The Saga of Rupert Sheldrake and the Psychic Dog

The saga starts  in 1994 with a book with the not-quite-modes promise in its title Seven experiments that could change the world.

Sheldrake relates how some pet owners think that their pets can tell when they are coming home, even if that should be impossible. He believes that there is a telepathic link between pet and owner. One of these seven world-changing experiments is to show this behavior.

Three Surveys

The saga continues with three surveys of pet owners in England and California, published in 1997/98. About 50% of dog owners said their pet anticipated the return of a family member and 30% of cat owners. Almost 20% of dog owners said that this behavior started more than 10 minutes before the person’s arrival.

Jaytee

Meanwhile a specific dog by the name of Jaytee was the center of an exhaustive investigation. Jaytee’s owner, Pam Smith, and her parents had noticed as early as 1991 that Jaytee was anticipating Pam’s return. They put this down to routine as she returned home from work at always the same time. However, the behavior seemed to persist even after Pam was laid off in 1993 and no longer followed a set routine.
Pam Smith learned of Rupert Sheldrake’s interest in psychic pets in April 1994 from a newspaper article. She volunteered for an experiment. In the following month her parents began taking notes.
The first observations seemed promising so the notes got more detailed and eventually lead to several specific tests. A few had Pam return by an unusual mode of transport so that the dog would not hear the familiar car. In two tests the return time was determined by coin toss.
There was also a test by austrian state television (ORF) for a documentary.

What Jaytee could do

Based on these observations and tests Sheldrake argued that Jaytee reacted whenever Pam Smith decided to journey home.
Sometimes the dog reacted before Pam Smith started journeying home but Sheldrake said that, in fact, this was because Jaytee had reacted when Pam prepared to travel home, rather than when the journey actually started. When the dog reacted late this might have been because the parents had not been paying attention and simply missed the proper time, so that the dog only seemed to have been late.
For some failures other reasons were found such as distractions outside (like a bitch on heat) or the dog being ill.

Such arguments to explain failures away may not be too convincing but Sheldrake could also point to some successes. Yet those successes relied greatly on the reliability of Pam Smith’ parents as unbiased observers, or in one case, of a film crew.

Videotaped experiments

The next step was to videotape the whole thing. The camera was trained on a certain spot, in front of a window. Going there and looking out was, according to the Smiths, how Jaytee anticipated his owner.
This would take place in several locations. On 30 occasions, Jaytee was left with Pam’s parents, as before. Five times, he was left with Pam’s sister, and 50 times he was left alone.
When Jaytee was with Pam’s sister at her place he spent altogether less time at the window but Sheldrake describes his behavior as being similar to when he was at the parents’ place.
There were also 50 such observations where Jaytee was alone. There he usually did not go to the window at all. Only in 15 cases he showed his usual response. However, no graphs, or other information, are given to support this statement.

Jaytee’s behavior when he was with Pam’s parents is shown here:

Graph from Sheldrake 1998

The 30 trials were separated according to how long Pam Smith was absent.
Each step on the x-axis represents a 10 minute (600 second) period. The y-axis tells us how many seconds of these
10 minutes, Jaytee spent at the window. The filled circle/square indicates the first 10 minutes of Pam’s return journey.  The lower line, marked with squares excludes 7 observations where Jaytee spent especially much time at the window before Pam returned, I won’t be using it.

But what does that mean?
For one thing it clearly contradicts Sheldrake’s earlier conclusion. Jaytee does not suddenly go to the window and wait there as soon as Pam starts returning. He simply spent more and more time there.

It does seem as if he had a rough idea of when Pam would return and behaved accordingly but maybe he was merely reacting to the parents anticipation. Even though she should not have told them they may have been able to guess from clues like what she took along. Or indeed, Jaytee may guessed himself.
I must admit, though, that I am not entirely certain if that may not be simply a statistical illusion.

Weird!

Now things get seriously weird. A normal person, or at least a normal scientist, faced with that data would now seriously reevaluate his assumptions. Maybe when the parents took the notes, they were picking up some different, more subtle clues from the dog. Maybe just looking at when the dog goes to a certain spot is not good enough.
Or maybe the telepathic link was between Pam and her parents in the first place.

That’s however not what Sheldrake does. Sheldrake argues that the data confirms his idea. Jaytee spends the most time at the window right before Pam returns therefor he’s psychic. That’s the argument. No kidding.
It gets worse.
Yes.
Really.

He is aware that if the dog goes to the window more and more this will also have him at the window most when Pam returns. And this is why he produced that graph. I took it right from his paper. And, you see, it shows how Jaytee did not go to the window more and more. You don’t see? Good for you.
His argument is simply wrong but for the morbidly curious here it is: He compares the short, medium and long absences. For example, when Pam returned after 80 minutes (short) the dog spent an average of about 300 of the last 600 seconds (10 minutes) at the window. But after 80 minutes in the medium and long absences, he only spent about 100 or 50 seconds there respectively.

That’s true, and as I said, might indicate that the dog knew something. It just tells us nothing about whether the dog really did go to the window more and more. It is obvious from the graph anyway but if you wanted to test that mathematically you would use a so-called linear regression. Based on an off-hand remark in a different section this seems to have been done (by Dean Radin) with expected results but not included.

This may seem like the end but the saga is not finished yet.

Randomization

There is one final experiment to be done. By determining a return time for Pam at random and only communicating it to her once she is on her way, we can make sure that Jaytee has no clue when she is going to return. Sheldrake performed 12 such experiments that naturally showed Jaytee being at the window most right before Pam’s return. He still thinks that this indicates telepathy, in complete defiance of the facts and any rational argument.

Richard Wiseman

When you hear this saga related elsewhere you will always hear of Richard Wiseman as well. Wiseman is a British psychologist with a well-known skeptical interest in the paranormal. The seemingly stunning performance of Jaytee that was filmed by the austrian television crew lead him to contact Sheldrake. Pam Smith graciously agreed to take part in his experiment and Sheldrake allowed him to use the same video-camera.
Wiseman, with the assistance of two colleagues, Matthew Smith and Julie Milton, performed four experiments.

Since Sheldrake had already done all the preliminary groundwork, Wiseman could jump right in. The dog was supposed to do a certain thing, that is, go to the spot at the window right when Pam Smith was about to return. He would simply test if that was the case. Wiseman would stay with the dog, filming him. Smith would go with Pam and tell her to return at the appointed time.
If the dog went to the window in the same 10-minute time frame as the return, the test would be a success.
As we would expect, the dog was much too early.
However, the dog stayed there only a brief moment, maybe because of some distraction outside. It was decided to try again but this time the dog would have to stay at the window for a full two minutes.
Same thing again, of course.
So it was decided to wait until winter with the next try, when there would be fewer distraction outside.
Yet again too early.
In the fourth experiment the dog didn’t ‘signal’ at all.

Of course, Jaytee’s pattern of going to the window more and more is present in this data as well. By Sheldrake’s twisted logic this means that Wiseman found evidence of telepathy. This is where the saga takes an unsavory turn.
Wiseman has bluntly stated that he failed to find evidence of Jaytee being psychic, moreover he finds Sheldrake’s own data unconvincing. To Sheldrake this is an outrage.
When Wiseman confirmed that he agreed that his data showed the same pattern as Sheldrake’s this was to Sheldrake an admission that Wiseman had found telepathy. To Sheldrake, Wiseman is simply being dogmatic and irrational in not saying so.
It may seem hard to believe that anyone could read through Sheldrake’s work and not see the foolishness in his logic but it isn’t just fans of Rupert Sheldrake who uncritically accept his twisted reality. It is also authors, such as Chris Carter and Robert McLuhan as well, who pride themselves on having investigated such issues. This has, by now, turned into a character assassination campaign against Wiseman.
I must add that Wiseman himself has largely ignored this and never criticized Sheldrake for his irrationality. He has only expressed disagreement and laid out his arguments.

Kane
There was also a small number of tests with another dog called Kane. His pattern seems to have been slightly different but there were only very few tests. That makes it virtually impossible to say anything with confidence.

Conclusion?

You may now think that all this psychic dog business is completely debunked. Well, in a way.
We have seen how Sheldrake’s original hypothesis seemingly collapsed with more stringent tests but one could claim that this was due to error on the part of the scientists.
Wiseman was with the dog, filming him, did that throw the dog off? Sheldrake switched to a different, nonsensical statistical analysis which may cover up evidence.

And even if Sheldrake’s hypothesis about how the dog expresses telepathy is completely wrong, the dog may still be telepathic but just expressing it in a different way.
There are any number of reasons why the tests would have failed to find telepathy.

Is there anything we could interpret as possibly evidence of telepathy?
When we look at the twelve highest quality experiments, those with videotape and random return tim, we find that in four of these Jaytee only went to the window when Pam was on her way home. Not any sooner Maybe that means something?
On the other hand, that only happened when the return time was very early. When the return time was late, he was always too soon (except in one case when he did not do anything at all). That makes it seem much less interesting. It makes it look like the “hits” depend more on the random time being just right than anything else.
The case for telepathy can be strengthened again by subtracting those times where there was some identifiable distraction that may have caused Jaytee to go to the window. Two tests then turn from failures to successes.
But how reliable is such a retrospective judgement? A worrying detail is that the graphs that were published in the parapsychological literature and those contained in Sheldrake’s books show slight differences.
Also there are Wiseman’s results which were all clear failures by this standard.

There’s another issue and it’s the most important one. These few cases that might be telepathy are the result of me going over the results in detail, searching for anything that, at least, doesn’t contradict telepathy. I had to completely ignore Sheldrake’s argument which is simply wrong.
I also had to ignore that the failed tests suggest that this was just chance.

That makes the whole evidence not very convincing. We’d need additional tests to determine if this idea stands up.

The question is, how much effort do we put in before giving up?

Most people, surely most scientists, would look at the track record of telepathy claims. Perhaps they would also look at Sheldrake’s track record who had a well-deserved reputation for irrationality, well before this episode. Based on that they would dismiss the whole thing from the start.
Wiseman gave it more of a chance than most would. His fate may hold something of an answer to those who wonder why people aren’t more open-minded.

How much effort would you personally expend?

Sheldrake thinks he has good evidence of telepathy in dogs. And yet he, too, has given up on research. One would think that by finding a telepathic dog the science would only begin. One would think that your average scientist would continue by uncovering the physiological basis for it.

If one wanted to pick up the work that Sheldrake dropped one would first have to find a psychic dog. Going by Sheldrake’s surveys, this should be easy, if people don’t fool themselves about their pets being telepathic.
There was one person who tried this. A former high-tech entrepreneur turned podcaster by the name of Alex Tsakiris. He put in quite some effort and money.
His plan was to turn the project over to professional scientists once he had found some suitable dogs but it never happened. He found candidates that seemed promising to him but nothing worked out. Eventually he quietly abandoned the project.

So here’s my personal conclusion: I am going to live my life as if there is no such thing as a psychic pet or telepathic dog or whatever. I am also going to be highly doubtful about anything coming from Rupert Sheldrake.
You draw your own conclusion.

Sources:
Papers by Rupert Sheldrake
Papers by Richard Wiseman
Dogs that know by Alex Tsakiris

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5 Comments

  1. Max_B said,

    October 26, 2012 at 9:30 am

    The results provided in Sheldrakes 2000 paper seem fairly clear to me…

    http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/animals/pdf/dog_video.pdf

  2. ken said,

    March 17, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I don’t follow your logic, the dog going rather consistently to the window in wiseman’s first 3 trials is somehow evidence against telepathy and not cause for further investigation because it’s “too early”? If Rupert is biased towards confirming Telepathy, perhaps prematurely, then his opposition (in this case you) is just as biased against it.

    • March 22, 2013 at 8:28 am

      That observation is not evidence against telepathy in itself. It simply can’t be construed as evidence for it.
      The thing is that when you start out looking for evidence for something and fail to find it, that in itself becomes evidence against it.

  3. Chris said,

    April 15, 2013 at 10:38 am

    As a person who has a cat, we of course noticed that she’d almost always be waiting at the door when someone came home. As a person with a partner, we of course noticed that she’d only go to the door as the other person arrived home. I eventually worked out that she could recognise the sound of our cars when they reached around 50 yards away down the road (I’d expected it’d be hearing any car arriving on our drive – I was wrong), and before it slowed down. If you were the person arriving, you’d think she was waiting. As the person at home, you’d know she wasn’t.

    She is, of course, not telepathic, she just has good hearing, wants to get her share of whatever ‘kill’ ‘the great hunter’ is returning with, and is very good at identifying the signs.

    She hasn’t yet mastered it at our new house.

  4. June 9, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    […] The Saga of Rupert Sheldrake and the Psychic Dog | Bare Normality Interested In peoples views on this article. […]


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