Category Archives: The Skeptics

Richard Wiseman’s Critique of the Feilding Report Refuted


Richard Wiseman’s Critique of the Feilding Report Refuted


“Physical Mediumship – A Classic Case”

by Stephen Braude


The case of Eusapia Palladino is a classic example of psychokinesis
by a medium. Eusapia’s powers were investigated and found genuine
by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1895.

Further convincing evidence followed from a series of experiments
by distinguished Italian scientists including the criminologist,
Professor Lombroso at Turin, Dr. Enrico Morselli, Professor of
Neurology and Psychiatry (mental therapeutics), in the University
of Genoa, and Drs. Herlitzka, C. Foa, and Aggazzotti, with Dr.
Pio Foa, Professor of Pathological Anatomy also present, at Turin.

These investigations were all carried out under laboratory conditions
and yielded positive conclusions. In 1908, three members of the
S.P.R., the Hon. Everard Feilding, Mr. W. W. Baggally and Mr.
Hereward Carrington were commissioned by the Society to carry out
another serious investigation with this medium. Again, the conclusions
were positive.

In this edited extract from his book, Stephen Braude refutes the criticisms
levelled at the Feilding report by the media skeptic Dr. Richard Wiseman.


Stephen Braude
Stephen Braude
I realize that the reader’s response to the 1908 Naples report cannot be as profound as the experiences of the investigators themselves. No report can produce conviction as deep as that engendered by a compelling first-hand confrontation with observable PK. Of course, even the best observers can overlook things in the excitement of the moment. That is why it often helps to distance oneself from the events in question and consider the usual possibilities of malobservation, chicanery, etc. But because humans are fallible, every eyewitness account can be challenged retrospectively. The only interesting question is whether there is good reason actually – not just theoretically-to challenge the account. At some point, in the case of every piece of testimony, we must decide whether the observer is reliable, and we cannot withhold our confidence simply because mistakes are possible. In fact, every observation claim is conditionally (rather than categorically) acceptable, and our decision whether or not to accept a particular claim depends on various factors.

For present purposes, the most important of those factors are: (a) the capabilities of the observer, (b) the nature of the object allegedly observed, and (c) the means of observation and the conditions under which the observation occurred.

In judging the reliability of reports of paranormal phenomena, we weigh these factors differently in different cases. But in general, it matters (a) whether the observers are trained, sober, honest, alert, subject to flights of imagination, and fortunate enough to have good eyesight, (b) whether the objects are too small to see easily, whether they are easily mistaken for other things, or whether they are of a kind whose existence cannot be assumed as a matter of course (e.g., unicorns, UFOs), and (c) whether the objects were observed close at hand, with or without the aid of instruments, whether they were stationary or moving rapidly, etc., whether the observation occurred under decent light, through a dirty window, in the midst of various distractions, etc.

Observers in the Eusapia Case

For the reasons noted above, I consider the best testimony in Eusapia’s case to be reliable. The observers were honest, experienced, well prepared, and alert for (actually, expecting) trickery. In fact, they were as competent as one could hope for. Moreover, the phenomena reported were not difficult to observe, the observations were made under conditions that ranged from adequate to good, and the phenomena observed were not antecedently incredible or without precedent. But it is still all too easy for skeptics to cast doubt retrospectively on these reports, usually by ignoring the reasons for having confidence in the testimony and by raising the mere theoretical possibility of error under the conditions that actually prevailed.

Wiseman’s Approach

A recent example of this approach is a paper by Wiseman (1992), which calls attention to various details omitted from the Feilding report of the 1908 Naples sittings, and then suggests (in light of those omissions) that an accomplice might have helped Eusapia produce most of the phenomena reported by the “Fraud Squad.” Wiseman’s paper sparked an extended and often acrimonious exchange (see Barrington, 1992, 1993; Martínez-Taboas and Francia, 1993, 1994; Wiseman, 1993a-d). His reexamination of the Feilding report has the avowed aim of helping parapsychologists learn more about how to conduct and report case investigations. And to his credit, Wiseman does unearth some interesting and previously unnoticed or unheralded details and omissions from the report. But on the whole, Wiseman’s critique strikes me as just another glib exercise in skeptical dialectic, presented in the usual insincere guise of concern for the naive researchers in parapsychology. A few comments
should illustrate why.

First of all, Wiseman’s general concern seems transparently disingenuous. He writes, “present-day investigators stand to learn several important methodological lessons from the shortcomings of the [Feilding] Report” (1993d, p. 210). But in fact, there seems to be only one methodological lesson that Wiseman draws from his study (although he offers different formulations of it), and that lesson is so obvious as to be vacuous. In summing up his original paper, he claims that his analysis “has demonstrated the clear need for investigators to be able to design, and report, research in such a way that the opportunity for retrospective accusations of deception is minimised” (1992, p. 150). A few paragraphs later, he says, “the lesson to be learnt is that the reporting of such studies needs to be complete and extremely accurate” (1992, p. 151). And in conclusion he claims that the “central lesson” of his analysis is that “investigations should be … carried out, and reported, in such a way as to minimise retrospective counter-explanations.” (1992, p. 151.)

Considering how trite this “lesson” is, one is tempted to think that Wiseman must surely have intended to make a more substantive claim. But it is unclear what that might be. The only alternative I can extract from his critique, which at least avoids the banality of the claims quoted above, is preposterous. Wiseman frequently makes a different sort of comment, an apparent variant of his claim above that reports should be “complete and extremely accurate.” The following are representative samples. “In order to be quite sure that an effect is truly paranormal, it is essential that any investigation guards against all possible ‘normal’ explanations” (1992, p. 150). “Before declaring any phenomenon ‘inexplicable’, it is vital to make sure that testimony relating to that phenomenon is both complete and reliable.” (1993a, p. 26.)

First, I should note that there are, obviously, practical and aesthetic constraints on how complete any report should be. In fact, there is good reason, when reporting on a case investigation, to omit details that (if included) would add considerably to the tedium of reading a report, especially if (a) the report is as long as the Feilding report, (b) the investigators are (like the Naples trio) good at their job and know what to look for, and (c) one assumes (naturally, and as Crookes did) that readers will give the investigators credit for enough common sense to check on obvious matters not mentioned in the report.

But quite apart from that issue, one would think it is too obvious to mention that no record of a séance (or, arguably, any event) can be complete, whether the record be verbal, auditory, or visual. One would like to think that Wiseman recognizes this and accordingly would not want to demand that experimenters attain an impossible degree of completeness in their reports. And in fact, when challenged, Wiseman seems to retreat from that absurdly strong position. When Martínez-Taboas and Francia (1993) question Wiseman’s advice, quoted above, that investigators guard “against all possible ‘normal’ explanations,” Wiseman concedes that “I do not believe … that any investigation will be able to counter all possible normal explanations.” (1993c, p. 131.) Similarly, he notes that “I do not believe that any investigation has been, or will be, completely fraud-proof.” But in order to explain what position he does hold, Wiseman simply reasserts the trite advice noted above. He writes, “I … believe that investigators have a duty to design their studies to minimize the possibility of subject deception to the best of their knowledge at the time. (1993c, pp. 130-131.) And again, “I … believe that parapsychologists should at least try to design research projects that minimize the plausibility of [normal] explanations” (p. 131). It is no wonder Wiseman’s critics did not find his advice especially insightful.

Wiseman again seems disingenuous when he claims that he does not require investigations of psychics to be fraud-proof. For example, he worries that because “Feilding did not describe the appearance of Baggally’s ceiling … it is dangerous to assume … that it could not have housed a trap door.” (1993a, p. 21.) Similarly, he writes, “the controls described by the investigators would not have prevented the use of an accomplice and so such an accomplice could have been there. This potential for an accomplice is damning to the Feilding Report.” (1993d, p. 212.) One would think, then, that no amount of prose could dispel the sorts of concerns Wiseman expresses. The mere potential for fraud of one kind or another can never be ruled out by any written account. So if Wiseman regards that as damning to a case report, then he does insist on the absurdly strict criterion of completeness mentioned earlier, despite his protestations to the contrary and subsequent retreat to banalities.

And that retreat to a merely useless position is facilitated by a convenient ambiguity in Wiseman’s prose. The reader cannot be sure whether Wiseman is concerned about possibilities or probabilities. I agree only that it would be foolish (not dangerous) to assume that the ceiling could not house a trap door or that Eusapia could not have employed an accomplice. But those would be foolish assumptions no matter what Feilding or anybody else had written. The issue is not whether the existence of a trap door (or the use of an accomplice) is empirically possible. Rather, it is whether, given what the report states and what we know about the expertise, attitudes, honesty, preparedness, and thoroughness of the investigators, there is any reason to believe that a trap door existed (or that an accomplice aided Eusapia). Hasty and uncritical assumptions about that question might, indeed, lead to trouble. Nevertheless, I suggest that the answer to the question, for reasons already surveyed, is (quite obviously) “no.”

Other Evidence

In the case of the 1908 Naples sittings, if one had nothing to go on but the words in the reports themselves, one might be justified in adopting a more skeptical position. But quite apart from other decent evidence provided by other experienced investigators, one knows enough about the competence and critical attitudes of the Naples trio to be confident that they took obvious precautions not mentioned in the report. Wiseman offers no reason to think that the trap door (or accomplice) hypothesis is anything other than a mere theoretical possibility, and he has given no reason to distrust the informed judgment of the investigators (three experienced debunkers of fraudulent mediums). He has merely drawn attention to the sorts of inevitable lacunae that exist in even the best reports.

Burden of Explanation

Wiseman also seems to adopt the unacceptable strategy of placing the burden of explanation entirely on the shoulders of those who argue for the paranormality of the phenomena. For example, in his exchanges with Barrington (Wiseman, 1993a, 1993d; Barrington, 1992, 1993), Wiseman admits that he offers no explanation for the cold breezes emanating from Eusapia’s forehead. But apparently he thinks he can thereby cast doubt on the phenomenon by noting simply that “seemingly inexplicable phenomena do not falsify the accomplice hypothesis (1993d, p. 211). But it seems to me that the burden of proof in connection with the Feilding report falls on the skeptic, who must show that fraud is likely, not merely (and trivially) empirically possible. Had the investigators been biased in favor of the phenomena, or less experienced, prepared, competent, honest, and familiar with conjuring, and had the phenomena occurred under less favorable conditions of observation, the burden of proof would have shifted, appropriately, away from the skeptic. Most of Wiseman’s critique is a variant of a disreputable type of skeptical attack on formal experiments in parapsychology. The general strategy is to argue that the description and procedures of the experiment do not rule out the possibility of fraud. Hence (so the argument goes), the reported results are suspect.

The Proper Response

Obviously, the proper response to that argument is to note that no experiment in any branch of science precludes all possibility of fraud. So that cannot be a reason to reject an experimental report. The issue is not whether fraud was possible, but whether there are good reasons for thinking it was actual. The same points apply, mutatis mutandis, to Wiseman’s critique. Of course (as we have seen), when pushed, Wiseman backtracks and maintains that he does not require reports to eliminate all possibility of fraud. But for reasons already noted, that claim seems to be both false and insincere. Oddly, in an attempt to justify his concern about the reliability of the Feilding report, Wiseman mentions Carrington’s failure to recall that the control of Eusapia during some table levitations was actually better than he had noted at the time and recalled the next day. Feilding wrote, two weeks later, that the experimenters had tied Eusapia’s feet to the legs of her chair and then forgotten it. Feilding admits, appropriately, that the report “as a complete record of events, is very imperfect” (p. 84; p. 374). But Feilding does not concede that the report as a whole is therefore unreliable and that one should accordingly reject (or at least be more suspicious of) the conclusions of the investigators. That is what Wiseman tries to suggest. But Feilding notes only that the Naples report is, both inevitably and predictably, incomplete. He does not admit or reveal that the investigators failed to take the precautions necessary to rule out fraud.

A Remarkable Body of Evidence

So I think we must concede that the Feilding report is a remarkable body of evidence for the reality of large-scale PK and that it simply cannot be dismissed. The skeptical hypotheses surveyed in the previous chapter are clearly inadequate as alternative explanations. It would be preposterous to propose either that Eusapia cheated throughout or that (because of biased misperception, outright malobservation, or collective hypnosis) the investigators did not observe what they claimed. And for the reasons mentioned earlier, Wiseman’s conjectures about the mere possibility of an accomplice are frivolous and his general skeptical position is either trivial or foolish. I know that acknowledging the weaknesses of skeptical counter-explanations may be a viscerally unsatisfying road to a belief in PK. But it seems to me that to an intellectually honest and open-minded person, no other option remains.


The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science
Stephen E. Braude, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1997.

References quoted in the text are from the book.


Stephen Braude

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Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End


Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End


Analysis of a Conversation with Michael Shermer, Positivist

by Ted Dace


Though Michael Shermer edits and publishes Skeptic magazine,
he’s not so much a skeptic as a positivist.

He certainly seems positive about a lot of things,
in particular that life is purely a matter of mechanism.

In January of 2007, I conducted an hour-long telephone interview with Dr. Shermer, a psychologist by training who nonetheless revealed maybe a little more about himself than he intended. Our discussion, which was sponsored by the Skeptiko website, kicked off with an audio clip featuring the world’s most creative and challenging biological theorist, Rupert Sheldrake.

“There’s much more to evolution than just natural selection, which weeds out organisms that don’t do too well under a given set of conditions. It doesn’t explain creativity in the first place. Chance mutations don’t explain it very well. What explains it much better is the inherent creativity in living organisms.”

Shermer was baffled by Sheldrake’s comment. “What do you suppose he means by creativity in animals?”

I explained that animals creatively develop new behaviors, which give rise over time to new bodily forms. Darwin himself illustrated the idea with land mammals that took to the waters in search of food millions of years ago and transformed, over many generations, into “fully aquatic” sea mammals.

Shermer called Darwin’s hypothesis “kind of a stupid example,” a startling judgment about the man who created the first viable theory of evolution. Alas, evolution has evolved since Darwin’s time, and as the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it doesn’t always mean progress. At one time we had a commonsense theory in which the source of evolutionary novelty was the day-to-day decisions made by organisms responding to challenges to their survival. New behaviors that succeeded in the context of the environment were selected, so to speak, while adaptations that failed were rejected.

But in the last 70 years, we’ve been told a very different story about the origin of living forms subject to natural selection. Turns out it has nothing to do with the actions of the whole organism in its environment but involves only the occasional replication error of nucleic acid chains deep in its chromosomes.

You’d think a self-identified skeptic like Shermer would be, well, skeptical of an idea so antithetical to all sense and reason. But he prefers this view because, as he told me, “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” When I pointed out that the creative adaptations of living creatures provide a more plausible basis for novel forms of life than a purely blind, chemical process, Shermer gave a very telling response.

“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?”

You know you’re dealing with a positivist, and not a true skeptic, when you hear the term “metaphysical” being wielded like a club. Positivist pioneer Auguste Comte argued that a belief is metaphysical, and therefore unscientific, if it involves anything other than observable phenomena under the control of “immutable laws of nature.” Despite the fact that many researchers have subscribed to this philosophy down the years, positivism is perfectly at odds with the spirit of science, a kind of mutant skepticism that disbelieves whatever it fails to comprehend, stifling inquiry to the point where we can’t even utter the wrong words. As Shermer put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.”

Though often confused with a belief in the supernatural, metaphysics is simply the age-old attempt to define what is intrinsically real as opposed to merely apparent. As long as you posit an underlying reality that gives shape to the world of phenomena, such as “immutable laws of nature,” you are burdened with metaphysics.

Like any positivist, Shermer is a true believer in the metaphysics of reductionism, which treats all things, including organisms, as if they were machines “reducible” to their material parts under the control of abstract physical law. If it works, it must work like a machine. Since creativity is not something you find in machines, it must not be real. And even if it was, organisms would have no means of transmitting their adaptations to their offspring, for the only conveyor of biological inheritance is the genome, and genes, we are told, cannot mutate except by accident. Thus we are left with random genetic mutation as the sole means of producing new instincts and anatomies that can be passed on to descendants.

In response to my questioning on the tyranny of the random mutation, Shermer appealed to the revolutionary findings of “evo-devo,” a new field of study concerning the twin questions of evolution from bacteria and development from the egg. Shermer claims that evo-devo is “really opening our eyes about the power of the interaction between environments and genomes.”

“Well, frankly, I think evolutionary biologists have for the longest time placed too much emphasis on random mutation. I don’t think that’s where the action is. I do think it’s on this whole business of genome mixing through sexual reproduction and especially the whole evo-devo stuff. I think that’s gonna turn out to be a much greater source of diversity than mutations.”

Setting aside sexual remixing of genes, which only emphasizes or diminishes pre-existent traits, we are left with evo-devo as the savior of mechanistic evolution. In his 2005 book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, molecular biologist Sean Carroll explains the principles of evo-devo and why radical change in body plan doesn’t require radical genetic change.

Genes that are most active during embryogenesis are roughly the same for all species. Flies and people, for instance, emerge out of the same sets of developmental genes. We don’t grow up to be flies because, fortunately, most of these genes are preceded by “switches,” strips of DNA which, instead of coding for a protein, activate and deactivate genes at appropriate times. It’s the switches that have evolved since the time of our common ancestor with the fly some 500 million years ago.

Thus the chief innovation of evo-devo is that the key mutations triggering speciation take place in noncoding strips of DNA rather than the genes they switch on and off. In other words, we’ve gone from random genetic mutation to random DNA mutation as the source of novelty in life. Not much of a revolution.

Nonetheless, evo-devo has opened up a new window onto the cell. At the level of the genome, observes Carroll, development is “one hell of a movie with nonstop action,” every bit as complex as the patterned activities of tissues, organs and organ systems. This is indeed revolutionary but not in the way Shermer thinks. In place of the reduction of the organism to its genome, we now have two equally complex, parallel processes with no clear causal relationship between them.

If bodily development is caused by the unfathomable combinatorial complexity of “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel,” what gives rise to this genetic symphony in the first place? That gene switches are controlled by proteins produced by genes controlled by gene switches is clearly not getting us anywhere. It goes without saying that the point of reductionism is to render a complex process in terms of a simpler, more basic one. The illusion that DNA could provide this simpler level of organization has now been definitively dispatched. Biological reductionism is finished.

But it’s easy to miss niggling little details like that when you’ve got Carroll fresh out of the lab evangelizing rhapsodically on evo-devo’s “powerful explanatory vision,” gushing over its multiple “ahas” and its “powerful – indeed, beautiful – discoveries,” and trembling before its revelation of “deep, unexpected connections among different forms.” Yes, it’s one “surprising twist” after another as reductionist chestnuts fall by the wayside. Of course, in the old days this was called falsification.

Evo-devo represents the undoing of reductionism at the hands of molecular biology. Like Frankenstein confronted by his own monster, it’s just too much irony to bear. The critical faculty snaps off. When you’ve been positive too long, the forest remains invisible even as it leaps out from the trees.

Shermer caught me off guard when he claimed that arch-reductionist Richard Dawkins “fully admits the evo-devo stuff is the hottest thing around.” Surely Dawkins, of all people, can hold his own against the allure of the camp Kool-Aid. But there’s no way out. The research underpinning evo-devo is rock solid. To his credit, Carroll leaves no doubt that what matters is not so much the genes themselves but how they’re used. For Dawkins, who once snickered at the very idea of a “built-in wisdom” capable of operating genes and producing beneficial mutations, this is a hard pill to swallow.

In his 1996 release, Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins confidently assures his readers that everything from vision to flight to spider webs to insect fungi farming came into being “without brainpower or intelligence of any kind.” By contrast, Darwin felt a “cold shudder” when he considered the evolution of the eye, and that was with the assumption that creative adaptations can be inherited. A skeptic even when it came to his own conclusions, Darwin went so far as to argue, in The Origin of Species, that the theory of evolution by natural selection “must stand or fall” according to the ability of organisms to inherit and build on adaptations undertaken by ancestors. Despite rejecting out of hand the inheritance of acquired traits, Dawkins, ever the positivist, seems undisturbed by such doubts.

Darwin cited numerous clear-cut examples of the inheritance of living adaptations among farm animals and transplanted flora, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the phenomenon was demonstrated in the laboratory. While directing Russia’s prestigious Zoological Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, Georgii Shaposhnikov divided a population of aphids into three groups, the first sequestered in a normal habitat, the second effectively killed off by a toxic habitat, and a third that endured a barely suitable environment. This third group quickly adapted to their conditions and thrived. Their new traits were preserved, and after only eight generations, they were no longer able to survive in their normal environment or even mate with the aphids that had remained there. In short, a species was born.

Since then, scientists have observed at least one more example of rapid speciation – a new breed of sockeye salmon in Lake Washington that took 13 generations to emerge – as well as numerous smaller instances of evolution at breakneck speed, most recently the blue moon butterfly of the South Pacific, which abruptly developed a new gene for repelling a parasite. Though we can always write off such examples as just another lucky mutation, according to Miroslav Hill, who studied the effects of toxins on mammalian cells, what we’re actually witnessing is purposive, “adaptive” mutation, just as Darwin foresaw in the middle of the 19th century.

As Director of Research at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in the 1980s, Hill was trying to cultivate mammalian cells resistant to a lethal drug called thioguanine. The standard method in such situations is to bombard cells with mutagens, which promote random mutations in DNA, in hopes of hitting the jackpot. Skeptical that this would yield any results, Hill instead simply exposed successive generations of cells to the toxin to see if any would adapt. After three weeks of watching a lot of hamster cells bite the dust, the mutants began to appear.

What Hill didn’t expect was that each time he poisoned another batch of cells, a larger proportion adopted the key mutation and survived. The same thing happened when he repeated the experiment with a different drug, ethionine, and again with high temperatures. Each generation of exposed cells was smarter, i.e., more adaptive than the previous batch.

According to Rupert Sheldrake, this result indicates the influence of “morphic resonance.” From chromosome to cell to organ to animal, living structures resonate with morphologically similar predecessors. When cells are assaulted en masse, subsequent cells under the same conditions survive in bigger numbers because they gain from the knowledge of the first batch. Morphic resonance is thus a mechanism of collective memory.

If organisms resonate with predecessors on the basis of similar form and experience, it’s no longer necessary to assume that phenotype reduces to genotype, as both types are merely tracks running parallel beneath a memory-driven locomotive of development. Genomes resonate with previous genomes of the same kind while developing organs resonate with previous organs of the same kind. The purpose of the switches that keep the genes pumping out the right proteins at the right times is to provide the emerging organic intelligence with the tools it needs to churn out a person or a carrot or a bee or whatever it’s of a mind to make.

Of course, Michael Shermer wouldn’t be skeptic-in-chief if he didn’t bust a blood vessel when he hears terms like morphic resonance. Indeed, Shermer got defensive whenever he sensed I was steering our discussion in an unorthodox direction.

Dace: “I think the problem, the reason we have this intractable debate regarding evolution is that there’s got to be intelligence in there somewhere. Now, if it’s not going to be an intelligent deity, shouldn’t it…”

Shermer: “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.”

Positivists love creationism because they think it’s the only alternative to their own take.

As long as every dissenting view can be lumped in with creationism, the reductionist status quo remains unchallenged. While Shermer did eventually admit that morphic resonance, if it exists, is a natural phenomenon, his concession came with a caveat. “At some point, to be considered part of rigorous science, there has to be some way to test it, or else it’s my opinion and your opinion.”

The irony here is not just that morphic resonance is testable – as Hill and other researchers have inadvertently shown – but that Shermer’s favored view is not. When Walter Elsasser, a nuclear physicist accustomed to the mathematical rigor of Boltzmann, Einstein and Schrödinger, decided to find out for himself if biology can be brought under the disciplined yoke of physics, he ran headfirst into what can only be described as Mount Impossible.

Small-scale physics depends on the fact that elements of a given type are identical. Quantum mechanics works because electrons, for example, are all interchangeable, as are protons, neutrons, photons and so on. The same goes for each type of atom and molecule. But biological compounds are classed together on the basis of similarity, not identity. Examine blood, bone, muscle, brain, gland, etc., and the ratios of its chemical constituents will vary wildly from person to person, including genetically identical twins. In the face of infinite shades of sameness and difference, the methodology of physics is useless. We are real. We cannot be abstracted. Such is life.

No living creature will ever be reduced to physics. There will never be a nice set of equations to solve in order to predict the overall workings of a cell, much less the vast structures it weaves as it duplicates during development. Though biophysics can account for a variety of discrete cellular processes, a point-to-point causal explanation of how DNA builds bodies is beyond the reach of physical analysis. By making the safe assumption of a strictly chemo-mechanical emergence of the body from its DNA, biologists placed themselves beyond testability and therefore beyond science. It’s not so much that reductionist theory is dead but that there was never a theory to begin with. From the day it hatched from the positivist mind of August Weismann, mechanistic biology was a chimera.

This is not the first time Shermer has been taken for a ride. In his youth, he climbed out from the intellectual vacuum of evangelical Christianity only to fall face first into a vat of New Age superstition. Yet he was evolving all along and soon found his way into the blinding light of positivism. Perhaps he’ll emerge from this trap as well. I couldn’t help but be encouraged when he made something of a peace offering near the end of our talk.

“Let’s take a slightly different topic of self organized complexity, Stuart Kauffman’s research on complex, adapted systems, and there does appear to be something sort of inherent in systems. I’m not quite sure what it is. Languages evolve a certain way. Writing systems evolve. The law, the economy, marketplaces, cells, water, consciousness, these appear to be self-organized emergent properties of simpler systems.”

This sort of insight bodes well for Shermer’s progress. It is, after all, exactly where Rupert Sheldrake was 30 years ago.

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Michael Shermer’s Muddled Mind on Evolution


Michael Shermer’s Muddled Mind on Evolution

by Ted Dace


In the muddled mind of Michael Shermer,
the clash of evolution and creationism boils down
to a dispute between natural design and artificial design.

Author of Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design, Michael Shermer has effectively reduced the debate to an oxymoron versus a redundancy.

The whole point of science is that nature is best understood on its own terms, not according to human concepts such as imagination or design. Nature is what comes naturally, after all, as opposed to the preordained outcome of an intentional program. Design, by definition, is the product of intelligence. To say that something is by design is to say it’s been thought out in advance. If the only explanations for the forms and patterns of life are competing theories of design, there’s nothing left to debate. Intelligent design trumps mindless design.

Of course, Shermer isn’t alone in misusing this term. Scientists and documentary narrators alike commonly invoke “design” in reference to organic forms. But this is colloquial speech, not proper, scientific usage. Though it may be convenient to speak in terms of design, organisms are in no way designed objects.

Even worse, Shermer insists on applying this term to evolution. When I pointed out to him during a recent interview that evolution has no design, he forcefully disagreed, claiming the term was only “ruined” by association with creationism and is still essentially correct. Beyond the fact that “design” is out of place in any biological context, as a dedicated anti-creationist, Shermer ought to know that speaking of organic forms and their evolution in terms of design only encourages those who see such usage as vindication of their blinkered, supernatural outlook. See, even the scientific types call it design!

In his dual roles of publisher (Skeptic magazine) and pundit (primarily for Scientific American), Shermer often points out that science is not so much a set of beliefs as a method. But when he gets around to defining “methodological naturalism” in Why Darwin Matters, what he comes up with is not a sound methodology for distilling knowledge but simplistic, pre-scientific dogma. “Life,” he claims, “is the result of natural processes in a system of material causes and effects that does not allow, or need, the introduction of supernatural forces.”

The implication, literally centuries out of date, is that causation is natural only if it involves material contact. Ever since Newton proposed that the sun acts at a distance, via “gravity,” to hold the planets in place, science has been helplessly in thrall to the concept of physical forces unmediated by matter. As Shermer himself notes, “When electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists did not identify them as supernatural forces; they simply added them to the known forces of nature.”

Well, naturally. And it goes without saying that if biologists were to identify a previously unknown principle, rather than simply dismissing it as “supernatural,” they would add it to the “known forces of nature.” If physicists can propose forces or principles to account for a variety of inorganic phenomena, why can’t the same be done to explain the mysteries of life?

Shermer likes to point out that a scientific theory requires a mystery. If no fundamental mysteries remain in biology, then there’s no need for any new thinking. But this is clearly not the case, particularly in regard to the question of how an organism unfolds from embryo to adult.

Though development from the egg is generally believed to be the automated processing of a genetic blueprint or recipe, no testable hypothesis has ever been proposed that could either verify or falsify this proposition. Biologists are typically well aware of this fact, and a few, including Stephen Jay Gould, have confessed to it in print. The idea that genes and their signature proteins conspire to build living breathing bodies from a microscopic envelope of carbon-rich chemicals ought to be subject to skeptical scrutiny, but self-identified “skeptic” Shermer simply follows the pack and assumes that all mystery has been eliminated.

But why should biologists propose fundamental principles when life is not subject to its own laws apart from those of nature-at-large? Certainly, no “vital force” animates cell, organ, body or biosphere apart from the inorganic world. However, the discovery of principles of nature in the course of biological inquiry doesn’t mean these laws or tendencies are necessarily peculiar to life, only that they aren’t easily seen in the behavior of nonliving matter.

Oddly enough, it’s Shermer who posits a biology somehow set apart from the rest of nature, where fields abound, particles and waves are interchangeable, and causation can occur “nonlocally.” As if protected from all this mayhem by a vitalistic force-field, life is confined to the clockwork operations of the machine, itself a product of human artifice. Shermer can’t let go of design because his worldview hasn’t really changed since his days as a creationist in the 70s. Whether by the hand of God or the conveyor belt of mutation-selection, we are passive products of design rather than living expressions of a genuinely natural, self-propelling evolution.

Shermer treats the ostensible subject of Why Darwin Matters like a child, that is, to be seen and not heard. Darwin’s hallowed name is often invoked, while nothing of substance is ever said about his thought. Shermer’s object is not so much to understand evolution (and the creationist alternative it displaced long ago) but simply to be a loyal booster for the correct side.

Why, anything creationism can do, evolution can do blindfolded! Like a biblical author listing the bounties bestowed on his people by a benevolent deity, Shermer enumerates the many gifts of evolution: “cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism, reciprocal altruism, conflict-resolution and peace-making, community concern and reputation caring, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group… Evolution created these values in us.”

Funny how the religious worldview seamlessly blends with the new paradigm. “Evolution also explains evil, original sin, and the Christian model of human nature.” God may be truth, but “evolution created a system of deception detection.” Much like St. Peter at the gates of heaven, natural selection is “daily and hourly scrutinizing,” rejecting the bad and rewarding the good. That Shermer is just pandering to conservatives is revealed by his equation of natural selection with the invisible hand of the free market. Yes, folks, the triumph of evolution over creationism proves that capitalism is superior to planned economies.

Though he takes evangelist Kent Hovind to task for arguing that creationism is “proven by the impossibility of the contrary,” Shermer commits the same fallacy in reverse: if creationism is wrong, then the species must have evolved according to the blind mechanics of mutation-selection. That both views might be wrong never enters his mind. Yet evolution is best understood as the multi-generational self-creation of species in the process of intelligently exploiting environmental opportunities. Though this is what Darwin himself believed, for Shermer it’s just “another kind of creationism,” insufficiently mechanical-sounding to constitute real science.

Shermer comes across a bit conspiratorial as he alludes to creationists’ “favorite tactics” in pursuit of their “real agenda” of placing “science under attack.” Freud would say Shermer’s obsessive denunciation of creationists indicates a deeper, unconscious affiliation. Indeed, this affiliation rises to the surface when he rehashes the old thought experiment with the monkey that types Shakespeare.

The improbability that a purely mechanical evolution would spit out anything like Homo sapiens is sometimes illustrated with the metaphor of a monkey hacking away at a typewriter until coming up with TOBEORNOTTOBE. According to the mathematics of combinatorics, the number of letters the monkey would probably have to type before getting it right is 2613. That’s one tired monkey. But Shermer’s got a trick up his sleeve. Even blind evolution isn’t entirely random. This is because the effects of genetic mutation are coupled with the nonrandom power of natural selection. According to Shermer, “if each correct letter is preserved and each incorrect letter eradicated, as happens in natural selection, the process operates much faster.” By this scenario, only 335 trials are needed before the monkey is likely to have typed the correct sequence.

Trouble is, this scenario bears no resemblance to natural selection. What Shermer is actually promoting is divinely-guided evolution. Natural selection operates according to the immediate demands of the local environment, not some far-off goal. There’s no reason to believe that local selection pressures will match the needs of a descendent millions of years later. What’s correct for a tree shrew doesn’t necessarily bring it any closer to becoming human. Once you accept the need for selection on the basis of distant goals, you’ve abandoned science in favor of the supernatural.

Shermer may not understand evolution, but he’s the master of evilution, the creeping out of American Christians by making evolution seem downright diabolical. To embrace science, it seems, we must give up all sense of meaning. No human values are allowed, unless of course they’re reducible to the struggle for survival. No need for vague, obsolete notions like “purpose and intelligence,” as “the science of complexity shows how design, form, and function are all derivatives of self-organized emergent complex systems.”

Being a hip, cutting-edge kinda guy, Shermer is fond of buzzwords like “self-organization” and “emergent properties.” What he may not realize is that the science of complexity is essentially an application of nonequilibrium thermodynamics. As ecologist Eric D Schneider and science writer Dorion Sagan explain in their recent book, Into the Cool, complex systems are nature’s way of efficiently breaking down gradients. A tornado, for example, serves to eliminate the temperature gradient between warm air near the ground and cold air above. This gap will ultimately disappear anyway, but a tornado wipes it out a lot faster (and with a lot more flair). The paradox of nature is that complexity is way more efficient than simplicity.

At the chemical level, complex systems are “thermodynamically selected” insofar as they efficiently break down energy gradients. Like a pocket of warm air, a concentration of energy will eventually dissipate on its own, but a complex system naturally pops into being because it does the job so much better. The transition from chemical systems to living systems requires only the ability to store some of that energy, making productive use of it before it dissipates, thereby prolonging the “life” of the system indefinitely.

Shermer talks the complexity talk, but he doesn’t have his footing. “At some point,” he told me last year, “you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” Quite the contrary. As Schneider and Sagan demonstrate, 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, dynamic systems are holistic, shaped by energy flows rather than their constituent molecules. DNA is no more responsible for building organisms than dust is responsible for building tornados.

While complexity theory radically improves our understanding of life, there’s a limit to what it can explain. One thing you’ll never squeeze out of nonequilibrium thermodynamics is living memory. An organism is not some generic complex system. It has a particular form characteristic of its kind, and this form is retained from generation to generation. Though species-specific memory has long been thought to be encoded in genes, the only thing we know for sure about DNA is that it distinguishes individuals, not that it provides the general template of a species. Perhaps the collective memory by which our bodies form is itself holistic.

This is precisely the theory proposed by the esteemed physicist Walter Elsasser, who coined the term “holistic memory” to explain not only development from the egg but also the habits and memories of day-to-day life. Just as planetary orbits reveal action at a distance over space, organisms, according to Elsasser, reveal action at a distance over time. The meaning of memory is that causation can operate from the deep past as well as the immediate past. Though the computer hard drive is often taken as a model for genes and brains as information storage devices, surely the memory of life is not artificial but natural.

Shermer doesn’t seem interested in a biology that accounts for life on its own terms. For him, it’s all just a big game, and the winner is whoever conjures up the most realistic picture of life while utterly denying its reality. The idea of invoking a general principle of nature, such as holistic memory, to provide for a reasonable biology is simply unfathomable, though of course this is precisely how science has progressed for centuries. But then, why bother making room for memory, intelligence, purpose, character, the unconscious or self-existence when the blind machinery of chromosomes, neurons and natural selection can account for it all?

He may not have invented the machine fetish of modern biology, but nobody strokes that sprocket better than Shermer.

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Richard Dawkins Comes to Call


Richard Dawkins Comes to Call


by Rupert Sheldrake

Originally published in Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network
Network Review No. 95, Winter 2007


I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief,
surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion.

“If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what
we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t
interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise;
it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

Richard Dawkins is a man with a mission – the eradication of religion and superstition, and their total replacement with science and reason. Channel 4 TV has repeatedly provided him with a pulpit. His two-part polemic in August 2007, called The Enemies of Reason, was a sequel to his 2006 diatribe against religion, The Root of All Evil?

Soon before The Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil? was.”

She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?

The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”

I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.”

He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand.

He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s.

In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for well over a century.

However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

Richard Dawkins has long proclaimed his conviction that “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans”. The Enemies of Reason was intended to popularize this belief.

But does his crusade really promote “the public understanding of science,” of which he is the professor at Oxford?

Should science be a vehicle of prejudice, a kind of fundamentalist belief-system? Or should it be a method of enquiry into the unknown?

Article at Rupert Sheldrake’s Website

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The Skeptics

James Alcock

James E Alcock, Ph.D.

Alcock is professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, and a fellow and member of the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.


Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore, Ph.D.

Susan Blackmore is one of Britain's best-known media skeptics. A Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow, she was awarded the CSI Distinguished Skeptic Award in 1991.


Sean M Carroll

Sean M Carroll

Sean M Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology.


Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne, Ph.D.

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.


Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, Ph.D.

Richard Dawkins, a CSI Fellow, was the winner of the CSI “In Praise Of Reason” Award in 1992. He is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.


David Deutsch - Physics Ox

David Deutsch, Ph.D.

David Deutsch works at the Centre for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University.


Edzard Ernst - Institute for Science in Medicine

Edzard Ernst, M.D., Ph.D.

Edzard Ernstwas the UK's first professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM); the chair was endowed by the Laing foundation at the University of Exeter in 1993.


Chris French

Chris French, Ph.D.

Chris French often appears on British radio and TV in the role of an “informed skeptic”. He is the editor of Skeptic magazine, a publication of the British and Irish Skeptics, produced and distributed by CSI.


Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner was a founding member of CSI, and has been described as the "single most powerful antagonist of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century".


Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic is a founder of the group “Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia” and a co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics (California).


Bruce Hood

Bruce Hood, Ph.D.

Bruce Hood is on the editorial advisory board of Skeptic and is a Professor of Psychology at Bristol University. He is best known for his idea that humans are hard-wired for religion and superstitious beliefs.


Nicholas Humphrey

Nicholas Humphrey, Ph.D.

Nicholas Humphrey is an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. He held the Perrott-Warrick Research Fellowship for Psychical Research at Cambridge University.


Mike Hutchinson

Mike Hutchinson

One of the more extreme skeptics, Michael Hutchinson is U.K. representative of CSI and co-author (with journalist Simon Hoggart) of Bizarre Beliefs (1996).


Ray Hyman

Ray Hyman Ph.D,

Ray Hyman is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He serves on the Executive Council of CSI and chairs its subcommittee on parapsychology.


Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz was the Chairman of CSI, the Founder and Chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, and of Prometheus Books, the leading publisher of skeptical literature.


David Marks

David Marks, Ph.D.

David Marks is a CSI Fellow and Professor of Psychology and Research Director, Centre for Health and Counselling, City University, London.


PZ Myers

P.Z. Myers, Ph.D.

P.Z. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in evolutionary development.


James Randi

James Randi

James Randi is a conjurer ("The Amazing Randi") and showman who describes himself on his website as "the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims."


Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is publisher of The Skeptic magazine, Director of The Skeptic Society, host of the Skeptics’ Lecture Series at the California Institute of Technology, and author of "Skeptic", a Scientific American column.


Simon Singh

Simon Singh

Simon Singh left Cambridge University with a doctorate in particle physics to work for the BBC as a science producer in 1990. He wrote two books on popular science, Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Big Bang.


Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D.

Richard Wiseman is a fellow of CSI, a consultant editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and an associate of Rationalist International.


Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert, Ph.D.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He served for five years as Chairman of COPUS, the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.


Tony Youens

Tony Youens

Tony Youens has risen to prominence as a media skeptic on U.K. television making many appearances on day-time shows such as “Vanessa”, “Kilroy”, “The Heaven and Earth Show” and “Stigmata: The Marks of God”.


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Michael Shermer’s Attacks


Michael Shermer’s Attacks


Michael Shermer and “The Sense of Being Stared At”

by Rupert Sheldrake


Michael Shermer 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”.

In an article in USA Today (Feb 26, 2003) about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, And other Aspects of the Extended Mind, he was quoted as saying, “The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”. It turned out he could not substantiate this claim, and he admitted that he had not even seen the book. I proposed an online debate. He accepted this challenge in March 2003, and said he would “get to it soon”. In May that year he told me, “I have not gotten to your book yet”.

Apparently he never did. It only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatism is easy. It’s much harder work to look at evidence itself. Shermer repeatedly tells the readers of Skeptic magazine that “skepticism is a method, not a position”. But is this true in his own case? In November 2005, Shermer launched another attack in his Scientific American “Skeptic” column, called “Rupert’s Resonance”:

Michael Shermer’s Article:
Rupert’s Resonance
“The theory of ‘morphic resonance’ posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show?”

My Response:
Do Skeptics Play Fair?

Article at

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Tony Youens

Tony Youens

Tony Youens

Tony Youens has risen to prominence as a media skeptic on U.K. television making many appearances on day-time shows such as “Vanessa”, “Kilroy”, “The Heaven and Earth Show” and “Stigmata: The Marks of God”.

Youens’ interest in skepticism began when he saw the U.K. Granada television series “James Randi – Psychic Investigator” in the early 1990’s. This inspired him to take up conjuring and to read James Randi’s books. Youens’ interest in skepticism grew and by 2000 he had met Randi and has since worked with him, organising tests for U.K.-based applicants to Randi’s million dollar challenge and appearing on T.V. shows with Randi such as “The Ultimate Psychic Challenge”. Randi has referred to Youens as “our man in the U.K.” and Youens has called Randi “a huge source of inspiration”.

Youens has also worked with other skeptics such as Chris French, and his method typically involves posing as a psychic, an astrologer or medium (with the audience being deliberately mislead to this effect), and simulating psychic feats using stage-magic. He also tests psychics, and has his own “psychic challenge” worth 5000 UKP. In addition, he was a founding member of the U.K.-based Association for Skeptical Enquiry.

Youens is nothing if not confident of the absolute rightness of the skeptical position and clearly believes that skeptics have a monopoly when it comes to rational debate: “… I don’t expect to convince believers of the skeptical view. Despite all their claims to open-mindedness, I’ve never found one persuaded by rational argument”.

When asked about his qualifications as a skeptic Youens reply was: “… I would say I was for the most part self taught. I did get a third of the way through a philosophy degree but lack of time forced me to give up. Other than that my professional qualifications are not remotely connected with skeptical subjects generally.”

In spite of his complete lack of scientific credentials, Tony Youens has attempted to debunk the work of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. In August 2005, with many subsequent repeats, National Geographic TV Channel broadcast a programme called “Is It Real? Psychic Animals” (also called “Is It Real? Animal Oracles”). In this programme, criticisms were made of Sheldrake’s experiments involving the parrot N’kisi, who appears to display telepathic abilities. The criticisms focused on Sheldrake’s statistical analysis. However the British Government’s media-watchdog OFCOM ruled that the programme makers treated Sheldrake unfairly for not allowing Sheldrake to respond to these criticisms and breaching their prior agreement to allow him to do so (Ofcom adjudication).

Youens works as a Health and Safety Training Officer at the University of Nottingham Trent, England.

Photo credit: Tony Youens’ Website

Back to Who’s Who of Media Skeptics

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Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He served for five years as Chairman of COPUS, the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

Wolpert has been a faithful standby for the media for more than 20 years as a denouncer of ideas that he suspects are tainted with mysticism or the paranormal. On the other hand, in the context of genetic engineering, he is a fervent believer in free enquiry. “I regard it as ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world.” (Nobel Website, June 29, 2000).

In 1994, as a member of the BBC Science Consultative Committee, he tried to stop BBC Television from making a six part series on scientific “heretics”, as he revealed in the Sunday Times (July 3, 1994). “This is an absurd series. The whole way these programmes are being presented just fills me with rage. It’s a grotesque distortion. It’s disgusting. It’s just sensational anti-science, and anti-science is the rationalization for ignorance”. Wolpert’s most memorable aphorism was “Open minds are empty minds”.

In 2001, in a programme about a series of controlled telepathy experiments on the Discovery Channel, broadcast in the US on August 31, 2001, he proclaimed that “There is no evidence for any person, animal, or thing being telepathic”. He did not examine the evidence, presented in the same programme, about which he was being interviewed. He is an old-style dogmatic skeptic, and seems entirely unaware of numerous scientific studies that seem to show that that telepathy actually exists.

In January 2004 he took part in a public debate on telepathy with Rupert Sheldrake at the Royal Society of Arts in London, with a high court judge in the chair. According to a report on the debate in the scientific journal 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’.” You can hear the debate online by clicking here, read the text here, or read the Nature report (Debate online, RSA text, Report from Nature).

Lewis Wolpert’s Website

Photo credit: Lewis Wolpert

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., is a fellow of CSICOP, a consultant editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and an associate of Rationalist International. Having started his career as a conjuror, he took a degree in psychology (University College, London) and a PhD in parapsychology from Edinburgh University, and is now based in the Psychology Department at the University of Hertfordshire.

Wiseman’s speciality is the psychology of lying and deception, and he is the author of Deception and Self-Deception: Investigating Psychics (1997). He is Britain’s most ambitious and ubiquitous media skeptic and has appeared in hundreds of TV and radio programmes. In 1995 he was awarded a Perrott-Warrick research fellowship for psychical research, and according to his web site has received more than £400,000 sterling in grants. He has been at the centre of many controversies with researchers in parapsychology, and has often been accused of deliberately misrepresenting data.

In 1995, he replicated Rupert Sheldrake’s results with a dog that knows when its owner was coming home, and then claimed to have debunked the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon (“Richard Wiseman’s claim to have debunked “the psychic pet phenomenon’.” – Rupert Sheldrake).

He has been described by the President of the Parapsychology Association as motivated by “obvious self-interest”, and by a desire “to support an a priori commitment to the notion that all positive psi results are spurious and all methods which seem to show the presence of psi are flawed” (see Richard Wiseman and Ganzfeld Telepathy Research).

In December 2000 he carried out what he described as the “world’s biggest ESP experiment” which, like many of his activities, was widely publicised in the media. A skeptical observer of the experiment claimed that he had designed the experiment to fail and interfered with the procedure in such a way as to gain the non-significant result he expected (see Richard Wiseman’s “Experimenter Effect” Examined).

In September 2004 he took part in a classic CSICOP debunking excercise, claiming that a young Russian girl who had seemingly psychic powers of diagnosis had failed a test he and his fellow skeptics designed. In fact the girl scored at a level well above chance. Prof Brian Josephson, FRS, a Nobel Laureate in physics, investigated Wiseman’s claims about this test and found them to be seriously misleading (“Scientists’ Unethical Use of Media for Propaganda Purposes” – Cavendish Lab).

A lively debate between biologist Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman reveals a wide rift between skeptics and psi proponents (Sheldrake and Wiseman on Skeptiko, March 8, 2010).

Mary Rose Barrington takes Wiseman and his colleagues to task (The Natasha Demkina Case – Respected Scientists?).

In our Media Watch feature, Guy Lyon Playfair doubts Wiseman’s claim of a “breakthrough” in his attempt to debunk Remote Viewing (Breakthrough to Nowhere).

By the autumn of 2004, after a series of other very questionable claims, widely publicized in the media, many of his peers in the parapsychology research community concluded that his behaviour was not consistent with commonly-accepted standards of scientific integrity, and he was voted off the main research forum in parapsychology by a large majority. In addition, for similar reasons, some members of the Society for Psychical Resaerch called for him to be expelled for the Society. He resigned. Despite his strong skeptical beliefs, in 2004 he applied for the newly-established chair of Parapsychology in Lund, Sweden, which was endowed to promote research in this field.

In an interview with Skeptiko (April 2011) Rupert Sheldrake accused Richard Wiseman of “persistent deception” in Wiseman’s book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There (2011).

JSPR has published a penetrating critique by Chris Carter of Richard Wiseman’s attack on parapsychology in Wiseman’s paper published in Skeptical Inquirer, A Response to Wiseman’s (2010) Critique of Parapsychology (PDF).

Wiseman’s ability to manipulate the media misleadingly is not confined to psychic phenomena. Much has been written about a scientific “study” of his that claimed to show that people could not tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. But the test was seriously flawed, in that subjects were not asked to compare two samples of wine blind, but were given just a single glass and asked to say whether it was cheap or expensive. The wine blogger Jamie Goode comments that this “study” was “in essence a clever publicity stunt to boost the profile of the [Edinburgh science] festival by generating column-inches.” Wiseman was on the Advisory Board of the festival at the time (The Wiseman ‘Study’: Cheap Versus Expensive Wine – Jamie Goodwin).

More Information:

Richard Wiseman’s Failed Attempt to Debunk the “Psychic Pet” Phenomenon

Rupert Sheldrake, June 2015

Richard Wiseman caught cheating – or tricking skeptics?

Adrian Parker, YouTube, August 12, 2014

“Richard Wiseman performing a simple card trick on the Scandinavian talk show Skavlan and saying it was done by ‘reading body language’, and claiming to demonstrate how spiritualistic mediums give readings to sitters. Such subtle cues would never give a reliable life television success but many naive skeptics buy this.” (YouTube)

Richard Wiseman’s Website

Photo credit: Richard Wiseman

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer 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 frequently appears in the US media as an advocate of the skeptical point of view. Although he is a historian rather than a scientist, he sees himself as an arbiter of scientific credibility and standard bearer of rational thought. “In a free society, skeptics are the watchdogs against irrationalism. Debunking is not simply a divestment of bunk; its utility is in offering a better alternative, along with a lesson in how thinking goes wrong” (Scientific American, June 2001, p. 23).

According to Wikipedia Shermer was once a fundamentalist Christian. Much of his writing concerns the personal experiences that shaped his worldview. He once tried to enhance his athletic abilities with various New Age techniques, such as iridology, rolfing, and mega-vitamins. He even kept a pyramid in his living room to increase energy. His skepticism developed in reaction to his earlier credulity. Shermer now reveals a similarly credulous attitude toward mainstream science itself.

An advocate of “Big Science”, in his book The Borderlands of Science (2002) Shermer outlines a series of criteria for distinguishing between real science and “baloney”. He particularly warns his readers against people who have ideologies to pursue, whose pattern of thinking “consistently ignores or distorts data not for creative purposes but for ideological agendas”. Unfortunately he himself has an ideology to pursue and makes untruthful and pseudoscientific claims.

For example, in his “Skeptic” column in Scientific American in March 2003, Shermer cited a research study published in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, by Pim van Lommel and colleagues. He asserted this study “delivered a blow” to the idea that the mind and the brain could separate. Yet the researchers argued the exact opposite, and showed that conscious experience outside the body took place during a period of clinical death when the brain was flatlined. As Jay Ingram, of the Canadian Discovery Channel, commented: “His use of this study to bolster his point is bogus … He could have said, ‘The authors think there’s a mystery, but I choose to interpret their findings differently’. But he didn’t. I find that very disappointing.” (Toronto Star, March 16, 2003).

Pim van Lommel wrote to the editor of Scientific American setting out the evidence that Shermer misrepresented. In August 2004, Dr. Petrus Pennanen wrote to point out ‘an extremely unscientific statement’ in an article by Shermer on telepathy. In November 2004, Professor John Poynton, President of the Society for Psychical Research, wrote to protest that Shermer’s activities are a distortion of the concept of skepticism.1

In relation to Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Sense of Being Stared At, Shermer claimed in USA Today that “the events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”(Feb 26, 2003). When asked to substantiate this claim, he was unable to do so and admitted he had not seen the book.

In his August 2004 Skeptic column in Scientific American, Shermer launched an extraordinary attack on the widely respected physicist Freeman Dyson, of Princeton. He took exception to the fact that Freeman Dyson publicly concluded that paranormal phenomena might really exist, on the basis of “a great mass of evidence“ (New York Review of Books, March 25, 2004).

Dyson’s error, according to Shermer, was to be interested in people’s actual experiences:

“Even genius of this magnitude cannot override the cognitive biases that favour anecdotal thinking. The only way to find out if anecdotes resemble real phenomena is controlled tests. Either people can read other people’s minds (or ESP cards), or they can’t. Science has unequivocally demonstrated that they can’t – QED.“

This sounds like a crushing rebuttal of Dyson’s view, with the full weight of the authority of science. But it is untrue. There have been many scientific investigations of telepathy, and there is much evidence in its favour.

Shermer is a close associate of the conjurer James Randi. In January 2005 at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, NV they gave a workshop together on how to get the skeptical message across, teaching would-be media skeptics the “tricks of the trade” so that they could be the one the media will call on “when the next UFO or psychic healer appears on the scene.”

Related Articles

Anomalous Events That Can Shake One’s Skepticism to the Core
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The Delicate Ego of Mr. Michael Shermer
by P.Z. Myers, Pharyngula, January 16, 2013

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