Scepticism of the paranormal seems fair enough to me - after all, a lot of the claims are flat-out incredible. When I talk about it I always try to keep the objections in mind. Whether we like it or not, the burden of proof really is on us, as a matter of practical fact. If we are going to persuade people, our arguments have to be better than the opposition's.
A lot of the time I like to think that sceptics might have a different attitude if they had more facts and knew more about it. But there are times when I recognise that this is unrealistic. Militant sceptics aren't interested in argument. If they are proactive, they'll use dirty tricks to keep people to their way of thinking, and if they aren't, they'll just uncritically believe them.
One of those times was listening to Rupert Sheldrake talking at the SPR Study Day on Saturday, on sceptics. Rupert took us through a list of the indignities he's suffered at their hands. The one I'm most closely interested in concerned the dog Jaytee, which his statistical investigation showed had an overwhelming tendency to go and sit by the door around the time when its owner Pam Smart made preparations to come home, suggesting some telepathic connection.
Richard Wiseman carried out four 'experiments', in which he claimed to show that the dog was going backwards and forwards to the door all the time, and any correspondence between this and Pam's coming home was purely coincidental - wishful thinking on her part. When I analysed his paper I found he'd made up all sorts of arbitrary criteria, which of course he said the dog failed to meet, and the set-up was so oddly conceived it really couldn't have proved much one way or the other.
At the time, Rupert pointed out to Wiseman wasn't directly addressing his own research, to which Wiseman responded he wasn't concerned with that, but simply with media claims that the dog always reacted telepathically - which wasn't accurate. But that didn't stop him going round telling sceptics' conferences that he'd debunked Rupert's paranormal dog. There was even a TV film, which ran clips edited to show the dog running backwards and forwards all the time, which was absolutely misleading. What I hadn't seen - and what Rupert showed us on Saturday - was a graph plotting Wiseman's data and revealing it to be exactly the same as Rupert's own.
This is so frustrating. Wiseman made his experiment up as he went along, his analysis was specious, and his presentation of the facts so obviously misleading that it's difficult to see it as anything other than dishonest. But to scientists and the secular-minded public it's Wiseman who comes across as doing 'real science', putting the uppity paranormalist in his place. This chicanery also has personal consequences. I talked to Pam about it - she works with Rupert as his researcher - and she was still obviously traumatised by the experience of waking up one morning to headlines such as 'Psychic Pets Are Exposed as a Myth', which led to weeks of barracking by her neighbours, who pretty much accused her of lying to them.
Rupert also talked about his experience with National Geographic TV, 'Psychic Animals' film, in which a sceptic tried to debunk his work with the telepathic parrot N'kisi. The sceptic achieved this by doing work with another talking parrot, and deciding that Rupert had manipulated the data by excluding the parrots' non-responses. If Rupert had been given an opportunity to respond he would have shown a) that he was following best scientific practice and b) that a recalculation to include these non-responses made no difference to the outcome.
But Rupert wasn't given this opportunity, so he complained the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom. National Geographic's lawyers defended its conduct by pointing out that although they had indeed provided Rupert with an assurance that the programme would be free and fair, in order to entice him to take part, this assurance was not legally binding - so they could not be held to account for breaking it.
Interestingly, Ofcom seems to have grasped what was going on and ordered National Geographic to apologise. When it appealed, a judge threw its objections out. But as Rupert wearily points out, none of this stopped it repeating the same programme eight times in the US.
Rupert also described how he was conned into appearing in a programme with Richard Dawkins. The producers promised him it would not be a stitch up, which Dawkins had eventually to admit had been the intention all along. And he had some interesting sidelights on the controversy over his telepathy presentation at a science festival in 2006, which apparently was artificially cooked up by a sceptical Times reporter.
After an hour or so of this, steam was starting to come out of my ears. Even Chris French, invited as the event's token sceptic, seemed shocked. He had rebutted some of the points in my earlier talk, as also in Guy Playfair's, but when Rupert was done he jumped up and said there was nothing there he could possibly disagree with.
French's position intrigues me, because he does genuinely seem willing to interact with the opposition. He seems to get on well with Rupert, and comes to SPR events, undogmatically putting the sceptic answer to the various claims and challenges. Unlike Wiseman, he really does understand the difference between disagreement on the level of ideas, and cynical misrepresentation.
It's just so difficult to know how to respond to it. One can patiently explain the facts, but it seems all the sceptics have to do is throw up a bit of dust and any good piece of work is instantly discredited. The negative perception can't be reversed without getting people to go into a lot of complexities, and that requires an investment of time and effort that most aren't prepared to give.
All this reminds me that paranormal belief really isn't about science at all, but about politics and public relations. Temperament and emotion underlie hostility to paranormal claims, just as they underlie all kinds of political and social controversies. One is a sceptic in the way that one is a liberal or conservative - one looks at the matter through that prism, and shoehorns the facts to fit. If the idea of psychism is ideologically unacceptable and personally repugnant you don't mess about with namby-pamby argument, you fight dirty, to make it go away.
Rupert's talk made me angry, but I soon got over it. We advocates don't have the luxury of indulging in complaint. We have to figure out ways to demonstrate why we think our arguments are better than theirs, and to expose the silly sceptic tricks for what they are.