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April 2007


It always amazes me how worked up top scientists get whenever the subject of telepathy gets an airing.  The British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA)  had the nerve - the sheer brass-faced gall - to include a presentation by parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake on telepathy in its festival of science last week, and the critics were all over the dailies the next day complaing about it. 

Fertility expert Lord Winston complained he knew of no 'serious, properly done studies' so could not be anything other than nonsense.  Oxford chemistry professor Peter Atkins said this sort of research was a waste of time, and there was no reason to suppose telepathy was anything other than 'a charlatan's fantasy'. Another Oxford stalwart, Sir Walter Bodmer, condemned the BA for having allowed Sheldrake to make the case without it being 'balanced by a more convincing view'. That usually means someone getting up right afterwards and telling the audience to ignore everything that they have just heard.

Basically Sheldrake did what he often does - identify a simple situation where people say they sometimes sense telepathic interaction, and carry out a straightforward experiment to see if there is any evidence to substantiate it. In this case he got 63 volunteers to each select four friends, one of which would be randomly chosen and asked to ring at a pre-arranged time. If chance alone was operating, they would expect to be right one time in four, or 25% of the time. But Sheldrake said they got it right 40% of the time in 571 attempts, which he takes to be an indication of telepathic contact.

OK, it's just one result among many thousands of experiments, some of which have been inconclusive or negative. And it's open to criticism. If it is true, as critics say, that the person receiving the call was sometimes allowed to pick up the receiver before making a choice then there is clearly some room for clues to be transmitted, perhaps by the quality of the line. Or else people can get clues from the time of the call, as some friends might tend to call at particular times.  But it's the start of a research process - you have to iron out the flaws until you get a reasonably reliable protocol, exactly what has been done with the ganzfeld over the past 25 years. The ganzfeld, as it happens, is still clocking up scores of around 33% where 25% would be expected by chance, long after the flaws the critics justifiably complained about have been removed.

So although this experiment is inconclusive there is at least some research that suggests it's not a waste of time to take it seriously. The critics don't know this, because they don't really understand the research, and most never bother to read it.   For them the mere thought of telepathy being discussed seriously in public is too much to bear.