Why Science Is Wrong… About Almost Everything

Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

I have known him since he first started his Skeptiko podcast and he has interviewed me several times for it. What struck me right from the outset was that he wanted to hear both sides of every argument. For example he wanted to hear what I had to say, and he wanted to hear what my critics had to say, and he wanted to find out how valid their criticisms were. He dug deeper until he could find out the reasons for our differences.

In this book, which contains highlights from his investigations on Skeptiko, he explores a range of controversial phenomena, looking both at what investigators of these phenomena claim and also at what the skeptics say.

When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not. The weakness of their case shows up very strongly in this book.

Of course, they provide a useful service in exposing frauds and charlatans, but a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview. If outright denial does not work, then they have to muddy the water and create confusion rather than clarity.

I found this book compelling reading, a page-turner. I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with the skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped to solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly.

In spite of my appreciation of Alex’s investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth, I think the title of this book goes too far. Science is not wrong about almost everything; it is right about a great many things, or right enough.

Everyone is appropriately impressed by computers, smartphones, the internet, jet planes, hip replacement surgery, antibiotics, solar panels, and many other technological inventions that enrich and sustain our lives. Science is right about the existence of galaxies beyond our own, about the structures of molecules, about the existence of fossils, about low-temperature superconductivity, and many, many other things.

What it’s seriously wrong about is the nature of life and consciousness. The materialist theory cannot account for the existence of minds, and also, in my view, gives a very inadequate understanding the nature of life. It would have been better to call this book “Why Science Is Wrong About Consciousness”, or “Why Science Is Wrong About Life and Consciousness”. I told Alex so, but he wanted to stick to his original title.

Alex and his interviewees deal with deep questions at the very frontiers of scientific understanding, in areas where the sciences are being inhibited by fear, dogmatism, and disinformation. I hope this book will serve to clear the ground and lead to a more productive discussion of important questions that rightly interest many people.

– Rupert Sheldrake, London, October 2014

Dean Radin Faces His Critics

The pause is brief, only a second or so, but I’m panicking. I’m sitting in the patio next to my kitchen—a wonderfully calming space I’ve converted into a studio for the science-themed podcast I’m recording. But I’m not calm right now. I’ve asked my question and my mind is racing as I wait for an answer. This could get ugly.

Dr. Dean Radin is on the other end of the recorded Skype call. He’s one of the world’s leading parapsychology researchers, and rather than offer up polite banter about his bestselling books, I’ve pressed him with a tough question about his competence as a researcher.

I’m not a professional scientist. I have no training as a broadcaster. And to be honest, I haven’t gotten all the way through Radin’s book, Entangled Minds. But none of that matters now. I’ve asked Radin to respond to some specific claims by one of his harshest critics. I have to see where this goes.

Radin begins in a soft-spoken, measured tone: “It’s interesting; he claims I do a lot of studies and don’t repeat them, and the very next thing he says is that I repeated the presentiment experiment a number of times.”

Radin is responding to claims made by University of Oregon psychologist Dr. Ray Hyman, a respected scientist with a stellar academic background and long list of peer-reviewed publications. Hyman attacked Radin during an interview with Yale neurologist and self-proclaimed “skeptic” Dr. Steven Novella.

They were discussing Radin’s peer-reviewed research into the nature of time and consciousness. Radin’s research posed a fundamental question: When do we know what we know? What Radin suspected, and what the data ended up revealing, is we sometimes know things are going to happen before they occur.

Radin discovered this by asking test subjects to stare at a blank screen and wait for an image to be displayed. During this time he measured their physiological response to the image. Sometimes he measured galvanic skin response, other times he measured pupil dilation or brain activity. But the goal was always to see if there was a detectable physiological reaction before the image appeared. Surprisingly, he did find such a reaction, particularly when troubling or extremely stimulating images were displayed.*

Radin had published his results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He had also replicated his work by repeating the experiment a number of times to make sure his results were consistent. He even collaborated with other independent researchers in labs throughout the world who were interested in replicating his results (as of this writing Radin’s presentiment experiments have been successfully replicated over 25 times in 7 different laboratories). But during the interview with fellow skeptic Steve Novella, Hyman seemed unwilling to even consider such research.

And, he saved his sharpest punches for Radin himself. Hyman snickered at Radin’s competence and charged Radin with making basic mistakes in collecting and interpreting his data. He even went so far as to say that Radin was “changing his corrections” in order to “get what [he] wanted from the data.” …

Hyman is shamefully wrong (see Appendix A below), and Radin’s research remains unchallenged.

– Alex Tsakiris

* Citation: Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality, Paraview Pocketbooks, 2006.

APPENDIX A: Dr. Dean Radin’s Meta-Analysis of Presentiment

When parapsychologist Dr. Dean Radin appeared on Skeptiko in 2007 (Skeptiko #2), he was asked to respond to the following quote from University of Oregon psychology professor Dr. Ray Hyman:

“What’s fascinating about Radin is that he comes through as being very sophisticated… I’ve gone back and looked at a lot of other stuff he’s done in the ESP-field, and everything he does he has some new, novel application of technology, the latest in computer sophistication, and so on. And yet he gets results and then he never repeats that; that’s dropped and he goes on to other stuff. And as a cynic you wonder, well why? What happened here? Why isn’t he able to follow up on his own ‘great work,’ right?

“Then I found out some other things. When I went through his presentiment work, I found—it took me a while to find it—that he’s done three experiments, each replicated the other. But when I go down to the fancy way that he was correcting for baselines and stuff like that, the correction was one way in one experiment. The second experiment was a different correction. The third experiment was a different correction.

“Then I realized…I did some simulations, and the corrections from the first experiment and the ones from the second experiment would cancel each other out. In other words, it would give a different result. And why was he always changing his corrections? [Laughter] And I’m realizing that this is a subtle, kind of, maybe unconscious, not conscious so much, way of making sure you’re going to get what you want from the data.”

Hyman starts out with some unfounded personal attacks, then hits hard with charges of academic dishonesty by claiming Radin was “changing his corrections.” To be specific, Hyman claims Radin is fiddling with the “baseline.” This deserves an explanation. The research in question has to do with an unusual phenomenon known as “presentiment.” Dr. Radin suspected human beings might possess the innate ability to sense an event is going to happen before it actually happens. He then carried out a series of experiments to test the validity of this hypothesis.

Radin asked test subjects to stare at a blank screen and wait for an image to be displayed. All the while, Radin measured how far, and at what times, their physiological responses deviated from the “baseline” measurements. The baseline condition can be thought of as a participant’s “normal” physiological state (i.e. physical, mental, emotional, etc.) when no experimental variable or stimulus has yet been applied to the test subject. As the experimental variable or stimuli is applied, the participant’s responses continue to be carefully monitored.

This procedure is well tested and commonplace in the field of psychology. It allows experimenters to observe behavior before, during, and after applying stimuli, and lets them gauge how far from the baseline condition test subjects deviate during an experiment. Radin would measure the patient’s response over thousands of trials, compare it to their baseline, and assess whether there was a significant, above-chance effect going on.

Hyman accuses Radin of adjusting the baseline measurements of his test subjects to distort, or amplify, the results. He accuses Radin of data-mining or “cherry-picking” data in an effort to make results appear more statistically significant.

But Radin has a powerful counter to this claim—his meta-analysis. After completing each of his three carefully controlled, lengthy (each took over a year to complete) presentiment experiments, Radin analyzed his data. Each time he sought to improve the statistical analysis of the results. As mentioned prior, Radin is a highly competent researcher with a proven track record in academia as well as with some of the world’s leading commercial laboratories. He knows his stuff.

After the third experiment, Radin used his latest and most refined methods of data analysis to re-analyze the data from all the experiments taken together. This combining of data from different experiments is called meta-analysis. And while such work can sometimes be complicated, in this case, because the experiments were so similar, and because Radin had run each one, the positive results of the meta-analysis were very revealing. They showed that the effect was robust and is present in all three of Radin’s experiments.

Radin’s “mini” meta-analysis across his presentiment experiments obliterates Hyman’s charge. Applying one method of determining the baseline to all trials, across all experiments, rules out any possibility of tweaking parameters from experiment to experiment in an effort to produce misleading results.

If anyone is data-mining or cherry-picking, it is Hyman. But perhaps we should not be surprised, as Dr. Hyman is one of the founding members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (aka CSICOP, or CSI), an organization known for over-the-top theatrics in defense of status quo science.

Alex Tsakiris’ interview with Radin exposed Hyman’s nonsense, but Hyman was never willing to acknowledge his mistake and/or apologize to Radin for slandering him. Dr. Steven Novella, who interviewed Hyman, and published the interview, was urged to make a public correction on his show, but he never did.