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Shermer Opening Statement 
As a précis to our second subject of “Mental Action at a Distance” allow me to respond to several points in your third letter as they set the stage for what is to come.
First, throughout our dialogue you have mentioned several times my “libertarian” perspective, which you presume to mean that I should be open minded to ideas outside the mainstream of science, such as your own. In the words of Inigo Montoya (The Princess Bride), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” On this side of the pond, libertarian is a political position affiliated with individual rights and small government; libertarians tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Libertarianism has nothing to do with open mindedness as a feature of human cognition, nor with the “libertarian” position in the free will-
Second, you reference many people in contradistinction to my positions. On the free will-
Third, you cite my friend Lawrence Krauss as a refutation to my claim that “laws of nature” are just descriptions of regularities in nature. Once again, this is not an argument against my position, nor did you defend your own (presumably counter) position. In like manner you cite John Gray’s definition of humanism as a “religion,” and from this you assert that atheism, materialism, and neo-
As well, skeptics are not “crusaders…fighting against infidels and heretics.” We’re critical thinkers applying science and reason to any and all claims. You, for example, are a skeptic of the materialist-
Like most scientists we skeptics assume the null hypothesis that a claim under investigation is not true (null) until proven otherwise, and the burden of proof is on you to provide convincing experimental data to reject the null hypothesis. And this brings me to the topic of our second set of exchanges about mental action at a distance. Take ESP and a simple example I employed in my book The Believing Brain: determining through extra-
So for a proper test we need to run multiple trials in which some rounds may result in slightly below chance (e.g., 22, 23, 24, or 25 hits) and other rounds may result in slightly above chance (e.g., 27, 28, 29, or 30 hits). The variation may be even greater and still due to chance. What we need to determine is the number by which we can confidently reject the null hypothesis. In this example, that number is 35. The subject would need to get 35 correct hits out of a 52-
What might that something else be? It could be ESP. But it could be something else as well. Perhaps our controls were not tight enough. Maybe the subject was getting the card color information by some other normal sensory (as opposed to extra sensory) means of which we’re not aware. I’ve seen magicians do something very similar to this test with a deck of cards in which they do far better than 35 out of 52. They get 52 out of 52. What is the probability of that? It is 100% because it’s a magic trick! That I do not know how the trick is done does not mean that ESP was at work. It just means that we need to be very careful in our controls to insure that we are measuring what we think we are measuring.
This is especially true when we’re attempting to measure effects far more subtle and complex than the color of playing cards, such as your many claims related to morphic resonance: phantom limbs, homing pigeons, crossword puzzles, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and how people know when someone is staring at them. Each of these is a separate effect that may or may not have the same set of causes. Consider the claim that people have a sense of being stared at. First, we have to control for the well-
In 2000, John Colwell from Middlesex University, London, conducted a formal test utilizing your suggested experimental protocol, with 12 volunteers who participated in 12 sequences of 20 stare or no-
And as you well know, when Richard Wiseman attempted to replicate your research, he found that subjects detected stares at rates no better than chance. This led him to believe that for those experiments that did generate statistically significant results there was an experimenter bias problem, which he demonstrated in a collaborative study with Marilyn Schlitz, who is a believer in ESP (Wiseman is a skeptic). They found that when Schlitz did the staring she found statistically significant results, whereas when Wiseman did the staring he found chance results. I found a similar bias effect in a content analysis I did of the 2005 special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies devoted to your research, in which I rated the 14 open-
Pulling back for a historical perspective, ever since organizations such as the Society for Psychical Research were founded in the late nineteenth century thousands of experiments have been run in an attempt to measure ESP and related phenomena. Although I know you disagree, most scientists remain unconvinced by the handful of positive findings, noting that the vast majority of experiments failed to reject the null hypothesis that ESP does not exist. Even experiments that did produce statistically significant effects (meaning that they rejected the null hypothesis) were often fraught with methodological shortcomings. Richard Wiseman and Julie Milton, for example, tested your hypothesis in a study called “Can Animals Detect When Their Owners Are Returning Home?” To your credit you made this test possible after a dog owner (and her dog Jaytee) were featured on a television show as successful examples confirming your hypothesis (that you also published in a paper). But as Wiseman and Milton concluded after instituting tighter controls: “Analysis of the data did not support the hypothesis that Jaytee could psychically detect when his owner was returning home.”
Consider one of the most thorough reviews of this literature ever conducted by the highly respected social scientists Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton, entitled “Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer,” published in the prestigious review journal Psychological Bulletin in 1994. The scientists conducted a meta-
Data. Both the meta-
Theory. The deeper reason scientists remain skeptical of psi—and will even if more significant data are published—is that there is no explanatory theory for how psi works. Until psi proponents can explain how thoughts generated by neurons in the sender’s brain can pass through the skull and into the brain of the receiver, skepticism is the appropriate response. If the data show that there is such a phenomenon as psi that needs explaining (and I am not convinced that they do), then we still need a causal mechanism.
Consider Bem’s more famous 2011 study on psi entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Bem sat subjects in front of a computer screen that displayed two curtains, behind one of which would appear a photograph that was neutral (e.g., a building), negative (e.g., a car accident), or erotic (e.g., sex). Through 36 trials the subjects were to preselect which screen they thought the image would appear behind, after which the computer randomly chose which window to project the image. When the images were neutral the subjects did no better than 50/50 guessing. But when the images that were about to be projected were erotic in nature, the subjects preselected the correct screen 53.1 percent of the time, which Bem reports as statistically significant. Bem calls this “retroactive influence”—erotic images ripple back from the future into the present, or as the comedian Stephen Colbert called it when he featured Bem on his show The Colbert Report, “Extra Sensory Pornception.” When Colbert pressed Bem for an explanation for how such time reversal could possibly work, the scientist confessed “we have no idea,” but then suggested quantum physics as a possible mechanism. Once again, there are many reasons to be skeptical, six to be precise.
(1) The journal also published in the same issue a paper by the psychologist Eric-
(2) Bem’s study is an example of what I call negative evidence: if science cannot determine the causes of X through normal means then X must be the result of paranormal causes. Ray Hyman, who has devoted his career to carefully analyzing serious psi research, calls this issue the “patchwork quilt problem” in which “anything can count as psi, but nothing can count against it.” That is, “If you can show that there is a significant effect and you can’t find any normal means to explain it, then you can claim psi.” That is not a valid conclusion, however, especially when dealing with such extraordinary claims as ESP.
(3) Paranormal effects, which are rarely detected at all, are always so subtle and fleeting as to be useless for anything practical, such as predicting the future, locating missing persons, gambling, investing, and so on.
(4) A small but consistent effect might be significant (for example, in gambling or investing), but according to Ray Hyman, Bem’s 3% above-
(5) Experimental inconsistencies plague such research. For example, Hyman notes that in Bem’s Experiment 1 the first 40 subjects were exposed to equal numbers of erotic, neutral, and negative pictures, but then Bem changed the experiment in midstream and for the remaining subjects just compared erotic pictures with an unspecified mix of all types of pictures. Plus, it turns out that Bem’s fifth experiment was conducted before his first, which raises the possibility that there might be a post-
(6) Perhaps they missed what York University psychologist James Alcock found in another paper that Bem wrote entitled “Writing the Empirical Journal Article” (posted on his Web page), in which Bem instructs students: “Think of your data set as a jewel. Your task is to cut and polish it, to select the facets to highlight, and to craft the best setting for it. Many experienced authors write the results section first.”
In other words, Bem began with what he presumed to be true and then worked backward to find the data to fit it. This is called the confirmation bias, and it has plagued psi research for over a century. Thus it is I remain skeptical.
Notes to Shermer’s Opening Statement
1. pp. 334–336.
2. Wiseman, Richard and Marilyn Schlitz (1997) “Experimenter Effects and the Remote Detection of Staring,” Journal of Parapsychology 61: 197–207.
3. Freeman, Anthony, ed. (2005) “Sheldrake and His Critics: The Sense of Being Glared At,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(6).
4. 115: 4–18.
5. Hyman, Ray (1994) “Anomaly or Artifact? Comments on Bem and Honorton,” Psychological Bulletin, 115: 19–24.
6. Milton, Julie and Richard Wiseman (1999) “Does Psi Exist? Lack of Replication of an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer,” Psychological Bulletin, 125: 387–391.
When it comes to science, you are not only conservative, as you admit, but also authoritarian. If the science establishment is for it, you are for it. If the science establishment is against it, you are against it.
But when it comes to the US political system, as a libertarian you want less government and more individual freedom and autonomy. The reason I referred to your libertarian stance was because I hoped that your belief in freedom might also apply to science. After all, much institutional science is a branch of big government. The US government spends about $135 billion a year on scientific research and development. Most scientists are working within highly bureaucratic systems. Yet the advance of science depends on the freedom of inquiry. At present this freedom is inhibited by institutional orthodoxies. That is why I think we need more individual freedom within science, and less authoritarianism.
You end your statement by saying that “confirmation bias . . . has plagued psi research for over a century.” But, ironically, your own opening statement is itself a perfect example of confirmation bias. The authorities you quote are all materialists and committed skeptics. In particular, when discussing the data from psi research, you rely on the claims of James Alcock, Richard Wiseman, and Ray Hyman, all of whom are skeptical crusaders and members of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Such skeptical advocacy organizations often behave as if they are running election campaigns, with all the vices of confrontational party politics: bias, ad hominem attacks on opponents, negative campaigning, and attempts to conceal unwelcome facts by muddying the waters. Many examples are highlighted on the web site skepticalaboutskeptics.org.
The same techniques are widely used by denier movements and campaigning skeptics in other fields of activity. For example, product defense lawyers are often hired by corporations to undermine the scientific basis for government regulations. One of the pioneers of this strategy was the cigarette company Brown and Williamson, who ran a campaign to discredit evidence about the harmful effects of smoking, which helped hold back anti-
When we come to the actual evidence for psi phenomena, you adopt a classic muddying-
1. You make it sound as if psi researchers are so naïve they do not know about null hypotheses. In fact, almost all psi research is based on this principle. You yourself are naïve about this or, worse, intentionally misinforming our readers here. If you were to read some actual research papers, instead of reiterating claims by fellow skeptics, you would see that your claims are not true. For example, you could look at null hypothesis testing in my own papers on the sense of being stared at, telepathy, and unexplained powers of animals.
2. The skeptic Ray Hyman has, as you say, repeatedly criticized psi research using the ganzfeld technique. However, in 1986, psi researchers worked together with Hyman to produce a joint communiqué on improved procedures that could eliminate possible flaws. In response to these new guidelines, parapsychologists carried out new, computer-
You wrote, “In general, over the course of a century of research on psi, the tighter the controls on the experimental conditions, the weaker the psi effects seem to become, until they disappear entirely.” This vague, evidence-
2. Daryl Bem’s study of “feeling the future” has indeed been attacked by skeptics and again you try to muddy the waters by bringing up quibbles over statistical details. And while some skeptics have not been able to replicate some of Bem’s results, other researchers have. Whether or not presentiment exists is an intriguing open question, and there are several other lines of investigation besides Bem’s that strongly suggest it does.
Incidentally, if you want to attack Bem for advising students to write their results section first, you should attack most other scientists as well, because this is standard procedure. For example, the current guidelines to PhD students at Cambridge University state: “Write your chapters in the following order: Results, Methods, Discussion, Introduction.”
3. You attempt to portray the skeptical claims of Richard Wiseman and Julie Milton as a refutation of a dog’s ability to know when his owner was coming home, when in fact their data supported it. You made no mention of my refutation of their claims, nor to independent analyses by several investigators, all of whom concluded that Wiseman and Milton’s claims were highly misleading.
4. Instead of looking at the actual data from experiments on the sense of being stared at, you ranked the status of the institutions of the scientists who commented on it, and found that those from the most mainstream institutions were most critical. This is surely no more than an argument from authority, and has nothing to do with actual evidence. In the joint experiments carried out on staring by Marilyn Schlitz and Richard Wiseman, as you rightly say, Wiseman found only chance results when he did the staring, whereas when Schlitz did the staring there were statistically significant results. But the experimenter effects in this experiment were not symmetrical. The procedure involved staring through closed circuit television in Wiseman’s own laboratory, under conditions that eliminated any possible sensory information. Schlitz’s positive results could not have occurred as a result of wishful thinking or bias. On the other hand, Wiseman could easily have obtained no effect by not staring very hard, and indeed he later said he had found it “an enormously boring experience” and that in most of the trials he was “pretty passive about it.”
But, as you admit, this debate is not really about evidence. Committed skeptics are against psi phenomena because they do not fit in with the materialist worldview. This is dogmatic, not scientific. There are already several hypotheses as to how psi may work, but they offend your authoritarian instincts because they go beyond existing scientific orthodoxy. My own hypothesis of morphic fields, for example, may help to explain telepathy. I do not have space here to answer your questions about how I think morphic fields and morphic resonance may work, but a summary is only one click away.
When Michael Faraday first proposed his hypothesis of electric and magnetic fields, he could not explain how they worked. It was another 20 years before James Clerk Maxwell came up with a theory in terms of the ether, a form of “subtle matter,” which was itself unexplained. And then in 1905 Albert Einstein showed that the ether did not exist and came up with yet another theory. Fortunately, organized skeptic groups did not exist at the time of Faraday. If they had done, his research would have been dismissed on the grounds that his invisible “fields” could not be explained in terms of existing mechanistic theories, and Maxwell would have been treated as a pseudo-
Reactionary skepticism does not advance the cause of science. It inhibits scientific inquiry, and shuts down curiosity. There is already a great deal of evidence that psi phenomena exist, despite the tireless efforts of crusading skeptics to misdirect attention and pretend that psi effects have “disappeared entirely.”
In the end, our differences come back to our different roles. You are a professional skeptic trying to uphold the authority of science, guard its frontiers, and root out heresy. I am a research scientist trying to explore unexplained phenomena.
Notes to Sheldrake’s Response
1. Williams, B.J. (2011) “Revisiting the Ganzfeld ESP Debate: A Basic Review and Assessment,” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25: 639–661 (Download PDF: http://www.deanradin.com/evidence/Williams2011Ganz.pdf)
2. Milton, J. (1999) “Should ganzfeld research continue to be crucial in the search for a replicable psi effect?” Journal of Parapsychology, 63: 309–333.
3. Mossbridge, et al. (2012) “Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-
4. Carter, C. (2010) “’Heads I lose, Tails you win,’ or, How Richard Wiseman nullifies positive results and what to do about it,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 74: 156–167; McLuhan, R. (2010) Randi’s Prize: What Skeptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters. Leicester, UK: Matador; Storr, W. (2014) The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. New York: Overlook Press.
5. Watt, C., R. Wiseman, and M. Schlitz (2002) “Tacit information in remote staring research: The Wiseman-
In your last letter you accuse me of being a “committed skeptic” who is “against psi phenomena because they do not fit in with the materialist worldview.” You keep repeating this point despite my protests to the contrary. As I’ve said all along, if psi were real and we understood how it worked, then it would be part of the scientific worldview explainable by natural forces, even if that means expanding our understanding of what constitutes “natural.” Again, there is no supernatural; just natural and mysteries that remain unexplained by natural causes. It is possible that one day psi will be accepted by the scientific community and incorporated into the scientific worldview (even the materialistic worldview), but at the moment it isn’t, for both evidentiary and causal reasons.
I have reviewed the many shortcomings with your claimed evidence. In perusing the site you directed me to, to understand your causal theory involving morphic resonance, I find a number of flaws in your conjectures, starting with the name itself. “Morphic resonance” is too broad a category—too generalized—and it attempts to explain too many separate phenomena (that very likely have separate causes) to be a useful theory. How can a single field of any sort explain cellular membranes and microtubules; the body types of dogs (from Afghan hounds to poodles); memory in rat; social groups (from schools of fish to flocks of birds); human customs such as the Jewish Passover, the Christian Holy Communion, and crossword puzzles; perceptual phenomena such as vision (the sense of being stared at); and even the laws of nature and the Big Bang origin of the universe?! Is there anything this theory can’t explain? I contend that any theory purporting to explain everything in effect explains nothing.
In your last letter you cite Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and their theory of fields explaining electric and magnetic phenomena, as analogous to your own morphic resonance fields. First, Faraday and Maxwell were attempting to explain one specific phenomenon that involved electricity and magnetism and their relationship; they were not attempting to explain everything from inheritance to cultural customs to human memory to the origin of the universe! And it wouldn’t have mattered if there was an organized skeptical movement or not, because in time their theory proved correct irrespective of what any skeptical evaluator might have thought about it. Likewise, the skepticism you have encountered has not primarily been from organized skeptical groups, but rather from mainstream working scientists who have no affiliation with organized skepticism. In any case, skepticism is inherent to the scientific process itself, as I noted previously in arguing that all scientists start with the skeptical position of the null hypothesis that their experiments attempt to reject. The burden of proof is on you.
You make the analogy with fields “extending beyond the material objects in which they are rooted”—such as magnets and magnetic fields, planets and gravitational fields, and cell phones and “cellular” electromagnetic fields—to argue that the mind extends beyond the brain. The flaw in this reasoning is that these other fields are detectable, measurable, quantifiable, and predictable. What detectable evidence do you have of the mind extending beyond the brain? The equivalent of a Geiger counter that detects the radiation extending beyond radioactive materials would go a long way toward supporting your morphic resonance theory of mind. To date, you appear to have no such detectable evidence of such a field, and instead rely on subjective feelings people have about being stared at or receiving phone calls or emails from people whom they are thinking about, which have other equally plausible explanations (more plausible in my thinking).
As well, surely the morphic resonance field that directs the development of cellular microtubules is different from the field that shapes the DNA-
Finally, it appears to me that your morphic resonance theory is circular: “Morphic fields contain other morphic fields within them”; morphic fields “contain a built-