'Dying Brain Hypothesis' Not Dead
SPR Study Day - The Psychology of the Sceptic

Silly Sceptic Tricks

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.



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I agree that it's something you see in every sector of society, such as politics. I'm not a conservative myself, but I hate to see 'liberals' paint them as gun-toting, revenge seeking, power hungry fat cats who hate the poor. They obviously have genuine reasons for their political stance, and that has to be respected.

The media love to present conflict, and people often don't want to consider other people's point of view. It's all a catch 22, and it feels like knowledge in certain subjects is diminishing as a result.

The 'skeptics' clearly dominate the media in terms of the paranormal. Change will be slow and difficult.

Going to share the text of your talk? I would love to read it.

Hi Robert,

Good post! Was also at the study day, and I shared your exasperation at what Sheldrake has had to put up with. I've just published a blog review of your interesting talk at the study day, and would appreciate feedback (especially on spelling of names, etc. I made notes, but my handwriting's terrible!)


As you will read, I have some reservations about the study day, even though much of what was said was absolutely true.

Am also going to review Rupert's talk tomorrow!

Thanks again,


Would love to read the text or if there is some video footage?


An interesting detail in the Wiseman effort to debunk Jaytee and Rupert - if you look at the film as edited in the Wiseman programme, you can see from the timer that at least two clips showing the dog running to the window are actually the same clip repeated. Hard to see how a professional editor can do this by mistake.

Thanks for the review! It's kind of hard to attend these things from the other side of the pond.

Thanks for the interest - I've posted the text. The three talks were video-taped, and the SPR will be posting the sessions in due course - when it does I'll give the link here.

Matt, I understand your reservations about the talks being one-sided, but I think it's legitimate in the context of a study day, which is about looking at a particular topic. At least Chris French was there to balance it out a bit. A fully balanced session with equal representation from both sides would be nice in theory, but not sure how easy to do in practice.

Well said! What you experience in serious paranormal research is what critics of the Warren Commission go through as well. As you said, it all comes down to politics and public relations.

About the item "Silly Sceptic Tricks", my son's cat Candy nearly always went to sit on a low window ledge where she could see the gateway to our house and see when my son arrived home. He was doing shift work at the time so there wasn't any set time for him to be home. When his car arrived she would jump down and go to the door where he would enter the house.
When we noticed this, we tried to work out how she knew and finally, after taking note of the time my son left work, we realised that was the time Candy would go and sit on this window ledge and watch the gate for his arrival home.
I have also heard of other stories similar to this and our family don't find it at all strange. Another cat we once had always used to go and lay close to any of my children who were about to become ill and when I realised this, I found it useful as I would often notice something wrong with the child before it got too serious. We ended up calling this Siamese cat Nursy Nancy after a comic cartoon character.
Now we tell anyone who will listen and ask them not to scold cats or other pets that want to be close to children when they are ill as animals seem to know and may be helping them in some way as well.
Children nearly always relate to animals more easily than many adults, I think because animals give unconditional love. We all know the stories of how Dolphins have helped many people including children who have problems.
I think those of us who understand these things are fortunate and to anyone who doesn't believe or understand, I usually tell them that they will find out one day.

I am always amazed at the lengths skeptics will go to "debunk" any claims that are contrary to generally accepted "truths" so I wonder what skeptics have to say about Oscar the cat and Scamp the dog who are able to sense when nursing home patients are about to die?

The Boston Globe article on Oscar

The New England Journal of Medicine article on Oscar

The Register article on Scamp

If an animal exhibits a certain behavior that you cannot explain, how do you make the leap to insist that it is telepathy? Animals senses are different than ours and it may be that normal hearing or smell is at work. You are correct that the burden of proof is on you and paranormal claims are the heaviest burden.

If a skeptic does not use the scientific method to test the claim that also does not mean you have proof of telepathy- it only means some time has been wasted.

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