Letters to The Skeptic

To submit a letter to The Skeptic Magazine (UK) please email edit@skeptic.org.uk or send correspondence by post.

A reply from Randi and a short response from Chris French on this exchange follow this letter.

The new enlarged Skeptic is a big improvement – well done!

However I was disappointed by the interview with James Randi by Chris French.  Chris began his interview by writing, “If sceptics were allowed to have patron saints, James Randi would undoubtedly fill that role”. In accordance with his reverential tone, he spared Randi the slightest challenge. But in view of the fact that Chris and I are working together on an experimental investigation of telephone telepathy I wish he had asked Randi about his so-called Pigasus award for research on this very subject.

Here is what Randi wrote about my research in the announcement of “the Pigasus awards” in 2007 (http://www.randi.org/pigasus/index.html): “Category #1, to the scientist who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult:  For 2006, it goes to UK biologist Rupert Sheldrake, for his ‘telephone telepathy’ claims related to ‘morphic resonance’. This man’s delusions increase as time goes by, and he comes up with sillier ideas every year.”

Is it silly to investigate apparent telepathy in connection with telephone calls? Several surveys have shown that most people claim to have had telepathic experiences with telephone calls. Experimental research on this subject by myself and others, reported in papers published in peer-reviewed journals, have given statistically significant above-chance results (details on my web site athttp://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/telepathy/index.html).

Randi is often rude and offensive. Unfortunately many of his fellow sceptics let him get away with it, and treat him with adulation. His presence on the cover of the new-look Skeptic together with Chris French’s uncritical interview helps to build up this iconic status. Randi may have done a useful job in exposing fraudulent showmen, but he has no scientific credentials, and has made fraudulent claims himself. (For one example, see http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/randi.html.)

In Randi’s “Amazing” meeting in Las Vegas in 2005, delegates at the media workshop given by Randi and Michael Shermer were handed a manual called Communicating Skepticism to the Public which told them how to become a media sceptic: “Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not.”

In real science, becoming an expert requires qualifications and hard work, but as Randi and Shermer pointed out, the rules are different for sceptics. All you need is to form a club with like-minded people: “As head of your local skeptic club, you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson too.”

Randi fuels the widespread public perception of sceptics as negative and dogmatic. Even worse, he makes organized scepticism seem like a fundamentalist crusade, with his meetings as revivalist rallies. For sceptics who are genuinely interested in promoting science and reason, he is not an asset but a liability.

If sceptics want to be taken seriously, then organized scepticism should be subject to the same kinds of quality control as genuine science.

Rupert Sheldrake,

The full interview with James Randi can be read here and seen here.

James Randi replies to Rupert Sheldrake’s letter as follows. Chris French has also written a commentary:

Recently, on our SWIFT page (www.randi.org), we published a request for information regarding some quotes attributed to me in a letter sent to The Skeptic. That letter was from Rupert Sheldrake, he of the claimed dog-who-knows-when-the-master-is-coming-home phenomenon. The quotation in question:

Becoming an expert is a pretty simple procedure; tell people you’re an expert. After you do that, all you have to do is maintain appearances and not give them a reason to believe you’re not

This was selected from a 22-page handout distributed at a seminar held at The Amaz!ng Meeting 3, and it’s titled “Communicating Skepticism to the Public: A Seminar On Promoting a Scientific View of The World”. Indeed, that quote is from a manuscript distributed at TAM3. But I didn’t write it.
Very clearly, there is a 4-page section written by me, and so identified.

The handout included multiple chapters, and the relevant one – part of which I’ve reproduced below – was written by Andrew Mayne. Now, Andrew is one smart cookie, and this text has been admired by many, so much so that with a bit of editing, we intend to put it up on Swift for reader access. Incidentally, to find anything that has appeared on SWIFT, go to Google and type in: site:randi.org “sheldrake” -forums and you’ll find what you want. (The “sheldrake” can be replaced by anything – such as “dowsing” for example.)

But Sheldrake’s ‘research’ appears to quote from this document without his ever having read it. If he’d read it, he’d have realized that I’m twice discussed in the third person on the pages immediately before the allegedly damning “media expert” quote. One read-over is enough to convince anyone that this is a document partially about me, but not in any way by me. And, Sheldrake somehow failed to note what follows the ‘damning’ quotation:

Talking heads are usually:

Spokespersons for groups

As head of your local skeptic club you’re entitled to call yourself an authority. If your other two members agree to it, you can be the spokesperson, too.

Let me briefly explain the grudge that Rupert Sheldrake has going against me. First, from his article athttp://www.sheldrake.org/controversies/randi.html:

The January 2000 issue of Dog World magazine included an article on a possible sixth sense in dogs, which discussed some of my research. In this article Randi was quoted as saying that in relation to canine ESP, “We at the JREF [James Randi Educational Foundation] have tested these claims. They fail.” No details were given of these tests.

Clever. This implies that I was referring to the specific tests that Sheldrake has claimed to have done. I was referring to general tests that the JREF has done over many years involving animals, particularly dogs. To have gone into details of all these tests, would have been very extensive. A search of our site would have supplied him with all the details he could possibly wish, or I’d have supplied them to him for a simple request. That’s what we do at the JREF.

Sheldrake continued:

Randi also claimed to have debunked one of my experiments with the dog Jaytee, a part of which was shown on television. Jaytee went to the window to wait for his owner when she set off to come home, but did not do so before she set off. In Dog World, Randi stated: “Viewing the entire tape, we see that the dog responded to every car that drove by, and to every person who walked by.” This is simply not true, and Randi now admits that he has never seen the tape.

Not true. A colleague of mine in Europe told me that he’d seen the tape record, and that he and his colleagues presented a version of it to some students who were asked to record each time that the dog was activated. The dog never stopped, reacting to passers-by in the street, cars, any unusual noise, and any sort of distraction. The only portion of tape that I was able to see was the section that Sheldrake saw fit to publish, the limited sector that indicated – to his selective gaze – the point he wanted to prove. Dr Sheldrake, may we see the entire video record, so that we may repeat that student evaluation with persons who are, in your view, qualified to see it? I promise that I’ll stay behind in Florida, and I’ll not put out those “negative vibes” that I’m sure you feel would affect the test. Or are those tapes now lost, or not available for legal reasons, perhaps?

In closing, I’ll add: When I was in the UK a few years ago, I asked Sheldrake if I could test his wonder-dog, but I was told that the dog – and its owners – didn’t want me around. I think that explains a lot about how willing Sheldrake is to face real, independent, examination of his claims.

Chris French comments on the exchange between Rupert Sheldrake and James Randi:

One very good reason for me not raising the topic of Randi’s Pigasus award to Rupert Sheldrake is that I was not aware of it until I read Rupert’s letter to The Skeptic. Even if I had been aware of it, I am not at all sure I would have chosen to ‘challenge’ Randi over it. As it was, we had to edit a lot of very good material from this interview simply for reasons of space. James Randi has, by anybody’s standards, had a long and fascinating life and I think that this is what most of our readers would want to hear about.

Reading Randi’s books back in the 1980s was a major influence on my thinking as I am sure is the case for many thousands of sceptics around the world. I am happy to put on record my great respect for him. That obviously does not mean that I agree with everything that he has ever said and/or written. One of the central messages of scepticism, as emphasized by Randi in his interview, is that everyone should make their own minds up regarding the evidence and arguments dealing with controversial claims. My own approach is to test the more promising and widely accepted claims, such as telephone telepathy, as fairly as possible even though I do not expect to get significant results from such studies. As Rupert is well aware, I have tested many of his claims in the past, either through student projects or in direct collaboration with him, and to date we have never found the results supporting the existence of psi.

I would take issue with the view expressed in Rupert’s letter that only people with formal qualifications should ever be considered real experts. Personally, I am well aware that although the media often prefer to have a talking head with letters after his or her name to comment on controversial issues (even if this amounts to simply stating “the bleeding obvious”), quite often the real experts on a particular topic may be people without any formal training whatsoever, just a passionate interest in their chosen topic and the ability to think critically. And, of course, there are quite a few people with very impressive qualifications who peddle complete nonsense. Just to be clear, I personally do not put Rupert Sheldrake in this category!

The full interview with James Randi can be read here and seen here.