspiracy. I’ve found him uninteresting, except for his cult-like following of vehement supporters, and have given him little thought since I first wrote this.

But let me give it a little thought now.

1. Dr. Sheldrake is a tenured professor. This means little to me, because after attending 5 different colleges I’ve experienced enough weird tenured professors to doubt that they are all playing with a full deck. Perhaps we should compare Dr. Sheldrake to homeopathy promoter Dr. Rustum Roy, Professor Emeritus at Penn State? Tenured professors are very frequently wrong. Good professors admit this. Bad professors get indignant at the suggestion.

2. If Sheldrake wants to be taken seriously, he must design his experiments so that they may be repeated by experimenters hostile to his ideas. In fact, this is the way that most scientists design their experiments, because no matter how innocuous the experiment, some scientist will be hostile to it. This is part of the “game” of science and peer-review that is part of the scientific method, a method that is self-correcting despite the personalities involved.

3. Sheldrake must find a phenomenon that can be repeated on command, at will. His claim of “morphic resonance” is a null statement, as meaningless as “Luminiferous aether” or “God did it”. Until the phenomena that he believes exists can be precisely measured, and predictions made that can then be tested and confirmed, there is little to conclude. You want to impress me? Measure the speed of telepathy in such a way that it can be measured to the same degree of accuracy by a hostile scientist.

4. There seems to be a disagreement about Sheldrakes methods. The majority of scientists seem to claim his methods are based upon limited trials, non-randomized and non-blinded experiments, and experiments that are subject to bias. Sheldrake disputes this and asserts that he has thousands of widely replicated and well randomized trials. However, all of these seem to be accomplished by Sheldrake, or those working closely with him. There seems to be a high degree of isolation – which is never a good sign in science. To use the “hostile scientist” idea from my second point, I’d trust Sheldrake more if I could see a couple hundred of these experiments as documented in mainstream science journals by scientists not in any way affiliated to Sheldrake. Perhaps these publications already exist, and I’ve just missed them. Could someone direct me to them?


I don’t have a doctorate. I’m just a lowly electrical engineer with education at 5 different universities and colleges. I do recall fondly the laboratory classes I took in physics, biology, and electronics, and I recall how hard my professors rode me. If my chain of logic was weak, or one of my experiments was poorly performed, then I experienced their displeasure.

I understand that at a post-graduate level the level excellence required increases greatly.

Your comment, Dr. Turmel, is obviously flawed in several ways as I’ve pointed out. I would expect better from you.