Sunday, May 30, 2010

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 1


A researcher who turns his back on traditional science is British biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake. As a young and esteemed scientist at Cambridge, he caused some commotion in 1981 when he published A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation. The book, and a New Science article published before it, got a strong but mixed reception (Freeman, 2005).

Sheldrake champions the morphic resonance thesis, which suggests that the phenomena of existence becomes more probable the more times they occur and that biologic evolution and behavior therefore are adapted to patterns defined by previous organisms. He is of the opinion that the laws of nature, for instance, should be regarded as changeable habits evolved since the birth of the planet (Wikipedia, 2006) – subsequently, existence and nature has no conformity to law.

The discussion was settled when Nature published an editorial in September 1981, attacking Sheldrake's theories and condemning them for being unscientific. It was suggested that Sheldrake was trying to bring magic into science and his book was nominated as suitable for book burning. The Nature article wrecked Sheldrake's academic career and since then, he is more or less excommunicated from the world of science (Freeman, 2005).

Sheldrake's response has been to go his own way, in several respects. He publishes his theories and research in popular science books aimed at layman audiences (Wikipedia), he runs his research from home (Sheldrake, 2006), he does field studies on phenomena others would try to isolate in the laboratory and urges the public to conduct private research (Sheldrake, 1994) with the help of ready-to-use experiment designs which can be downloaded from his website (

To fit Sheldrake into any traditional science can therefore not be done. He is trained in natural science but is strongly influenced by everything from Goethe to Eastern mysticism. Sheldrake's activities can be viewed as an attempt to change paradigm, from a science springing from a physical reality to research more open to a non-physical dimension (Freeman). He himself describes his world view as "holistic" and is of the opinion that the current direction of science lends support to the view that everything is connected. In addition, he defines his field of research as "everyday mysteries," which are best studied in their own contexts, i.e. in everyday life and not isolated in a laboratory (Sheldrake, 2006).

At the same time, Sheldrake shows many signs usually associated with pseudoscience and "cranks," signs described by Goode (2000) among others. He condemns his critics as being dogmaticly prejudiced, as opposed to "sound" skeptics who are willing to accept his theories at large but express views about details. In his opinion, most scientists suffer from "tunnel vision" but he himself has a broader outlook on things and the phenomena he studies are real for other scientists too but the dominating scientific culture forces them to deny them (Sheldrake, 2006). So Sheldrake displays an ill-concealed conviction of his own excellence and the notion of a widespread scientific "conspiracy" preventing the real truth from being disclosed.

So is it reasonable to examine the work of Sheldrake according to traditional scientific criteria? Yes, for several reasons. First, Sheldrake is making traditional scientific claims of truth; even if his research methods may be considered as unorthodox, Sheldrake claims his hypothesises kan be tested and confirmed by the real world. He further claims that his experiments can be replicated by anyone anywhere, with similar results. It is therefore justified to put Sheldrake's methods and the results he has achieved under scrutiny. This can be done according to prevalent criteria since Sheldrake claims his research satisfies these (Sheldrake, 2006).

Secondly, a considerable part of Sheldrake's undeniable popularity is the fact that he has a researcher's authority, i.e. he is presumed to have reached his conclusion by scientific method. He is also expected, as a researcher, to be motivated by a strong desire to find out what reality is, rather than prefering it to be a certain way. Thus, Sheldrake is presumed to differ from other researchers philosophically, but not methodologically.

Finally, Sheldrake has gained some popularity among other parapsychologists. In the news bulletin of the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research, it is stated that Sheldrake is "viewed by many, inlcuding many here in Sweden, as one of the more exciting and promising researchers in parapsychology" (SPF, 2005), that he is "very good at conducting experiments on quite ordinary phenomena" (SPF, 2003), and the American parapsychologist Daryl Bem (2006) claims that, since 1986, Sheldrake has "constantly improved his experiments to eliminate sensory leakage." Thus, there is a general as well as methodological appreciation of Sheldrake as scientist. Scrutinizing Sheldrake's research may therefore also indicate a level of methodological awareness in other parapsychologists.

In the following blog posts, I will look into Sheldrake's experiments on telepathy - the 2003 study Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy in particular. Stay tuned.

[ Read the second part ]

Note: This text was first published in Swedish in 2007 on the Swedish Skeptics forum. It is still available here.


Bem, D., (2006). Sheldrake och hans kritiker: Känslan av att vara iakttagen. Notiser och Nyheter, 33. Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning.

Freeman, A., (2005). The Sense of Being Glared At. What is It Like to be a Heretic? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, (6), 4–9.

Goode, E., (2000). Paranormal Beliefs. A Sociological Introduction. Prospect Heights: Waveland.

Sheldrake, R., (1994). Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. London: Fourth Estate.

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL ... 754367.htm.

SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2003). Notiser och Nyheter, 19. URL

SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2005). Notiser och Nyheter, 29. URL

Wikipedia, (2006). Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Anti-psychic poster

I've put together a mini-poster you can download and distribute as you see fit. I'm estimating that it can be upscaled two times without loss of quality. There is space at the bottom if you want to add a logo of your own. The original PDF is 210 x 297 mm, a standard A4. Do you have any modification requests, I'll be happy to oblige.

Now, run off and litter your neighbourhood! If you do, I'll be happy to post a photo of the poster in place here at the blog. Just mail it to

Download English version

Download Swedish version

Another great posting at Halmstad University, Sweden.

Ängelholm has been blessed with one more mini-poster!

Another image from a local supermarket, this time from Ängelholm in Sweden.

This image was sent from Tranås in Sweden. Yet another lovely posting next to some church propaganda!

Great photo from a reader in Kalmar, Sweden, who posted the poster in a local mall, under two flyers from psychic Lasse Rydström. Bullseye!

This photo comes from a supermarket in Färjestad, Sweden. Apparently, a psychic is promoting himself on one of the adjacent notes. Great!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Gardner on Pseudo-scientists

Martin Gardner 1914-2010

Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science was first published in 1952 under the title In the Name of Science. It soon became a classic of skeptic literature and it is easy to understand why. Reading it now, more than fifty years later, it feels just as necessary as it must have been then. Gardner's prediction has come true. We do have a multitude of pseudo-scientists promoting different weird ideas as though they are unquestionable truths. The cranks of the mid 20th century discussed by Gardner has been replaced by new ones, sometimes even weirder. From the traits and characteristics described by Gardner, it is easy to recognize a Rupert Sheldrake or Gary Schwartz, or - if you're involved in debates on paranormal phenomena - the followers of such cranks. Like Torbjörn Sassersson, who are able to forward the arguments of his Masters but lack the intellectual capacity to develop ideas of his own. Interestingly enough, the more devoted the follower, the more personality traits he or she seem to share with the Master. In some cases, the paranoia described by Gardner doesn't seem to be connected to a specific theory or set of theories. As in the case of Rickard Berghorn, former sci-fi publicist turned self-proclaimed genius, the paranoia itself is the main drive - he is just waiting for some lunacy to come along. Anyway, I am sure you won't lack contemporary references to the excerpt from Gardner's introductory chapter quoted below. I hope it will serve as a teaser for the book. It is, as far as I know, still in print and a must in any skeptic's library. Buy it and read it. Gardner comes in handy when taking part in the struggle for skepticism.

"The modern pseudo-scientist - to return to the point from which we have digressed - stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals, or if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent. In most cases the crank is not well enough informed to write a paper with even a surface resemblance to a significant study. As a consequence, he finds himself excluded from the journals and societies, and almost universally ignored by the competent workers in his field. In fact, the reputable scientist does not even know of the crank's existence unless his work is given wide-spread publicity through non-academic channels, or unless the scientist makes a hobby of collecting crank literature. The eccentric is forced, therefore, to tread a lonely way. He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit, and - until recently - publishes books only when his followers can raise sufficient funds to have them printed privately.

A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia. This is a mental condition (to quote a recent textbook) "marked by chronic, systematized, gradually developing delusions, without hallucinations, and with little tendency toward deterioration, remission, or recovery." There is a wide disagreement among psychiatrists about the causes of paranoia. Even if this were not so, it obviously is not within the scope of this book to discuss the possible origins of paranoid traits in individual cases. It is easy to understand, however, that a strong sense of personal greatness must be involved whenever a crank stands in solitary, bitter opposition to every recognized authority in his field.

If the self-styled scientist is rationalizing strong religious convictions, as often is the case, his paranoid drives may be reduced to a minimum. The desire to bolster religious beliefs with science can be a powerful motive. For example, in our examination of George McCready Price, the greatest of modern opponents of evolution, we shall see that his devout faith in Seventh Day Adventism is a sufficient explanation for his curious geological views. But even in such cases, an element of paranoia is nearly always present. Otherwise the pseudo-scientist would lack the stamina to fight a vigorous, single-handed battle against such overwhelming odds. If the crank is insincere - interested only in making money, playing a hoax, or both - then obviously paranoia need not enter his make-up. However, very few cases of this sort will be considered.

There are five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist's paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited

(1) He considers himself a genius.

(2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Everyone is out of step except himself. Frequently he insults his opponents by accusing them of stupidity, dishonesty, or other base motives. If they ignore him, he takes this to mean his arguments are unanswerable. If they retaliate in kind, this strengthens his delusion that he is battling scoundrels.

Consider the following quotation: "To me truth is precious. ... I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong. ... The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellowmen. I am looked upon as being odd, strange, peculiar. ... But truth is truth and though all the world reject it and turn against me, I will cling to truth still."

These sentences are from the preface of a booklet, published in 1931, by Charles Silvester de Ford, of Fairfield, Washington, in which he proves the earth is flat. Sooner or later, almost every pseudo-scientist expresses similar sentiments.

(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to "enemies" for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work. It springs solely, he is convinced, from blind prejudice on the part of the established hierarchy - the high priests of science who fear to have their orthodoxy overthrown.

Vicious slanders and unprovoked attacks, he usually insists, are constantly being made against him. He likens himself to Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and other great men who were unjustly persecuted for their heresies. If he has had no formal training in the field in which he works, he will attribute this persecution to a scientific masonry, unwilling to admit into its inner sanctums anyone who has not gone through the proper initiation rituals. He repeatedly calls your attention to important scientific discoveries made by laymen.

(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein in the name of Newton. This same defiance can be seen in a tendency to assert the diametrical opposite of well-established beliefs. Mathematicians prove the angle cannot be trisected. So the crank trisects it. A perpetual motion machine cannot be built. He builds one. There are many eccentric theories in which the "pull" of gravity is replaced by a "push." Germs do not cause disease, some modern cranks insist. Disease produces the germs. Glasses do not help the eyes, said Dr. Bates. They make them worse. In our next chapter we shall learn how Cyrus Teed literally turned the entire cosmos inside-out, compressing it within the confines of a hollow earth, inhabited only on the inside.

(5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined. Schizophrenics sometimes talk in what psychiatrists call "neologisms" - words which have meaning to the patient, but sound like Jabberwocky to everyone else. Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency.

When the crank's IQ is low, as in the case of the late Wilbur Glenn Voliva who thought the earth shaped like a pancake, he rarely achieves much of a following. But if he is a brilliant thinker, he is capable of developing incredibly complex theories. He will be able to defend them in books of vast erudition, with profound observations, and often liberal portions of sound science. His rhetoric may be enormously persuasive. All the parts of his world usually fit together beautifully, like a jig-saw puzzle. It is impossible to get the best of him in any type of argument. He has anticipated all your objections. He counters them with unexpected answers of great ingenuity. Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. "Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him"; writes Shaw, "and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable."

In the chapters to follow, we shall take a close look at the leading pseudo-scientists of recent years, with special attention to native specimens. Some British books will be discussed, and a few Continental eccentric ones, but the bulk of crank literature in foreign tongues will not be touched upon. Very little of it has been translated into English, and it is extremely difficult to get access to the original works. In addition, it is usually so unrelated to the American scene that it loses interest in comparison with the work of cranks closer home.

With few exceptions, little time will be spent on theories which come under the broad heading of "occult." Astrology, for example, still has millions of contemporary followers, but is so far removed from anything resembling science that it does not seem worth while to discuss it. The theory that sunspots cause depressions (popular among conservative businessmen who like to think of booms and busts as natural phenomena to be blamed on something remote) is the last respectable survival of the ancient view that human affairs are linked with astronomical phenomena. This literature, however, belongs more properly to economics than to astronomy. The social sciences have, of course, their share of eccentric works, but for many reasons they form a separate subject for study.

Our survey will begin with curious theories of astronomy, the science most removed from the human landscape. It will proceed through physics and geology to the biological sciences, then into human affairs by way of anthropology and archeology. Four chapters will be devoted to medical quasi-science, followed by discussions of sexual theories, psychiatric cults, and methods of reading character. Finally, we shall make a serious appraisal of the reputable work of Dr. Rhine, with quick and not so serious glances at a few other venturers into the psychic fields.

The amount of intellectual energy that has been wasted on these lost causes is almost unbelievable. It will be amusing - at times frightening - to witness the grotesque extremes to which deluded scientists can be misled, and the extremes to which they in turn can mislead others. As we shall see, their disciples are often intelligent and sometimes eminent men - men not well enough informed on the subject in question to penetrate the Master's counterfeit trappings, and who frequently find in their devotion an outlet for their own neurotic rebellions. More important, we shall have impressed upon us the traits which these "scientists" hold in common. The atmosphere in which they move will become familiar to us as we begin to breathe the air of their fantastic worlds.

Just as an experienced doctor is able to diagnose certain ailments the instant a new patient walks into his office, or a police officer learns to recognize criminal types from subtle behavior clues which escape the untrained eye, so we, perhaps, may learn to recognize the future scientific crank when we first encounter him.

And encounter him we shall. If the present trend continues, we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. The may achieve a following of one - or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cash is king!

Scandinavian mediagroup Egmont state that they "bring stories to life." Well, last year their Swedish subsidiary also decided to bring fortune to a couple of charlatans, Swedish psychics Erika Andersson and Benny Rosenqvist, when it launched the magazine "Nära" ("Close"). This effort to cash in on the current interest in New Age and spiritualism is presented as dealing with spirituality, "providing well-being for both body and spirit" and features the standard mixture of psychics, "experiences", NDE's and additional, contemporary woo-woo.

Andersson and Rosenqvist are the magazine's in-house psychics. They have been on the cover of the three issues published so far and much of the content is focused on them. Egmont also arranges seances and online chats with the two and is therefore an active partner in the psychic scams they perpetrate. Providing swindlers with a marketing platform in form of a magazine distributed nationwide is of course an all-time low for the publishing industry in itself, but engaging in the actual fraud is repulsive.

For the psychics, the magazine is without doubt an opportunity denied most of their peers. Although broadcasting companies Channel 5 and TV4 have boosted the careers of several psychics, commitment has been restricted to the TV series. That a major publishing company condescends to active participation in the actual swindle must be a marvellous stroke of luck for the psychics Andersson and Rosenqvist. A recent incident on the magazine's online forum also suggests that the publisher is keen on covering up any blemishes appearing on the light-hearted surface.

Just before noon April 5th, a posting questioning the quality of the messages conveyed by Andersson and Rosenqvist appeared on the forum. The poster, "Lina76", had attended - or arranged - a séance with Andersson and reported that the messages were very vague and general. Several in the audience of 20 people had expressed similar complaints. In addition, Andersson had charged nearly a thousand dollars for a two hour session and gave no receipt, i.e. the transaction was made behind the taxman's back.

"Lina76" had also been on a private sitting with Rosenqvist who told her that she would have another child in the future. It was going to be a boy, but could also be a girl, according to the medium. Profound messages indeed.

Several posters came to the psychic's rescue, testifying how wonderful experiences they had provided. But the discussion soon turned to the question of the receipt. Poster "Slingshot" suggested "Lina76" and the other dissatisfied sitters should file a joint complaint to the police. "Liviaxx" then asked if anyone seriously thought that the magazine Nära would encourage its partners to become black marketeers. Skeptic "Trilobite" responded that the transaction was private, without the magazine's knowledge.

Then enters the magazine's editor in chief, Madeleine Walles. She states that Erika Andersson is employed by the magazine and is running her psychic business on the side. As an employee of Nära, Erika Andersson is required to run her side business in accordance with the law, i.e. provide written receipts. Andersson had informed Walles that such a receipt was in fact brought to the séance in question. In conclusion, Walles states that if Andersson wasn't serious and reliable, the magazine wouldn't employ her. So, there it is. Every testimony of Andersson's wrongdoings is flawed, because she is an employee of the magazine Nära. And since Nära doesn't employ dubious persons, Andersson can't be one. Circular reasoning in absurdum.

Although "evigaeva" expresses her gratitude to the editors for assuming their responsibility (!), "Lina76" won't give in. She now claims that Andersson also failed to provide a receipt at another séance in the town of Limhamn. In addition, she quotes several complaints she received after the séances. At this point, the forum administration kills the discussion and erases it from the forum.

Thanks to skeptic "Trilobite", who fortunately copied the entire thread before it was deleted and posted it here on the skeptic's forum, we have an illustrative testimony of how a reputable publishing company engages in the sordid business of mediumship and, steeped in the obvious tax evasion of its protegés, doesn't hesitate to use a line of argument straight from the crackpot textbook on rhetoric.

I guess no one informed Walles about the motto historically linked to psychic business: cash is king!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Printable versions available

As you may have noticed, I tend to post rather long texts - contrary to all recommendations. For your convenience, I have started making printer friendly versions in PDF format, with centred layout to enable double-sided printing. I will add a link to such a version on all my postings, starting with these seven:

Exposing the cold reading and trickery of psychic fraud Terry Evans, one of Sweden's renowned TV mediums.
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Investigating how well British psychic Colin Fry is doing in live séances.
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A close look at an article on evidence for PSI, written by Swedish parapsychologist Adrian Parker. In the paper reviewed, Parker systematically belittles critique raised against claims of paranormal phenomena made in several studies and distorts comments made by fellow parapsychologist Richard Wiseman. Document contains all posts in this matter, including Adrian Parker's reply.
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Proposing that the notion that psychics are unaware of what they are doing is an understandable fallacy among believers but an ignorant misconception among skeptics. The psychic session offers intellectual tasks that cannot be accomplished unconsciously. The notion persists among skeptics because they tend to read Hyman or McLaren instead of visiting a séance and see what is actually taking place during a psychic session.
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An exposé of the life and feats of Sweden's greatest psychic ever: Olof Jonsson. A pathological liar and fraud, Jonsson swindled his way through the Rhine Institute and the Apollo 14 project.
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On Jörgen Sundvall, "not active" hare krishna and bogus therapist.
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Is Swedish skepticism being taken over by the secular humanist society and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lyzell goes Duncan

I recently wrote about British psychic Helen Duncan and the fact that there is nothing unexplained about her - she was an obnoxious, obese fraud who dabbled in materializations such as "ectoplasm". She was arrested for having tried to hoodwink a naval officer on leave, then charged with psychic fraud and sentenced to nine months imprisonment (see Nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan. Justice was served.

Materialization mediums have been a diminishing crowd. Harry Houdini and his debunking followers exposed this fraudulent practice to such an extent in the beginning of the 20th century that since, there is no doubt in reasonably sane people that materialization is one of the most pathetic attempts to exploit superstition and gullibility. This kind of kindergarten mysticism has survived through closed sessions for invited sitters only - mainly those deluded enough to consider the hilariously funny archive footage of psychics with cheese cloth hanging out of their ears and nostrils as evidence of spirit communication.

In one such session as late as 1992, British psychic Colin Fry was caught redhanded. When, by accident, someone turned on the light at that seance, he was found standing with an illuminated trumpet in his hand (see Colin Fry revisited. Notably, Fry was also into cheese cloth for a while, as you can tell from the picture below. Psychics are of course ready to explore every deception - and exploit every believer - available to them.

In Sweden, Fry's protégée Jane Lyzell has taken over his spiritualist center Ramsbergsgården. Lyzell has started to experiment with "ectoplasm", i.e. tissue tricks like those performed by Helen Duncan. As I have noted before (see Jane Lyzell knows), Lyzell considers Helen Duncan a genuine medium. So she readily clings to the folklore made up after Duncan's death in preparation for her own scams.

Lyzell has also issued some "evidence" of her accomplishments in manifestation. It's a picture with her sitting in darkness, apparently during some kind of spirit visit. Although there are no visible signs of such a presence, Lyzell says it is "ectoplasm." I cannot post the image here, but I will gladly link to it:

Lyzell waiting for "ectoplasm" to appear, probably from a body cavity

Obviously, we will have to wait for the cheese cloth, torn sheets, or towels to appear on Lyzell photographic "evidence" but if she has any intelligence at all, she will go through the literature on Helen Duncan. It is more than explicit regarding how Duncan executed her tricks. And since Lyzell shares so many of Duncan's other characteristics, why not share her modus operandi? For Lyzell, as for Duncan, it's all about the money in the end and if some dupes are stupid enough to accept it, why not provide it?

The ethics of psychics will never cease to amaze me.