Thursday, September 07, 2006

Telepathy smackdown

The British Association for the Advancement of Science (a venerable charity with impeccable scientific credentials) recently held its yearly meeting. During the course of the get together a group of fringe scientists were allowed to present work suggesting telepathic powers exist.

The backlash was quick but largely on procedural scientific grounds: the panel included no opposing viewpoints. For what it's worth, I am a complete non-believer in telepathy or similar fringe ideas.
SCIENTISTS claiming to have evidence of life after death and the powers of telepathy triggered a furious row at Britain’s premier science festival yesterday. Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged.

Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA’s decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics.

The disputed session featured research from Rupert Sheldrake, an independent biologist who is funded by Trinity College, Cambridge, that claims to have found evidence that some people know telepathically who is calling them before they answer the telephone. Other presentations came from Peter Fenwick, a doctor who thinks deathbed visions suggest that consciousness survives when people die, and from Deborah Delanoy of the University of Hertfordshire, whose work suggests that people can affect the bodies of others by thinking about them.

Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference. Some said telepathy has already been found wanting in experiments, and had no place at a scientific meeting.
Some of the choicer comments:
Lord Winston, fertility specialist and former president of the BA:

“I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense. It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields.”

Professor Peter Atkins, Fellow and Tutor in Physical Chemisty, Oxford University:

“Although it is politically incorrect to dismiss ideas out of hand, in this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy. If telepathy were a real phenomenon, evolution and natural selection would have developed it into a serious ability. That has not occurred in this case, neither speaker has a reputation for reliability, and it is extraordinary that the BA should consider them worth a platform.”
One of the scientists who presented work responds in an op-ed; his idea is attractively simple:
Instead, I suggest that our minds may extend far beyond our brains, stretching out through fields that link us to our environment and to each other. Fields are more extensive than material objects: magnetic fields extend around magnets, and electromagnetic fields around mobile phones. Likewise, mental fields are rooted in brains but extend beyond them. The directions depend on our attention and intention.
Very interesting. But analogy isn't evidence. Go out and prove it.