Michael Shermer - Do skeptics play fair?
Reply to Michael Shermer’s column in Scientific American:
Do skeptics play fair?
by Rupert Sheldrake
In his attack on my work (“Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American, November 2005), Michael Shermer asserted, “Skepticism is the default position because the burden of proof is on the believer, not the skeptic.” But who is the believer and who is the skeptic?
I am skeptical of people who believe they know what is possible and what is not. This belief leads to dogmatism, and to the dismissal of ideas and evidence that do not fit in. Genuine skepticism involves an attitude of open-minded enquiry into what we do not understand, and this is the approach I try to follow.
Shermer ridiculed the hypothesis of morphic resonance by claiming I proposed a “universal life force,” a concept I have never used. He also misrepresented the evidence for the sense of being stared at. Experiments showing that people can detect when they are being stared at from behind have been widely replicated, with results that an independent meta-analysis has shown to be highly significant, as summarized in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (June, 2005), JCS Summary to which Shermer referred. He tried to give the impression that the case rested on unsupervised tests by people using the experimental protocol on my web site (www.sheldrake.org ), but this is not true. Shermer should know that this is not true if he has actually read the paper to which he referred. . My own summary of the evidence and the independent meta-analysis by Dean Radin did not include the data from these unsupervised tests, but relied instead on the results of many thousands of trials already published in peer-reviewed journals.
Shermer also referred to data from a staring experiment by Colwell et al, of Middlesex University, London, which showed a significant positive effect that could not be explained in terms of sensory clues. He mentioned that Colwell et al. suggested that this effect might be attributable to non-random features of the randomization sequences used in their experiment, but he omitted to mention that their suggestion has already been refuted by thousands of trials with different randomization methods, including coin-tossing. The results were positive and highly significant statistically, whatever the randomization method.
Shermer also accuses people who take the experimental evidence for the sense of being stared at seriously of “confirmation bias”. But there is no better example of confirmation bias than Shermer himself, who sees only what he wants to believe and willfully distorts the evidence to fit his skeptical preconceptions.
He then refers to the experimenter bias problem, twisting the results of a very interesting study jointly conducted by the skeptic Richard Wiseman with Marilyn Schlitz, who had repeatedly obtained positive significant results in her studies on the sense of being stared at. In my review, I show that most skeptics who tested the sense of being stared at, including Wiseman, got POSITIVE results in their first tests (p. 26). In these successful tests organized by Wiseman, students did the staring, not Wiseman himself. He then tried to dismiss these results as a statistical artifact. When I asked for his data to check his statistical hypothesis, he was unable to supply more than a subsample, but the data he gave me did not support his own hypothesis. Thereafter Wiseman did the staring himself, getting the result he expected, that is to say, a non-significant effect.
The Wiseman-Schlitz study to which Shermer refers was an attempt to understand the possible role of experimenter effects in these differing results. The fact that Schlitz got positive results and Wiseman non-significant results under identical conditions in Wiseman’s own lab is particularly interesting. These experiments were conducted through closed circuit TV. Schlitz could not have obtained positive results just by wanting to, whereas Wiseman could have got the results he hoped for by not looking vary hard. In fact, when interviewed afterwards he said he found staring “an enormously boring experience” and that in most of the trials he was “pretty passive about it.”
Shermer ends his piece:
Sheldrake responds that skeptics dampen the morphic field, whereas believers enhance it. Of Wiseman, he remarked: ‘Perhaps his negative expectations consciously or unconsciously influenced the way he looked at the subjects.’ Perhaps, but wouldn't that mean that this claim is ultimately nonfalsifiable? If both positive and negative results are interpreted as supporting a theory, how can we test its validity?
I have never claimed that “skeptics damped the morphic field”. What I pointed out was that in the Wiseman-Schlitz study, by maximizing the experimenter effect by taking part as a participant in his own experiments, Wiseman could get the results he expected. But the situation is asymmetrical. Schlitz could not have obtained positive effects if people could not detect when they were being stared at. And in most research on staring effects, like Wiseman’s own initial experiments, and in my own tests, the experimenter is nether a starer or participant.
My hypothesis of morphic resonance is eminently testable, and potentially falsifiable. So is my research on the sense of being stared at and telepathy. It is Shermer’s skeptical claim that is unfalsifiable. Any evidence that goes against his prejudices is ignored, misrepresented or dismissed, while he is credulous about the claims of skeptics.
One of Shermer’s favourite sayings is that “Skepticism is a method, not a position.” Unfortunately he is does not practice what he preaches. In 2003, USA Today published an article about my book The Sense of Being Stared At, describing my research on telepathy and the sense of being stared at. Shermer was asked for his comments and was quoted as saying. “[Sheldrake] has never met a goofy idea he didn’t like. The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means”.
I emailed Shermer to ask him what his normal explanations were. But he was unable to substantiate his claim, and admitted he had not even seen my book. I challenged him to an online debate. He accepted the challenge, but said he was too busy to look at the experimental evidence and said he would “get to it soon”. Several months later he confessed, “I have not gotten to your book yet”. Despite repeated reminders, he has still failed to do so.
It only takes a few minutes to make an evidence-free claim to a journalist. Dogmatism is easy. It is harder work to consider the evidence, and Shermer is too busy to look at facts that go against his beliefs.
Shermer’s partisan approach is like that of a politician trying to win an election. Readers of Scientific American would be better served by a fair and truthful presentation of the facts
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