Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

a Mechanism for Telepathy

I'm not a long time reader of Pharyngula, but I do enjoy his posts. He is prolific, entertaining, on some occasions his writing style would be the envy of any modern day Shakespeare. Every once in a while he posts truly fascinating dissertations on biology. On other occasion he posts good answers to honest questions from people who do not fully understand evolutionary mechanisms or evolution as a whole.

He is also a raving atheist. Its not my style of helping the world understand, but it is entertaining, thoughtful (for the most part), and invigorating.

But a recent post got me thinking on a subject I had thought about posting on. Basically. in (very) short, Sheldrake claims that telepathy is possible and even common. He even has a few articles on it. He claims that in his experiments people are able to have telepathic abilities, and that it is not an extraordinary ability, but instead is an ordinary one. More on that later.

PZ problem with it is that Sheldrake doesnt hypothesize a mechanism for this ability.

You can't just simply carry out a Fortean exercise in collecting odd anecdotes and unexplained phenomena. You have to propose mechanisms — you need to make hypotheses that can be used to guide tests of the idea. What is the mechanism behind the claimed ability of people to sense who is calling them on the telephone?
Its true, no mechanism is put forth by Sheldrake to explain this ability. But this is one of those cases where PZ is wrong. You don't need a mechanism to make a claim that something happens. The plethora of commenters pointed this out.

Newton didn't know why masses are attracted to each other. But he empirically came up with a formula to describe this. Newton didnt have to run experiment to create a Unified Field Theory to explain the mechanism behind gravity. He just explained that it was the masses that pull towards each other. The claim itself doesn't require a mechnism, it simply requires evidence of its truth.

But, let me propose one based on some recent articles. Here it is:

OK here is the scoop. Someone proposed that the spiral nature of a sweat pore, plus its condition of being filled with conductive water, provides the ability of a sweat pore to act as an antenna. Why not?

We know that nanscale antennae can be used to transmit information successfully
There are nerve endings in your skin which conduct information to the brain.

It doesn't seem a hard step to think that we may be able to use these pores to receive some sort of information about people.

What about transmit? We know that muscle contract based on a signal from the brain out towards the muscles. Is it truly so hard to imagine that we may have signals the come from the brain that excite these antenna?

As some of the commenters mention, the existence of this mechanism would provide a huge evolutionary advantage and would quickly become common to the entire species. In fact this is exactly what Sheldrake is saying. His claim is that everyone does in fact have this ability to some extent or another. But the fallacy in this line of thinking form these commentors is that there is nothing to say that this minor ability (no one is claiming that the 'biological telepathy' is as clear as talking on the phone) as as strong as advantage as say vision, or opposable thumbs. Those traits may be for more useful than this ability, which may bring nothing to us that a small sense of empathy, or laughably the bizzare ability to have caller ID without paying for it.

There is of course one little problem with this hypothesis. As far as I can tell, there is no good evidence to suggest that this ability exists in the first place. Every time a psychic ability is actually tested for as people claim, it falls flat on its face. Often simple statistics or confirmation bias explains the 'paranormal' phenomenon better than some Theory of Woo.

But what about Sheldrake? He wrote articles. He performed scientific studies. His claim in the article is that Dawkins was unwilling to even look at the evidence that he has gathered. But other people have looked at other claims of his. For example, his claims about staring were examined. His claims about morphic resonance (telepathic group effort).

The scientific step that Sheldrake is suffering from is verification. So while he seems to be performing tests that delineate the effects he is claiming, they are not double blind, they can't be verified and it leaves us with a glaring lack of support for his many claims. Pulling out one study at random we see:

Non Blinded Study: "one of us (P.S.) served as participant and the other (R.S.) as experimenter"
Participants who are already biased :"Our advertisements read: “Do you know who is ringing before you pick up the phone?"
Having participants design the test : "most were unable to find four people to whom they thought they might respond telepathically and who were also able and willing to take part"
The ability for participant to change answers: "A few minutes after the tests, the experimenter rang the participant to ask what his or her guess had been" (this pretty much makes any statistics and conclusions irrelevant)
Oh cripes, gimme a break: "one of them would be selected at random by the throw of a die. For the throw of the die, we used high-quality casino dice and a ribbed casino-style dice cup, purchased in Las Vegas."
Poor interpretation of statistics: "Out of these 9 participants, all but one made more than 25% correct guesses. The p values for each participant’s results are shown in Table 2." (none of the p value show statistic significance).

That is just a small sampling from one single 'study'. Someone needs some help.

Its this same shoddy science that leads to mass delusions *. When Wakefield produces a crappy study linking MMR to autism, the whole world wants to believe it. Then we spend decades and millions of dollars trying to eliminate misconception. Same goes the global warming deniers trying to come up with evidence-weak cosmic ray theories, or sun spot theories, or what not.

At this point, the very least that Sheldrake can do, is to A) learn to run double blind tests and B) perform these studies with skeptic. Get Dawkins to run a series of studies with you! Don't show him unverified papers! Or perform a study with me! I'll help you.

Its all well and good to have an open minded attitude. Sure "Why Not?" is a good way to go about things. But if you are going to actually put actions towards one of your "Why Nots" lets make sure the evidence for the claim exists first.

* Yes, I yanked three links directly form PZ post. But I wanted to describe the mechanism for the belief in this stuff. Maybe I was just lazy.


On 6/16/08, 9:26 AM , Buffy said...

You know the trouble with experiments is that they are so open to interpretation as to what is actually going on. As you said yourself, there could be other reasons for the results reported in this (not particularly rigerous) experiment. I found this out from studying psychology. There are so many variables we don't allow for and we often draw the wrong conclusions about cause and effect from the results anyway.

Have you read Quirkology, you'd probably find it interesting?

On 6/17/08, 9:20 PM , Techskeptic said...

No, buffy I will have to disagree with you. The trouble with poorly run experiments is as you described. However double blind protocols are well understood. Telepathy, astrology, water dowsing, and virtually every other brand of woo has been subjected to double blind studies, in each and every case when the study is done properly, the result is the same: same as expected by chance.

If Sheldrake had simply forced the participants to write down their prediction of the caller, before they picked up the phone, this would have been a far better study, and he would have found that they did no better than pure chance.

If you read some Feynman or other similar scientist, you will find a common theme with respect to psychology. They do not consider it a science for the very reason you mention. There is no empiricism, the complexity of the brain, its response to the environment, its strong influence of personal historical experience, and many other factors muddies up the waters and makes the field filled with well intentioned people who want to be able to help others.

I'm not poo-pooing it. I'm just saying that this is not a clear science like physics, chemisty, and biology where experiments can in fact be run to determine outcomes and good predictions can be made. I also am not confusing psychology with neurology (a form of biology) or other fields of study of the mind that focus on measurable effects.

Have not read quirkology. Is it anything like freakonomics?

On 6/23/08, 2:30 AM , Spoony Quine said...

` Sweat pores? Antennae for what, exactly?

` Ironically, I recall writing something about some immense flaws in Sheldrake's research once. It was on my critical thinking blog, now gone. *snif*

On 6/24/08, 5:00 AM , Buffy said...

Fair point about the difference between pure science and social sciences like psychology although I would say telepathy could come under either heading??

As you say, double blind protocols are very important. I am always interested to read about medical experiments where the expectation of the patient appears to make the placebo work as well as the drug itself.

I haven't read Freakology although I have heard it is good. Quirkology is about quirky psycological research regarding everyday behaviour. If you have 3 minutes watch this video

On 6/24/08, 3:02 PM , Spoony Quine said...

` Ha! I remember that video! I was kinda annoyed by it so I wasn't paying attention... then it made me feel so stupid!

On 3/5/09, 10:21 AM , Techskeptic said...

I know you wrote this ages ago... but that video reminds me of a micheal Shermer video that was like this one

But this point out one of the great features we have in the way we do our science...peer review. Nothing is based on one persons point of view. Anecdotes are tossed out. Objectivity is sought in all. If it goes away, it should be caught by others.

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