Category Archives: Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore Doesn’t Get It Right

Dr. Susan Blackmore is a CSICOP/CSI Fellow and was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991, and used to be one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. She started her career by doing research in parapsychology, but left the field and later devoted herself to the study of memes, as proposed by Richard Dawkins.

Blackmore commented on my experiments with Jaytee in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, claiming that she had spotted “design problems.” She wrote, “Sheldrake did 12 experiments in which he bleeped Pam at random times to tell her to return… When Pam first leaves, Jaytee settles down and does not bother to go to the window. The longer she is away, the more often he goes to look.

 [Y]et the comparison is made with the early period when the dog rarely gets up.”

But anybody who looks at the actual data can see for themselves that this is not true. In five out of the twelve experiments with random return times, Jaytee did not settle down immediately Pam left. In fact he went to the window more in the first hour than during the rest of Pam’s absence.

In the light of Blackmore’s comments, I reanalyzed the data from all twelve experiments excluding the first hour. The percentage of time that Jaytee spent by the window in the main period of Pam’s absence was actually lower when the first hour was excluded (3.1 percent) than when it was included (3.7 percent). By contrast, Jaytee was at the window 55.0 percent of the time when she was on the way home. Taking Blackmore’s objection into account strengthened rather than weakened the evidence for Jaytee knowing when his owner was coming home, and increased the statistical significance of the comparison.

In addition, if Blackmore had taken the trouble to look at our data more thoroughly, she would have seen that we did a series of control tests, in which Pam did not come home at all. Jaytee did not go to the window more and more as time went on.

Blackmore’s claim illustrates once again the need to treat what skeptics say with skepticism.

Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books.

Susan Blackmore’s Research

Chris Carter

Charles Honorton, in his classic article ‘Rhetoric Over Substance’ noted an important difference between the psi controversy and more conventional scientific disputes. Controversies in science normally occur between groups of researchers who formulate hypotheses, design experiments, and then collect data in order to test their hypotheses. But as Honorton wrote, “In contrast, the psi controversy is largely characterized by disputes between a group of researchers, the parapsychologists, and a group of critics who do not do experimental research to test psi claims or the viability of their counterhypotheses.”

This lack of research may surprise anyone whose main source of information has been the skeptical literature. For instance, in 1983 the well-known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote:

“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.”

But as Honorton pointed out, “Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptics’ experiments and see what you find.” For the most part, skeptics have simply criticized from the sidelines, and have produced no experimental research of their own.

One notable exception to this rule has been British psychologist Susan Blackmore. She began working on a PhD in parapsychology in the 1970’s, but has repeatedly claimed that she has failed to find any evidence for the existence of psi. For instance, she wrote in 1996: “When I decided to become a parapsychologist I had no idea it would mean 20 years of failing to find the paranormal.” Blackmore has made a career for herself as one of the world’s most well known skeptics of psi, and in 1988 was elected a Fellow of CSICOP.

In a number of publications Blackmore claims to have become increasingly skeptical of the existence of psi phenomena after “ten years of intensive research in parapsychology.” These claims led parapsychologist Rick Berger to critically examine the Blackmore experiments in great detail, and he found that “The claim of ‘ten years of psi research’ actually represents a series of hastily constructed, executed, and reported studies that were primarily conducted during a 2-year period.’” These consisted of a set of experiments conducted between October 1976 and December 1978 for her PhD dissertation.

Blackmore reported 29 experiments completed over this two-year period, of which 21 were eventually published as separate experiments in five parapsychology journal papers. Seven of these experiments produced statistically significant results. Although these experiments form the basis of Blackmore’s claim of “failing to find the paranormal”, the odds against 7 successes out of 21 happening by chance are over 20,000 to one!

So, how does Blackmore reconcile the fact of 7 successful experiments out of 21 with her often-repeated claim that her own research led her to become a skeptic? Simple: results from successful experiments were dismissed as due to flaws in the experiment, yet study quality was simply ignored when the results were nonsignificant. There are many design flaws that can lead to false positive results, but there are also many that can lead to false negatives, such as inadequate sample size (low statistical power), inappropriate sampling, and so forth. Berger writes “Blackmore’s database is replete with examples of such flaws”, and continues:

“Some skeptics, including Blackmore, argue that differing standards of experimental design can be held depending on study outcome: Significant positive outcomes must have tighter designs than the same study with a negative outcome. This post hoc determination of experimental criticism leads to the paradox exemplified by the Blackmore work: Had such work produced consistently positive outcomes, the results could all be dismissed as having arisen from design flaws… Negative conclusions based on flawed experiments must not be given more weight than positive conclusions based on the same flawed experiments.”

In other words, our decision to invoke study flaws to dismiss the results of an experiment should not be influenced by our preconceptions of what the result “should have been.” But this seems to have been exactly what Blackmore has done in order to justify her beliefs, as evidenced in the following remark of hers:

“Well, if you don’t find evidence of ESP, what can you say? Only that you have failed to find something which, according to science, shouldn’t have been there in the first place!”

As we shall see, this appeal to ‘science’ as a monolithic body of conclusions that tell you in advance what should and should not be the case is a rhetorical tactic often used by Blackmore. But at any rate, Berger finally concluded:

“Blackmore’s claims that her database shows no evidence of psi are unfounded, because the vast majority of her studies were carelessly designed, executed, and reported, and in Blackmore’s own assessment, individually flawed. As such, no conclusions should be drawn from this database…. Blackmore is extremely vocal in decrying psi research in her writings, on television and radio, and before the skeptical advocacy group CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), citing her own work as the basis for her strong convictions. … [She] has achieved a notable position in the skeptical community based on her conversion from believer to skeptic during her “ten years of negative research.” Her insistence to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe that my review of her psi research has achieved a constructive end by showing that her conversion from parapsychologist to CSICOP Fellow had no scientific basis in her own experimental work.”

The same journal issue also includes a response by Blackmore to Berger’s critique, in which Blackmore conceded “I agree that one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi based on these experiments.” Near the end of his critique Berger had written “During my aborted meta-analysis of Blackmore’s published work, I was struck by patterns in the data suggestive of the operation of psi…. Without a serious meta-analysis of the original unpublished source material, complete with weighting for flaws…the issue of whether the Blackmore experiments show evidence for psi cannot be resolved.” Presumably eager to nip this embarrassment in the bud, Blackmore hastened to say “I am glad to be able to agree with his final conclusion – ‘that drawing any conclusion, positive or negative, about the reality of psi that are based on the Blackmore psi experiments must be considered unwarranted.’”

It is interesting to examine Blackmore’s writings before and after Berger’s critique. Two years earlier, in an article for Skeptical Inquirer entitled “The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology”, she wrote:

“How could I weigh my own results against the results of other people, bearing in mind that mine tended to be negative ones while everyone else’s tended to be positive ones? I had to find some kind of balance here. At one extreme I could not just believe my own results and ignore everyone else’s…. At the other extreme I could not believe everyone else’s results and ignore my own. That would be even more pointless. There would have been no point in all those years of experiments if I didn’t take my own results seriously.” (Emphasis added.)

In another article written at about the same time she wrote:

“The other major challenge to the skeptic’s position is, of course, the fact that opposing positive evidence exists in the parapsychological literature. I couldn’t dismiss it all. This raises an interesting question: Just how much weight can you or should you give the results of your own experiments over those of other people? On the one hand, your own should carry more weight, since you know exactly how they were done… On the other hand, science is necessarily a collective enterprise…. So I couldn’t use my own failures as justifiable evidence that psi does not exist. I had to consider everyone else’s success.

“I asked myself a thousand times, as I ask the reader now: Is there a right conclusion?

“The only answer I can give, after ten years of intensive research in parapsychology, is that I don’t know.”

Although after Berger’s critique Blackmore was willing to concede in an academic journal that “I agree that one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi based on these experiments”, her writings in the popular press have not reflected this admission. Commenting on the ganzfeld experiments in a newspaper article in 1996, she wrote:

“My own conclusion is biased by my own personal experience. I tried my first ganzfeld experiment in 1978, when the procedure was new…. Of course the new auto-ganzfeld results are even better. Why should I doubt them because of events in the past? The problem is that my personal experience conflicts with the successes I read about in the literature and I cannot ignore either side. The only honest reaction is to say ‘I don’t know’.”

Wouldn’t a more honest reaction be for Blackmore to admit in the popular press that “one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi” based on her own experiments, and that a scientific opinion should be based only upon a critical evaluation of other peoples’ published works?

But perhaps this is asking too much. After all, Blackmore pursued a PhD in parapsychology in order to become a “famous parapsychologist”. Having failed to produce research supporting the psi hypothesis, she evidently decided to try to make a name for herself by attacking the psi hypothesis, which must at the time have seemed to be an easy target. Apparently, though, in a recent article she claims to have given up. “At last, I’ve done it. I’ve thrown in the towel”, she wrote.

“Come to think of it, I feel slightly sad. It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena… Just of few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena… I became a sceptic. (Emphasis added.)

“So why didn’t I give up then? There are lots of bad reasons. Admitting you are wrong is always hard, even though it’s a skill every scientist needs to learn. And starting again as a baby in a new field is a daunting prospect. So is losing all the status and power of being an expert. I have to confess I enjoyed my hard-won knowledge.

“… None of it ever gets anywhere. That’s a good enough reason for leaving.

But perhaps the real reason is that I am just too tired – and tired above all of working to maintain an open mind. I couldn’t dismiss all those extraordinary claims out of hand. After all, they just might be true… ”

We’ll miss you, Susan.

Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness

There has been a plethora of books on consciousness in the last ten to fifteen years; most of these are recognisably each author’s particular take on the subject. Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained (1991) was an early example of the genre. Rita Carter’s Exploring Consciousness (2002) is one of the most obvious recent examples, and one that explores similar ground to that covered by Blackmore. As a science writer, Carter takes a journalistic approach to science and philosophy, whereas Blackmore, a former research academic and now a full time writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is an interested figure in the science field taking an insider’s view of the material.

Blackmore taught the psychology of consciousness at universities in Bristol, UK for over ten years and her book Consciousness: An Introduction is a distillation of the courses she ran combined with an extraordinary array of wider reading. She also brings her teaching experience to the style of the text.

This is unashamedly a course reader, written with an undergraduate student group in mind. Indeed, the book is dedicated to all the students who took Blackmore’s consciousness course. Nevertheless, the book is clearly aimed at a wider audience and allows for anyone with an enquiring mind to engage with the material, tackle the questions, and carry out the suggested activities and exercises. Numerous illustrations enhance the readability, although at times pages have a somewhat ‘busy’ look and feel.

Blackmore begins with the old saw: if you think you have a solution to the problem (consciousness) then you haven’t understood the problem. She states that the text is ‘aimed at increasing your perplexity rather than reducing it’. The book is organised around nine sections each comprising three chapters. The sections are the problem, the world, the self, evolution, artificial consciousness, the brain, borderlands (containing the paranormal and unconscious processing), altered states of consciousness, and first-person approaches. The idea is that each section can form the basis of a lecture session in a consciousness studies course. Moreover, each chapter can be read on its own allowing any reader to dip into arguments and evidence concerning a particular facet of the subject.

Each chapter has sidebars setting out a profile of a key figure, a key concept, exercises to do, and questions to mull over. So, for example, chapter one has a profile of Descartes, an explanation of the “hard problem” as its key concept, and a suggested task, which is to ask yourself ‘Am I conscious now?’ as many times as you can. The format is similar to many Open University texts in that it encourages active reading through exercises and self-assessment questions; it can also be used as easily on one’s own as in a group. There is a distinctly academic and scientific tone throughout, although Blackmore is careful to address a lay reader and keep arguments accessible. Nonetheless, the writing is scholarly such that references and suggestions for further reading might put off some readers. While not a populist book, it should have popular appeal through its engaging style. This review will focus on two of the nine sections: The Problem (of Consciousness and The Self).

Starting with the problem of consciousness, chapter one gives an outline of the mystery of consciousness, its historical trajectory and contemporary salience. In keeping with a frontier metaphor, consciousness is given the status of the last surviving mystery awaiting a scientific solution. Blackmore illustrates with the example of ‘your experience of a pencil’. The problem of consciousness is posed as one of understanding how ‘subjective, private, ineffable suchness of experience, arises from an objective world of actual pencils and living brain cells’.

Blackmore describes Chalmers’ notion of ‘hard’ and ‘easy’ problems. The supposedly easy problems relate to aspects of cognitive function, such as attention, and these may well have solutions in neural mechanisms. The hard problem is to do with subjective experience. The perennial problem is posed anew as how do ‘physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?’ As Blackmore acknowledges, this is simply the latest form of an age-old question relating to the mysterious gap between inner and outer, subject and object or mind and (brain) body.

Chapter two draws us into the classic debate about subjectivity by way of Nagel’s immortal question: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ The reader is engaged to think about the problem of whether other creatures are conscious and if so, is there something it is like to be a bat from the point of view of the bat, ie., from the inside or subjective viewpoint. If there is, can we know it?

Section three takes up the problem of self or selves. The idea of a conscious self or an experiencer seems so obvious as to go without saying. Here, as elsewhere, Blackmore documents how although there seems to be a centre of experience, a self of some kind, this is an illusion. By illusion, Blackmore does not mean self does not exist, rather that self is not what it seems to be. However, later she discusses Strawson’s intuition (from introspection) that self for him is like ‘pearls on a string’, ie., that it seems to Strawson that he is a succession of selves existing discretely one after another (from Strawson, 1997). Here is an example of a theory of self derived from introspection that does not fit with Blackmore’s illusion. On many occasions scientific findings are ‘counter-intuitive’; nonetheless, this does not entail that everyone shares the same intuition on a subject. Many readers may want to argue with the suggestion that they share a certain mistaken conception of what self is, but perhaps should accept the caveat that they could still be wrong from a strictly research science perspective. Blackmore sets out a good deal of research evidence asking only that we take the findings seriously.

Evidently, Blackmore’s book is not exhaustive of all-possible explanations, theories or positions. Nonetheless, it does offer a sufficiently wide range of arguments, viewpoints and evidence to introduce the problem of consciousness to a readership beyond the academy.

Blackmore has trawled through an extraordinary range of material. Perhaps not surprising that in some places this reads as a disparate collection of disorganised elements. The advantage in this approach is that the readers are put in a position to come to their own judgement. There are some running themes, for example concerning conscious experience and subjective point of view. Blackmore does manage to revisit some long-running debates throughout the book. Nonetheless, the style of the book lays down a challenge to the reader: to enter perplexity. Any reader carrying out the activities and practices is likely to engage personally with the subject matter in ways other texts cannot reach.

Some might be dissatisfied. Many will be appalled at the strange mixture of themes, issues and debates. Even when Blackmore shows her hand, as in her admiration for William James and most of Daniel Dennett’s work, or in her irritation with dualists and those who fall for various illusions, she still retains a beginner’s mind. Her urgent sense of enquiry coupled with a scientific mentality allows her to range freely across a complex landscape that is ‘consciousness studies’. And she carries this off in the manner most appealing to any student: she is always engaging you.


Exploring Consciousness
Carter, R., University of California Press, 2002.

The Conscious Mind
Chalmers, D., Oxford University Press, 1996.

Consciousness Explained
Dennett, D.C., Little, Brown & Co., 1991.

Mortal Questions
Nagel, T., Cambridge University Press, 1979.

“The Self”
Strawson, G., Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, 405-428 (1997).

Guy Saunders teaches the psychology of consciousness at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

Reproduced from Scientific and Medical Review December 2003
© Scientific and Medical Network

Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore
Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore is one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. A CSICOP Fellow, she was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991.

Blackmore started her career by doing research in parapsychology, but has announced on several occasions that she has left the field of parapsychology to devote herself to the study of memes, as proposed by the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

Despite her repeated departures from the field, she keeps reappearing, and her recent research into belief in the paranormal has been funded by the Perrott-Warrick Fund, a Cambridge-based endowment for promoting psychical research.

She has written several books, including Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the Body Experiences (1982) and Dying to Live (1993). She herself has had an out-of-the-body experience, but explains her own experience and those of others as an illusion caused by anoxia in the brain [a discussion of disproof of this and other theories based on materialistic models by scientific researchers].

Blackmore’s controversial bestseller The Meme Machine was published in 1999. Her most recent book is Consciousness – An Introduction, published in 2003.

Blackmore combines her skeptical beliefs with the practice of Zen Buddhism. She used to teach at the University of the West of England in Bristol, but left in October 2001 to pursue a freelance career in the media.

More Information

Review of Dying to Live
by Greg Stone,

A Critical Examination of the Blackmore Psi Experiments
by Rick E. Berger, Science Unlimited Research Foundation, San Antonio, Texas. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol 83, April 1989, 123-144.

Susan Blackmore Doesn’t Get It Right

by Rupert Sheldrake From:  Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011 Dr. Susan Blackmore is a CSICOP/CSI Fellow and was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991, and used to be one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics. She started her career by doing research in parapsychology, but...

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Susan Blackmore’s Research

The Research of the Skeptics by Chris Carter ” …the psi controversy is largely characterized by disputes between a group of researchers, the parapsychologists, and a group of critics who do not do experimental research to test psi claims or the viability of their counterhypotheses.” – Charles Honorton, in “Rhetoric over Substance” Charles Honorton, in...

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Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness

A review of Susan Blackmore’s book Consciousness: An Introduction by Guy Saunders There has been a plethora of books on consciousness in the last ten to fifteen years; most of these are recognisably each author’s particular take on the subject. Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained (1991) was an early example of the genre. Rita Carter’s...

continue reading