Rupert replies to Robert Todd Carroll
On his Skeptic’s Dictionary site,
Robert Todd Carroll comments on some experiments that Aimee Morgana and I carried out with her parrot N’Kisi, a bird with an astonishing vocabulary (currently over 1,200 words) and remarkable linguistic abilities, often making meaningful comments and speaking in sentences.
The N'kisi Project
Aimee had noticed that N’kisi sometimes said things that were related to what she was thinking about, suggesting that the parrot could “read her mind”. We set up a randomized series of tests designed to find out if the bird’s “hits” were just a matter of chance coincidence or not. In these experiments, N’kisi was filmed and recorded continuously while Aimee was in another room. In each trial she opened a sealed envelope containing a photograph she had not seen before and looked at it for 2 minutes. N’kisi’s comments, if any, during these test periods were later transcribed independently by 3 people who were “blind” as to the details of the test. The results were analysed by an independent professional statistician and were published in a peer-reviewed journal. The full text of the article can be read here.
Testing a Language - Using a Parrot for Telepathy
Carroll is a committed skeptic who is strongly motivated to try and discredit the positively and statistically significant results of these tests, which imply some form of unexplained communication between Aimee and N’kisi.
Carroll devotes much of his discussion to the details of the statistics and the experimental methods, but then concludes dismissively, “My devout wish is that when such studies as these are published in the future, responsible journalists continue to ignore them and recognise them for the rubbish they are.” This is not the wish of a skeptic interested in open-minded inquiry and free discussion, but of a committed ideologist who wants to censor what the public gets to know.
In his criticisms of research with N’Kisi, Carroll tries to persuade his readers that the speaking of this bird is so indistinct that it can only be interpreted after people have been told what to expect. He says that the bird sounds are “gibberish until you are told what to look for”. This is untrue. If he had read our paper he would see that our method did not rely on people knowing what to look for. The tapes of our experiments with N’Kisi were transcribed independently by three different people, who worked blind. They did not know what targets were involved in the experiments, or when one trial ended and another began. Nor did they know what words were on the pre-specified list of key words that could count as hits or misses.
There was a remarkably good agreement between the transcripts of the three independent transcribers, and they also agreed well with Aimee Morgana’s own transcript (which was not included in the analysis because it was not blind). For an example of the results of these for a comparison of these four transcripts, see our Table 1. The three blind transcribers agreed completely on 105 occasions on which target words were said. Two out of three transcribers agreed on a further 12 occasions (see our Table 4.I).
In order to analyse the data as objectively as possible, we analysed all aspects of the results taking into account the data where all three transcribers were in agreement, or when only two agreed on a word, or when only one reported a particular word. In all cases the results were highly significant statistically (see our Table 4).
Carroll bases his comments on a short extract from a tape recording of N’kisi posted on my web site The Nkisi Project . His contention that people can only understand what N’Kisi is saying after they know what to listen for goes against the evidence of our published study. Of course he is free to dismiss with contempt any research he doesn’t like, but he is wrong to mislead his readers by pretending to be scientific.
In analysing our results, we excluded trials in which N’Kisi did not say anything, or did not say one of the pre-specified key words on which the analysis was based. This is a standard procedure in experiments with young children and animals, who cannot be forced to respond, or may not respond in some trials at all, owing to their shorter attention spans and inability to understand the testing situation. There are many examples of this in the developmental psychology literature, for example in testing autistic children, toddlers, and others who cannot be expected to respond to tests exactly like adult humans. Carroll seems ignorant of research methodologies in these fields. He implied that that our method was scientifically improper: “Some might argue… that by ignoring so much data where the parrot clearly did not indicate any sign of telepathy is strong evidence that Sheldrake was more interested in confirming his biases than getting at the truth.”
Carroll’s comment is deliberately misleading. As Carroll must know if he read our paper, an independent statistical analysis has shown that counting all trials and including all data does not significantly alter the results. When our paper was reviewed, one of the referees thought that we should not have omitted instances in which the parrot said nothing or did not utter one of the pre-specified key words. His comments were published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration immediately after our paper. Having expressed this concern, he continued, “I therefore requested data on the omitted cards/phrases, which the authors immediately supplied. I did a permutation test on the entire data set and, and found p-value that differed only trivially from the one stated in the article. Although the authors have done an analysis that I would not have done (by omitting data), it makes no difference to the results.”
Carroll also suggested that we should have done a baseline study in which the parrot was videotaped for two-minute periods outside the context of the experiment, and suggested we should have made hundreds of such clips and then compared them to the clips we used for the analysis. This methodology would certainly have been objected to by more scientifically-minded skeptics than Carroll, who would have questioned the basis on which we decided to make these control clips. For example if they had been at random times, many of them would have been when the parrot was asleep and not saying anything. If we had made them during the day when Aimee Morgana was “doing something unrelated to the key-word pictures,” then we would have been accused of selecting activities that would have biased the results.
What Carroll fails to appreciate is that we used a randomised permutation analysis to assign the two-minute clips at random to the photo-card stimuli, in order to find out how many hits would have arisen by chance. This kind of statistical analysis is also known as a Monte Carlo simulation, because it involves numerous randomized permutations to replicate the element of chance, using computers. In this analysis, following standard, well-established methods, all utterances of key-words by the parrot during each two-minute period were randomly assigned to each stimulus photo-card to see what were the chances of the parrot getting a hit by coincidence. The analysis involved 20,000 random permutations, and showed that N’kisi said words corresponding to pictures that Aimee was looking at very significantly more than could be explained by chance (p= 0.0003; our Table 4).
Carroll repeats his criticisms in an even more extreme and biased form in an extraordinary attack on Jane Goodall, widely respected for her pioneering work on chimpanzee behaviour: Attack on Jane Goodall . If she considers Sheldrake a good scientist, then one must wonder what standards she has held herself to over the years in her studies of chimpanzees.”
Jane Goodall’s 40 years of research with chimpanzees has been presented in many books, scientific journals and films. Her groundbreaking observations of chimps using tools have been filmed and replicated by independent observers. She was awarded the Legion of Honor, is a Dame of the British Empire and has received many other prestigious awards honoring her scientific discoveries.
More on... The N'kisi Project
Carroll has no scientific credentials, and he gets carried
away by his strong beliefs and dogmatic zeal. If The Skeptic's Dictionary site were subject to independent peer-review, like articles in scientific journals, much of it would not survive.
Carroll’s Skeptics’ Dictionary entry on morphic resonance is polemical rather than informative.
The concept of morphic resonance was first discussed in my books A New Science of Life (1981) and The Presence of the Past (1988) in which I proposed that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. We live in a radically evolutionary universe. I suggest that there is an inherent memory in nature given by the process of morphic resonance, which involves the progressive reinforcement of similarities. Self-organising patterns become increasingly habitual through repetition.
Rather than discussing this idea, Carroll mounts an ad hominem attack, asserting that although I have been trained in modern science, I prefer “Goethe and nineteenth century vitalism. Sheldrake prefers teleological to mechanistic models of reality.” In my books I discuss the history of ideas of organisation and then go on to discuss holistic models of nature that supersede them and on which I build. To say that I prefer nineteenth century vitalism is an example one of Carroll’s favourite rhetorical techniques, the use of false dichotomies.
He continues his attack with more false alternatives: “Rather than apply his scientific knowledge and training to, say, trying to develop a way to increase crop yields or a way to heal the sick, he prefers to study and think in terms outside of the paradigms of science”. Carroll seems unaware of the fact that innovative science necessarily goes beyond existing paradigms, And as far as I know neither Carroll nor any of his fellow skeptics have applied their talents to increasing crop yields or healing the sick. By contrast, I spent years working on tropical crops at ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics, in India, first as Principal Plant Physiologist and than as Consultant Physiologist . Our research contributed to increased crop yields in India, China and Africa, and continues to do so.
Carroll tries to denigrate the concept of morphic resonance by saying that it is no more empirical than “L. Ron Hubbard’s engram”, attempting to create a kind of guilt by association. He goes on to claim “Telepathy and such things as phantom limbs… can be explained without adding the metaphysical baggage of morphic resonance.”
What is Carroll’s own explanation of telepathy? In the section of his dictionary on ESP he tries to explain it away and credulously accepts the claims of other committed sceptics. He also gives highly misleading accounts of my own research with dogs that know when their owners are coming home and with a language-using parrot, N’Kisi.
“The notion that new skills are learned with increasing ease as greater quantities of population acquire them, known as the 100th monkey phenomenon is bogus”. I agree with Carroll the so-called 100th monkey phenomenon is a kind of New Age myth; I never use this example for that very reason. Instead I discuss better-documented examples of the spread of skills, like the increasing ability of rats to escape from water mazes after previous rats have learned the same thing – evidence from laboratory experiments at Harvard, Edinburgh and Melbourne Universities.
Carroll ends his account of morphic resonance by accusing me of magical thinking. His final rhetorical flourish tries to link me to alternative paradigms that create “hope for a future world where we all live in harmony and love, surrounded by blissful neighbours who never heard of biological warfare, nuclear bombs, or genetically engineered corn on the cob.” This vision of ignorance as bliss is Carroll’s, not mine, and has nothing to do with the hypothesis of morphic resonance.
An introduction to...
Carroll is prejudiced, unscientific and unreliable. He serves as a constant reminder of the need to be skeptical about skeptics.
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