Scepticism isn't just for claims of the paranormal
"September's Festival of Science, organised by the British Association (BA). Usually this annual jamboree is all about Britain's top boffins telling us how close they are to finding everything from cures for cancer to the keys to the cosmos. The journalists turn out in force, dutifully write it all down and try to forget they've been writing exactly the same old cobblers for years.
But this time they had something different to report: a row sparked by the decision of the BA to include a session on parapsychology. The speakers were all scientists, among them the biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake, who spoke about claims that people can telepathically sense who is calling them on the phone before they pick it up. He reported the results of a small study which he claimed showed there might be something in telephone telepathy. Kaboom! Before you could say "statistical significance isn't plausibility," the great and the good of British science were
telling journalists how outraged they were about such ideas being
aired at the BA.
Among them was Professor Sir Walter Bodmer, the distinguished geneticist and cancer expert, who said it was "quite inappropriate" to have such matters discussed without someone on hand to give "a proper balancing counter argument." Given the huge public interest in telepathy, I'd say it was perfectly appropriate for the BA to organise a session on the subject. As for a balancing counter argument, the BA had lined up one of Britain's leading critics of parapsychological research, Professor Chris French of Goldsmiths College, London, to take part in the post-session discussion. Still, this clearly wasn't enough for the likes of Peter Atkins, professor of chemistry at Oxford University, who dismissed the whole idea of telepathy as a "fantasy," with no good evidence
to support it.
Again, it would have helped if Prof Atkins had done his homework before sounding off. Evidence for telepathy has been uncovered by researchers at perfectly respectable universities. That said, most of the evidence is indeed pretty unimpressive, with effects close to chance levels. Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of Dr Sheldrake's findings presented at the
BA was the humungous size of the effects he reported. Yet I must say I do, for once, have some sympathy with the finger-waggers. I too worry about scientifically questionable findings being paraded in public without "proper balancing counter argument." But it's not the claims about minor urban legends like telephone telepathy that bother me. It's the endless cries of "Eureka!" by mainstream scientists claiming to have made life-changing breakthroughs. The real problem with BA meetings is how such claims have been trotted out for years without anyone thinking they might benefit from the "proper balancing counter argument."
Take Sir Walter's own speciality of genetics. Over the years, the BA has given countless scientists carte blanche to trumpet the biotech revolution, and the wonders of genetic medicine. Back in 1988, one speaker told delegates of how decoding the human genome may lead to "the prevention or treatment of most major human chronic diseases," and even explain the genius of Bach.
No-one-demanded a sceptic be available to question all this. Yet it should certainly have been treated with scepticism. Nowadays, academics talk openly of the "myth" of the biotech revolution, which has failed to transform medicine in the way its cheerleaders predicted, while talk of genes "for" traits like genius is widely rejected. It was Sir Walter who was making those claims in 1988. True, he never said such breakthroughs were guaranteed. Nor did he predict when they might come to pass. And in any case, isn't it the job of BA presidents to promote science? Sure, but not if it ends up promoting a view of science closer to fantasy than fact."
Robert A.J. Matthews, (Focus magazine January 2007) is a British physicist, mathematician, computer scientist, and journalist.
Perfect example of scientific bigotry! Science is made by humans, humans are not impartial; partiality is enemy of the truth.
"I once prayed to god for a bike, but quickly found out he didnt work that way...so I stole a bike and prayed for his forgiveness"
"All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force... We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter." (Max Planck)
"the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here." Paul Davies