British Association for the Advancement of Science
By Mark Henderson, Science Editor
The Times, September 06, 2006
SCIENTISTS claiming to have evidence of life after death and the powers of telepathy triggered a furious row at Britain's premier science festival yesterday. Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged.
Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA's decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics.
The disputed session featured research from Rupert Sheldrake, an independent biologist who is funded by Trinity College, Cambridge, that claims to have found evidence that some people know telepathically who is calling them before they answer the telephone.
Other presentations came from Peter Fenwick, a doctor who thinks deathbed visions suggest that consciousness survives when people die, and from Deborah Delanoy of the University of Hertfordshire, whose work suggests that people can affect the bodies of others by thinking about them.
Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference. Some said telepathy has already been found wanting in experiments, and had no place at a scientific meeting.
"Work in this field is a complete waste of time,"said Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. "Although it is politically incorrect to dismiss ideas out of hand, in this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan's fantasy."
Other scientists said that while discussion of the subject was acceptable, the panel's lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists. Several members of the BA said that they would raise the matter with its ruling council.
Sir Walter, a geneticist and cancer researcher, said: "I'm amazed that the BA has allowed it to happen in this way. You have got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale, but it's quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view. It's extremely important in cases like this, especially for the BA which represents science and which people expect to believe, to provide a proper balancing counter-argument."
Lord Winston, the fertility specialist, said: "It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It's something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists."
Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, who is a sceptical researcher of the paranormal, said: "The issue is about controversy and balance in science. This is not a balanced panel. Whether paranormal phenomena are a reality is an intellectual discussion. But it is the principle that is important. If the issue was race and intelligence, and you had three people saying one race are less intelligent than another, that would be outrageous."
Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, a sceptic of the paranormal, joined a panel discussion, but did not present a paper or attend the press briefing.
The event was organised by the Scientific and Medical Network, an organisation with about 3,000 members dedicated to "exploring the interface of science, medicine and spirituality". The Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, said it "lies far from the scientific mainstream and the list of speakers reflect this".
Helen Haste, chairwoman of the BA's programme organising committee, said that all three speakers have proper academic credentials and that though their work is controversial, it is conducted in a rigorous, scholarly fashion. Professor French's presence at the panel discussion would allow for sceptical dissent to be heard, though it was unfortunate he was not at the press event, she said. "We feel at the BA that we should be open to discussions or debates that are seen as valid by people inside the scientific community, as long as they are addressed in acceptable ways. These seem to be phenomena that are commonly experienced but have not been subjected particularly effectively to scientific investigation. It is a legitimate area of research. I do think it's appropriate at a festival like this to have people who are serious about their approach and experimental methods."
The BA, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, is a charity that seeks to advance public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Its annual meeting, which is being held this year at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, has often caused controversy, most notably in 1860 when Thomas Huxley championed Charles Darwin's theory of evolution against Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford.
When asked whether he thought that he was descended from apes on his mother's or father's side, Huxley responded: "I would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop."
"We need the opposing view"
Lord Winston, fertility specialist and former president of the BA:
"I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense. It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields."
Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire:
Whether paranormal phenomena are a reality is mainly an intellectual discussion. But it is the principle that is important. If the issue was race and intelligence, and you had three people saying one race is less intelligent than another, that would be be outrageous. If there is not a consensus within science then there should be balance."
Sir Walter Bodmer, geneticist and President of Hertford College, Oxford:
"I'm amazed that the BA has allowed it to happen in this way. You have got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale, but it's quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view. It's extremely important in cases like this, especially for the BA, which represents science and which people expect to believe, to provide a proper counter-argument."
Professor Peter Atkins, Fellow and Tutor in Physical Chemisty, Oxford University:
"Although it is politically incorrect to dismiss ideas out of hand, in this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan's fantasy. If telepathy were a real phenomenon, evolution and natural selection would have developed it into a serious ability. That has not occurred in this case, neither speaker has a reputation for reliability, and it is extraordinary that the BA should consider them worth a platform."
A Royal Society spokesman:
"The Scientific and Medical Network, which is organising this session, lies far from the scientific mainstream and the list of speakers reflects this. I hope that the audience attending the session will expose the speakers' presentations to similarly robust scrutiny."
The Science Festival Controversy
- About the Science Festival
- The Times: Theories of telepathy and afterlife cause uproar at top science forum
- The Times editorial: It goes without saying that telepathy works
- BBC Radio 5 Live: Transcript of the Atkins-Sheldrake Debate
- Rupert's Article in The Times Gosh, I was just thinking about you
- The BBC Radio 4 Science Programme: The Material World
- ABC Radio Conversation with Robyn Williams
- The Science Reporter Editorial, Telepathy cuts down on phone bills