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Controversies and Enquiries

Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College.

Rupert Sheldrake
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Some members of the scientific community regard the topics discussed in this book as taboo.

The very idea of telepathy, or an unexplained sense of direction, or premonitions, or precognitions arouse skepticism, if not hostility.

My research has led me into a series of intense controversies. People with no experience of professional science may imagine that it is all about the open-minded exploration of the unknown, but this is rarely the case. Science works within frameworks of belief, or models of reality. Whatever does not fit in is denied or ignored; it is anomalous. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn called these thought-patterns paradigms. During periods of what he called normal science scientists work within the dominant paradigm, and ignore or deny anomalies.

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The Enfield Poltergeist Explained Again – The Deborah Hyde Version

by Guy Lyon Playfair

For more than thirty years since the Enfield events ended, Janet, the (then) twelve-year-old who was the focus for much (but not all) of the activity, has done her best to avoid publicity, taking part in just one TV interview and one with a journalist. So I was quite surprised to learn that she had agreed to appear on ITV’s This Morning (February 23, 2012), but only on condition that I also took part which otherwise I would have refused.

It could have been worse. Janet was clearly not at ease in a TV studio, but interviewer Phillip Schofield treated her very gently and let her have her say, after which I had mine. Then, inevitably, it was time for the ‘sceptic’ of the day to have the last word, as they always do, and assure viewers that there was a rational explanation for everything they had just heard. This is known in TV-speak as ‘balance’.

Today’s duty debunker was Deborah Hyde, editor of the CSI (formerly CSICOP) backed The Skeptic, whose day job is makeup artist for the film industry. Thus she has experience in creating artificial reality, which she put to good use on this occasion.

Rather than commenting on any of the actual evidence or bothering to question Janet or me about anything at all, she embarked on a Platonic monologue on the nature of human fallibility.

Here she goes:

“Human beings are remarkably bad at remembering things, and seeing things accurately. We see things that aren’t there, we don’t see things that are there. It’s very easy to impose top-down processing – ideas that you already have about the world get imposed on what you’re seeing… It’s very difficult to say this happened or that happened…”

…and so on. But how about the evidence?

A skilled make-up artist has no problem covering that up. After running out of vague generalisations, she resorted to outright misformation:

“It’s a fascinating story, but we forget all the people who disagreed – Graham Morris had issues with it, Mary Rose Barrington from the SPR [Society for Psychical Research] had her issues with it. There was a subsequent study by the SPR that concluded that the girls were faking it…”

Eh? Wait a minute. Let’s look at our primary source material, starting with what photographer Graham Morris actually said on the most accurate of the many documentaries about the Enfield case, the Antix programme produced by Tom O’Connor for the Paranormal Channel. Graham’s opinion was based on numerous visits to the house, initially for The Daily Mirror and subsequently in his own free time.

Graham managed to take a number of sequences on his Nikon motor-drive that show such hard-to-explain phenomena as pillows moving on their own, a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral, bedclothes pulling themselves back and Janet rising into the air without her bedclothes being pulled back, in full view of her mother. His overall opinion of the Enfield case, based on his considerable first-hand experience of it:

“To me it was easily the most fascinating thing that’s ever happened in my life, beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was fascinating to be a witness of the whole thing.”

So much for his ‘issues’. How about those of Mary Rose Barrington, a solicitor and longtime SPR Council member with considerable experience of both careful examination of evidence and the investigation of spontaneous cases, including poltergeists?

With three colleagues, Peter Hallson, Dr. Hugh Pincott and the late John Stiles she carried out a meticulous follow-up study of the whole case including interviews with almost every witness to the events, including the girls’ mother, whom she found ‘perfectly sane’ and questioned at length, obtaining ‘some very clear testimony’ which she found ‘impressive’.

And did she conclude that the girls were faking it all? No, she didn’t. Here is her actual conclusion, which Deborah Hyde seems to have missed:

“There is every reason to think that there was poltergeist activity in the house.”

To her credit, Deborah Hyde did allow her to elaborate as follows in the Summer 2012 issue of The Skeptic:

“It is fashionable to invoke ‘fallibility of observation’ to repudiate attested facts that are unwelcome. But all knowledge rests on testimony, and it behoves listeners to exercise judgment and make a rational assessment of its reliability, not to dismiss it with empty generalisations. There is in fact nothing clever or scientific about making a blanket decision to reject testimony that does not fit with one’s beliefs as to what is possible.”

Another well informed commentator was Alan Murdie, also both a council member of the SPR and a lawyer with plenty of experience of collecting and evaluating evidence and presenting it in court. As a member of the society’s Spontaneous Case Committee, he regularly investigates reports of ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists and assorted anomalies.

Writing in Fortean Times (No. 288, 2012), he noted that Deborah Hyde “avoided any detailed challenge to either witness, preferring to speak in general terms about the fallibilities in human testimony… As a result, the chance to test the credibility and reliability of two key witnesses in Britain’s most famous 20th century poltergeist case was lost.” 
And here’s his conclusion:

“This case is not mere folklore or tradition but one with evidence and witnesses, together with recordings and contemporaneous documentation available to be assessed. However, judged by its performance so far, organised ‘skepticism’ … is never going to convincingly explain the Enfield poltergeist, certainly if its critics are not acquainted with the facts, do not question the original witnesses and never make even a cursory examination of the collected evidence.”

It’s the same old story. Don’t bother trying to explain or even mention the evidence, when throwing the baby out with the bathwater is less demanding on your powers of reasoning. All in the cause of ‘scepticism’, which to the Ancient Greeks meant questioning and examining. I’m sure Plato would have had ‘issues’ with this dismal display of vacuous pseudoscepticism.

The Enfield Poltergeist – Joe Nickell Explains All

The Art of Cherry-Picking
by Guy Lyon Playfair

‘As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.’

This weighty pronouncement comes from CSI (formerly CSICOP)’s chief hit-man and serial cherry-picker Joe Nickell, in whose opinion I am a ‘crank author on paranormal subjects’ who ‘ignores any skeptical literature’.

If that were true, I wouldn’t be commenting on his piece in the Skeptical Inquirer (2012, 36 (4)) which I will now do – briefly – as it doesn’t deserve discussing at much length.

The art of cherry-picking involves selecting such evidence as suits your case and either dismissing or just ignoring all the rest. Nickell has collected quite a basket of unripe and rotten cherries from his ‘careful examination’ of This House is Haunted, while leaving all the ripe ones on the tree, waving his magic wand and making them all disappear. Among many items and incidents he makes no attempt to explain away or even mention, here are just ten:

• The photo taken by Graham Morris at the moment he was hit on the forehead by a piece of Lego thrown hard enough to give him a nasty bruise on his forehead, his photo showing clearly that nobody (visible) had thrown it.

• A sequence on Graham’s motor-drive Nikon showing a curtain twisting itself into a tight spiral and apparently being blown into the room although the window behind it was closed, and another sequence clearly showing bedclothes moving untouched by any incarnate human hand.

• Several photos showing Janet seemingly levitating with outstretched legs and without her bedclothes having been pulled back, as directly witnessed on one occasion by her mother.

• The built-in gas fireplace (luckily disconnected) which weighed about 20 kilos being wrenched out of the wall, bending the connecting brass pipe.

• The large cushion appearing instantaneously on the roof in full view of the tradesman walking towards the house, an experience from which he had not recovered thirty years later.

• The lollipop lady’s clear account, frequently repeated, of seeing Janet levitating to a height of at least two feet and floating around in circles. Again, this was in her direct line of sight, from her post at the school crossing directly in front of the house.

• The book transported into the house next door, which was locked and unoccupied at the time, there being no conceivable normal explanation as to how it got there.

• The laryngograph evidence that the male bass voice repeatedly heard coming out of Janet’s mouth was produced by her plica ventricularis (false vocal folds), which cannot be kept up for long even by trained actors without getting a very sore throat. This was witnessed by a professional speech therapist who was unable to explain it.

• The evidence produced by the ‘Voice’ that nobody in the family knew, such as the fact that the previous occupant went blind and died in a chair downstairs, as was only confirmed many years after the end of the case.

• The anomalous malfunctions of the Pye Newvicon video camera, the BBC’s Uher reel tape recorder, and Graham Morris’s flashguns, none of which could be explained by the experienced professionals concerned.

I could go on, but I think you get the message. As for ‘experienced magician’ Joe Nickell’s comment on Janet’s frequently repeated admission that she and her sister played a few tricks ‘just to see if Mr Grosse and Mr Playfair would catch us, and they always did’, estimating that they amounted to ‘I’d say two percent’ of the incidents we recorded, Nickell spins this into ‘the evidence suggests that this figure is closer to 100 percent.’

What evidence? Oh, never mind. There’s no need for evidence when a sweeping generalization will do, especially if it is unsourced. I see from Nickell’s entry on the site misleadingly called Rational Wiki that his interests include ‘the investigation of bullshit claims.’

Which does not seem to have stopped him making such claims himself.

JREF’s “Amazing Meeting” Not so Amazing


By Ted Dace

The theme of the Amazing Conference, sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), was succinctly expressed by keynote speaker and Skeptic magazine editor, Michael Shermer: “We’re selling science.” From the get-go, the 500-plus participants at the conference, held at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, were repeatedly reminded that it’s all about science. At the media workshop that kicked it off, magician Andrew Mayne defined the goal of skepticism as the use of the scientific process to understand the world. He added that this is the opposite of dogmatism. In his “points to remember,” he noted that skepticism is not cynicism and that skeptics must be open-minded. “If you have evidence,” he said, “bring it on.”

So it’s ironic that actual science was hardly touched on. Instead it was one speaker after another reinforcing the conceit, almost universal among conference participants, that they are the enlightened ones, that they are charged with the burden of defending sense against nonsense, that they alone can be counted on to stand their ground against the tide of irrationalism that threatens to engulf our civilization and undo all the gains that have been wrought in the name of Science. Even scientists themselves, it turns out, are no match for the diabolical paranormalists. Only skeptics, educated by James “Amazing” Randi and other magicians, are capable of spotting the tricks of the trade. “Scientists are easily fooled,” explained Randi, “because they think they know.” But only skeptics really know.

Communicating Skepticism to the Public, the manual handed out at the media workshop, contains a brief passage that illustrates the gulf between science and the skeptics. In part three, “The Media Skeptic: Encouraging a skeptical media attitude,” we learn how to become a media authority: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

As we know, it works a little differently in science. You can’t just say you’re an expert in, say, paleoanthropology unless you’ve actually done the work, either at an accredited university or on your own. By contrast, a skeptic need only form a club with like-minded people. “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

On the whole, the media manual is a well-intentioned and useful guide to dealing with a mass media that doesn’t always care about truth and accuracy. And if the skeptics are willing to bend the rules here and there, at least it’s in the service of a worthy cause. It’s not easy getting across to non-US citizens just how profoundly and dangerously uncorked the citizens of this great country can be. Fully one-half of our population now favors creationism, while under 30% believe in evolution. As Randi pointed out, our government issues patents for “perpetual motion machines,” and TV producers promote whatever junk they think will sell, such as talk shows with the dead and “documentaries” claiming that the moon shots were a hoax or that the corpses of space aliens are under lock and key in government laboratories. At my workplace recently, a colleague “informed” me that Bin Laden is holed up at Area 51 where he denounces America on a soundstage made to look like a cave! Surely there’s a connection between popular irrationalism and the fact that the White House can pursue deranged policies at home and abroad with impunity. I agree with the skeptics that those of us trying to slap our fellow citizens back to their senses can be forgiven for cutting a few corners now and then.

Unfortunately, with its sense of being assaulted by legions of loonies on the one hand and a cynical media on the other, the skeptic movement tends to be both defensive and hostile. After noting that Sylvia Browne – a huckster psychic who appears often on CNN’s Larry King Live – is known as “claws” among JREF staff because of her long fingernails, Randi expressed the hope that while scratching herself, she would tear an artery and die, a prospect which evoked hearty laughter from the audience. Later, as I looked over the books for sale by notable skeptics, I overheard a JREF staff member explain to a potential customer that The Ancestor’s Tale, the weighty new hardback by Richard Dawkins, was “excellent for bludgeoning a creationist.” Needless to say, the siege mentality and the spirit of scientific inquiry have never exactly been bedfellows.

The tone of the conference was geared more toward ridiculing the enemy than engaging in thoughtful scientific discussion. Bad jokes about crackpot chiropractors got big laughs. In this environment a discussion of possible evidence in favor of chiropractic would have been inconceivable. Alternative medicine is a favored target of skeptics, despite the fact that no scientific discipline is ever perfect or complete and that we can expect at least some trends from the periphery of medical practice to be taken up eventually within the scientific mainstream. Granted, certain aspects of alternative medicine are obviously fraudulent, such as ear candling and magnetic bracelets, but to denounce anything at all that’s outside accepted, traditional medicine is to promote a view of science more akin to religion – with its unreflective, ossified dogmas – than science as it actually exists.

When the topic did turn to science, the discussion most likely focused on optimum tactics in the battle against irrationalism. For instance, when a husky, white-haired gentleman raised the topic of evolution during a small-group discussion with Dr. Shermer, his point was simply that skeptics should refer to it as the “law of evolution” rather than the “theory of evolution.” This way, creationists would have to stop saying, “it’s only a theory, not a fact.” Shermer, who was having none of it, allowed a JREF staff member to respond that no scientist would take this suggestion seriously. Another skeptic vociferously disagreed and stated that we must begin referring to evolution as a law. After this the discussion meandered along pointlessly, with no one stating the obvious: that evolution can’t be referred to as a law because it’s not a law. In contrast to atoms that have no choice but to obey the law of gravity, species don’t have to evolve. Often the species knocked out by natural selection are precisely those that have evolved too far and become overspecialized. So it’s not as if you become extinct if you disobey the “law of evolution.” Beyond that, the very idea reeks of vitalism, as if biology has its own laws separate from physics. To top it off, the whole point of evolution is that you don’t need transcendent laws of nature (or a creative deity, for that matter) to explain the emergence of novel life forms.

But all this seemed beyond the understanding of the assembled skeptics. The man who originally made the suggestion had no idea he was advocating a shift to a vitalistic conception of life. As Shermer looked on impassively, I got the feeling he wished some of his acolytes were a little more scientifically astute. Yet he himself may be partly to blame. In his bestselling handbook on logical and not-so-logical thinking, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer describes a great many “weird” ideas harbored by ordinary people. What he fails to mention is that the chief source for weird ideas in the modern world is none other than science itself, starting with Copernicus’ assertion that the earth is in motion around the sun, an observation that flies in the face of common sense. After all, as anyone can plainly see, the sun rises in the east and crosses the sky to set in the west. But Copernicus’ weird idea prevailed, and it’s been like that for 400 years now, with gravitational and electromagnetic fields, the divisibility and vacuity of the atom, the convertibility of energy and mass, warped space-time, wave-particle duality, quantum complementarity and uncertainty, nonlocality, a ten dimensional universe, and on and on. The history of science can be summarized as the story of weird ideas displacing “common sense.” As long as skeptics view the world in terms of science versus weirdness, they are guaranteed to remain parochial in their outlook.

Telepathy is a pretty strange idea. According to Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe, scientific evidence for its existence has been accruing for decades. So do we follow the evidence and, at the very least, provisionally grant the possibility that telepathy is real, or do we simply banish it as being too weird? While the former is the scientific approach, the latter appears to be the favored response of skeptics.

As any ESP or “7th sense” researcher knows, the only way to scientifically demonstrate telepathy is through statistics. When I asked Randi if it’s true that he refuses to accept statistical evidence in his famous million dollar contest, not only did he deny this charge, but after a skeptic protested that statistics can be bent any old way to prove whatever you want, Randi informed him that statistics is a branch of mathematics. While he would insist on checking the findings with his own statistician, this would only be to ensure that the math was done correctly.

Two days later, Richard Dawkins said he was worried that Randi would eventually have to pay up. Dr. Dawkins had just delivered a truly fine lecture – the high point of the conference, in fact – and Randi had joined the famed author onstage for a public chat. “About the million dollar prize, I would be worried if I were you because of the fact that we have perinormal possibilities.” Dawkins had just introduced this neologism during his talk. An alleged phenomenon is perinormal (from the Greek “peri,” in the vicinity of) if it seems impossible but which, in contrast to the “paranormal,” turns out to be a 100% natural, skeptic-approved phenomenon. Electromagnetic fields, for instance, were once perinormal but eventually came to be recognized as real. The question, then, is which phenomena currently dismissed by skeptics as paranormal are actually perinormal. “I mean, what if somebody-what if there really is a perinormal phenomenon which is then embraced within science and will become normal, but at present is classified conventionally as paranormal?”

Randi agreed he might have to pay up someday. But Dawkins had a trick up his sleeve. If a “psychic” phenomenon turns out to be real, then by definition it is physical and therefore not really psychic after all, and thus Randi still shouldn’t have to pay.

Dawkins’ sleight-of-hand notwithstanding, according to the rules of Randi’s competition, if a psychic ability is proven, he must pay up. Randi stated to me that a preliminary test would have to yield a probability of one in a thousand that the results were due to chance. After passing the preliminary, the investigator could commence with the formal test, which would have to yield a probability against chance of one in a million. As Dr. Radin notes, a meta-analysis of all ganzfeld telepathy experiments up to 1997 revealed a probability of a million billion to one. So if Randi is true to his word, it ought to be possible to perform an experiment that would garner the prize. Of course, it would take a huge number of sessions to demonstrate such a high level of improbability. In the end, the million dollars might do nothing more than pay for the experiment. But it would be worth it for no other reason than to put an end to allegations that the unclaimed prize is itself evidence against psychic phenomena.

If Dawkins’ reductionistic school of biology is correct – and organisms are DNA-programmed and operated machines – then psychic talents are not the only phenomena to be dismissed as paranormal. The property of being “alive” would itself be paranormal, a mere construct of the mind-brain. You’re not likely to encounter discussion on this or any other topic that challenges the beliefs of skeptics at an Amazing conference. Though Dawkins proclaimed that skepticism, in contrast to religion, welcomes dissent and debate, alas, there was little evidence of this during the conference. Indeed, the star-struck crowd showed a religious-like enthusiasm for having their preconceived beliefs reinforced by one celebrity speaker after another.

Oddly enough, of all the luminaries who showed up at this tacky Vegas hotel, the most truly amazing of them all was a nondescript JREF staff member who goes by the name of Kramer. 15 years ago, Kramer was among the most brilliant guitarists and songwriters in American rock. If you’ve ever seen Wayne’s World, in particular the scene where Wayne and Garth are prostrating before Aerosmith wailing, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” then you have an idea of how Kramer is perceived by fans the world over. So it was a bit stunning to see him humbly carrying out his duties in the background while the celebrities got all the attention. Why is an ex-rock star working as a JREF staffer? Because he felt there are more important things in life than rock ‘n roll and that JREF offers some hope of restoring sanity to a deranged world.

Despite its flaws, the skeptic movement is attracting dedicated idealists, like Kramer, who believe in the potential of science and rational thought to cast out our many demons. Given what they’re up against-from resurgent creationism to widespread new age nuttery-the people manning this movement deserve praise. But if they’re to be true to their ideals, they must open the floor to scientifically-minded people who are skeptical of the skeptics.

How about Randi vs. Radin at next year’s conference? Now, that would be amazing.

The Undergrowth of Science

Review of skeptic Walter Grazer’s book The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty, Oxford University Press, 2000

In the film ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ there is a famous scene where religious fundamentalists (actually women wearing false beards) gather eagerly to stone to death a blasphemer who has profaned holy law.

The further I got into The Undergrowth of Science by Walter Gratzer, the more I was reminded of those women.

Today’s mob are scientific fundamentalists, acting in the name of reason to save science from blasphemers. The fake beards are a grotesquely distorted form of scientific rationalism.

Mercifully, the weapons are no longer rocks but merely unreflecting insults, malicious ridicule and scorn. They can nevertheless be deeply damaging to the careers of dedicated scientists, as several of this book’s targets discovered to their cost.

Had this book been written by one of the rabid pseudoskeptics who infest the Internet it would not even merit a response. But Walter Gratzer is professor emeritus of Biophysical Chemistry at King’s College London and hence someone you might expect to be careful with facts.

The first, and meatiest part, of the book is a familiar homage to Irving Langmuir, the Nobel Laureate who worked in the US General Electric’s laboratory and who coined the term ‘pathological science’. In 1953 he gave a lecture on self-deluding research to his colleagues. The transcript of this lecture was published in 1989 in the magazine Physics Today with the object of deriding Fleischmann and Pons for their announcement of cold fusion.

Gratzer recounts the cases from Langmuir’s lecture: Blondlot and his imaginary N-Rays; Davis and Barnes’s ‘electron capture’ experiments; and Fred Allison’s magneto-optical method of analysis. Like Langmuir he agrees that each and every case is one of self-delusion and the effects studied non-existent.

And he rehearses approvingly Langmuir’s list of diagnostic criteria for detecting ‘pathological science’

1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity.

2. The effect is near the threshold of visibility or the threshold of any other sense used to detect it, or many, many measurements are needed because of the very low statistical significance of results.

3. There are claims of great accuracy, great sensitivity, or great specifity.

4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.

5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.

6. The ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50 per cent and then falls gradually to oblivion.

He also follows Langmuir in another important way: he fails to bring forward any scientific evidence to show precisely why and how all these cases are ‘pathological’ or delusory. Because Blondlot was obviously barmy we are invited to conclude that all the other scientists mentioned must be guilty of self-delusion too. In reality, the first five of Langmuir’s criteria can be found in many key pieces of scientific research which today are universally accepted.

One of the best examples is Robert Millikan’s measurement of the charge on the electron by the oil-drop method — the laborious inspection of thousands of minute drops through a microscope, at the threshold of detection, and the statistical study of results. Indeed, Millikan’s notebooks reveal that he also selected his data to prove the desired conclusion — yet his method and his value are today accepted as underpinning the whole of atomic science, not decried as delusory.

Langmuir’s sixth criterion is as neat a piece of self-delusion as one could hope to find anywhere in the real undergrowth of science for it is true only in selected cases, and hence not diagnostic. Langmuir and Gratzer themselves cite cases they claim to be delusory science but where research still continues years or decades later.

Finally, they neglect to mention that pseudoskeptics like themselves are often instrumental in ending the research – not some natural loss of interest. For example, Langmuir himself admits that he wrote to Niels Bohr to ‘head off’ any further research into Davis and Barnes ‘electron capture’ and he and other chemists urged publications such as Physical Review to reject further papers by Allison — a policy that was adopted.

Both Langmuir and Gratzer also fail to explain how, if Allison’s magneto-optical apparatus was self-delusion, scientists using it were able correctly to identify a series of unknown inorganic substances in solution with 100% accuracy in blind tests, with a probability of their results being due to chance of 1 in 7560.

Superficially, Gratzer’s book appears well-researched but whenever he gets onto a subject with which I am familiar it becomes plain that he has made a number of errors in his reporting. Moreover, these errors assist the case he is trying to make rather than undermining it.

The colleagues of cold fusion researcher Dr John Bockris, at Texas A&M University did not ‘finally manage to have him removed’ as Gratzer claims. Bockris is now Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M simply because he is now 78 years old and hence retired! Before he retired, in December 1993, a number of Bockris’s scientific colleagues petitioned the provost to have him removed from his post because of his cold fusion work but, to their credit, the Board of Regents at Texas A&M defended his right to conduct chemistry research as he saw fit and rejected this attempt at witch-hunting.

Gratzer describes research into ‘cold fusion’ as ‘The most recent and globally spectacular outbreak of self-delusion — the triumph of desire over reason.’ One of his scientific reasons for saying so is the absence of an expected product of fusion — tritium (the heaviest isotope of hydrogen.) In fact Dr Edmund Storms and colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory conducted 250 cold fusion experiments over a year. They found 13 Palladium electrodes containing excess tritium but Gratzer ignores these findings (and indeed almost every other replication of Fleischmann and Pons).

In a historical discursion, Gratzer follows the usual line of dismissing Anton Mesmer as a charlatan and says, ‘Messmer’s [sic] reputation could not survive this unequivocal judgement [of the Royal Commission] and he departed hastily for Austria, never to return.’ In fact the Royal Commission reported in 1784 and its malediction had no effect at all on Mesmer who remained in Paris and continued to practice. It was the French revolution five years later in 1789 which caused Mesmer to flee to the safety of England.

Many other such careless examples can be found.

Gratzer acknowledges in passing that scientists who pursue research that is considered unsound by their conservative colleagues are unlikely to get published and unlikely to receive funding grants. Yet he fails to connect this phenomenon with the fact that most people in charge of peer review committees and research funding committees are conservative pseudoskeptics like Langmuir and himself. It is yet another diagnostic criterion that in reality is no more than a self-fulfilling prejudice.

Gratzer relates accounts of several notable wrong turnings taken by scientists; ‘polywater’, memory transfer through RNA injections, monkey glands, unnecessary surgical removal of organs — all good knockabout stuff. And there are warnings of what happens when politicians attempt to interfere with science, illustrated by the failed policies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

But buried in the heart of this book is a contradiction that Gratzer makes no serious attempt to resolve. It is this. He piles example upon example of delusory science, with the aim of building in his reader’s minds an unambiguous and categorical distinction between ‘real’ science, acceptable science, of the kind that he and his ‘real’ scientific colleagues practice, and the self-deluding science that is practised by fools and charlatans on the fringes.

But he does not attempt to analyse or define this distinction, and the only tools he offers us to tell which science is delusory and which is real prove to be illusory themselves. Langmuir’s criteria turn out to be subjective and just as applicable to ‘real’ science like Millikan’s. This raises the question how does Gratzer himself know which science is delusory and which real?

Surely the whole of science proceeds by precisely this kind of trial and error process? Theories are proposed, tested, criticised and, sooner or later, accepted or rejected. The failed theories are no less ‘real’ than the successful ones. Of course the process is often far more complex. In many cases ambiguous phenomena continue to be argued about for years or decades, or the experiments continue for years or decades — sometimes longer than they should. But who is qualified to say which cases are which? Take hot fusion for example, which Gratzer holds up as an example of real science. It was first experimented with in the 1950s, there have been numerous false dawns and disappointments, and millions continue to be spent each year, still with no practical results. Hot fusion is as far from reality or commercial exploitation today as it was fifty years ago, yet no-one calls hot fusion self-deluding science. So why not exactly?

To my mind this is the question that Gratzer should be addressing. What — precisely what — is the difference between experiments with hot fusion and those with cold fusion such that the former is respectable and the latter is not?

It is not until the closing chapter of the book that Gratzer finally recognises the problem and asks, ‘How then are we to recognise what I have called (after Irving Langmuir) ‘pathological science’ and distinguish it from an authentic conceptual leap that transcends the wisdom of the day?’

Alas, the question remains unanswered. Gratzer puts forward several suggestions but, finally, recognises that they are inadequate. He again offers us Langmuir’s rules on the grounds of their ‘quite remarkable generality’ but fails to notice their shortcomings because he makes no serious scientific attempt to evaluate them – even though he is a scientist writing about scientific issues.

In a section devoted to science under the Nazis, Gratzer describes Heinrich Himmler thus; ‘Himmler was a man of severely limited intelligence and had no notion of the nature of scientific enquiry. He believed, in particular, that truth was vouchsafed through the imagination and that the task of science was to gather proof of revealed propositions . . .’

This may very well be an accurate description of Himmler’s outlook, but it can equally be applied to some professional scientists. How for instance did Irving Langmuir know that Allison’s method was ‘pathological’? How does Gratzer himself know so clearly that cold fusion is self-delusion? It isn’t experimental evidence because the evidence can be interpreted either way. What is left? Only some kind of ‘truth’ vouchsafed by rationalist intuition alone.

Gratzer’s identity parade of suspects whom he invites us to convict is nothing more than a selective look at some of the normal failures of science with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, a post hoc rationalisation. He simply omits to mention the many other scientific failures which did not raise his hackles at the time.

My sister in law earned a postgraduate degree in nuclear physics by spending several years at CERN looking for a particle which proved probably not to exist. The search for this particle involved many scientists and probably cost millions. But such routine negative results as this do not attract Gratzer’s wrath because it is unimportant to him whether the ‘X’ meson exists or not. But it is very important to him whether cold fusion is real or whether homeopathic dilute solutions are real or whether there is such a thing as a biological form of energy – important enough to write a book denouncing them.

The trouble is that telling us exactly why such subjects are important to him – the one admission that could make this book useful or interesting – is the one thing he avoids revealing to us, as though he would be showing us some fatal weakness in his case.

Voodoo Science

Review of skeptic Robert L. Park’s book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2001

Dr. Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science, is professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He also runs the Washington office of the American Physical Society and is a regular contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post. His views on science are thus of public interest.

In Voodoo Science Robert Park brings an indictment against what he sees as a modern tendency towards junk science and New Age crackpot thinking. He detects this tendency in the media, in advertising and commerce, in medicine and in science itself.

Park brings forward a score of examples of such beliefs and presents them in an entertaining way. His book has been a hit in some sections of the scientific community, especially with commentators like Richard Dawkins, who says, ‘Professor Park does more than debunk, he crucifies. . . You’ll never again waste time or your money on astrologers, ‘quantum healers’, homeopaths, spoonbenders, perpetual motion merchants, or alien abduction fantasists.’

In each of the book’s ten chapters, Robert Park reviews in some detail a case of junk science or pseudoscience that is so preposterous that anyone can see the perpetrator is either a fool or a knave. But he then generalises his findings from this undoubted case of charlatanism to cases in the same field of research but about which much remains unknown, and asserts that these must be equally false — without troubling to offer any scientific evidence as to why these other cases are equivalent to the case he has demolished.

Take for example, the chapter entitled ‘Placebos have side effects.’ Park begins with a salutary tale of a US laboratory that advertised ‘Vitamin O’ capsules for $20 a phial. What is ‘Vitamin O’? The adverts claimed they were ‘stabilised oxygen molecules in a solution of distilled water and sodium chloride’ — simple salt water. Through Park’s intervention, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in, stopped the advertising campaign, and compelled the laboratory to return customers’ money.

Most people would agree that this advertising was a scientific abuse and that Park’s intervention was welcome. But having established his credentials as a White Knight in the murky field of alternative medicine, Park then turns his lance on homeopathy. It is worth studying his analytical methods in some detail, because they are the same methods employed throughout the book. (I should add here that I have no personal interest in or connection with homeopathy other than as a writer on science).

Park gives a brief biography of homeopathy’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, and describes the ideas of treating like with like, and of extreme dilution of homeopathic treatments. He then brings the story up to date with an account of Jacques Benveniste, who he writes off as ‘a French homeopath’ (Dr. Benveniste is, in fact, a molecular biologist who was head of research at France’s National Institute for Health & Medical Research, and an international expert on immunology, and thus might be expected to be better informed on this subject than Dr. Park, a crystallographer).

Park ridicules Benveniste’s research saying, ‘Homeopathists, however, continue to cite Benveniste’s paper as proof of the law of infinitesimals and to concoct vague theories to account for this amazing result.’

Park concludes his survey of homeopathy by remarking, ‘If the infinite-dilution concept held up, it would force a reexamination of the very foundations of science. Meanwhile, there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’

This statement is inexplicable if Dr. Park’s book really is a scientific survey of its subjects because it means that Dr. Park did not trouble himself to make even the most superficial search of the scientific literature on homeopathy. Had he done so he would have discovered the paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1991 by Dr. Paul Knipschild, professor of epidemiology at Limburg University (BMJ 302:316-323). Limburg University is Holland’s centre for control of epidemic diseases (equivalent to Atlanta or Porton Down) and Knipschild is its director.

Homeopathy is widely practised in Holland and the Dutch government came under pressure from adherents to make homeopathic remedies available under the Dutch National Health Service. Dutch skeptics vocally opposed any such use of public funds on what they regarded as quackery.

To settle the question, the Dutch government commissioned a study of clinical trials of homeopathy by medical scientists at the department of epidemiology and health care at Limburg. Their task was to analyse clinical trials that had been done on homeopathy and say whether the investment of public money was justified by the evidence.

The team analysed 105 published studies. They found that 81 trials demonstrated positive results compared to a placebo, while 24 showed no positive effects, and concluded that ‘there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homeopathy, but only by means of well-performed trials.’

Further evaluation, however, is not what Dr. Park has in mind for homeopathy. It seems to me that the case of homeopathy is a particularly interesting one because it also illustrates how scientific intolerance can result simply from a failure of scientific imagination — even when the facts are visible to all.

Dr. Park, like many scientific rationalists, dismisses homeopathy because he cannot see how a liquid such as water can ‘remember’ having dissolved an active ingredient once it has been diluted so much that not even a single molecule of the solute remains. He says, ‘The reputed “memory” of water is only the first of a string of miracles that would be necessary for the law of infinitesimals to be valid.’

Yet Dr. Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate and professor of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, pointed out in the New Scientist that:

‘ . . . criticisms centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water’s structure.’

‘Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’

More simply, anyone who has ever used a mobile phone or laptop computer with a liquid crystal display has already seen concrete evidence of the ‘memory of liquids’ in their everyday lives. This presumably includes Dr. Park, (whose field is crystals) yet, like the rest of us, he fails to connect this everyday experience with an anomalous phenomenon until the obvious is pointed out to him by an investigator with a truly open mind.

What is true for homeopathy is true for many other fields of anomalous study. Park rounds up the usual suspects: cold fusion, over-unity devices, zero-point energy, and sets out to debunk them.

Park reserves his greatest scorn for Drs. Fleischmann and Pons who he depicts as beaten and depressed at the failure of their cold fusion experiment to be replicated by any respectable institution. He also cites the usual objection of lack of fusion products (excess helium, neutron emission, tritium) as evidence of failure.

What Park failed to say was that more then 100 institutions in the United States and Japan have reported successful replication of Fleischmann and Pons’s original experiment, once the correct experimental conditions were established. Dr. Michael McKubre and his team at Stanford Research Institute say they have confirmed Fleischmann-Pons and indeed say they can now produce excess heat experimentally at will. Other U.S. Laboratories reporting positive results include the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, (these were the two U.S. research establishments most closely involved in developing the atomic bomb) Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Weapons Centre at China Lake, Naval Ocean Systems Centre and Texas A & M University.

Dr. Robert Bush and his colleagues at California Polytechnic Institute have recorded the highest levels of power density for cold fusion, with almost three kilowatts per cubic centimetre. This is 30 times greater than the power density of fuel rods in a typical nuclear fission reactor. Overseas organisations include Japan’s Hokkaido National University, Osaka National University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Nippon Telephone and Telegraph corporation. What Park also failed to say is that all the expected fusion products have now been detected in the expected quantities.

Selection or omission of crucial evidence is not the only cause for concern. The level of debate to which Park sometimes descends would be worrying in an undergraduate. In a professor of physics it is alarming. After castigating those responsible for what he considers to be ‘voodo science’ for their lack of rigour, dependence on anecdotal evidence, and generalising from a single example, he tells us why belief in UFOs is pathological. Park explains how, as a young Air Force Officer, in 1954, while driving near Roswell, he saw what he took to be a flying disc. He stopped his car and found the disc was no more than a reflection of his own car headlights. The implication is clear: because he was once mistaken, it follows that all other reports of flying discs are also mistaken. No scientific investigation is needed. Park has settled the matter.

One question remains in all this, and it seems to me to be an important one for science. Dr. Park is a distinguished scientist, a leading member of his profession. His integrity is unassailable and no-one doubts his motives. Yet despite this pedigree and his obvious intellectual gifts, Dr. Park has permitted his views of certain phenomena to be informed not by evidence (such as Dr. Knipschild’s) but by something else which he values even more highly. The question is: what is this something else? Whatever it is, it takes precedence over all Dr. Park’s scientific training and a lifetime of experience as a physicist. The something else, it seems to me, is a philosophical commitment to scientific rationalism as a principle in its own right: a way of looking at the world.

To understand the origin and meaning of a book like Dr. Park’s, one has to understand the significance of a single word. When Dr. Park, and those who think like him, say ‘. . . there is no credible evidence that homeopathic remedies have any effect beyond that of a placebo.’ the crucial word is ‘credible’. When confronted by evidence and experiment, it remains possible for Dr. Park to retain his scientific integrity while, at the same time, rejecting the evidence of the laboratory because it is to his mind ‘not credible’. Dr. Park thus joins many other ‘skeptics’, like Dr. Jonathan Miller, who was so incautious as to say on Channel Four TV, ‘Even if you showed me the evidence for homeopathy, I still wouldn’t believe it’.

The importance of this book, therefore, is that it is likely in future to become a classic psychology text for students of cognitive dissonance in gifted minds.

Dr. Marcello Truzzi, co-founder of CSICOP, coined the handy term ‘pseudoskepticism’ to denote what is becoming an increasingly common form of scientific fundamentalism and vigilantism.

‘Parkism’ could well become an even more useful shorthand for this same phenomenon.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Review of skeptic Robert Todd Carroll’s book The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, John Wiley and Sons, 2003

Robert Todd Carroll is one of a growing band of non-scientists – he teaches philosophy – who believe they are qualified to tell us what we should and shouldn’t believe scientifically. That Robert Todd Carroll has no scientific qualifications, or training, or professional experience does not deter him from his conviction that he is an authority on science.

In The Skeptic’s Dictionary he sets out to tell us ordinary people what we may and may not legitimately think.

This bogus-guru stance should be warning enough of what is to follow, but once he warms to his subject Carroll’s inhibitions disappear completely and he veers from the dogmatic to the preposterous in a hilarious display of scientific ignorance and prejudice.

From a mountain of mistakes and misunderstandings, here are a few of his more entertaining errors.

Acupuncture

Carroll says; “Scientific research . . . has failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any disease.”

Except for the scientific research that has demonstrated acupuncture is effective against some diseases and was published in peer-reviewed scientific journals more than a decade ago, such as Dundee, J.W., 1988, in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dundee, J.W., 1987, in British Journal of Anaesthesia, 59, p 1322. And Fry, E.N.S., 1986, in Anaesthesia, 41: 661-2.

Had Carroll made even the slightest attempt to search the scientific literature he would have found these and many other references to well-conducted double-blind trials in which patients experienced measurable benefits in comparison with the placebo group.

Cryptozoology

‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’ tells us that; “Since cryptozoologists spend most of their energy trying to establish the existence of creatures, rather than examining actual animals, they are more akin to PSI researchers than to zoologists. Expertise in zoology, however, is asserted to be a necessity for work in cryptozoology, according to Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, who coined the term . . .”

Had he read Dr Heuvelmans’ book, Carroll would have learned that the discovery of new species is normal science and many are discovered each year. New species number hundreds amongst insects, and dozens among small mammals and reptiles. Discovery of large unknown mammals and reptiles is unusual but certainly not unknown or even rare.

In 2002, for example, respected primatologist Dr Shelly Williams of the prestigious Jane Goodall Institute in Maryland, tracked and came face to face with a previously unknown species of great ape at Bili in the Congo, deep in the African jungle. The creatures stand some 6 feet tall and weigh up to 225 pounds. Dr Williams reported in New Scientist, “Four suddenly came rushing out of the bush towards me. These guys were huge and they were coming in for the kill. As soon as they saw my face, they stopped and disappeared.”

Dermo-Optical Perception

Carroll says; “Dermo-optical perception (DOP) is the alleged ability to ‘see’ without using the eyes. DOP is a conjurer’s trick, often involving elaborate blindfolding rituals, but always leaving a pathway (usually down the side of the nose), which allows for unobstructed vision.”

The scientific view; Dr Yvonne Duplessis was appointed director of a committee to investigate Dermo-optical sensitivity. Her conclusion is, ‘Controlled studies indicate support for the theory of dermo-optical sensitivity and perception.’

Dr Duplessis’s experiments have even led to a possible perfectly natural explanation. In her conclusions, she says, ‘Thus these different methods show that the thermal feelings induced by visible colors are not subjective, as it is generally admitted, and that the infrared radiations, situated in a far infrared range. are acting on every part of the body. This gives us possible grounds for concluding that also during ordinary visual perception of colored surfaces a human eye reacts not only to rays of the visible spectrum but also to infrared radiation emitted by these surfaces.’

More simply, Dr Duplessis’s experiments appear to show that coloured surfaces reflect energy as heat as well as light and that the eye (like other parts of the human body) is to some extent sensitive to heat as well as to light — a very much simpler explanation than Carroll’s baseless inventions.

Extraterrestrials (UFOs, Flying Saucers)

Carroll says “Edward U. Condon was the head of a scientific research team which was contracted to the University of Colorado to examine the UFO issue. His report concluded that ‘nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge … further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby’.”

Carroll adds, “So far . . . nothing has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft in a way required by common sense and science. That is, there has been no recurring identical UFO experience and there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing.”

Had Carroll troubled to actually read Condon’s report he would have found this conclusion regarding photographs identified by the report as ‘Case 46’:

‘This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses.’

It is perfectly true that Edward Condon concluded that ‘further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified’ but the reason he gave is that it is not possible to study fruitfully a phenomenon that occurs at random. He and his team emphatically did NOT conclude that “there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing” – that is the conclusion of Carroll alone, and it is based purely on ignorance of the real facts as stated in Dr Condon’s report.

Carl Jung

Carroll says; “[Jung’s] notion of synchronicity is that there is an acausal principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. . . What evidence is there for synchronicity? None.”

Carroll carefully neglects to mention that the theory of synchronicity was proposed not by Jung alone but jointly with Wolfgang Pauli, who was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton, a member of Niels Bohr’s team that laid the foundations of Quantum Theory and who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945. There thus exists a reasonable probability that the originator of synchronicity theory knew somewhat more about science than Carroll does. Asking ‘what evidence is there?’ for an explanatory theory that has been advanced specifically to account for previously unexplained evidence is a question even Homer Simpson would blush to ask.

Occult Statistics

Carroll says; “Legions of parapsychologists, led by such generals as Charles Tart and Dean Radin, have also appealed to statistical anomalies as proof of ESP.” But, “Skeptics are unimpressed with occult statistics that assert improbabilities for what has already happened.”

Carroll’s scientific illiteracy finally comes out into the open here. Even his fellow ‘skeptics’ in CSICOP would hesitate to assert that science may only cite statistics on probability in connection with events that have not yet happened!

Probability theory deals with the mathematical calculation of the chances of an event taking place — regardless of whether the event has taken place or not. The probability that a tossed coin will land heads is 50-50 or P=0.5. This is as true for a coin that has already been tossed as it is for one yet to be tossed. If someone were to toss 100 heads in a row having declared in advance their intention to make this happen, then the odds against such a series happening normally are so high as to merit scientific investigation to attempt to determine a cause other than chance.

In the case of the experiments reported by Dean Radin in the respected physics journal Foundations of Physics, the odds against the results obtained in the Princeton Engineering Laboratory coming about by chance alone are one in 10 to the power of 35 (1 in 1035). For Carroll to ignore improbabilities of this magnitude is not being “skeptical” — it is being in denial.

Remote Viewing

Carroll says; “The CIA and the U.S. Army thought enough of remote viewing to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on research in a program referred to as ‘Stargate’.”

Carroll scorns such trials because of the inaccuracy of some statements made by the subjects but, scientifically, the question is not how consistently accurate is remote viewing, but does it exist at all? There is unequivocal evidence that it does.

A recently declassified CIA document details a remarkably accurate example, under controlled conditions, of remote viewing of a top secret Russian base by Pat Price in 1974. Although Price made a lot of incorrect guesses about the target he was able to produce, with startling accuracy, engineering grade drawings of a unique 150-foot high gantry crane with six foot high wheels running into an underground entrance. The existence of this massive structure, exactly as described, was later confirmed through satellite photography.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Carroll says; “While no one has ever witnessed SHC, several deaths involving fire have been attributed to SHC by investigators and storytellers.”

The slightest research would have revealed to Carroll that many cases of possible SHC were independently witnessed by reliable people. In some cases, the victims themselves survived to tell about their experiences.

Cases include London Fire Brigade Commander John Stacey and his fire crew who reached the scene of a burning man within 5 minutes of receiving a emergency call, and the case of Agnes Phillips who burst into flames in a parked car in a Sydney suburb in 1998 and was pulled out by a passer-by.

Many more similar examples of ignorance and prejudice could be quoted from ‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’, but would serve little purpose. It is already abundantly clear that Carroll’s book is no dictionary but a private agenda, and that he himself is no skeptic but a knee-jerk reactionary to the new, the unexpected, the ambiguous and the anomalous.

Robert Todd Carroll is a perfect example of the reason for this site’s existence. Some academic professionals who are meticulously careful of fact in their normal professional life, suddenly throw off all reasoned restraint when it comes to so-called “debunking” of what they consider to be new age nonsense and feel justified in making as many careless and inaccurate statements as they please because they mistakenly imagine they are defending science against weirdos. The reality is that their irrational reaction arises from their own inability to deal scientifically with the new and ambivalent, even when (as in the case of dermo-optical perception) there is probably a simple natural explanation, or when (as in the case of the new Congo primate) it is simply unexpected and previously unknown to science.

This book is a stark warning to every student of science, logic and philosophy of what can happen when an otherwise rational person goes off on a personal crusade motivated by his own self-deluding prejudices.

John Gorenfeld

A Controversy over Sam Harris’s Atheist Views


Sam Harris’s Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture

Sam Harris’s books The End Of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation have established him as second only to the British biologist and author Richard Dawkins in the ranks of famous 21st century atheists. The thrust of Harris’s best-sellers is that with the world so crazed by religion, it’s high time Americans stopped tolerating faith in the Rapture, the Resurrection and anything else not grounded in evidence. Only trouble is, our country’s foremost promoter of “reason” is also supportive of ESP, reincarnation and other unscientific concepts. Not all of it is harmless yoga class hokum — he’s also a proponent of waterboarding and other forms of torture.

“We know [torture] works. It has worked. It’s just a lie to say that it has never worked,” he says. “Accidentally torturing a few innocent people” is no big deal next to bombing them, he continues. Why sweat it? I wanted to interview Harris to find out why a man sold to the American public as the voice of scientific reason is promoting Hindu gods and mind reading in his writing. But we spend much of our time discussing his call for torture and his Buddhist perspectives on “compassionately killing the bad guy.”

In 2004, Sam Harris’ award-winning first book said society should demote Christian, Muslim and Jewish belief to an embarrassment that “disgraces anyone who would claim it,” in doing so catapulting him from obscure UCLA grad student — the son of a Quaker father — to national voice of atheism. The End of Faith may be the first book suitable for the Eastern Philosophy shelf at Barnes & Noble that somehow incorporates both torture and New Age piety, and offers pleas for clear scientific thinking alongside appeals to “mysticism.” The old-fashioned brand of atheist, like the late Carl Sagan, argued eloquently against religion without supporting rituals and ghosts. Harris, however, argues that not just Western gods but philosophers are “dwarfs” next to the Buddhas. And a Harris passage on psychics recommends that curious readers spend time with the study 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.

Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of “xenoglossy,” in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don’t know. Remember the girl in The Exorcist? “When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what’s going on,” Harris tells me. It’s hard to believe what I’m hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism’s “standard-bearer.” Harris writes: “There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science.” On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.

“I’ve received a little bit of grief for that,” he says. “I certainly don’t say that I’m confident that psychic phenomena exist. I’m open-minded. I would just like to see the data.”

To see the “data” yourself, The End of Faith points readers to a slew of paranormal studies.

One is Dr. Ian Stevenson’s Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy. The same author’s reincarnation book presents for your consideration the past life of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who introduced the Beatles to the Maharishi. He was born with a birthmark, it says, right where his past self was knifed to death, aged two.

Making the case for the “20 Cases” researcher, Harris sounds almost like Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis, who said Jesus could only be a liar or the Son of God.

“Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on,” Harris says. “Most scientists would say this doesn’t happen. Most would say that if it does happen, it’s a case of fraud. … It’s hard to see why anyone would be perpetrating a fraud — everyone was made miserable by this [xenoglossy] phenomenon.” Pressed, he admits that some of the details might after all be “fishy.”

Another book he lists is The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. “These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data,” Harris explains. The author, professor Dean Radin of North California’s Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is not accredited for scientific peer review, proclaims: “Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments.”

Harris has spent the past two years doing “full-time infidel” duty, in his words. His second book, Letter to a Christian Nation, takes the infidel persona and runs with it, lashing back at Christians for their intolerance toward his first book.

In a versatile turn, however, Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of The End of Faith. Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured Jews over phony “blood libel” conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, of A Science of Good & Evil, he devotes several pages to upholding the “judicial torture” of Muslims, a practice for which “reasonable men and women” have come out. Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the Inquisition “manufactured” crimes and forced Jews to confess “fictional accomplices.”

But if the Iraq War hasn’t been about “fictional accomplices,” what has? “There’s nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib,” says Harris, who supported the invasion but says it has become a “travesty.” “We abused people who we know had no intelligence value.”

While our soldiers are waging war on Islam in our detention centers, according to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to “modern spiritual practice,” he writes. “[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise,” he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists “uncover genuine facts about the world.” And he tells AlterNet there are “social pressures” against research into ESP.

Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris’s case for torture is this: since “we” are OK with horrific collateral damage, “we” should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. “It’s better than death.” Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out — that Islam itself is our enemy — invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Playing his part in last year’s War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe with Letter to a Christian Nation. The book lumbers under a title so heavy, you’d think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of “wasting time” on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the Right against Muslim Arabs and the “head-in-the-sand liberals” he denounced in a recent editorial. “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living,” he writes.

Thus praising the hard Right for its “moral clarity” in the War on Terror, Harris reserves much of his wrath for nonfundamentalist Christians, whom he considers enablers of a virgin-birth sham.

Fine, but the alternative to Jesus that Harris recommends in The End of Faith is a menu of messiahs. There is Shankara, an avatar of the god Shiva whose water pot could stop floods. There is the first Buddha and his 8th-century successor Padmasambhava. After materializing on a lotus leaf at age 8, Padmasambhava cast a spell that changed his friend into a tiger. “That is objectively stupider than the doctrine of the virgin birth,” Harris says in the interview, however.

Like any religious moderate, he has picked and chosen what he likes from a religion. On the one hand, there’s an obligatory swipe in The End of Faith against Pakistan and India for threatening to nuke each other over “fanciful” religious disputes. The equal-offender pose doesn’t slow Harris from claiming the supremacy of Shankara and other oracles over Europe’s entire secular brain trust. For thousands of years, “personal transformation […] seems to have been thought too much to ask of Western philosophers”, he complains petulantly, as if finding the entire Enlightenment short on self-help tips.

He likes that Buddhism will make you relax. And “dial in various mental states,” he says. In the classic case, he says, “you see various lights or see bliss.” And like a Scientologist cleric promising you the state of Clear, evicting alien ghosts ruining your life, Harris expresses a faith that his own style of pleasurable mental exploration ushers in good deeds. Meditation, he says, will drive out whatever it is “that leads you to lie to people or be intrinsically selfish.”

So it purges your sins? “You become free to notice how everyone else is suffering,” he says. Well, some more than others.

We all need our illusions. But doesn’t his, a mishmash of Buddhism and “Time-Life Mysteries of The Unknown,” weaken his case against Christians? His answer is that Buddhism is a superior product for including the doctrine of “non-dualism,” or unity. “The teachings about self-transcending love in Buddhism go on for miles,” he says. “There’s just a few lines in the Bible.” And hundreds in Dostoyevsky and the Confessions of St. Augustine, but never mind: Harris’s argument that “belief is action” rests on treating works like the Old Testament not as complex cultural fables but something akin to your TiVo instruction manual.

Though it lapses in skepticism, Harris’s work has won a surprising following among nonmystics. Times science writer Natalie Angier felt “vindicated, almost personally understood” reading it, she wrote in a review. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has practically adopted Harris as the American Robin to his Batman in confronting unreason wherever it may lurk in the hearts of men. The End of Faith should “replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land,” blurbs Dawkins.

When that happens, Muslims will check into the Best Western and find a text cheering their torture.

Legendary for his role in the Scopes Monkey Trial, American attorney Clarence Darrow wrote of his admiration for his forbearer Voltaire, the original 18th-century renegade against the church. He thanked Voltaire for dealing superstition a “mortal wound” — and for an end to torture. “Among the illustrious heroes who have banished this sort of cruelty from the Western world, no other name will stand so high and shine so bright.” And then among those who want to bring it back, there stands Sam Harris. “They’re not talking,” Harris is telling me, imagining a torture scenario where the captives clam up, “quite amused at our unwillingness to make them uncomfortable.”

No, it’s not the sticky (and real) case of Jose Padilla, the detainee who may have been reduced by his treatment to mind mush, possibly ruining his trial. Instead he’s sketching out a kind of Steven Seagal action movie scenario in which we lasso Osama or his gang, maybe on the eve of a terror plot. What to do?

“We should say we don’t do it,” Harris says of torture. “We should say it’s reprehensible.” And then do it anyway, he says.

So there it is. In Harris’s vision of future America, we will pursue “personal transformation” and gaze into our personal “I-we” riddles, while the distant gurgles of Arabs, terrified by the threat of drowning, will drift into our Eastern-influenced sacred space, the government’s press releases no more than soothing Zen koans.

– John Gorenfeld


Response to Gorenfeld by Sam Harris

A few of the subjects that I raised in The End of Faith continue to inspire an unusual amount of malicious commentary, selective quotation, and controversy. I’ve elaborated on these topics here:

My position on torture:

In The End of Faith, I argue that competing religious doctrines have divided our world into separate moral communities, and that these divisions have become a continuous source of human violence. My purpose in writing the book was to offer a way of thinking about our world that would render certain forms of conflict, quite literally, unthinkable.

In one section of the book (pp. 192-199), I briefly discuss the ethics of torture and collateral damage in times of war, arguing that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board. Rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, some readers have mistakenly concluded that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, there are certain extreme circumstances in which I believe that torture may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary. I am not alone in this. Liberal Senator Charles Schumer has publicly stated that most U.S. senators would support torture to find out the location of a ticking time bomb. While rare, such “ticking-bomb” scenarios actually do occur. As we move into an age of nuclear and biological terrorism, it is in everyone’s interest for men and women of goodwill to determine what should be done when a prisoner clearly has operational knowledge of an imminent atrocity, but won’t otherwise talk about it.

My argument for the limited use of torture is essentially this: if you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to torture a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk torturing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of torturing high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, many of us tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture. It is important to point out that my argument for the restricted use of torture does not make travesties like Abu Ghraib look any less sadistic or stupid. Indeed, I considered our mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to have been patently unethical. I also think it was one of the most damaging blunders to occur in the last century of U.S. foreign policy.

It is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws will create as slippery a slope as many people imagine. We have a capital punishment provision, for instance, but this has not led to our killing prisoners at random because we can’t control ourselves. While I am opposed to capital punishment, I can readily admit that we are not suffering a total moral chaos in our society because we execute about five people every month. It is not immediately obvious that a rule about torture could not be applied with equal restraint.

I may be true, however, that any legal use of torture would have unacceptable consequences. In light of this concern, the best strategy I have heard comes from Mark Bowden in his Atlantic Monthly article, “The Dark Art of Interrogation.” Bowden recommends that we keep torture illegal, and maintain a policy of not torturing anybody for any reason. But our interrogators should know that there are certain circumstances in which it will be ethical to break the law. Indeed, there are circumstances in which you would have to be a monster not to break the law. If an interrogator finds himself in such a circumstance, and he breaks the law, there will not be much of a will to prosecute him (and interrogators will know this). If he breaks the law Abu Ghraib-style, he will go to jail for a very long time (and interrogators will know this too). At the moment, this seems like the most reasonable policy to me, given the realities of our world.

While my discussion of torture spans only a few pages in a book devoted to reducing the causes of religious violence, many readers have found this discussion deeply unsettling. I have invited them, both publicly and privately, to produce an ethical argument that takes into account the realities of our world — our daily acceptance of collateral damage, the real possibility of nuclear terrorism, etc. — and yet rules out the practice of torture in all conceivable circumstances. No one, to my knowledge, has done this. And yet, my critics continue to speak and write as though a knock-down argument against torture in all circumstances is readily available. I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of innocent civilians ever does. Until someone actually points out what is wrong with the “collateral damage argument” presented in The End of Faith.. I will continue to believe that my critics are just not thinking clearly about the reality of human suffering.

My views on the paranormal – ESP, reincarnation, etc.:

My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists.

My views on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, etc.:

My views on “mystical” or “spiritual” experience are extensively described in The End of Faith and do not entail the acceptance of anything on faith. There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a result of engaging contemplative disciplines like meditation, and there is no question that these experiences shed some light on the nature of the human mind (any experience does, for that matter). What is highly questionable are the metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the basis of such experiences. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support the metaphysical claims of others.

There are several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. While I am not personally engaged in this research, I know many of the scientists who are. This is now a fertile field of sober inquiry, purposed toward understanding the possibilities of human well-being better than we do at present.

While I consider Buddhism almost unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. My criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published in essay form, to the consternation of many Buddhists. It is available here: “Killing the Buddha”.

– Sam Harris


The Anti-Sheldrake Phenomenon

Attacking Morphic Resonance
By Ted Dace, February 2010

By devising a testable hypothesis of natural memory, Rupert Sheldrake has established himself as the world’s central figure in the evolutionary theory of existence. Heir to the lineage of Darwin, Peirce, Bergson, Elsasser and Bohm, Sheldrake bears on his shoulders the weight of their worldview. Attacks on his work amount to an offensive against any alternative to a universe under the control of eternal immutable laws.

In 1980 Bohm proposed that material events are abstracted into an “implicate” order that influences subsequent events in the everyday “explicate” realm. The following year, Sheldrake proposed that current organic events are influenced by a composite of previous, similar events. Are these different theories or just the same theory arrived at by different means? When the scientists got together to discuss their work, they weren’t sure.1
Yet their books received radically different receptions. Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order was treated with the respect owing to any scientific work, while Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life evoked not just hostility but hysteria and out-of-thin-air accusations of pseudoscience.

In part the differing responses reflected the more evolved thinking of physicists. Once you’ve resigned yourself to quantum entanglement, memory as a property of nature doesn’t seem particularly outlandish. Biology, however, has yet to experience its quantum shock. Stuck in a 19th century time warp, most biologists inhabit a tidy world of cause and effect on the basis of contact mechanics.

Pope John

But this alone can’t account for the curiously different treatment afforded Sheldrake, since his book garnered positive reviews from publications such as New Scientist and Biologist. 2 It was only after journalist John Maddox put in his two cents that the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon condensed like a raindrop around a particle of dust. Before long the storm of abuse had commenced.

It was Maddox who, as editor of Nature, infamously proclaimed Sheldrake’s book “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” As he elaborated for the BBC in 1994, “Sheldrake’s is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.” 3

Leibniz thought universal gravitation was an attempt to smuggle the occult into science, but at least he never called Newton a heretic. Maddox, on the other hand, revealed an attitude more in line with a pope than a scientist. Having confused science with the rigid doctrine that every event has a physical cause contiguous to it in space and time, he couldn’t accept that Sheldrake’s proposal, which defies this primitive belief, is logically coherent and fully testable. Adding to his revulsion was the fact that Sheldrake was an insider, a scientist with impeccable credentials, including numerous publications in peer reviewed journals, Nature itself among them.4

Whether or not “formative causation” turns out to be true, that it’s a scientific theory is a simple fact. By denying this fact, Maddox sinned against science. Perhaps dimly aware of his disloyalty to the project of clarity and enlightenment, Maddox projected his heresy onto Sheldrake rather than face up to his own failings.

Reductionism

At the heart of reductionism is the confusion of assumption with fact. Though we can always say in retrospect that a given event must have been caused by a spatially contiguous prior event, when we look at the behavior of cells and organisms, we find that physics leaves room for many possible actions. That a particular event takes place doesn’t mean it was mechanically forced or that things couldn’t just as easily have played out differently.

Biologists assume they have physics on their side, but physics isn’t so sure. According to Gabor Forgacs and Stuart A Newman, the recognition that organisms cannot disobey physics “is of limited value” in explaining their behavior. In their textbook, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Forgacs and Newman explain that while physics operates by reducing complex systems to simple components, in organisms complexity is a “fundamental and irreducible property.” Because complexity has to be taken “as is,” physical analysis is limited in explaining living systems. 5

Contrary to popular belief, biologists only assume the operations of an organism are explicable according to causal mechanics. As Forgacs and Newman put it, “While it is obvious that nothing in development, or in any other domain of biology for that matter, can occur without the participation of physical mechanisms, the high degree of structural and dynamical complexity of most living systems makes it exceedingly difficult, in general, to follow the workings of basic physical principles or appreciate their roles.” This becomes increasingly apparent with the emergence of complex structures such as immune, hormonal, circulatory, vascular and nervous systems.6

Far from being under strict mechanical control, an embryo makes use of mechanisms to achieve its goals. Left unchecked, a physical process that aids its development will ultimately destroy it. The initiation and termination of such processes within and among cells “ensures that each driving force is constrained… and that the whole complex of forces is subordinated to the survival and propagation of the organism.” 7

When the embryo is faced with numerous possible actions, how does it know which one is right? Forgacs and Newman follow the standard assumption that embryonic development is guided by information encoded in its genes. The basic idea can be expressed in a simple equation: physics plus genes equals organism.

But this only pushes the question back a step. How does the embryo know which genes to activate at any given point in its development? The answer must come from beyond the genes themselves. Molecular biologists suggest that a cell’s position in the embryo is enough to determine its fate. Simply by being in a particular spot in the blastula, a given blastomere is destined to turn out as a certain kind of differentiated cell. All it takes is non-uniform distribution of “morphogens,” and voila, all the instructions are automatically in place for determining which genes to turn on at which places and times in order to construct the completed organism. Morphic resonance offers a less miraculous solution: the embryo simply does whatever its forerunners did when they reached the same developmental stage.

The genius of the memory theory is that the capacity to reach into our past also accounts for recollection at the personal level and, by extension, our enduring sense of self. Contact mechanics, on the other hand, offers no possibility of explaining our indivisible self-existence, much less our intelligence and self-determination.

If an organism, including a human being, is nothing more than its material components, the mind is nothing more than the brain at work. Our recollections and thoughts and feelings are reduced to stored information and cerebral computations. Needless to say, this model is inherently problematic. We have information in the brain, and we have a conscious person, but we have no idea how to connect them. How are the brain’s calculations registered by the whole person?

The obvious parallel to neural information storage is the computer, but this only makes things worse. A computer needs someone to operate it. If the brain is a computer, where’s the user? If it’s the person as a whole, why not put the information there, at the level of the whole mind? Once we recognize the organism as a self-referential unit irreducible to material components, why bother trying to fit all the elements of mind into brain? If we deny holistic self-existence, the user of the neural computer must be a homunculus located somewhere in the circuitry. It goes without saying that no such entity has turned up, despite Descartes’ helpful tip to look at the pineal gland. With neither conscious self nor homunculus, we’re left with information accessing itself. But if we’re going to accept self-accessing information, why not self-existent consciousness?

The funny thing about the denial of the reality of ourselves is that our self-nature is nothing if not self-evident.

In the absence of proof either way, morphic resonance is the default assumption, as it’s the only approach that can tie together the experiential and biological levels of life. Establishment attacks against Sheldrake are expressions of insecurity stemming from an ideology that can’t provide a plausible account of what it means to be alive.

Once Maddox opened the gate, legions of ideologues felt free to launch their own misguided attacks. Somehow it seemed acceptable, even for nonscientists, to ridicule a distinguished scientist with the audacity to propose a testable theory of development from the egg. What unites these dogmatic reductionists is their delusion that they represent “scientific skepticism.”

Shermer’s Sophistry

“Science,” according to renowned physicist Richard Feynman, “is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 8 Yet Skeptic magazine, edited by Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, is all about fringe beliefs and rarely takes on expert opinion. Like arch skeptic Martin Gardner, Shermer serves as an enforcer for establishment beliefs, not a critic.

Shermer seems to think science is a popularity contest. “The person making the extraordinary claim,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “has the burden of proving to the experts and the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.” You must lobby to get your opinion heard and “marshal experts on your side so you can convince the majority.” Once you’ve done that, “the burden of proof switches to the outsider who wants to challenge you with his or her unusual claim.”9

In a chapter devoted to “how thinking goes wrong,” Shermer calls attention to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that whatever event preceded a given event must have caused it.10 This is indeed a “superstition,” as he says, but he doesn’t realize it characterizes the entire approach of mechanistic biology. First genes are transcribed. Then cells form into organs. Ergo gene transcription causes bodily formation. It doesn’t occur to orthodox biologists that both events could result from a deeper cause, namely the efforts of the organism to match the activities of its predecessors, whether at the genetic or multicellular level.

A true believer in the reduction of the organism to machine-like operations, Shermer’s prime directive seems to be the prevention of any skeptical inquiry into his own ingrained beliefs. During a 2007 interview with Shermer, I asked him what he thought about the apparent creativity of living things. “What does this mean, internal creativity? Positing some sort of metaphysical thing or something. At some point we’re gonna ask, well, what is this internal creativity? Quit using that word. Give us something that we can actually test in the lab. What are you talking about – – genomes? Protein chain things? What is it you’re talking about?”11

Shermer’s Orwellian approach would stifle inquiry to the point where we can’t even articulate our thoughts. As he put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.” Apparently it’s okay to speculate about forces or properties of nature when you’re a physicist, but in biology everything has to be broken down to something akin to the workings of a cuckoo clock.

You’d think the idea that genes and their signature proteins conspire to build a living body from a microscopic envelope of carbon-rich compounds ought to be subject to skeptical evaluation, but Shermer obediently follows the pack and assumes all mystery has been eliminated and that there’s no need to investigate any further into how organisms emerge from the eggs or, for that matter, how new species emerge from ancestral species.

When I proposed that evolution involves the innate intelligence of organisms, Shermer went right off the rails. “This is not a debate in science. No one has this debate. I’ve never heard this debate before, and I go to all these evolution conferences. Nobody debates this. This is an outside of science debate. This is a Rupert Deepak Chopra debate. It’s a different kind of creationism. But it has nothing to do with science.”

So the idea that organisms creatively adapt their behavior, which then triggers bodily changes, is just another kind of creationism. Darwin’s theory of evolution, in other words, is another kind of creationism. But there’s a certain logic to Shermer’s unreflective acceptance of expert opinion. After all, Darwin wasn’t a professional biologist but only an amateur student of nature.

So confused is our “skeptic” that he cites complexity theory as a basis for his reductionist bias. “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” Quite the contrary. According to the science of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, complex systems are fundamentally holistic and goal-directed. A tornado, for example, pops into being in order to eliminate the temperature gradient between warm air near the ground and cold air above. Complexity isn’t built up stepwise or otherwise from simplicity but emerges fully formed as if from the head of a thermodynamic Zeus. Whether living or only lifelike, self-organized systems are shaped by energy flows rather than their constituent molecules. DNA is no more responsible for building organisms than dust is responsible for building tornados.

“Some things,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “such as water dowsing, extrasensory perception and creationism, have been tested and failed the test often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false.” 12 He’s wrong on all counts, though for different reasons. For starters, to include creationism here makes no sense at all, as this belief represents a rejection of science and, unlike scientific propositions, cannot be put to the test and definitively refuted. If you say a deity wouldn’t fashion a species only to let it go extinct, the creationist can simply respond that God works in mysterious ways. There’s no arguing against an attitude such as this.

Water dowsing, on the other hand, is indeed testable. However, the results have been ambiguous. Some practitioners find underground water sources at rates no better than chance, while others succeed astonishingly well. Einstein was so impressed by reports of successful dowsing that he offered electromagnetic fields as a possible explanation. By contrast, Shermer dismisses it without so much as a glance at the evidence. In so doing he aligns himself with the Inquisition, which condemned “water witching” for precisely the same reason as Shermer, because such a strange practice introduces uncertainty and defies the orderliness of the reigning belief system, whether based around laws of God or nature.

As to extrasensory perception, this phenomenon has been verified countless times in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. Such experiments are a matter of public record, and their significance has been confirmed by independent statisticians. Shermer could read all about it in Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Instead, he rejects it without investigation, as if all “psychic” entanglement is simply impossible. If physicists had taken that approach with quantum entanglement, we’d have lost an opportunity to learn something about nature.

In keeping with his blind faith in expert opinion, Shermer says scientists admit to their errors, while “pseudoscientists… ignore or rationalize failures.” This tendency is known as “heads I win, tails you lose.”13 If an experiment demonstrates the sought-after results, it was legitimate, but if it shows negative results, it must have been poorly designed or executed.

As Stephen Rothman demonstrates, this mindset is alive and well in establishment science. For many years a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, Rothman raises numerous examples of “heads I win, tails you lose” trickery among his colleagues, in particular regarding the vesicle theory of protein transport. According to this theory, proteins can’t spontaneously go where they’re needed in a cell but must be transported by a mechanism. If protein is found where the theory predicts, it verifies the theory. If protein is found in the wrong location, it’s written off as a “contaminant.” With the use of autoradiography, scientists determine the best exposure time according to whichever time produces the results they were looking for. If samples fail to show the desired results, it’s assumed that the process of taking samples was somehow flawed. And so on.14

The basic problem, says Rothman, is the failure of most experts to doubt their own beliefs. It doesn’t help that “skeptics” encourage them in their self-certainty. “The call to authority,” he warns, “is sometimes dressed in the garb of scientific skepticism.” 15

Fishing for a suitably balancing quote from a “media skeptic” in a 2003 story on Sheldrake’s research into telepathy, USA Today called on Shermer, who obliged with his allegation that Sheldrake “never met a goofy idea he didn’t like.”16 Following in the tradition of pseudoskepticism, Shermer would rather bully a marginalized thinker than do the hard work of scrutinizing the authority of expert opinion.

In a column for Scientific American, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Shermer implies that Sheldrake defines form in terms of “fields of information,” though in reality Sheldrake defines form the way anyone else would, in terms of the shape and internal structure of objects. Shermer then claims morphic resonance takes place within a “universal life force,” a reference to the archaic belief that a “vital force” animates living matter and thereby distinguishes it from nonliving matter.17 Sheldrake, of course, makes no mention of any life force, and in fact proposes morphic resonance as a general property of nature that accounts for repeating crystal formations as much as stereotypical living processes.

After mischaracterizing morphic resonance, Shermer abruptly shifts gears and analyzes Sheldrake’s unrelated assertion that people can detect when being stared at from behind. Shermer deceives his readers by implying that Sheldrake’s only evidence for this ability is a test that can be downloaded from his website and performed by anyone with an internet connection. Shermer points out that these tests can’t be trusted, as if he came up with that brilliant insight on his own. However, as Sheldrake himself wrote, in a paper that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, “because the tests were unsupervised, there is no way of assessing their reliability.” 18

Shermer refers to this paper but leaves out that quote. More to the point, he fails to mention that Sheldrake also conducted supervised experiments showing the same positive results as the informal web-based trials.

Shermer’s sophistry continues with a just-so story meant to explain why so many people think they can sense when they’re being stared at. When you get that “funny feeling,” he says, you turn around, and your movement causes whoever happens to be there to look back. Of course, the whole point of testing this ability is to exclude precisely this sort of possibility.

Skepticism is in the eye of the beholder. Though Shermer is correct that doubt is the default position when it comes to unproven claims, he doesn’t realize that when he says people are routinely fooled by their sense of telepathy, this too is a claim that ought to engender skeptical inquiry. Has he tested this claim? Has he conducted trials showing that people easily gain a false sense of being stared at from behind? Then again, why bother putting your claim to the test when you already know you’re right?

Not exactly a scientific approach.

Shermer disingenuously implies that the first formal test of the sense of being stared at was conducted by John Colwell of Middlesex University of London, though in fact Colwell was merely attempting to replicate Sheldrake’s 1999 experiment, which involved a random sequence of trials in which the subject was sometimes stared at from behind and sometimes not. The idea was to see if the person could guess, at better than chance rates, when someone was actually there.

When Colwell, to his surprise, produced the same positive results as Sheldrake, he chalked it up to a hidden pattern in the sequence of trials that the participants had somehow stumbled onto, enabling them to produce results significantly above chance. Colwell never explained how Sheldrake’s randomization procedure was not really random, and he was apparently unaware that Sheldrake got the same results even when a coin toss determined whether someone would be staring at the subject during a given trial.19

Shermer goes on to claim, again falsely, that psychologist Richard Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s experiment and got negative results. First of all, Wiseman put the subject on closed circuit television, so the person assigned to do the staring was actually watching a monitor. Second, even with this change-up, Wiseman still got the same results as Sheldrake and only managed to arrive at his desired negative results when he dismissed his student volunteers and took over the role of staring himself.20

Right about here, Shermer might have noted that when Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s test of a dog that seemed to know, from a distance, if its owner was returning home, he reproduced Sheldrake’s results and then misrepresented his own findings, claiming to have refuted what he actually verified. Instead Shermer allows his readers to think Wiseman is a reliable source.21

Shermer attributes Sheldrake’s data to confirmation bias, meaning he got the results he was looking for. Yet this critique applies just as well to researchers seeking negative results, such as Wiseman and Colwell, who also managed to eliminate positive results by taking over the role of staring at subjects. Since Sheldrake points out that negative expectations of the person doing the staring could conceivably dampen the effect, Shermer claims the effect is therefore unfalsifiable. He leaves out the fact that most of the people doing the staring have been student volunteers with no predilection to believe or disbelieve. If their sessions produced negative results, the effect would indeed be falsified, but that’s not what has happened.

Finally, Shermer seems to think Sheldrake must be wrong because the responses from mainstream academics to his Journal of Consciousness Studies paper ranged from neutrality to rejection.

Skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion? Not this “skeptic.”

Sheldrake duly responded to Shermer’s hatchet job, but Scientific American, to its discredit, refused to print a letter that would have exposed the sloppy thinking and outright deception of one of its columnists.22

Much of Shermer’s work is laudable, especially in the area of mass delusions such as holocaust denial and modern witch crazes. But he can’t own up to the fact that he himself got caught up in the hysteria of the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon.

Carroll’s Confusion

Whereas Shermer at least demonstrates basic competence in the art of sophistry, Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll unleashes a spectacular series of blunders in his entry on morphic resonance.23 After repeating the bogus charge of vitalism, Carroll accuses Sheldrake of working outside the “paradigm of science.” Yet Sheldrake’s central proposal, that natural systems are influenced by similar previous systems, is easily testable, as neuroscientist Steven Rose demonstrated when he tried (and failed) to refute it.

Carroll stumbles again with his claim that morphic resonance leaves no room for genetic influence over the forms and functions of the organism. Sheldrake, however, is absolutely clear on the need for a complementary approach, with genes differentiating individuals within a given species and morphic resonance providing the general background form common to all members of a species.24 Compounding his confusion, Carroll asserts that Sheldrake has substituted laws of nature with morphic resonance. Yet it was philosopher CS Peirce who substituted laws of nature with habits of nature, and Sheldrake’s contribution is to explain universal habit according to resonance based on similarity of form.

Incredibly, Carroll associates morphic resonance with Plato’s concept of a timeless realm of static Forms, ignoring the fact that Sheldrake’s hypothesis is explicitly designed to bring formative causation into the stream of time, thereby opening up the possibility that natural forms can evolve rather than simply reflecting fixed, eternal types.25

Unable to argue his way around Sheldrake, Carroll attempts to smear him as an occultist peddling metaphysics and the paranormal. Given the well-established concept of action at a distance in physics, the occult charge is inexcusable. As to metaphysics, Sheldrake avoids it like the plague, both in the informal sense of supernatural explanation and in the proper philosophical sense of a theory of reality. Ironically it’s Carroll who embraces the metaphysics of reductionism as a dualistic explanation of reality according to passive matter and deterministic law. As to the paranormal, Sheldrake asserts that if telepathy, for instance, turns out to be real, then by definition it is normal.

Carroll says morphic resonance has the same scientific status as the engram, a term he claims was coined by L Ron Hubbard. In fact, the concept of the engram was introduced by eminent German zoologist Richard Semon, though it was his concept of mnemic homophony that really informed Sheldrake’s work. Of course, even when you get your facts right, guilt by association is never an honorable or scientific tactic.

Pharyngula

In contrast to writers like Maddox, Shermer and Carroll, scientists generally have enough sense to refrain from condemning the work of other scientists, particularly if they haven’t taken the trouble to understand it. Alas this is not the case with biologist PZ Myers, who has launched uninformed ad hominem attacks against Sheldrake in his blog, “Pharyngula.” In his entry, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Myers reveals his own religious-like attitude toward science.26

Myers begins by referencing a discussion between Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins in which Dawkins, apparently unaware of quantum entanglement, asserted that telepathy would “turn the laws of physics upside down.” Demonstrating its existence would therefore require extraordinary evidence. Sheldrake responded that it would be far more extraordinary if everyone who claims to have experienced telepathy is deluded. Myers twists this statement around by claiming that Sheldrake denies the possibility that people could be deluded about their experience. On this basis, Myers pronounces his verdict. “This man is nuts.”

Really? Sheldrake is nuts because he thinks a popular belief just might be true? Apparently Myers views reason as the province of an educated and trained elite. Since ordinary people can’t possibly think logically on the basis of evidence, in order to know anything, they must consult a member of the scientific priesthood, like Myers for instance.

As with Carroll, Myers hasn’t done his homework. His major point of dispute is that Sheldrake provides no mechanism for telepathy, and therefore his research is meaningless. Aside from the obvious fact that investigators are perfectly capable of detecting phenomena without necessarily knowing their cause, Myers seems to have no idea that Sheldrake is first and foremost a biologist and that his interest in telepathy grew entirely out of his theoretical work in biology.

Morphogenetic Fields

That said, Sheldrake’s explanation of psychic phenomena, which involves the concept of morphogenetic fields, is perhaps problematic. In the 1920s, as biologists came to grips with the problem of how activities are coordinated within and among cells, Paul Weiss and other theorists began discussing the idea of a field effect within developing organisms. Like a magnetic field, the morphogenetic or “form-giving” field would inform cells as to their proper place in the embryo. But Weiss doesn’t seem to have taken the term literally, and to this day it’s generally not considered an actual physical field. Arguing that they’re as real as gravitational and electromagnetic fields, Sheldrake contends that they coordinate activities of cells within bodies, insects within colonies and, yes, even enabling psychic links between individuals.

While there’s a great deal of evidence for morphic resonance, is a field concept really needed as well? True, the parts of an embryo seem to be coordinated much in the way that iron filings are brought into order by a magnetic field, but once we admit to the existence of the morphogenetic field, it becomes an intermediary between current and past organisms. Instead of resonating directly with past embryos, the current embryo is organized by a field, and it’s the field that resonates with past embryos. This complicates an otherwise elegant theory.

Though Sheldrake is right to look to physics for a model of how the embryo’s parts are coordinated at a distance, a better model might be the nonlocal effect of quantum entanglement. Just as photons are entangled insofar as they materialize a common form, the act of resonating with a common form may entangle cells of a given type. This would explain their coordinated efforts without the need for a field concept.

Sheldrake explains the “phantom limb” effect, whereby an amputee still senses a limb after its removal, by proposing that an arm, for instance, is governed by a morphogenetic field that remains in place even after the arm itself is removed. But if the individual is in resonance with his own past, back when he still had both arms, this alone would explain the phenomenon without appealing to a field effect. Same goes for “psychic pets.” Just as entanglement is easy to measure among particles that have recently interacted, once a pet and its owner have bonded, they too might remain nonlocally connected.

The morphogenetic field is inherently perplexing. Ever since its introduction, it has occupied a twilight zone between reality and heuristic concept. As soon as Forgacs and Newman define morphogenetic fields as nothing more than concentrations of chemical “morphogens,” they turn 180 degrees and claim that concentrations of morphogens are determined by morphogenetic fields.27 No one seems to know how to approach the field, the only agreement being that the parts of embryos are coordinated in a way that has yet to be explained from a materialistic standpoint.

Perhaps Sheldrake slipped up with his literal reading of morphogenetic fields, much as Darwin went astray with his concept of pangenesis. Even if this is true, however, it’s no excuse for the disgraceful treatment he has received from ideologues both inside and outside the sciences.

Fear of Science

To really criticize Sheldrake, you’ve got to open your mind enough to acquire a basic understanding of his work. Like Maddox before them, Shermer, Carroll and Myers think they can refute one of our foremost thinkers with a few insulting remarks. Dismissing out of hand any evidence that might bolster Sheldrake’s theory, their approach is to philosophize their way clear of him. A more thoroughly anti-science attitude can hardly be imagined. What the “scientific skeptics” reveal in their attempts to banish morphic resonance is their own underlying fear of science.

Instead of opening up to novel possibility, reductionists occupy a closed system of thought which they mistake for science itself. Rather than admit to their credulous commitment to the metaphysics of mechanistic reductionism and their fear and trembling in the face of real science, pseudo-skeptics cultivate the delusion that they are its foremost defenders. By narcissistically identifying themselves with science, they imagine that anything at odds with their own belief system is therefore contrary to science. Much like a cult, they reinforce each other’s confusion and sense of righteousness in the face of an implacable and unreasoning enemy, all the while imagining their efforts at maintaining collective self-satisfaction amount to some kind of noble undertaking.

Whereas true skepticism is the doubt that flushes out superstition and makes way for knowledge, cult skepticism is the absolute certainty in the falsehood of any suggestion in conflict with the ingrained prejudices of its adherents.

This world is indeed chock full of irrational thinking, and the methodology of science offers us an antidote. For this reason, the systematic confusion of science with reductionist dogma is the most dangerous cult of them all.

References

1. Sheldrake, Rupert, A New Science of Life (3rd Edition), London: Icon Books, 2009, pp 303-309
2. Ibid, front cover
3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRjQmZLT8bI
4. Sheldrake, A.R., “The ageing, growth and death of cells,” Nature, 250, 381-385, August 2, 1974 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v250/n5465/abs/250381a0.html
5. Forgacs, Gabor and Newman, Stuart A, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p 1
6. Ibid, pp 188-189
7. Ibid, p 50
8. quoted in Smolin, Lee, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p 307
9. Shermer, Michael, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and other confusions of our time, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997, pp 50-51
10. Ibid, p 53
11. http://www.reason9.com/podcast/index.php?id=10
12. Shermer, 1997, p 16
13. Ibid, p 53
14. Rothman, Stephen, Lessons from the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp 185, 210, 213
15. Ibid, p 283
16. Peterson, Karen S, “Paranormal is normal, controversial scientist says,” USA Today, February 26, 2003 http://www.usatoday.com/news/science/2003-02-26-mindmain-usat_x.htm
17. Shermer, Michael, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American,
November 2005, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ruperts-resonance
18. Sheldrake, Rupert, “The Sense of Being Stared At, Part 1: Is it Real or Illusory?”
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, No. 6, 2005, p 16
19. Ibid, p 24
20. Ibid, p 26
21. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Richard Wiseman – Attempts to Debunk Evidence on Dogs
22. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Do Skeptics Play Fair?
23. Carroll, Robert Todd, The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003, pp 231-232
http://www.skepdic.com/morphicres.html
24. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 89
25. Ibid, pp 106-107
26. Myers, PZ, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Pharyngula,
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/06/the_sheldrake_phenomenon.php
27. Forgacs and Newman, 2005, p 125

Dogmatic Skepticism Does Not Advance Science

by Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D.

Biologist and author best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance. At Cambridge University he worked in developmental biology as a Fellow of Clare College.

Rupert Sheldrake
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Dear Deepak,

I read your exchange with Michael Shermer with much interest. I agree with both of you about the need for skepticism as a essential part of the scientific process. But media skeptics are not usually part of a constructive scientific debate but rather follow a narrow, negative agenda. Michael claimed that skeptics such as himself are “thoughtful, inquiring, and reflective.” But there is a big gulf between this ideal and what media skeptics actually do, which, as you pointed out, all too often involves condemning open-minded inquiry. Like you, I have been the target of many skeptical attacks, and my experience has been very similar to your own.

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