by Rupert Sheldrake

I was invited to speak at the 12th European Skeptics Congress in Brussels in October 2005. I took part in a plenary session in which there was a debate on telepathy between myself and a leading member of Stichting Skepsis, the Dutch skeptic organisation, Dr. Jan Willem Nienhuys. I presented evidence for telepathy, reviewing research by others and by myself. Dr Nienhuys responded by arguing that telepathy was impossible and therefore all the evidence for it must be flawed. He commented that the more statistically significant my experimental results were, the greater the errors. I asked him to specify these errors, but he replied he could not do so since he had not actually read my papers or studied the evidence.

Here is a description of the debate by Dr Richard Hardwick, an independent observer:

The closing debate
So finally to the end of the Congress and the Sheldrake versus Nienhuys spit-roast. Dr Sheldrake was on first. Sheldrake of course is not a University professor. On the contrary, he comes well prepared, and he speaks fluently and clearly, as if he really wants to communicate. He marshals his arguments with precision, he provides (so far as I can judge) evidence for his statements, and he brings his nul hypotheses out into the open, ready to be shot down by the force of disproof.

In my judgement, Nienhuys' counterattack failed. Sheldrake mostly discussed his work on animal behaviour. His hypotheses were there for the taking. I cite just one example, on the apparently coordinated movements of flocking birds. Sheldrake claimed that this coordination cannot be explained by individual reactions, because eye-brain-muscular responses are too slow. A quick check with Google after the congress gets me a paper in Nature in 1984 that seems to agree, and to provide an alternative, the Chorus Line Hypothesis of Manoeuvre Coordination in Avian Flocks (end note 7), which does not involve morphic resonance.

This is an alternative nul hypothesis that is testable. I don't know whether it has been tested or not; but it should be easy to find out, see note added in proof (end note 8). And I guess that there must be more, probably one for each of Sheldrake's hypotheses. But it seems Dr Nienhuys had not done his homework. He did not have any data or analyses to hand, and his attack fizzled out.

So in the questionnaire that was (commendably) distributed to the participants for filling in afterwards, I scored the encounter, not "game set and match to Sheldrake", but at least Sheldrake 40, Nienhuys love. A small cluster gathered around Sheldrake at the end of the Congress. They seemed to be talking with him, rather than pumelling him to the ground, so perhaps they agreed with me.

End note 8 The chorus line hypothesis - note added in proof. Dr Sheldrake tells me that indeed "I discuss Potts' chorus line hypothesis in my book The Presence of the Past, and show it is not a real alternative - Potts, who invoked it, proposed that birds responded to a maneuver wave in the flock, and these are now modelled on computers by field models. So if your research had gone further, it would have led back to the field idea. And if Nienhuys had brought up the point you made, I would have replied by pointing this out. So although your point was that he was poorly prepared is certainly true, this is not a particularly fair example."

Richard Hardwick is a botanist. He lives in Brussels.

Full account of the Congress by Dr Richard Hardwick... The European Skeptics Congress 2005