Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A match made in heaven! Or rather in woo-woo-land...

A new TV series is to be launched in Sweden this fall - Bevis från andra sidan (Proof From the Other Side). Greenworks Television in cooperation with Egmont and the Nära magazine is producing the show that is aimed at finding solid proof from "the other side", proof that shows on film, sound or photography. It will feature the psychics Benny Rosenqvist, Erika Andersson and also a representative of "open minded skepticism" - parapsychologist Adrian Parker. If you have followed my blog, you may get a notion of what is coming. Rosenqvist and Andersson are the standard kind of psychic frauds and Adrian Parker is so open minded that anything that flies into his mind turns into proof, or at least evidence of paranormal phenomena.

This is of course just yet another in a string of woo-woo-oriented productions flooding mainly commercial channels in Sweden. One positive effect might be that Swedish skeptics may take the time to look into the works of crackpot Parker, who for too long has been allowed to pose as a representative of science, a field of human endeavour he is extremely unfamiliar with. The time is ripe for a reality check, and perhaps some notes of concern addressed to the psychology department of Gothenburg University who gave Parker a professor's chair not long ago. A disgrace to higher education in Sweden.

The process of normalizing superstition in Sweden is ongoing. It should be a matter of concern for those who champion ideas of reason and rationality. And it should be noted that a TV series is shouting it out loud, so those who profess to be in opposition of it better not whisper...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Mysterious Creature of Skeptic Woo-Wooism

Although Bigfoot has been exposed as a hoax, traces of Nessie have yet to be found, and the remains of Chupacabras always seem to turn out to be ordinary dogs, there are still some very peculiar supernatural beings out there. One of them is championed, not by woo-woos, but by skeptics. It is known as "the fence sitter" and it lurks in the shadows of intellectual impotence.

Contrary to other mystical beings, more is known about the fence sitter's behavior than its appearance. There are no rough sketches of it, no imaginative renderings. Instead, many skeptics seem to know the emotional state and thinking of this creature. It only comes out, for instance, if skeptics adopt a "nice" approach towards woo-woos. Confrontational approaches scare the fence sitter away. It is very sensitive in that respect. Incidentally, it also seems as if it is skeptics who favor the "nice" approach who have the best knowledge of the fence sitter.

There are several definitions of the fence sitter circulating. The first one describes a being who has not yet formed an opinion of either superstition or a science based world view - it is indifferent to the options available. The second has formed opinions but not chosen one or the other. A third has formed an opinion and chosen but is so open to delicate and nice arguments that the creature might swing the nice skeptic's way as long as no arrogant skeptic scares it away. There might even be more types of fence sitters; since many skeptics are keen on focusing their entire strategy on these very sensitive beings, they must be a numerous crowd indeed. They certainly outnumber the few that might be upset about the onslaught of New Age and superstition and would be attracted to someone opposing it in a confrontational and straightforward manner.

However, as in the case of other mystical creatures, a bit of skepticism is to be adviced. Why would the first type of fence sitter, if it exists, be interested at all in what and how skeptics are doing? And why would such interest be stired up by some factual arguments in the context of friendly conversation? What would catch the fence sitter's attention in such a converstation? The skeptic answer is: "Nice people are more likable." I wonder it that is valid? If I came across two people opposing racists or neo-Nazis, would I be more attracted to the one treating the racists or neo-Nazis in a respectful and friendly manner, or would I be more attracted to the one making a firm and confrontational stance against them? Oh, it isn't fair to compare woo-wooism and racism? Okay, I guess there is a difference between trying to send people back intellectually fifty years and 500 years, but not necessarily to the advantage of superstition.

So, what about the second type. It sits on the fence and swings back and forth, leaning towards one side for a moment and then the other. It knows the alternatives but can't make its mind up. Really? Are the alternatives a popsicle with strawberry flavor or one with pineapple flavor? Mustard or not on your hot dog? Boot cut jeans or loose fit? No, the alternatives are two fundamentally different ways of viewing existence. Two uncompatible philosophies, if you wish. A creature that so easily swings between those two different worlds, and is so sensitive that only influence under disguise prevents it from running away, is such a creature really worth the effort? Honestly, suppose you get the creature to chose side - it becomes the third type. Why wouldn't it just as easily swing back? If the fence sitter shares psychological traits with humans, social psychology states that attitudes easily changed are changed back with equal ease. Are such fence sitters, if they exist, really worth focusing on?

Let's go to the numbers. Skeptics don't know their actual count, but have a good enough idea to consider these cretures worthwile focusing on. So, on one side we have the woo-woo:s, then comes the fence sitter, and then - blank. There is nothing more. There are no people who shares the skeptic cause but are not yet active or organized. Or if there are, they are so scarce compared to the mystical fence sitter that paying them attention is a waste of time. In addition, such sympathizers would probably favor a more confrontational style, at least not be as sensitive to it as fence sitters. So they are of no interest to the fence sitter-believeing skeptics.

Why not? Because fence sitters are not really the goal, they are the means. Fence sitters are created and defined to legitimize a comfortable tone, an approach many skeptics find comfortable and are used to from campus debates and the lecture hall. But when they find that the public debate is very far from the academic discussion, and that the moderate "nice guy" approach is very far from rational in that context, they need something to make it appear so. And the fence sitter is born. Irrational? Of course. Devastating for the promotion of skepticism? Of course. But the important thing for many skeptics is not the advancement of skepticism, it is to feel good, and to be liked bÿ as many as possible. After all, who in their right mind would enjoy coming forth as a brute!?

So, in the case of the fence sitter, there are no skeptics asking for "extraordinary proof" of this extraordinary creature. There are no skeptics asking for verification of its existence, in fact, most take it for granted. Why? Because the creature makes them feel good. They need the fence sitter to be true. Thus, skeptics may in some cases provide a valuable insight into the core motivational factors of woo-woo.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 3

[ Read the second part ]

The Critique

A predominant problem of the reviewed experiments is the sampling. Sheldrake & Smart use rather vague terms in their report; it is explained that the phenomena studied is the most common example of telepathy in the modern world and you get the impression that the ability to sense who is calling before you answer is general. But does the study sample really represent the general public? The receivers who responded to the advertisment reasonably considers themselves to have telepathic ability, a notion stronger than a general supposition. Futhermore, it is reasonable that the callers nominated by the receivers to some extent shares this notion and also thinks the receiver has the supposed ability. The sample must therefore be considered representative of a population of what is usually called "high scoring subjects" rather than the general public. This narrowing down is, however, not done by Sheldrake & Smart, an error also noted by Schmidt, Müller, & Walach (2004).

The snowball sampling of callers is motivated by the theory that telepathy occurs between people belonging to the same social group. But in a group of relatives and friends, there is so much more than an alleged telepathic connection. There is affinity, loyalty, shared values, group pressure, and social obligations. A systematic error to be considered in all psychological research is the "good-subject tendency," i.e. the tendency of experimental participants to act according to what they think the experimenter wants. In the classic Milgram experiments, two thirds of the participants were willing to administer dangerous electroshocks when told to do so by a "professor" in charge, even when the victims begged to be released or in the end responded to the shocks only with tormented screams (Milgram, 2004). Dissimulation as well as lies can be part of participant strategy to achieve what is believed to be the experimenter's goal. In an experiment with members of social groups participating together, with an established affinity, it is imperative to be aware that this type of participant tendency can manifest itself in both implicit and explicit cooperation within the participant groups. In an experiment on telepathy it is of the utmost importance that both verbal and non-verbal communication can be ruled out as cause of a measured effect, especially when participants are allowed to act within the frames of existing social bonds and forms of communication perhaps unknown to the experimenter. Are Sheldrake's & Smart's experiments controlled in these respects? Does the experimental design allow other forms of communication than telepathy? Here are some suggestions of confounding variables:

Positive interpretation

All reported methods allow what can be called "positive interpretation." The experimenter is actually totally unaware of what is being said during the calls between receiver and caller. The receiver reports his or her guess to the experimenter first after the call and any caller confirmation is also done after the call. The experiments thus lack any control for interpretations in line with the following:

- Uhm, I'm guessing Frank. Is it Frank?
- No, it's Mary. Sorry.
- Oh, I thought of you first but then I changed my mind.
- You did? Well, you were right then, from the beginning.
- Yeah, typical...
- But let's report you were right. The idea is to follow your intuition, isn't it?
- I suppose... But can I do that?
- Of course you can. It's not cheating since you thought of me first.
- I guess... Okay, I'll report I was right.

Both receiver and caller then reports that the guess was right, even though it de facto was wrong - the receiver might even have thought of all callers. None of Sheldrake's & Smart's methods is protected against this threat to internal validity. This type of interpretation is also more likely to emerge within a social group than between strangers who doesn't know each other. Thus, the results of the study don't exclude this kind of error; the fact that no telepathic connection beyond chance has been measured between receiver and unknown caller can be explained by the lack of social bond that permits this type of "agreement", rather than lack of a shared "morphic field." And it doesn't take many such instances of positive interpretation to significantly affect the data.

Caller number identification

The report carefully describes what kind of die was used in the random selection of caller and calling time but there is no description of what kind of telephones were used by the receiver. It would have been appropriate that the equipment used had been accounted for. Was it an older type of phone or a more modern with a display? Does the receiver have caller number identification service and if not, can this be verified by the receiver's service provider? None of this is accounted for in the report.

Cell phone/SMS

Since both receiver and caller are sitting all by themselves in their homes, there is no possibility to control possible verbal or text communication by cell phone. To exclude such communication, careful monitoring of both receiver and caller is required - a receiver may even have a cell phone set to "silent" kept close to the body, and be directed by agreed upon vibration signals.

Sensory leakage

Even if the calls had been controlled, Schmidt, Müller, & Walach (2004) notes the possibility of sensory leakage as the receiver might apprehend cues from different sounds from the caller and his or her environment. This threat is eliminated if the receiver has to make a guess before answering. But as already noted, the Sheldrake & Smart experiments lack control of the calls altogether.

In Sheldrake's & Smart's own discussion on errors, mortality and how it might have affected the statistical analysis is considered. But the mortality itself is not. In both experimental series, the mortality is 57%, i.e. more than half of the receivers dropped out before completing the ten trials. For an experimental study in which the participants have been informed in detail about procedure and in addition gets compensated, 57% is a whopping number. Sheldrake & Smart provides the following explanation:
They withdrew for a variety of reasons, most commonly because they could not persuade all 4 callers to agree to be available at the same times. (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a).

In the discussion on errors, this is somewhat elaborated on:
In fact most participants who stopped did so because their callers were unable or unwilling to continue. (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a).

The receivers, who at one point decided to participate, were thus unable or unwilling to complete the experiment. Why? Sheldrake & Smart claims that it usually was due to the four caller not being able to participate at the same time. What were the reasons that cannot be sorted under "usually"? Is it possible that some of the receivers saw no point in continuing because of weaknesses in the experimental design? Sheldrake & Smart doesn't say.

It should be noted that the vague formulations regarding mortality allows for it all to be explained by unwillingness to complete a scientific experiment because it was experienced to be unscientific or otherwise not worth completing, despite compensation. Even if the participants knew each other well in the groups, they were not familiar with participants in the other groups. If you dropped out from the experiment because you considered it meaningless you might still get the impression from Sheldrake's & Smart's report that most of the others left the experiment due to time factors.

Sheldrake & Smart use initials for the receivers in their report. An account of the mortality, listing the reasons for dropping out, would have been possible considering both space and practicality. In light of the methodological weaknesses of the experiment, such an account should have been in the report.

In the discussion on errors, Sheldrake & Smart dismisses cheating for three reasons: (1) It is unlikely that a majority of the participants would have cheated and had that been the case, the results would have been different, (2) Sheldrake & Smart themselves did not cheat in the preliminary experiment, nor did the unknown callers in the second experimental series, and (3) the tests in a completely different experiment was videotaped (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003b).

It is certainly unlikely that a majority of participants would cheat, had the sample been random and representative of the general public, but that is not the case in the Sheldrake & Smart experiments. Instead, the researchers have a non-random sample of people who think they have a telepathic ability or that the receiver does. It is not unlikely that a majority of such a sample considers it reasonable to somewhat adjust guesses in line with the "positive interpretation" principle described above - even if it means cheating in a strict experimental sense, it doesn't have to have that meaning to the participants. Sheldrake & Smart also presumes that cheating would have rendered even better results than was the case, thus ignoring the possibilty of participants assessing that major "adjustments" would be suspicious. Since the experimenters beforehand informed the participants of the procedure, they certainly disclosed information about what outcome would be expected by chance and thus hinted what results would be enough to be significant. It would be foolish - and revealing - to achieve more than necessary.

That Sheldrake & Smart themselves didn't cheat doesn't say much, unfortunately. The fact that Sheldrake is looking for support for his very controversial theory on morphogenetic fields makes him more than inclined to "interpret positively". Smart was alredy convinced she had telepathic connection to her dog (Sheldrake & Smart, 2000) and must be considered just as inclined as Sheldrake to adjust results. Furthermore, it is rather remarkable that experimenters double as participants in experiments.

The argument that unknown callers did not cheat (their results are at chance level) is only valid if the only possibility of cheating is the one suggested by Sheldrake & Smart. As is evident from the above, that is not the case.

The experiment videotaped in another study (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003b) cannot guarantee that cheating was not used in the reviewed study. It is of course ridiculous to suggest such a thing. If you look at both studies you find that one woman, Sue Hawksley, scored 63% when her mother was calling in the reviewed study, but only 27% when her mother was calling in the videotaped experiments. The same woman scores at chance level when close friends are calling in the reviewed study, but 63% and 45% in the videotaped experiments. It seems highly unlikely that an alleged telepathic connection with the mother disappears entirely when someone turns on a videocamera, and that telepathic connection with close friends then suddenly emerges. A reasonable explanation would instead be that the mother is comfortable with "positive interpretation", which is possible in the reviewed study, while cell phone or caller number presentation, which are possible in the videotaped experiments, are more fitting cue tools for the close friends.

A fundamental experimental flaw is the fact that the research method is changed three times during the experiments. It indicates that the design was weak and not thoroughly thought out from the beginning. The fact that Sheldrake & Smart so freely reports this suggests a lack of fundamental insights into research methods.

Sheldrake (2006) claims that the experiments have been replicated but the study he refers to, Lobach & Bierman (2004), suffers from similar flaws as the one reviewed here. Another study, in which errors were eliminated and stricter controls adopted, reported results that would have been expected by chance (Schmidt, Müller, & Walach, 2004).

To sum up, no inference regarding the existence of telepathy can be made on basis of this study. As it has been reported by Sheldrake & Smart, it suffers from methodological flaws so severe that it must be considered worthless. The researchers present a seeming representability that doesn't exist och appear totally unaware of fundamental psychological dispositions, in themselves and in the participants, that might be of importance to the experiment. The design is very weak and sensitive to several confounds that may affect the results.

Next, a concluding post. Stay tuned.


Lobach, E., & Bierman, D. J., (2004). Who’s Calling at This Hour? Local Sidereal Time and Telephone Telepathy. Report presented at The Parapsychological Association Convention, Wienna, Austria.

Milgram, S. (2004). Obedience to authority: The unique experiment that challenged human nature. New York: Perennial.

Schmidt, S., Müller, S., & Walach, H., (2004). Do You Know Who is on the Phone? Replication of an Experiment on Telephone Telepathy. Report presented at The Parapsychological Association Convention, Wien, Österrike.

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www dokument]. URL http://www.abc.net.au/rn/inconversation ... 754367.htm.

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2000). A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Coming Home: Videotaped Experiments and Observations. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 14, 233-255. URL http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Paper ... video.html

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003a). Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy. Journal of the Society for Psychological Research, 67, 184–199. URL http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Paper ... _tests.pdf

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003b). Videotaped Experiments on Telephone Telepathy. Journal of Parapsychology, 67, 187–206. URL http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Paper ... video.html

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 2

[ Read the first part ]

The Design and Reported Results

In September 2006, Swedish tabloid Expressen published an article titled "Scientist proves tricky telephone classic" (2006). Reuters news agency reported that Rupert Sheldrake claimed he had evidence of telepathic ability in conjunction with e-mails and phone calls. In tests with both e-mail and telephone, test participants had scored 40%, which is far better than the 25% which is to be expected by chance. The odds that the results were caused by chance was 1 in 1 000 billion, reported Reuters. That the research had been received with some suspicion was due to the fact that only 63 people had participated in the telephone study and 50 in the e-mail study.

The background of these news is several studies on telepathy that Sheldrake conducted between 1999 and 2004. His interest in telepathy derives from the belief that this phenomena confirms the theory of morphic resonance and its application in morphogenetic fields to which members of a social group are connected. These fields cannot be measured as such, but only by the effects they have and one effect is telepathy, suggests Sheldrake (2006). Another effect is the sense of being stared at, which Sheldrake claims is due to vision not being a one-way process. The image that is created by consciousness during visual perception also radiates from the eyes and can be sensed by the person being stared at (Blackmore, 2005).

The following review, however, deals with one of the studies on telepathy which, according to Sheldrake, constitutes evidence of the existence of telepathy: Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a). The review only covers experimental design and tests - Sheldrake's statistical analysis is not commented on.

Sheldrake's basic experimental design consisted of one person (the receiver) being called by one person (caller) randomly chosen from a group of four persons. In some of the trials, all the callers in a group were known and nominated by the receiver, in others at least two were known and the rest unknown and chosen by the experimenter. If Sheldrake's hypothesis was correct, people from the same social group would have telepathic contact, but people who were not members of the same social group would not. If the receiver was able to name the right caller to a greater extent than what was expected by chance, 25%, telepathy was considered to be the cause. In these tests, Sheldrake reported results that were slightly above 40% concerning callers known by the receiver and 25% concerning callers not known by the receiver, i.e. an obvious support for Sheldrake's hypothesis.

Sheldrake used a convenience sample for the study. Participants were recruited through newspaper advertisments which read: “Do you know who is ringing before you pick up the phone? Good pay for fun and simple experiments as part of psychic research project.” Additional recruiting was done through a recruitment website. Those who responded (receivers) was sent a more detailed description of how the experiment was to be conducted, and was also asked to nominate four people in their circle of acquaintances who also were willing to participate (callers). Thus, callers were recruited through snowball sampling.

Faithful to Sheldrake's approach, the experiments were done in the homes of the participants. The receiver sat in his or her home, the callers in their respective homes, and experimenters Sheldrake and Smart at yet another location. The experiments consisted of a preliminary experiment and two real experimental series, in which the following methods were used:

Method 1
Two callers from the group of four known callers were chosen randomly by throw of a die where the numbers five and six were thrown again. If the same number came up twice, that caller got to call twice. The time for the call was also selected randomly but kept within the stipulated 60 minute test period, which in turn was divided in six segments. An experimenter called the caller one or two hours before the chosen calling time and notified the caller when to make his or her call. The caller was also asked to think about the receiver a minute before making the call. The callers who weren't chosen were also notified that they were not selected for the current trial. A couple of minutes after the test call, the experimenter called the receiver and asked what he or she had guessed. Sometimes, the caller was asked as well. The experimenter then made notes of the result, date, time, receiver, caller, and guess. This method was used in a preliminary experiment and with the first 17 receivers in the first real experimental series, in total 198 trials.

Method 2
The random choice of time for the call was changed to a fixed schedule, for instance 10.15 and 10.45. Otherwise, it was exactly like method 1 and used for the remaining five receivers in the first experimental series and the first three in the second experimental series, in total 87 trials.

Method 3a
Only one call was made during the test. The experimenter chose a caller less than 15 minutes before the chosen time and the caller was notified, at latest, 10 minutes before the call. This method was used for 37 of the receivers in the second experimental series.

Method 3b
This method was similar to 3a but the callers who were not chosen were not automatically notified. Instead, they were told that if they hadn't been notified at least five minutes before the calling time, they had not been chosen. This enabled more tests during a shorter time period, in general with a 15 minute interval. This method was used for the remaining 34 receivers in the second experimental series, in total 268 trials.

Sheldrake's & Smart's null hypothesis was that the receivers would make a right guess in 25% of the calls, which is to be expected by chance. The alternative hypothesis was that the receivers would guess right in more than 25% of the cases, which would then be explained by telepathic ability. For hypothesis testing, an exact binomial test was employed. To combine the results of different test trials, Stouffer was used. For comparison between results from known and unknown callers and first and second trials, Fisher's Exact Test, an alternative to Chi2, was used. A 95% confidence limit was calculated when analyzing the probability of right guesses.

In a preliminary experiment reported by Sheldrake & Smart, Smart was the receiver and two sisters, her mom, and Sheldrake were callers. Sheldrake also acted as experimenter. Smart's result was 43%, i.e. significantly above 25%. Smart's best result (67%) was achieved when Sheldrake was calling.

In the first real experiment series, 9 receivers carried the stipulated number of trials (10) through and all but one guessed right in 40% of the calls. This series had a mortality - people who dropped out during the test - of 12 receivers. The most common mortality cause was said to be an inability to get all four callers to participate at the same time.

During the second and last experiment series, yet another hypothesis was introduced: phone calls from callers known by the receiver could be sensed but in calls from unknown callers, the result was what would be expected by chance. 16 receivers carried the stipulated number of trials (10) through. They guessed right in 54% of the calls from known callers and in 24% of the calls from unknown callers, results that lends support for the new hypothesis. This series had a mortality of 21 receivers.

All in all, Sheldrake's & Smart's experiments supported both the original alternative hypothesis and the one introduced in the second series; it seems confirmed that you can sense, telepathically, who is calling and that this ability is dependent on the caller being someone you know.

Are Sheldrake's & Smart's results to be trusted? Are the experiments well designed and conducted, or do they have weaknesses that threats the conclusion? This will be discussed in my next post. Stay tuned.

[ Read the third part ]


Blackmore, S., (2005). Confusion Worse Confounded. Commentary on Sheldrake. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, (6), 64–66. URL http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Articles/jcs2005.htm.

Forskare bevisar lurig telefonklassiker. (2006, 7 September). Expressen, URL http://expressen.se/index.jsp?a=676876.

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL http://www.abc.net.au/rn/inconversation ... 754367.htm.

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003a). Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy. Journal of the Society for Psychological Research, 67, 184–199. URL http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Paper ... _tests.pdf