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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Scientists, 0: Quacks, 1

A cautionary tale, if ever I've heard one. (From Nature 2004, (427) p. 277)

Telepathic charm seduces audience at paranormal debate


[LONDON] Scientists tend to steer clear of public debates with advocates of the paranormal. And judging from the response of a London audience to a rare example of such a head-to-head conflict last week, they are wise to do so.

Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London, made the case against the existence of telepathy at a debate at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in London on 15 January. Rupert Sheldrake, a former biochemist and plant physiologist at the University of Cambridge who has taken up parapsychology, argued in its favour. And most of the 200-strong audience seemed to agree with him.

Wolpert is one of Britain's best-known public spokesmen for science. But few members of the audience seemed to be swayed by his arguments.

Sheldrake, who moved beyond the scientific pale in the early 1980s by claiming that ideas and forms can spread by a mysterious force he called morphic resonance, kicked off the debate.

He presented the results of tests of extrasensory perception, together with his own research on whether people know who is going to phone or e-mail them, on whether dogs know when their owners are coming home, and on the allegedly telepathic bond between a New York woman and her parrot. "Billions of perfectly rational people believe that they have had these experiences," he said.

Wolpert countered that telepathy was "pathological science", based on tiny, unrepeatable effects backed up by fantastic theories and an ad hoc response to criticism. "The blunt fact is that there's no persuasive evidence for it," he said. "An open mind is a very bad thing ? everything falls out."

For Ann Blaber, who works in children's music and was undecided on the subject, Sheldrake was the more convincing. "You can't just dismiss all the evidence for telepathy out of hand," she said. Her view was reflected by many in the audience, who variously accused Wolpert of "not knowing the evidence" and being "unscientific".

In staging the debate, the RSA joins a growing list of London organizations taking a novel approach to science communication (see Nature 426, 6; 2003). "We want to provide a platform for controversial subjects," says Liz Winder, head of lectures at the RSA.
(emphasis mine)

Truth be told, top-notch scientists are not the best people to disprove these claims anyway. Each claim, no matter how foolish, must be judged on its own merits, or demerits as it were. Famously good scientists don't want to be bothered with the specifics of bogus science, and I don't blame them. The more real science you know, the more tedious these things become. I imagine that Lewis Wolpert is as likely to spend his Saturday afternoons digging through "paranormal literature" as he is mucking out horse barns.

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