Sheldrake-Shermer, Mental Action at a Distance, Responses

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Mental Action at a Distance

This May thru July 2015, is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Michael Shermer and Rupert Sheldrake. 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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Shermer Response

(view Sheldrake's Opening Statement)

Dear Rupert,

Our letters seem to be crossing not only in the email but in content as well. In your latest letter you have nicely summarized the research you believe supports your hypothesis of morphic resonance and its various manifestations, such as that people know when they are being stared at from behind and that dogs know when their owners are coming home. For both of these sets of experiments and corresponding published papers I outlined the numerous methodological shortcomings identified by scientists who have taken the time to examine carefully your data and, in some cases, even to try to replicate your experiments without success.

In this this paper by Richard Wiseman, Mathew Smith, and Julie Milton, for example, the authors reveal what happens when you operationally define what constitutes a “hit” in psychical research, in this case whether or not Jaytee the dog knew when his owner Pam was coming home. In initial observations by the owner it seemed like Jaytee had foreknowledge based on his moving from the house to the porch. Sometimes Jaytee went to the porch when Pam was coming home, but there were plenty of times when Jaytee went to the porch with no connection to Pam at all. Wiseman et al. insisted on testing the claim by actually counting the number of such behaviors and especially the length of time Jaytee would stay on the porch waiting for Pam to return. Under these conditions Jaytee went to the porch 12 times without correlation with Pam's return. One explanation for this nonsignificant finding is that Jaytee was distracted by the neighbor dog in heat and thus went to the porch with something else in mind. Wiseman et al. returned months later and carried out two more experiments but failed to find any pattern between Jaytee's behaviors and that of his owner.

Your attempt---after the fact---to find a pattern in the video data by changing the criteria of a two-minute stay on the porch to ten-minute chunks of time during which Jaytee allegedly spent more time on the porch during those periods when the owner was returning home than not, was gainsaid by the authors when they noted that such patterns should arise naturally by the fact that a dog is likely to do little after its owner departs, but then as the day goes on he is more likely to start anticipating the owner's return (just by normal time elapse and the dog's memory of the owner's usual time away) and make more trips to the porch. As well, searching the video record post hoc for patterns is a form of data snooping that is subject to the confirmation bias, and allowing Pam to determine when she would come home means her behavioral patterns might not be random at all but subject to her own unconscious preferences that Jaytee may have learned over time.

These particular methodological problems are not uncommon in psychical research, and thus my opinion of all such experiments is similar to that of the renowned paranormal researcher and experimental psychologist Susan Blackmore, who was once a believer in ESP but gave it up when she could not find enough convincing evidence: the tighter you make the controls and the more carefully you operationally define the behaviors to be measured, the weaker the Psi effects become. You accuse me and other skeptics of being closed-minded materialists unable to see what is before our very eyes. Yet Blackmore set out on her professional career as a trained experimentalist and believer in psi to find evidence for the paranormal and came up empty handed, as she recalled here:

The results were a shock. Whether I looked for telepathy or precognition or clairvoyance, I got only chance results. I trained fellow students in imagery; chance results. I tested twins in pairs; chance results. I worked in play groups with very young children; chance results. I trained as a Tarot reader; chance results. Occasionally I got a significant result. Oh the excitement! Then as a scientist must I repeated the experiment, checked for errors, redid the statistics, and varied the conditions, and every time either I found the error or got chance results again.

It takes considerable intellectual integrity to admit when your beliefs are wrong, but Blackmore has integrity in spades. As she explained about the day she became a skeptic: “At some point something snapped. Instead of struggling to fit my chance results into yet another doomed theory of the paranormal, I faced up to the awful possibility that I might have been wrong from the start---that perhaps there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had to change my mind.”

Rupert, the reason most of us scientists are skeptical of psi is not because we don't want it to be true; to the contrary. As I've explained in my earlier letters, if ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, or any other psi effects turned out to be real---and especially if an explanation for the effects were found (through neuroscience or quantum physics or whatever)---it would just be another remarkable feature of nature on the shelf next to the other natural wonders we already accept.

HitchLike most dog owners, I would love to believe that I have a special psychical connection to our beloved chocolate lab Hitch (left---named for my friend the late Christopher Hitchens), because I already know I have a physical and psychological bond with him and it would be easy to believe that there is something even more. But what I would like to be true and what is actually true may not always coincide (and he never seems to know when I'm going to crest the driveway hill on my bike ride home as he cluelessly snoozes on the porch). But the bond we have is beautiful and wonderful just for what it is, so I don't feel the need to believe there is more if there isn't.

HachikoAnd like so many viewers (I suspect), my wife and I were moved to tears---weeping really---during the Richard Gere film Hachi: A Dog's Tale, the true story of the faithful Japanese Akita Inu dog named Hachiko (right), who patiently waited for his owner Hidesaburo Ueno to return to the train station from his office . . . fruitlessly every day for nine years . . . because his owner died at work. (Anyone who can get through this film without sobbing must be heartless.) If such connections as you suspect exist, why didn't Hachiko know that his owner was never coming home? If there is an afterlife, and the departed can communicate from beyond to those whom they love on this side, why didn't Hidesaburo give Hachiko some signal? Why allow such suffering to continue if we can do something about it? If loves connects us then why do so many people (and animals) in love not know when something tragic like this happens? We hear about the anomalous links between loved ones through powerful anecdotes that confirm such beliefs, but it is in the exceptions to the pattern that we must come to terms with and face the fact that love in this world is enough for you, for me, for Hitch, for Hachiko, and for everyone who has ever loved . . . and especially who has loved and lost.


(view Sheldrake's Reply to Shermer's Response)

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Sheldrake Response

(view Shermer's Opening Statement)

Dear Michael,

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

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-smoking regulations for years. As one of their executives commented, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact.” David Michaels, who was assistant secretary for environment safety and health at the US Department of Energy, pointed out in Scientific American that the same strategy has been adopted by numerous industries making toxins. When confronted with evidence that their products are lethal, the offending industry hires skeptics to muddy the waters. As Michaels noted, “Their conclusions are almost always the same: The evidence is ambiguous, so regulatory action is unwarranted.”

When we come to the actual evidence for psi phenomena, you adopt a classic muddying-the-water strategy. To take specific examples you raised in your opening statement:

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-controlled versions of the ganzfeld experiment, called the autoganzfeld. Skeptics tried to find new flaws, and once again the procedures were tightened up. By 2011, there had been 59 studies in 15 different laboratories following the rigorous methods agreed upon with skeptics. The overall hit rate was very significantly above chance.[1] It is true that in 1999 Richard Wiseman and Julie Milton published a study claiming that the combined results of new ganzfeld studies were not significantly above chance. They reached this conclusion by omitting some recent highly successful experiments. When these were included, the combined results were indeed significantly above chance, as Milton later admitted.[2]

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-free generalization is simply not true. It is wishful thinking.

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.[3]

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 Ph.D. 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]

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.”[5]

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-scientist for suggesting the existence of invisible “subtle matter.”

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.


(view Shermer's Reply to Sheldrake's Response)

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:
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-analysis," Frontiers in Psychology 3: 1--16 (Download PDF:
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-Schlitz interviews," Paranormal Review 24: 18--25.

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