Sheldrake-Shermer, Mental Action at a Distance, Opening Statements

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Mental Action at a Distance

Through the months of May, June, and July of 2015, is hosting an intensive Dialogue on the Nature of Science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer.

During the second month, June, the focus will be on mental action at a distance.

Dr. Sheldrake will defend the position that telepathy, ESP, and psychic/psi phenomena in general are real and backed up by convincing evidence; their investigation deserves to be part of science.

Dr. Shermer will oppose Sheldrake's position, arguing that psychic or psi phenomena are artifacts of poor experimental procedure or outright fraud; no convincing evidence or experiments support their reality.

For details about this dialogue, along with a complete guide to other portions of it, click here.

To give our readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:

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Sheldrake Opening Statement

Dear Michael,

For committed materialists, psychic (psi) phenomena such as telepathy and the sense of being stared at must be illusory because they are impossible. Minds are inside brains. Mental activity is nothing but electro-chemical brain activity. Hence thoughts and intentions cannot have direct effects at a distance, nor can minds be open to influences from the future. Although psi phenomena seem to occur, they must have normal explanations in terms of coincidence, or subtle sensory cues, or wishful thinking, or fraud.

Dogmatic skeptics often repeat the slogan that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” But the sense of being stared at and telepathy are not extraordinary, they are ordinary. Most people have experienced them. From this point of view, the skeptics' claim is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence that most people are deluded about their own experience? Skeptics can only fall back on generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgement.

I here consider research on the sense of being stared at and telepathy. These are subjects on which I have published more than 20 peer-reviewed research papers in scientific journals, as well as two books, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (2nd ed.: Three Rivers Press, 2011) and The Sense of Being Stared At (2nd ed.: Park Street Press, 2013; Park Street Press). Because of limitations of space, I omit the other three main areas of psi research: clairvoyance or remote viewing, meaning the ability to see or experience things at a distance; precognition or presentiment, knowing or feeling a future event; and psychokinesis, or mind-over-matter effects.

The detection of stares

Most people have felt someone looking at them from behind, turned around and met the person's eyes. Most people have also experienced the converse: they have sometimes made people turn round by staring at them. In extensive surveys in Europe and North America, between 70 and 97% of adults and children reported experiences of these kinds. Many species of non-human animals also seem able to detect looks. Some hunters and wildlife photographers are convinced that animals can detect their gaze even when they are hidden and looking at animals through telescopic lenses or sights.

If the sense of being stared at is real, then it must have been subject to evolution by natural selection. How might it have evolved? The most obvious possibility is in the context of predator-prey relations. Prey animals that can detect when predators are looking at them will stand a better chance of surviving than those that cannot.

Since the 1980s, the sense of being stared at has been investigated experimentally both through direct looking and also through closed circuit television (CCTV). In the scientific literature it is variously referred to as “unseen gaze detection” or “remote attention” or “scopesthesia” (from Greek skopein = to view and aisthēsis = perception). The majority of these studies, even some of the studies by skeptics, have shown positive, statistically significant effects. The largest experiment on the sense of being stared at began in 1995 at the NEMO Science Centre in Amsterdam. More than 36,000 people took part, with positive results that were astronomically significant statistically. The most sensitive subjects were children under the age of nine.

For a detailed summary of the research on the sense of being stared at, including that by skeptics, see this paper.

Telepathy in real life

In most, if not all, traditional societies, telepathy seems to be taken for granted and put to practical use. For example, many travellers in Africa reported that people seemed to know when people to whom they were attached were coming home, even though they had no normal means of knowing. The same occurred in rural Norway, where there is a special word for the anticipation of arrivals: vardøger. Typically, someone at home heard a person approaching the house, and coming in, yet nobody physically did so. Soon afterwards the person really arrived. Similarly, the “second sight” of the some of the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands included visions of arrivals before the person actually arrived.

In an attempt to find out more about telepathy in modern societies, I launched a series of appeals for information through the media in Europe, North America, and Australia. Over 20 years, I have built up a database of seemingly telepathic and other psi experiences containing more than 10,000 case histories.

Many people have observed responses of animals like dogs and cats to their thoughts and intentions. The most impressive occur when the people are miles away, far beyond the range of the animals' senses. More than 1,500 people have told me that their dogs and cats know when a member of the family is coming home and go to wait at a door or window, often 20 minutes or more in advance. Many of these stories make it clear that the animals' responses were not simply reactions to the sounds of a familiar car, or familiar footsteps in the street. They happened too long in advance, and they also happened when people came home by bus or train. Nor was it just a matter of routine. Some people, like plumbers, lawyers, and taxi drivers, worked irregular hours, and yet the people at home knew when they were coming because the dog or cat went to wait at a door or window.

Among humans, many cases of apparent telepathy occur in response to other people's needs. For example, hundreds of mothers have told me that when they were breastfeeding, they knew when their baby needed them, even from miles away. They felt their milk let down. The milk let-down reflex is mediated by the hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, and is normally triggered by hearing the baby cry. The nipples start leaking milk and many women feel a tingling sensation in their breasts. When nursing mothers were away from their babies and felt their milk let down, most of them took it for granted that their baby needed them, even though it was not at a routine feeding time. They were usually right. They did not experience their milk letting down because they started thinking about the baby; they started thinking about their baby because their milk let down for no apparent reason. A statistical analysis showed that this was not a matter of synchronized physiological rhythms.

A telepathic connection between mothers and their babies makes good sense in evolutionary terms. Mothers who could tell at a distance when their babies needed them would tend to have babies that survived better than babies of insensitive mothers.

Until the invention of modern telecommunications, telepathy was the only way in which people could be in touch at a distance instantly. In most respects telepathy has now been superseded by telephones---but it has not gone away. Indeed telepathy now occurs most commonly in connection with telephone calls.

Experimental research on telepathy with animals

I started my own research on telepathy with animals, rather than people. I thought that if telepathy occurs, it is normal, not paranormal, natural, not supernatural, and is likely to have evolved as a communication system between bonded members of animal groups.

In particular, I carried out many experiments with return-anticipating dogs to find out whether they really did anticipate their owners' returns when they could not have known by “normal” means. In these tests, the owners of the dogs went at least five miles away from home. While they were out, the place where their dog waited was filmed continuously on time-coded videotape. The owner did not know in advance when she would be going home and she did so only when she received a message from me via a telephone pager at a randomly selected time. She traveled by taxi or in another unfamiliar vehicle to avoid familiar car sounds. The dog I have investigated most, a terrier called Jaytee, was at the window on average only 4% of the time during the main period of his owner's absence, and 55% of the time when she was on the way back. This difference was very significant statistically. You can see a video of an independent experiment with Jaytee here, filmed by the Science Unit of Austrian State television, ORF.

At my invitation, a leading British media skeptic, Richard Wiseman, did his own videotaped tests with Jaytee under the same conditions. His data showed that Jaytee was at the window 4% of the time during the main period of his owner's absence, and 78% of the time when she was on the way back, a statistically significant positive effect. (Details here.) However, in the media, Wiseman misleadingly tried to portray this replication of my results as a refutation of Jaytee's abilities! (Details here.)

Experimental research on human telepathy

Since 1880, there have been hundreds of studies of human telepathy under laboratory conditions. The great majority have given positive, statistically significant results. (For links to peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, see here.)

The commonest kind of apparent telepathy in the modern world concerns telephone calls. Surveys show that most people have thought of someone for no apparent reason, and that that person called, or else they just know who is calling before looking at the caller ID or answering the call. But couldn't this just be coincidence? We think about other people frequently; sometimes, by chance, somebody rings while we are thinking about them; we may imagine it is telepathy, but we forget the thousands of times we were wrong. Or when we know someone well, our familiarity with her routines and activities enables us to know when she is likely to ring, even though this knowledge may be unconscious.

I searched the scientific literature to find out if these reasonable possibilities were supported by any data or observations. I could find no research whatever on the subject. In science it is not enough to have a hypothesis. Hypotheses need testing to find out if they are supported or refuted by the evidence.

I therefore designed a simple procedure to test both the chance-coincidence hypothesis and the unconscious-knowledge hypothesis experimentally. I asked volunteer subjects for the names and telephone numbers of four people they knew well, friends or family members. The subjects were then filmed continuously throughout the period of the experiment alone in a room with a landline telephone, without a caller ID system. If there was a computer in the room, it was switched off, and the subjects had no cell phones with them. My research assistant or I selected one of the four callers at random by the throw of a dice. We called the selected person and asked him to phone the subject in the next couple of minutes. He did so. The subject's phone rang. Before answering it, she had to say to the camera who, out of the four possible callers, she felt was on the line. She could not have known by knowledge of the caller's habits and daily routines, because in this experiment the callers were randomly selected by the experimenter.

By guessing at random, subjects would have been right about one time in four, or 25%. In fact, in hundreds of trials the average hit rate was 45%, very significantly above the chance level. None of the subjects was right every time, but they were right much more than they should have been if the chance coincidence theory were true. (A video of one of these experiments filmed by a British TV channel is online here.)

This above-chance effect has been replicated independently in telephone telepathy tests at universities in Germany and Holland. I have also obtained very similar results in experiments with text messages and SMS messages. (For a recent review, see here.)

Skeptical reactions

Informed skeptics, like Professor Chris French, the former editor of the UK Skeptic magazine, do not deny that there is experimental evidence that suggests psi phenomena are real, but say there is not yet enough to convince them. By contrast, dogmatic skeptics are generally ignorant of the evidence, as I have found in my many encounters with leaders of the organized skeptical movement, including James Randi and Richard Dawkins (described in detail here).

One of your own favorite sayings is that “Skepticism is a method, not a position.” But you have not practised what you preach. In my experience, you have been prejudiced and unscientific.

For example, in 2003, USA Today published an article about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, describing my research on telepathy and the sense of being stared at. As a prominent professional skeptic, you were asked for your comments. You were quoted as saying, “[Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn't like. The events Sheldrake describes don't require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means.”

It takes years to do careful research and publish it in peer-reviewed journals. By contrast, it only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatic skepticism is easy.

As you will remember, I emailed you to ask what your normal explanations for my results were. You could not substantiate your very public claim in a newspaper read by millions of people, and admitted you had not even seen my book. I challenged you to an online debate. You accepted the challenge, but said you were too busy to look at the evidence, and promised you would “get to it soon.” You didn't. So I am pleased that we are having this debate now.

In November 2005, you attacked me in your Scientific American “Skeptic” column in a piece called “Rupert's Resonance.” You ridiculed the idea of morphic resonance and stated that I proposed a “universal life force,” a phrase I have never used. You also referred to claims by fellow skeptics that my experimental work was flawed. These false claims had already been refuted in peer-reviewed journals, and even in the Skeptical Inquirer. I wrote a brief letter to Scientific American to set the record straight, but it was not published, nor even acknowledged.

In 2010, you contrasted skepticism with denialism, as in climate change denial, or Holocaust denial, or evolution denial: “When I call myself a skeptic, I mean I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims . . . A climate denier has a position staked out in advance, and sorts through the data employing "confirmation bias"---the tendency to look for and find confirmatory evidence for pre-existing beliefs and ignore or dismiss the rest . . . Thus one practical way to distinguish between a skeptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Skeptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying.”

In my experience, many crusading skeptics are deniers. They are in fact pseudoskeptics. You have behaved like a denier yourself. But I hope your belief in free inquiry will come out uppermost.


(view Shermer's Response to Sheldrake's Opening Statement)

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Shermer Opening Statement

Dear Rupert,

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-determinism debate.

Second, you reference many people in contradistinction to my positions. On the free will-determinist issue, for example, you note that my friend Sam Harris is a determinist. So what? My friend Dan Dennett is a compatibilist (as is my friend Steve Pinker). The argument from authority in either direction is fallacious. I've carved out my own position on free will in The Moral Arc, that one can be a scientific materialist and still believe in human volition, which you failed to refute.

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-Darwinism are in conflict with this “faith”. Who cares how John Gray defines humanism? He doesn't speak for humanists, most of whom are atheists, materialists, and neo-Darwinians, and in any case this is not a counter-argument to my position, just an argument from authority. What counts are arguments not authorities. For example, I presented arguments and challenges to your theory of morphic resonance, which I hope you will address, most notably:

  1. Where is the “memory” for morphic forms stored (e.g., the tetrapod forelimb)?
  2. How does this memory act on physical systems, such as the molecules that make up cells or organs or (in keeping with my example) tetrapod forelimbs?
  3. Provide reliable and consistent (i.e., replicable) evidence that such memory in nature exists.

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-determinist-reductionist paradigm in science, but that doesn't make mainstream scientists infidels and heretics! Organized skeptical movements that have spontaneously emerged around the world are interested in understanding and explaining phenomena on the borderlands of science (e.g., ESP), primarily because most scientists are too busy working in their own fields to devote the necessary time to properly analyze these claims. We're not closed minded so much as conservative (cognitively, not politically) in offering our provisional assent that a claim is factually true. The reason for this cautiousness is that most claims people make are not true. The history of science is littered with failed hypothesis. For every Galileo whose ideas were borne out by the data and whose theories changed the world, there are thousands of scholars and scientists whose conjectures and speculations failed to generate any supportive evidence.

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[1]: determining through extra-sensory means whether a playing card randomly selected from a deck is red or black. The null hypothesis is that it is not possible to do this and thus to reject the null hypothesis we would need to establish a figure for the number of correct hits. By chance, we would expect a test subject to get about half correct. In a deck of 52 cards, half of which are red and half of which are black, random guessing or flipping a coin will produce, on average, 26 correct hits. Of course, as gamblers know, there are streaks and deviations from perfect symmetry. The roll of a roulette wheel will not produce a perfect red-black-red-black sequence. Typically, streaks of red and black turn up, often more of one than the other in any given limited sequence, without any violation of the laws of probability.

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-card deck in order for us to reject the null hypothesis at the 99 percent confidence level. Even though 35 out of 52 doesn't sound like it would be that hard to get, by chance alone it would be so unusual that we could confidently state (“at the 99 percent confidence level”) that something else besides chance was going on here.

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-known reverse self-fulfilling effect: a person suspects being stared at and turns to check; such head movement catches the eyes of would-be starers who then turn to look at the staree, who thereby confirms the feeling of being stared at. But this is a normal sensory phenomenon, not an extra-sensory phenomenon.

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-stare trials each, with accuracy feedback provided for the final nine sessions. Results: subjects were able to detect being stared at only when accuracy feedback was provided, which Colwell attributed to the subjects learning what was, in fact, a nonrandom presentation of the experimental trials.

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.[2] 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[3], in which I rated the 14 open-peer commentaries on your target article (on the sense of being stared at) on a scale of 1 to 5 (critical, mildly critical, neutral, mildly supportive, supportive). Without exception, the 1's, 2's and 3's were all traditional scientists from mainstream institutions, whereas the 4's and 5's were all affiliated with fringe and pro-paranormal institutions. Of course, you might reasonably argue that it is Wiseman and these mainstream scientists whose skeptical bias prevents the effect from being measured (and not vice versa), but in this case since it is you making the extraordinary claim the burden of proof is on you to provide extraordinary evidence that it is experimenter bias preventing the effect, which in my opinion has yet to be produced.

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.[4] The scientists conducted a meta-analysis, a statistical technique that combines the results from many studies to look for an overall effect, even if the results from the individual studies were nonsignificant (i.e., they were unable to reject the null hypothesis at the 95% confidence level). Bem and Honorton concluded: “The replication rates and effect sizes achieved by one particular experimental method, the ganzfeld procedure, are now sufficient to warrant bringing this body of data to the attention of the wider psychological community.” The ganzfeld procedure places the “receiver” in a sensory isolation room with ping-pong ball halves covering the eyes, headphones playing white noise over the ears, and the “sender” in another room attempting to transmit photographic or video images via ESP (or psi). Despite finding evidence for psi---subjects had a hit rate of 35 percent when 25 percent was expected by chance---Bem and Honorton lamented: “Most academic psychologists do not yet accept the existence of psi, anomalous processes of information or energy transfer (such as telepathy or other forms of extrasensory perception) that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms” (p. 118). Why don't scientists accept psi despite this apparent significant effect? I contend that there are two reasons: data and theory.

Data. Both the meta-analysis and ganzfeld techniques have been challenged by scientists. Ray Hyman from the University of Oregon found inconsistencies in the experimental procedures used in different ganzfeld experiments (that were lumped together in Bem's meta-analysis as if they used the same procedures), and that the statistical test employed (Stouffer's Z) was inappropriate for such a diverse data set. Hyman also found flaws in the target randomization process (the sequence in which the visual targets were sent to the receiver), resulting in a target selection bias: “All of the significant hitting was done on the second or later appearance of a target. If we examined the guesses against just the first occurrences of targets, the result is consistent with chance.”[5] Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman conducted a meta-analysis of 30 more ganzfeld experiments and found no evidence for psi, concluding that psi data are non-replicable, a fatal flaw in scientific research.[6] 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 is a very strong indicator that ESP is not real.

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-Jan Wagenmakers critical of Bem's findings, concluding that his methology was flawed in that he was using an exploratory analysis of psi hypotheses to see what might turn out significant, and then presenting it as if it were confirming the hypothesis. (See Wagenmakers's publications list on his home page.)

(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-chance effect in Experiment 1 was not consistent across his nine experiments, which measured different effects under varying conditions.

(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-hoc bias in either running the experiments or in reporting the results. As well, Bem reports that “most of the pictures” were selected from a source called the International Affective Picture System, but he doesn't tell us which ones were not, why, or what procedure he employed to classify images as erotic, neutral, or negative. Hyman's list of flaws numbers in the dozens. As he told me in an interview for one of my Scientific American columns (May, 2011): “I've been a peer reviewer for over 50 years and I can't think of another reviewer who would have let this paper through peer review. They were irresponsible.”

(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.


(view Sheldrake's Response to Shermer's Opening Statement)

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.

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