Category Archives: The Skeptics

The Man Who Destroyed Skepticism

By Mitch Horowitz

Originally published on Boing Boing, Oct 26, 2020

James Randi
James Randi Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

Several years ago I was preparing a talk on the life of occult journeyer Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) for the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Someone on Facebook asked sardonically: “Will James Randi be there?” My interlocutor was referencing the man known worldwide as a debunker of psychical and paranormal claims. (That my online critic was outspoken about his own religious beliefs posed no apparent irony for him.)

Last week marked the death at age 92 of James “The Amazing” Randi, a stage magician who became internationally famous as a skeptic — indeed Randi rebooted the term “skepticism” as a response to the boom in psychical claims and research in the post-Woodstock era. Today, thousands of journalists, bloggers and the occasional scientist call themselves skeptics in the mold set by Randi. Over the past decade, the investigator himself was heroized in documentaries, profiles, and, now, obituaries. A Guardian columnist eulogized him as the “prince of reason.”

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James E Alcock

James E Alcock
Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

James E. Alcock, PhD, is professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a fellow and member of the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and a member of the editorial board of the Skeptical Inquirer. In 1994 he received CSI’s highest honour, the “In Praise of Reason” award. In 1999, he was nominated by a panel of skeptics as among the two dozen most outstanding skeptics of the twentieth century. He believes that psi phenomena are impossible, and therefore the evidence for them must be non-existent. He therefore tries to explain away the evidence as based on wishful thinking, methodological errors, failure to fit in with the materialist paradigm and blind belief. Ironically, one of his areas of research in psychology is the nature of belief, as summarized in his book Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are So Compelling.

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Sean M Carroll

Sean M Carroll (not be confused with the developmental biologist Sean B Carroll also a committed skeptic) is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, who does research on theoretical aspects of dark matter and dark energy as well as extra dimensions and other theoretical topics. He has an active blogger and his blog post carries the old materialist slogan, “In truth, only atoms and the void”. Although he has no training in psychology he is confident that physics can explain consciousness, and that

“Parapsychology is not science. It’s pseudoscience. From a completely blank slate perspective, one could certainly pose scientific questions about whether the human mind can tell the future or read minds or move objects around without touching them. The thing is, we know the answer: No. The possibilities have been investigated and found wanting; more straightforwardly, they would inviolate the known laws of physics.”

From his blog Preposterous universe

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Simon Singh

Simon Singh
English PEN [CC BY 2.0]

Simon Singh has had two careers. He left Cambridge University with a doctorate in particle physics to work for the BBC as a science producer in 1990, and wrote two books on popular science, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Big Bang. His TV documentary about Fermat won a BAFTA in 1997, and he was awarded an MBE for “services to science education and communication”. His family background is Sikh. His multi-millionaire brother Tom Singh is the founder of the New Look chain of fashion stores.

In the 1990s, Singh was much influenced by the skeptic Richard Wiseman, with whom he did a stage show called “Theatre of Science”. Singh said that although his earlier writing was about pure science, Wiseman inspired him to “debunk things such as the paranormal – we both hate psychics, mediums, pseudoscience in general.” Around 2002, a new phase of his career began when he was approached by Lord ‘Dick’ Taverne, a politician, to set up a new lobby group, Sense About Science, of which he is now a trustee. Its central ambition has been to get GM crops and foods accepted into the UK. In 2012 and 2013 this group received £20,000 from Coca Cola as part of a campaign by the company to question evidence about the negative effects of sugary drinks. Sense About Science duly published criticism of research into the negative effects of sugary drinks, without mentioning this sponsorship by Coca Cola, as revealed in the London Times.

In 2008, Singh collaborated with Edzard Ernst on a book, Trick or Treatment? which attempted to demolish alternative or complementary therapies, often by cherry-picking the worst studies or misreading the positive ones. To promote the book, Singh wrote an article for The Guardian which disparaged chiropractic practitioners, and he accused the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) of deliberate dishonesty in promoting fake treatments.

The BCA threatened to sue for libel, and the Guardian offered a 500-word response and a clarification. The BCA rejected the offer and decided to sue Singh personally. Singh’s supporters—including Edzard Ernst, science journalists and Sense About Science—rallied round and offered financial and moral support. Singh, as a first defence, denied he had suggested chiropractors were dishonest, but were merely “deluded and reckless”. Although the BCA won the first round, on appeal the courts found for Singh, with only the lawyers benefiting. Sense About Science launched a new campaign, Keep Libel Laws Out of Science. Eventually, the campaigners won the day, and the UK’s onerous libel laws were moderated to allow for greater freedom in scientific debate.

Emboldened by the victory, Singh funded the creation of the Nightingale Collaboration, which was launched with the ambition to “put the screws on alternative medicine”. In 2012, Singh founded the Good Thinking Society as part of this campaign against alternative medicine, and has launched aggressive legal cases against homeopaths and homeopathy.

Since 2014, he has been trying to get a health magazine, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, removed from the shelves of all the major store chains. He has encouraged a well-organised campaign involving around 50 people, who change their names and create fake organisations, so that supermarkets feel inundated. As he often signs his letters to distributors ‘Dr Singh’, most stores and media naturally assume that he has medical qualifications. In fact he has no medical training or research experience. He is a fellow of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

James Randi Reneges on the Randi Prize

 

James Randi is a Charlatan

by Dick Bierman

 


Dutch psychologist Professor Dick Bierman, University of Amsterdam, applied for the Randi Prize in 1998 for automated computerized tests of presentiment, following a procedure he had already used extensively with highly significant positive results.

In these tests, subjects showed physiological responses to emotionally arousing pictures about five seconds before the picture was selected at random and shown to them on a screen. This response did not occur in control trials with emotionally neutral pictures. The effect has been replicated by other researchers.


 
I was approached by neuroscientist Stan Klein after a Tucson consciousness conference where I presented a paper on presentiment. He asked me why none of the serious psi researchers ever tried to get the million-dollar Randi Prize.

The obvious answer was that, as far as I knew, Randi was expecting his “challenge” to be decided on stage and to be completed within, say, an hour or so. Randi assured me that he would consider statistical experiments, but for the million-dollar prize he wanted odds against chance of a million to one.

I explained to Stan Klein that given the effect size of presentiment (assuming that was a real psi effect), to win the million dollars, I could obtain a results with produce a effect with a p-value of 10-6 within a year or so. I further explained that one could set up a presentiment experiment where Randi would produce the random “target” stimuli sequence (emotional or neutral) just before the stimulus exposure and more importantly after he had already received the physiological data through the internet. Thus he wasn’t obliged to be at our lab for one year in order to control the proceedings. He could have full control from Florida and I only wanted a second neutral person in between in order to prevent Randi “generating” targets after having looked at the physiological data.

Most of the initial communication went though Stan Klein, but then Randi invited me to communicate with him directly. He mailed me that he was at a point in his life (getting older) where he really wanted to know. He also assured me of his scientific expertise and told me he had experts on hand to help him. This is what he wrote in an email to me July 1998:

In general, I require million-to-one odds; I’m offering the JREF million dollars. Yes, I’m aware of the chance I’m taking.

I have experienced and dedicated statisticians and experts in experimental design who assist me at every stage, not that I usually need them. I wait, day after day, for these folks to advance to the starting line. Where are they? All I get is the amateur astrologers and abductees….

If anyone’s going to DO it, let’s get on with it. I’ll be 70 next month, and I figure I might have ten more reasonably active years to operate. Will that be enough time to have all the theorizing and arguing done with, and a REAL test under way? Yes, the million-dollar offer will survive me, but I’d really like to see a major response to the challenge mounted.

Please?

James Randi

As the correspondence continued he then starting raising technical points about the experiment – for example about how the computers stored the images used in the experiment:

The “presentiment” experiment, as described in Radin’s book — though that reference does not purport to be a complete presentation — appears, from that description, as if it might have some weaknesses. How and where the computer hard-drive stores the calm-and-emotional photos is not specified, for example. Are all of one kind in one area of the disk, for example? Or are they effectively randomly mixed? How are the phenomena to be measured – such as skin resistance, heart rate, blood volume (pressure?) – chosen? Was there a correlation between these physical reactions? There are many unanswered questions here.

I recall that in Russia, when I randomized – for the first and only time — the elements of their “influence” experiments at the Moscow Brain Institute, they obtained random results. I was later informed, by one of the young students there, that the director of the lab had then issued an order that they would continue conducting their experiments as before, since double-blinding “did not produce satisfactory data.” I don’t doubt it.

I should like to design an experiment that does not require “supervision” [by me] at all. It is perfectly feasible to produce a protocol whereby most if not all of the precautions are built into the procedure. I would opt for computer-based controls (providing that I were given total access to examining the programs!) so that randomness, timing, recording, etc., were all automatically controlled. And, I would insist upon knowing that any “abort” or “stop” instructions would be a part of the record, as well. I’ve heard of experimenters beginning a series of tests with a “warm-up” or “familiarization” period, only to suddenly decide to bypass this provision when the subject seems to show immediately “good” results. There have also been abortings when the subject just doesn’t seem to be in a good enough mood — or whatever — and data (“bad” data) has been dumped until the subject feels psychic. For me, there is no good or bad data, if it’s honestly and competently arrived at; I have no preference except for the facts.

I will stay in touch with you as we consider your proposal.

Sincerely, James Randi

P.S.: Just last week, I lost my keys and then found them. Honest, I did. No paranormal powers involved, I don’t think…. But in January, I lost an entire set and never found them. Psi-missing, perhaps?

I explained to him that the procedure used by Radin and myself was indeed conducted in an automated way without the need for any supervision, and that everything was automatically controlled and monitored, just as he thought it ought to be. He then raised some seemingly irrelevant technical points about the standard electrodes we used for measuring skin resistance:

I’ll have to study up on the “battery” (electrochemical) effects. I seem to recall a list of metals and metal alloys/compounds arranged in order of “electochemical number” and the idea was that you could tell the degree of electrochemical activity expected by noting the difference between the numbers. This meant, of course, that two gold electrodes (anode and cathode) would produce zero electricity, regardless of the electrolyte – in this case, salt-and-cell-fluid.

Do I also recall that there are some stainless steel electrodes used here? Of course, the Ag/AgCl material would doubtless be excellent as a conductor, so it might be superior for this use, since we’re dealing with very small flow.

Hmmm. And silver halides are essentially insoluble in water, differing in this respect from halides in general.

However, the AC use (what frequencies?) appears to get around the “battery” effect, so this is all moot.

I would think that two same-metal electrodes would generate quite inconsequential potentials, given that NaCl is not one of your top-producing electrolytes. But, that would depend upon your signal-to-noise situation.

Randi

He then told me he was going to propose the experiment to his “scientific committee”. I never heard from him after that.

– Dick Bierman
March 2015

 
 
 
 
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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.

Michael Shermer’s Attacks, Updated

 

Michael Shermer’s Attacks, Updated

 

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


From:   Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.


 
Michael Shermer is a professional skeptic rather than a scientist, although he often claims to speak for science. He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptic Society, the host of the Skeptics’ Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology, and the author of a regular column in Scientific American called “Skeptic”.

Shermer started out as a Christian fundamentalist as well as being an enthusiast for pyramid power and other New Age fads.

In his own words, “My academic background is embarrassing compared to that of most successful intellectuals… I scraped together a master’s degree… and finally gave up hope for an intellectual life and raced bikes for a decade. By the time I earned a Ph.D. [in history of science] … I discovered there were next to no jobs, especially for someone with an intellectual pedigree such as mine. Since teaching as an adjunct professor is no way to make a living (literally), I founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine.”


One of Shermer’s favourite sayings is that “Skepticism is a method, not a position.” However, I soon discovered that he does not practice what he preaches. In 2003, USA Today published an article about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, describing my research on telepathy and the sense of being stared at. Shermer was asked for his comments and was quoted as saying. “{Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn’t like. The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”.



I emailed Shermer to ask him what his normal explanations were. But he was unable to substantiate his claim, and admitted he had not even seen my book. I challenged him to an online debate. He accepted the challenge, but said he was too busy to look at the experimental evidence and said he would “get to it soon”. Several months later he confessed, “I have not gotten to your book yet”. Despite repeated reminders, he has still failed to do so.

It only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatism is easy. It is harder work to consider the evidence, and Shermer is too busy to look at facts that go against his beliefs.

In November 2005, Shermer attacked me in his Scientific American “Skeptic” column in a piece called “Rupert’s Resonance.” He ridiculed the idea of morphic resonance by claiming that I proposed a “universal life force”, a phrase I have never used. He also referred to fallacious, partisan claims by other skeptics about my experimental work, which had already been refuted in peer-reviewed journals, and even in the Skeptical Inquirer itself.

I wrote a brief letter to Scientific American to set the record straight, but it was not published, nor even acknowledged, and Shermer himself ignored it. Other scientists whom Shermer has misrepresented have had the same experience. The disciplines of science do not apply to media skeptics.

The readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts than by Michael Shermer’s misleading skepticism.

Meanwhile, Shermer continues to flatter himself with fine sounding words. In 2010, he contrasted his kind of skepticism with denialism, as in climate change denial or holocaust denial or evolution denial:

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

By Shermer’s own criteria, he is a perfect example of a denier.

 
Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

 
 
 
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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.

 

Lewis Wolpert’s Brain

 

Lewis Wolpert’s Brain

 

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.


 
Lewis Wolpert was Professor of Biology at University College, London, and served for five years as Chairman of COPUS, the British Committee for the Public Understanding of Science. He was a faithful standby for the media for more than 20 years as a denouncer of ideas that he suspected were tainted with mysticism or the paranormal.

In 2001, in a programme about some of my telepathy experiments on the Discovery Channel, he proclaimed, “There is no evidence for any person, animal, or thing being telepathic.” The director of the documentary offered to show him a video of my experiments so that he could see the evidence for himself, but he was not interested. He preferred to make his skeptical claim without looking at the facts.

In January 2004, Wolpert and I took part in a public debate on telepathy at the Royal Society of Arts in London, with a high court judge in the chair. We were each given 30 minutes to present our cases. Wolpert spoke first and said that research on telepathy was “pathological science,” and added, “An open mind is a very bad thing – everything falls out.” He asserted that “the whole issue is about evidence,” and concluded after a mere 15 minutes that “There is zero evidence to support the idea that thoughts can be transmitted from a person to an animal, from an animal to a person, from a person to a person, or from an animal to an animal.”

I then summarized evidence for telepathy from thousands of scientific tests and showed a video of recent experiments, but Wolpert averted his eyes from the screen. He did not want to know. According to a report on the debate in Nature, “few members of the audience seemed to be swayed by his [Wolpert’s] arguments…. Many in the audience… variously accused Wolpert of ‘not knowing the evidence’ and being ‘unscientific’.”

For anyone who wants to hear both sides for themselves, the debate is online in streaming audio, as is the transcript.

 
Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

 
 
 
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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.

 

Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception

 

Richard Wiseman’s Psychology of Deception

 

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.


 
Richard Wiseman started his career as a conjurer, and like Randi is a skilled illusionist. His has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an expert on the psychology of deception. He is a Fellow of CSICOP/CSI, one of Britain’s best-known media skeptics, and is currently Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.

When my experiments with Jaytee were first publicized in Britain in 1994, journalists sought out a skeptic to comment on them, and Richard Wiseman was an obvious choice. He put forward a number of points that I had already taken into account, suggesting that Jaytee was responding to routines, or car sounds or subtle cues. But rather than argue academically, I suggested that he carry out some experiments with Jaytee himself, and arranged for him to do so. I had already been doing videotaped experiments with this dog for months, and I lent him my videocamera. Pam Smart, Jaytee’s owner, and her family kindly agreed to help him. 

With the help of his assistant, Matthew Smith, he did four experiments with Jaytee, two in June and two in December 1995, and in all of them Jaytee went to the window to wait for Pam when she was indeed on the way home.

As in my own experiments, he sometimes went to the window at other times, for example to bark at passing cats, but he was at the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not. In the three experiments Wiseman did in Pam’s parents’ flat, Jaytee was at the window an average of 4 percent of the time during the main period of Pam’s absence, and 78 percent of the time when she was on the way home. This difference was statistically significant. When Wiseman’s data were plotted on graphs, they showed essentially the same pattern as my own (Figure 2.5). In other words Wiseman replicated my own results.



I was astonished to hear that in the summer of 1996 Wiseman went to a series of conferences, including the World Skeptics Congress, announcing that he had refuted the “psychic pet” phenomenon. He said Jaytee had failed his tests because he had gone to the window before Pam set off to come home. 

In September 1996, I met Wiseman and pointed out that his data showed the same pattern as my own, and that far from refuting the effect I had observed, his results confirmed it. I gave him copies of graphs showing may own data and the data from the experiments that he and Smith conducted with Jaytee. But he ignored these facts.

Wiseman reiterated his negative conclusions in a paper in the British Journal of Psychology, coauthored with Smith and Julie Milton, in August, 1998. This paper was announced in a press release entitled “Mystic dog fails to give scientists a lead,” together with a quote from Wiseman: “A lot of people think their pet might have psychic abilities but when we put it to the test, what’s going on is normal not paranormal.” There was an avalanche of skeptical publicity, including newspaper reports with headlines like “Pets have no sixth sense, say scientists” (The Independent, August 21, 1998) and “Psychic pets are exposed as a myth” (The Daily Telegraph, Aug 22, 1998). Smith was quoted as saying, 

”We tried the best we could to capture this ability and we didn’t find any evidence to support it.” The wire services reported the story worldwide. Skepticism appeared to have triumphed.



Wiseman continued to appear on TV shows and in public lectures claiming he had refuted Jaytee’s abilities. Unfortunately, his presentations were deliberately misleading. He made no mention of the fact that in his own tests, Jaytee waited by the window far more when Pam was on her way home than when she was not, nor did he refer to my own experiments. He gave the impression that my evidence is based on one experiment filmed by a TV company, rather than on more than two hundred tests, and he implied that he has done the only rigorous scientific tests of this dog’s abilities.

Instead of plotting their data on graphs and looking at the overall pattern, Wiseman, Smith and Milton used a criterion of their own invention to judge Jaytee’s “success” or “failure”. They did not discuss this criterion with me, although I had been studying Jaytee’s behaviour in detail for more than a year before I invited them to do their own tests, but instead based it on remarks about Jaytee’s behaviour made by commentators on two British television programmes, who said that Jaytee went to the window every time that his owner was coming home. In fact, he did so on 86 per cent of the occasions. And one of these programmes said that Jaytee went to the window “when his owner Pam Smart starts her journey home.” In fact Jaytee often went to the window a few minutes before Pam started her journey, while she was preparing to set off. Based on these TV commentaries, Wiseman et al. took Jaytee’s “signal” to be the dog’s first visit to the window for no apparent external reason. They later changed this criterion to a visit that lasted more than two minutes.


Wiseman and Smith found that Jaytee sometimes went to the window at Pam’s parents’ flat for no obvious reason before Pam set off at the randomly-selected time. Anytime this happened, they classified the test as a failure, despite the fact that he waited at the window for 78 percent of the time when Pam was on the way home, compared with only 4 percent when she was not. They simply ignored the dog’s behaviour after the “signal” had been given. 

In addition to these experiments at Pam’s parents’ flat, they carried out a test at the house of Pam’s sister, where Jaytee had to balance on the back of a sofa to look out of the window. The first time he visited the window for no apparent reason coincided exactly with Pam setting off, and her sister remarked at the time, on camera, that this was how Jaytee behaved when Pam was coming home. But Jaytee did not stay there for long because he was sick; he left the window and vomited. Because he did not meet the two-minute criterion, this experiment was deemed a failure.

On another British television programme called “Secrets of the Psychics”, Wiseman said of Jaytee, “We filmed him continuously over a three hour period and at one point we had the owner randomly think about returning home from a remote location and yes, indeed, Jaytee was at the window at that point. What our videotape showed, though, was that Jaytee was visiting the window about once every 10 minutes and so under those conditions it is not surprising he was there when his owner was thinking of returning home.” To support this statement, a series of video clips showed Jaytee going to the window over and over again, eight times in all. The times of these visits to the window can be read from the timecode. They were taken from the experiment on shown in Figure 2.5 (June 12). Two of these visits were the same clip shown twice, and three took place while Pam was actually on the way home, although they were misleadingly portrayed as random events unrelated to her return. Looking at the graph of the data from this test, it is obvious that Jaytee spent by far the most time at the window when Pam was on the way home: he was there 82 percent of the time. In the previous periods his visits were much shorter, if he visited the window at all.

Wiseman, Smith and Milton said that they were “appalled” by the way some of the newspaper reports portrayed Pam Smart. But although they helped initiate this media coverage, they considered themselves blameless: “We are not responsible for the way in which the media reported our paper and believe that these issues are best raised with the journalists involved.” They also excused themselves for failing to mention my own research with Jaytee on the grounds that it had not yet been published when they submitted their paper to the British Journal of Psychology. They therefore created the appearance that they were the only people to have done proper scientific experiments with a return-anticipating dog. Also by publishing their paper before I could publish my own – I spent two years doing experiments, while they spent four days – they claimed priority in the scientific literature for this kind of research. To put it mildly, these were scientific bad manners.

Wiseman still tells the media, “I’ve found plenty of evidence of unscientific approaches to data, but have never come across a paranormal experiment that can be replicated.” In an comprehensive analysis of Wiseman’s approach, Christopher Carter has shown how he adopts a “heads I win, tails you lose” approach to psychic phenomena, viewing null results as evidence against psi while attempting to ensure that positive results do not count as evidence for it. Carter has documented a series of examples, including the Jaytee case, where Wiseman uses “tricks to ensure he gets the results he wants to present.” He is, after all, an illusionist and an expert in the psychology of deception.

 
Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

 
 
 
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© 2014 The Association for Skeptical Investigation. All rights reserved.

 

James “The Amazing” Randi and Dogs Who Know More Than He Does

 

James “The Amazing” Randi
And Dogs Who Know More Than He Does

 

by Rupert Sheldrake

 


Excerpted from Appendix 3 of:
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011.


 
James Randi is a showman, conjurer and a former Principal Investigator of CSICOP. For years, he frequently appeared in the media as a debunker of the paranormal. He was named “Skeptic of the Century” in the January 2000 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, and in 2003 received the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International.

In 1996 he founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and is most famous for offering a $1 million “paranormal challenge” to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of a paranormal event under conditions to which he agrees.

Randi has no scientific credentials, and has disarmingly said of himself, “I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living.”

In January, 2000, Dog World magazine published an article on the sixth sense of dogs, which discussed my research. The author contacted Randi to ask his opinion. Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF have tested these claims. They fail.” Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with Jaytee, in which Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home at a randomly-selected time, but did not do so beforehand. In Dog World, Randi stated, “Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.”



I emailed James Randi to ask for details of this JREF research. He did not reply. He ignored a second request for information. 

I then asked members of the JREF Scientific Advisory Board to help me find out more about this claim. They advised Randi to reply.

In an email on February 6, 2000 Randi told me that the tests with dogs he referred to were not done at the JREF, but took place “years ago” and were “informal”. He said they involved two dogs belonging to a friend of his that he observed over a two-week period. All records had been lost. He wrote: “I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained.” 



I also asked him for details of tape he claimed to have watched, so I could compare his observations of Jaytee’s behaviour with my own. He was unable to give a single detail, and under pressure from the JREF Advisory Board, he had to admit that he had never seen the tape. His claim was a lie.

For many years the million dollar “prize” has been Randi’s stock-in-trade as a media skeptic, but even other skeptics are skeptical about its value as anything but a publicity stunt. For example, CSICOP founding member Dennis Rawlins pointed out that Randi acts as “policeman, judge and jury” and quoted him as saying “I always have an out.” Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology and Fellow of CSICOP, pointed out, this “prize” cannot be taken seriously from a scientific point of view: “Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments.”

Nevertheless I asked the Smart family if they would be willing to have Jaytee tested by Randi. But they wanted nothing to do with him. Jaytee had already taken part in some tests organized by a skeptic, Richard Wiseman, as discussed below, and the Smart family were disgusted by the way he had misrepresented these tests in the media.

In 2008, Alex Tsakiris, who runs a U.S.-based “Open Source Science Project” and a podcast called Skeptiko, started replicating experiments with dogs that knew when their owners were coming home, posting videos of tests on the internet. Tsakiris asked Dr. Clive Wynne, an expert on dog behaviour at the University of Florida, to participate in this research, and Wynne agreed. Randi challenged Tsakiris to apply for the Million Dollar Challenge, Tsakiris took him up on it, and asked Randi by email if Dr. Wynne’s involvement was acceptable to him. Randi eventually replied, “You appear to think that your needs are uppermost on my schedule. What would give you that impression? Looking into a silly dog claim is among my lowest priority projects. When I’m prepared to give you some time, I’ll let you know. There are some forty plus persons ahead of you.”

For me, the most surprising feature of the Randi phenomenon is that so many journalists and fellow skeptics take him seriously.

 
Excerpted From:

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home
Rupert Sheldrake. Broadway Books; Fully Updated and Revised:
April 26, 2011.

 
 
 
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