Jun 24, 2015

Psychic Pets and Other Proven Things

I touched on this experiment in intellectual dishonesty in this post, but Rupert Sheldrake here presents the documentary proof that Richard Wiseman misrepresented his own data to proclaim all evidence of psychic pets so much hugger mugger. What always kills me about things like this is that headlines always win. That's true even when the headlines are at odds with the articles they introduce, let alone when the journalism is equally shoddy. Wiseman's widely covered "debunking" of Sheldrake's meticulously documented pet telepathy experiment was the shot heard round the world. No one from the press bothered, apparently, to note that he was shooting blanks.

In that same post, I quote Wiseman admitting that the only means by which serious scientists can continue to dismiss evidence of remote viewing is by putting a thumb on the scale.

I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do... Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions.

And, yes, he also commits the cardinal error of misusing the phrase "begs the question." I tire of saying this, but while it may raise the question of whether or not to disregard any standard by which science might remain a truthful and dispassionate practice, it does not beg it. To beg the question is to commit the logical fallacy of petitio principii, circular argument. That Wiseman also has little facility with logic and critical thinking should probably come as no great shock.

Around the time I learned of this quote, I also heard many times over that he had been misquoted. Matter settled, Wiseman didn't really say that, so let's move on. This blog post is as good an elucidation as any, of how misleading such assertions are.

The misquotation hypothesis receives a partial confirmation on another blog where Wiseman clarifies thusly:
“It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP — that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well.  I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”
So he is not talking about remote viewing but instead about something else. Unfortunately it is quite unclear what.

Wiseman didn't so much dispute the quote, as double down on it. It's not only remote viewing that has been proven to a reasonable standard of evidence, it's ESP writ large. Ganzfield experiments test psychic ability. There is absolutely nothing "unclear" about that statement. Wiseman is quite unambiguously saying that if we apply the same rules of evidence we apply to other experiments, many psi theories have been proven.

It is not only Wiseman who has been caught misleading people about Sheldrake's pet telepathy experiment and the larger field of psi. The Amazing Randi also made bold claims about having disproved the theory, but when pressed for his data, claimed that the hurricane ate his homework.

Following a burst of publicity for Sheldrake, Randi told a journalist, “We at JREF have tested these claims. They fail.” But when I met Sheldrake, at his Hampstead home, he made a serious charge. “Randi’s a liar and a cheat,” he said. “When I asked him for the data, he had to admit he hadn’t done any tests.”

According to Sheldrake, his direct requests for data were twice ignored. After appealing to others at the JREF, Randi eventually wrote back, explaining that he couldn’t supply the data because it got washed away in a flood and that the dogs he tested are now in Mexico and their owner was “tragically killed last year in a dreadful accident.”

Unusually for Randi, he was polite. “I over-stated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained,” he wrote. “It was rash and improper of me to do so. I apologise sincerely.”

When challenged by the Telegraph reporter about these repeated obfuscations, Randi admitted that he will lie to make his case.

Pressed about his treatment of Sheldrake, he insisted he didn’t lie because when he made the offer to send the data it hadn’t yet been destroyed by Hurricane Wilma. It was only after our meeting I realised Wilma took place four years before he stated that the data was available. But before we parted, I told him my research painted a picture of a clever man who is often right, but who has a certain element to his personality which leads him to overstate.

“Oh I agree,” he said.

“And sometimes lie. Get carried away.”

“Oh I agree. No question of that. I don’t know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time,” he said. “But there can be untruths.”

He has similarly misrepresented Russell Targ's research.

Some idea of the counter-arguments to Randi's claims can be obtained by taking another look at D. Scott Rogo, who earlier showed the initiative to track down Dr. Hebard. Unlike Randi, who, as we have seen, had "never even set foot" inside the research facility, Rogo visited SRI on June 12, 1981. He found that Randi had misrepresented the hole in the wall of the isolation room through which Geller was supposedly able to spy on the researchers. The hole, a conduit for cables, is depicted in Flim-Flam as being three and a half inches wide and therefore offering a good view of the experimental area where the researchers were working. Rogo found, however, that the hole "is three-and-a-quarter inches [wide] and extends through a twelve-and-a-half inch wall. This scopes your vision and severely limits what you can see through it. The hole is not left open either, since it is covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run. Dr Puthoff and his colleague were, however, concerned that their subject might be ingenious enough to insert an optical probe through this hole, so they monitored the opening throughout their telepathy experiments."

Randi also indicates that the hole is stationed 34 inches above the floor. Not so, says Rogo. "It isn't three feet above the floor, but is located only a little above floor level. The only thing you can see through it - even under optimal conditions - is a small bit of exterior floor and opposing wall. (The viewing radius is only about 20°, and the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely.) I also discovered during my trip to SRI that an equipment rack was situated in front of the hole throughout the Geller work, which obstructed any view through it even further. I ended my little investigation by talking with two people who were present during these critical experiments. They both agreed that wires were running through the hole - therefore totally blocking it - during the time of the Geller experiments."

Yet, you will commonly hear that Sheldrake, Targ, and other psi researchers have been debunked by prominent skeptics. Such claims should never be taken at face value. The woefully under-reported fact is that the debunkers have also been debunked many times over.

"Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect..." ~ Jonathan Swift

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