A Physicist Investigates

This is the second part on my series on the parapsychological double-slit experiment.

The original double-slit experiment was performed in 1803 by Thomas Young.
The parapsychological version was thought up by one of his intellectual heirs, almost 200 years later.

In the Beginning

Stanley Jeffers, a professor of physics at York University in Toronto, Canada, came across the results from PEAR lab during a sabbatical in 1992. The PEAR project claimed to have shown that people could influence Random Number Generators (RNGs) by their intention alone. There were also earlier experiments which claimed that people could influence radioactive decay.
Jeffers became interested enough to follow up on that. Jeffers came up with a more direct way to test this idea by having people try to influence the diffraction of photons (unsuccessfully). (Jeffers and Sloan 1992)

Afterwards, he refined that experiment by using a double-slit set-up. This makes for an exquisite test of whether humans have some unknown means of affecting the world.
If there is some way of making information available, about through which slit the particles went, then this should affect the interference pattern. Moreover the change in the pattern would allow one to estimate just how much information was made available.
It’s not necessary for anyone to become consciously aware of this information, it’s enough that it exists. For example, if people can somehow influence what happens at one slit but not the other, then that could “tag” the particle in such a way that it becomes possible to distinguish through which slit it went. Such a thing would be sufficient to affect the interference pattern.
More directly, if people can clairvoyantly observe one slit (aka remote view it), then this too should make which slit information available.
There’s a catch, though. That’s only true as far as we understand the laws of nature. However, the paranormal, by definition, is not bound by that.

There’s another thing that could lead to a positive result. The experimental apparatus needs to be carefully calibrated. If the right parts are bent out of shape by just a few micrometers or if the laser is somehow affected then this could also lead to a change in the pattern. It would be quite tricky to mimic the change expected from available information but it could still lead to a positive result under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Either if the subconscious psychokinetic ability is also ingenious or if the pattern is not scrutinized properly.
Jeffers seems not to have considered this possibility but, of course, outside of parapsychology such ideas, IE psychokinesis, tend to be regarded as rather philosophically than actually possible. Nevertheless, parapsychologists have little hesitation to jump to any conclusion and it would be quite in line with what is often claimed.

All in all, Jeffers’ double-slit set-up promises to be a very sensitive means of detecting even the smallest influence, whatever it’s nature.

A Double-Slit Diffraction Experiment to Investigate Claims of Consciousness-Related Anomalies

Stanley Jeffers ran 74 sessions, each consisting of many attempts to influence the pattern. Then he gave up and presented his findings at a conference. After that, the people of the PEAR lab borrowed the device and used it to run 20 sessions.
I do not have the original conference report by Jeffers available to me but was able to find first hand information by Jeffers in the book Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal.
The two experiments were reported together in The Journal of Scientific Exploration, which is dedicated to publishing stuff that is, put bluntly, too stupid or crazy for normal peer-reviewed journals. (direct link to paper)
The article is authored by Ibison and Jeffers but appears written by Ibison.

While Jeffers completely failed to find anything in his 74 sessions, Ibison of the PEAR lab reported a “significant” result with only 20. Some will say that the latter experiment had a positive result.

I fear, I have to go into a little detail on that. This is an issue that will be relevant for all the following experiments. The interesting thing here is the contrast of the interference pattern. But you can’t measure it with arbitrary precision.
The pattern itself will be influenced by tiny disturbances of the apparatus caused by changes in ambient heat or vibrations. The sensor which picks up the brightness, basically a predecessor to the CCD chip in current digital camera, is not perfect either. And then there’s more esoteric things, too.
The upshot is that every measurement will have a slightly different result.
According to Jeffers in Psi Wars, repeated calibrations yield typical values for the contrast of 0.991 with a standard deviation of 0.001, while Ibison talks of “around 5% of the peak value”. I don’t quite know what Ibison means by that since it’s not how measurement uncertainty is usually reported. However, it does seem to imply more uncertainty than Jeffers’ figure. Maybe there’s a typo in one of the sources or maybe Ibison at the PEAR lab was not able to calibrate the device as well as Jeffers who was, after all, a pro at this.

What is clear is that any influence by the subjects must have been so small that it never rose above the noise, that is, the fluctuations due to imperfect measurement. Unfortunately, none of the sources I have at hand provides information on what kind of an upper bound this puts on the subjects’ maximal influence.

It is possible to measure something even if it hides in the noise. To do so, one must simply repeat the measurement over and over again and form an average. In the long run the errors in either direction will balance out. The more often one repeats the measurement, the more reliable the average. Using statistics, one can compute how reliable a result is, which is then expressed with error bars.
Basically, Ibison found that the contrast was slightly altered and computed that there was only a 1 in 20 chance for that to happen, merely from noise. That means, if you repeated the experiment many times, you’d get such a result or a better one 1 in 20 times, if you’re only gazing at noise. That’s, of course, not very impressive, even not taking into account that such figures tend to be exaggerated. There’s a couple of things that can make a result appear more unlikely than it really is. Physicists tend to ask for much more clear-cut results.


Fundamentally, this should be a discouraging result for parapsychology. Even though a device was constructed able to detect influences far smaller than that what most parapsychological experiments require, the supposed effect was still hidden in the noise.

Someone who believes that there really was an effect there has two basic options. The preferred one should be to build a better apparatus, that has less noise and so will let the true effect stand out.
The other one is, as mentioned, to run this experiment a lot of times but that will not be nearly as useful, nor as convincing.

Further Thoughts

I mentioned that one way of achieving a positive result in this test is by exerting some physical force on the apparatus. A physicist or engineer would test this directly by having people try to exert that force on a force sensor of some kind.
Obviously, parapsychologists don’t do it that way. It fails to show what they know to be true.
One answer to that is abandoning careful experiments and simply argue that some feat can’t possibly have been a trick because they surely would have noticed. Parapsychologists apparently do not suffer from the same limitations to perceptions as the rest of us. Or perhaps of a few more inabilities to see something.
The other answer is to conduct experiments involving randomness, like the RNGs of PEAR or radioactive decay or something as simple as die. These experiments seem much less silly than any argument for the genuineness of something that looks like a magic trick.
But are they really? Why not measure the effect directly?
Why is there always randomness involved?
An obvious answer is that the “effect” is simply the result of data mining. My take on that here.

But, since I aim to deliver the whole truth, I must also tell you that parapsychologists also have ideas on the issue. One idea that Ibison mentions in the mentioned article is that maybe experimenters can see into the future and somehow know, subconsciously, when to start an experimental run so that the purely random processes will deliver a favorable result. Ibison is quite open with the fact that the apparatus was basically just generating random numbers and not necessarily measuring anything.


Stanley Jeffers has published his conclusion on the results on the PEAR lab results Skeptical Inquirer in 2006 and 2007, and also written an essay which was published in the book Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. (Review by Caroline Watts)


Attention! Double-slit!

Recently Dean Radin and others published an article that purports to study the effects of attention on a double slit experiment.

Originally I wanted to do just a rebuttal to that but then found it necessary to also review the entire background. The simple rebuttal spiraled out of control into a 3-part series. My old math teacher was right. Once you add the imaginary things get complex, for reals. And not only for them.

A Word of Caution

People often ask for evidence when they are faced with something they find unlikely. The more skeptical will also ask for evidence for something they consider credible, at least sometimes. For the academically educated evidence means articles published in peer-reviewed, reputable, scientific journals.
For example, all the articles I cite as evidence in the first part, where I look at mainstream quantum physics, are from such journals.
So here comes the warning. Not all journals that call themselves peer-reviewed are reputable. For example, there is a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to creationistic ideas. And I probably don’t need to tell you what scientists on the whole think of creationism.

The journals that published the articles discussed in this series are not reputable. Mainstream science does not take note of them. Physics Essays, where the most recent article appeared may very well be the closest to the mainstream and still it is mostly ignored.
It is largely an outlet for people who believe that Einstein was wrong. We’re not talking about scientists looking for the next big thing, we’re talking about people who are to Einstein’s theory what creationists are to evolution.
This is not meant as an argument against these ideas, I just don’t want to mislead anyone into believing that there is a legitimate scientific debate going on here.

That’s not to say that science ignores fringe ideas. For example, Stanley Jeffers who appears in the second part of this series is a mainstream physicist who decided to follow up on some of those.
He just didn’t find that there was anything there. It was a dead end.
James Alcock has a few words on that in his editorial Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance.

There are many cranks out there. These are people who hold onto some theory in the face of contrary evidence. They will not go away but they will, almost invariably, accuse the mainstream of science to be dogmatic. Eventually, there is nothing to be done but ignore them.

On to the Review

The first part gives a brief overview over the quantum physics background to the experiment. Dean Radin gets this completely wrong. And I fear the misunderstandings he propagates will pop up in many places.

Part 1: A Quantum Understanding

In the next part we will look at the experiment in question. Let’s call it the parapsychological double-slit experiment. We will learn who came up with the idea and what he found out and also what a positive result should look like and what it might mean.

Part 2: A Physicist Investigates

The 3rd and last part, for now, looks at the two articles authored by Dean Radin, presenting seven replications of the original design.

Part 3: Radin for a Rerun

Further studies are being conducted so more parts are likely to follow at some point.

[sound of sighing]

The May issue of The Psychologist carries an article by Stuart Ritchie, Richard Wiseman and Chris French titled Replication, Replication, Replication plus some reactions to it. The Psychologist is the official monthly publication of The British Psychological Society. And the article is, of course, about the problems the 3 skeptics had in getting their failed replications published.

Yes, replication is important

That the importance of replications receives attention is good, of course. Depositories for failed experiments are important and have the potential to aid the scientific enterprise.

What is sad, however, is that the importance of proper methodology is largely overlooked. Even the 3 skeptics who should know all about the dangers of data-dredging cavalierly dismiss the issue with these words:

While many of these methodological problems are worrying, we don’t think any of them completely undermine what appears to be an impressive dataset.

But replication is still not the answer

I have written about how replication cannot be the whole answer before. In a nutshell, by cunning abuse of statistical methods it is possible to give any mundane and boring result the impression of showing some amazing, unheard of effect. That takes hardly any extra work but experimentally debunking the supposed effect is a huge effort. It takes more searching to be sure that something is not there than to simply find it. For statistical reasons, an experiment needs more subjects to “prove” the absence of an effect with the same confidence as finding it.
But there’s also that there might be some difference between the original experiment and the replication that explain the lack of effect. In this case it was claimed that maybe the 3 failed because they did not believe in the effect. It takes just seconds to make such a claim. Disproving it requires finding a “believer” who will again run an experiment with more subjects that the original.

Quoth the 3 skeptics:

Most obviously, we have only attempted to replicate one of Bem’s nine experiments; much work is yet to be done.

It should be blindingly obvious that science just can’t work like that.

There are a few voices that take a more sensible approach. Daniel Bor writes a little of how neuroimaging which has, or had, extreme problems with useless statistics might improve by foster greater expertise among the practitioners. Neuroimaging seems to have made methodological improvements. What social psychology needs is a drink of the same cup.

The difficulty of publishing and the crying of rivers

On the whole, I find the article by the 3 skeptics to be little more than a whine about how difficult it is to get published, hardly an unusual experience. The first journal refused because they don’t publish replications.
Top journals are supposed to make sure that the results they publish are worthwhile. Showing that people can see into the future is amazing, not being able to show that is not. Back in the day it was simply so that there was only a limited number of pages that could be stuffed into an issue, these days, with online publishing, there’s still the limited attention of readers.
The second journal refused to publish because one of the peer-reviewers, who happened to be Daryl Bem, requested further experiments to be done. That’s a perfectly normal thing and it’s also normal that researchers should be annoyed by what they see as a frivolous request.
In this case, one more experiment should have made sure that the failure to replicate wasn’t due to the beliefs of the experimenters. The original results published by Bem were almost certainly not due to chance. Looking for a reason for the different results is good science.

I’ve given a simple explanation for the obvious reason here. If the 3 skeptics are unwilling or unable to actually give such an explanation they are hardly in a position to complain.

Beware the literature

As a general rule, failed experiments have a harder time to get published than successful ones. That’s something of a problem because it means that information about what doesn’t work is lost to the larger community. When there is an interesting result in the older literature that seems not to have been followed up on then it probably is the case that it didn’t work after all. The original report was a fluke and the “debunking” was never much published. Of course, one can’t be sure if it was not maybe overlooked, which is a problem.
One must be aware that the scientific literature is not a complete record of all available scientific information. Failures will mostly live on in the memory of professors and will still be available to their ‘apprentices’ but it would be much more desirable if the information could be made available to all. With the internet, this possibility now exists and that discussion about such means is probably the most valuable result of the Bem affair so far.

About another skeptical award

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Daryl Bem being awarded a Pigasus by James Randi.

Today, I am going to tell you about another such negative award. This one is called ‘Das goldene Brett’ and is awarded by the Austrian Society for critical thinking (Gesellschaft für kritisches Denken). This society is the Vienna chapter of the GWUP which is the German language equivalent of the CSI.

“Das goldene Brett” means “the golden board. In German saying that someone has ‘a board before his head’ (ein Brett vor’m Kopf) means that he or she is an idiot. Someone who obviously can’t see and is unable to work out why.

Perhaps this recalls the bible Matthew 7:3
And why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye, and not notice the beam which is in your own eye?
But enough about that quaint and unwieldy language.


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a food buffet!

But why, my dear reader, would I bother you with the local affairs of an obscure mountain province?
The reason is that one the three prize winners 2011 has managed to make the international news. Just the skeptical news but still.

That winner was a P.A. Straubinger who directed the movie In the Beginning There Was Light. That movie promoted Breatharianism which is the belief that eating (or drinking) is not necessary for survival. People can survive on (sun-)light alone. It boggles the mind that people could possibly belief such a thing. Yet, not only do people belief that, a select few of them died trying to do it.

When news of the movie was heard among the local skeptics they immediately saw the danger. The publicity would inspire further copy-cats and among them, deaths.
Precisely that has happened now. A Swiss woman was found dead by starvation. (English report) Her journey into death started with Straubinger’s movie.

This leaves us with many open questions.
How much blame should we assign the propagandists? Or was it just the dead woman’s free choice?
Was she open-minded or gullible? Was she gullible or mentally ill?

What should skeptics learn from such a case? What should be done to protect the vulnerable from dangerous nonsense?

How about counter-arguments? There is some extensive debunking of the supposed “evidence” in the film available on German skeptic blogs. But it seems unlikely that one can reach the vulnerable with information, otherwise they were not vulnerable. Everyone already knows that one can’t survive without nourishment. If someone is willing to dismiss such an everyday fact as merely a ‘materialistic belief’ then any further details must fall on deaf ears.
Even worse, a nuanced reply might even be seen as confirmatory. A scientific person will not ever rule out anything as impossible. Nothing can be known with such certainty. Distinguishing between the practically impossible and the literally impossible is a fine point that is rarely made in daily life. A scientist acknowledging the fundamental, philosophical limits of our knowledge may be heard as endorsing a practical possibility where none exists.

What about ridicule and a clear word? Some warn that that will just push away believers but I wonder if it might not still be the best method. I don’t know what truly motivates people to believe in the clearly untrue but if it is largely driven by emotion then emotional appeals must be made to reach them.
even if many skeptics will disagree with such methods on principle. In truth, it seems dishonest to me to seek to convince others with emotional, rationally invalid, rhetorics. But if there are lives at stake maybe I should swallow my distaste?
It seems plausible that ridicule will not reach the entrenched and only push them away but maybe it is a good method to reach the broad mass of people. A more open approach is surely needed to reach the truly vulnerable, the ‘spiritual’.

Should such nonsense be banned? In Germany Holocaust denial is illegal. And yet science denial is not, even when the danger is clear and present. It seems impossible to get a legislature to ban certain kinds of speech based on objective danger rather than offense taken.
However, I do not see a clear conflict with the principle of free speech. Hardly anyone would seriously say that an add offering money for the death of someone, that is an adds seeking a contract killer should be legal. Such speech is aimed solely at getting someone killed, that is denying someone a right even more important than the right to free speech, the right to live. There is no ethical duty to tolerate speech that will get people killed.

Shut up and ignore? Straubinger has actually thanked skeptic for the attention they paid to the movie and the extra publicity that gave. That raises a worrying specter. May skeptics share part of the responsibility for the breatharian deaths? Many people have a reflexive sort of sympathy for the underdog especially when that underdog is an enemy of an enemy. When skeptics denounce a dangerous fringe idea, does that maybe drive some people into accepting it?

A Pigasus for Daryl Bem

Every year on April Fools day, James Randi hands out the Pigasus Award. Here is the announcement for the 2011 awards, delivered on April 1 2012.

One award went to Daryl Bem for “his shoddy research that has been discredited on many accounts by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Weisman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”

I’ve called this well deserved but there’s certainly much that can be quibbled about. For example, these critics are hardly those who delivered the hardest hitting critiques. Far more deserving of honorable mention are Wagenmakers, Francis and Simmons (and their respective co-authors) for their contribution of peer reviewed papers that tackle the problem.

A point actually concerning the award is whether it is fair to single out Bem for a type of misconduct that may be very wide-spread in psychological research. Let’s be clear on this, his methods are not just “strange” or “shoddy” as Randi kindly puts it, they border on the fraudulent. Someone else, in a different field, might have found themselves in serious trouble with a paper like this. Though I think it very hard to get such a paper past peer review in a more math savvy discipline.
But even if you think it is just a highly visible example of normal bad practice, surely it is appropriate to use the high visibility to bring attention to it. Numerous people have done exactly that. Either using it to argue for different statistical techniques or to draw attention for the lack of necessary replication in psychology.

I doubt that Randi calling this out will do much good since I doubt that many psychologists will even notice. And even if, I doubt that it will cause them to rethink their current (mal)practice. There’s a good chance that Bem will be awarded an IgNobel prize later this year. That probably gets more attention but even so…


The reactions from believers have been completely predictable. They have so far ignored the criticisms of the methods and so they ignore that Randi explicitly justifies the award with the “strange methods”. They simply pretend that any doubt or criticism is the result of utter dogmatism.

Sadly, some skeptical individuals have also voiced disappointment, for example Stuart Ritchie on his Twitter feed. Should I ever come across a justification for such reactions I will report and comment.

Modern Mediumship Research: Negative

In this post I am going to deal with results that speak against the reality of mediumship. We begin with mediumship tests where a negative outcome was admitted.
For starters there’s a study by Jensen and Cardena. It involved only one medium, however. So there’s not really much we can conclude about mediumship in general.

A larger study was published by O’Keefe and Wiseman. It involved five mediums and 5 sitters (a jargon term for client). It discusses methodological issues in great detail and can be downloaded from Wiseman’s website. It is recommended reading for anyone thinking about putting together their own medium test. In fact, similar methods could be used to test someone who claims telepathy or just merely being a good judge of character.

One argument against such negative studies is that they simply didn’t have a genuine medium on their hands. This, however, is not a very common argument in my experience. Perhaps because it is uncomfortably close to accusing the tested mediums of fraud, or perhaps because it leaves the implication that there is

The other more common argument is that the conditions didn’t permit mediumship. Usually, some factor is said to have blocked the ability, such as the presence of skeptics. This has by now turned into a muchly ridiculed cliché.
Others say it was simply that the unfamiliar surroundings of the lab and strict limitations of the protocol made the mediums uncomfortable. This has been compared (by males, of course) to the inability of people to have sex under such conditions. I find it amazing that in this day and age there are still men who are unaware of the existence of porn.
As a remedy, Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute argued that O’Keefe and Wiseman should have tested their mediums before testing them to ensure that they can pass the test. It sounds better if you call the pretest a “screening”.
Some more cerebral believers argue that the conditions for paranormal just so happen to be the same as for error or fraud (though they will, of course, not put it so bluntly). Such an argument is implicit in Kelly and Arcangel’s paper when they talk about “priming the pump”.


Perhaps one might include skeptic challenges as another negative piece of evidence. These challenges are meant to call out people who claim abilities they don’t have. The most famous of these, and the blue-print for most others, is James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge.
The rules are both simple and scrupulously fair. Whoever wishes to take up the challenge needs not only claim some ability but design himself a task, impossible to ordinary people. So rather than just claim mediumship, one would need to say, for example, ‘I can tell if someone’s parents are alive or dead.’ Of course, the conditions would have to be so as to preclude ordinary means of inference, however unlikely. And it would have to be stipulated how many tries there would be and how many would have to be successful.
Basically, one has to convince James Randi and his advisors that there is no way to do the promised feat with ordinary means. Once they accept this, the claimant has a legal contract that stipulates payout on success.

So far, the money has been quite safe.

The arguments against the challenge are numerous but ill-informed. Some think that whether or not someone wins is a judgement call by James Randi. In fact, the rules explicitly forbid any judgement calls. Success or failure must be obvious to anyone.
Others accuse Randi of dishonesty. They say he only allows weak claimants or even that he manipulates the result. This is some rather outrageous slander but even so, there are other challenges. In any case, one can also contact parapsychologists. Yet by all appearances, they don’t have any potential winners either
Naively, one would expect something like Randi’s challenge to be treated as the X-Prize of parapsychology. But what if there are no humans with super-powers? Then those who claim them would be frauds or lunatics. The reaction to the offer of a million dollars certainly does nothing to dissuade one from considering that possibility.

Still, it is true that just because no one has risen to the challenge, this does not disprove mediumship. One might claim, for example, that a true medumistic gift always comes with extreme shyness.


Finally, there is also the fact that what science has revealed over the last centuries about the world, about us and about our place in the world is rather inconsistent with mediumship. Not so long ago science believed that there was a life-force that distinguished living from non-living matter. Today this is considered refuted.
Something similar is true for the human mind, which today is considered to be the workings of the brain.

Not only has science not uncovered support for mediumship, it has refuted some of its core tenets.

In regards to this some will point out that science has been wrong before. This is quite true and, indeed, science is nothing if not a quest to be ever less wrong. But here we have a case where this quest simply leads away from the proffered answer.
There are even many examples where scientists held onto ideas that should have been recognized as discredited by the evidence. Who is the dogmatic hold-out in this story?

Still, the fact remains that while science as a whole offers strong arguments against the possibility of mediumship, it cannot be ruled out. Science could be wrong and that is a simple, unalterable fact.
If the evidence indicated that it was real then one would have to find a way to reconcile it with other seemingly contradictory evidence.
However, I have never so far come across a serious attempt at this. There are plenty of demands that mainstream science should take parapsychology seriously. Demands that parapsychology take mainstream science seriously are usually met with the charge of close-mindedness.

The Universal Negative

Eventually, what all this boils down to is quite simply that you can’t prove a universal negative. You can’t test everyone and even when you test someone it only shows that they failed in this specific test on this one occasion.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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

That Wiseman Quote

Richard Wiseman is a british psychologist known for his pop-sci books as well as his skeptical interest in paranormal claims. The Daily Mail quotes him thusly:

“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.

“If I said that there is a red car outside my house, you would probably believe me.

“But if I said that a UFO had just landed, you’d probably want a lot more evidence.

“Because remote viewing is such an outlandish claim that will revolutionise the world, we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions. Right now we don’t have that evidence.”

This is frequently quoted by believers in the paranormal as support for their position. The spin is that Wiseman, the skeptic, admits that something paranormal is proven but then resorts to a double standard to deny this.

Is there any truth to this?

Those who know Wiseman will know he is usually a rather rational person. Those who know the Daily Mail will know that it is not the most sober or reliable newspaper, that is to say a british tabloid. One suspects that the quote was simply mangled beyond recognition.

Surely remote viewing is disproven by any normal standard! Besides what’s that talk about different standards in different areas of science? I think we can infer that he is not talking about having different standards in different sciences but rather for different claims. Also, he’s misusing the phrase begs the question.

And finally, I assume that when he talks about “revolutionising the world” he talks about the scientific world. IE he means that this would uncover glaring and massive holes and/or errors in our understanding rather than that it simply would unlock new technologies.

New technologies, of course, don’t require extraordinary evidence, they are extraordinary evidence. Everyone can test if they work. Those who employ new, effective techniques profit, the rest gets left behind.

A misquote?

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.

It doesn’t look like there is any real clarification from Wiseman forthcoming. I don’t know what he really meant to say and who was responsible for mangling it but I will critique it anyways.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a truism that I have previously justified. An extraordinary claim is one that is unlikely to be true. And this likelihood is something we judge from our previous knowledge. Taking this into account we could render the Wiseman quote like so:

“If ESP had still more evidence going for it, it would be proven.”

Or as:

“ESP would be proven if there was not also a lot of counter-evidence.”

Both statements are true but not very sensible.

Wiseman, according to a JREF thread, specifically mentions psychology as a realm where normal claims have as much evidence as whatever he was talking about. The exchange between the poster and Wiseman went so:

Kuko 4000:
The existing RV database does not convince you, ok. But at the same time you seem to say that RV has been proven by scientific standards, now I’m confused. I would really appreciate a “clarification-for-dummies”, so to speak
This could be an issue with my understanding of science or it could be a matter of language barrier, but I’m having problems getting my head around this. Do you mean that by the standards of any other area of science, say biology, evidence of similar quality would be considered scientifically convincing? If so, could you please direct me to the research so I could look it up for myself?
yes, it is different standards for different types of claims
so, a normal scientific claims requires a certain level of proof, but a paranormal one requires a higher level
Kuko 4000:
Could you give me an example of a normal scientific claim that in your view offers the same level of proof as the best available evidence for Remote Viewing? This way I could understand the comparison much better.
most of psychology!

So let’s look at a psychological effect and contrast it to telepathy.

Normal vs. Extraordinary effect

For a not quite random example let’s take priming. For example, test subjects are given a list of words to read that contains the word carpet. When they are later given the beginning of words they are more like to complete C-A-R to carpet than otherwise.  An other example might be dropping the word ‘yellow’ and then finding that subjects are more likely to mention ‘banana’ when asked about fruits.

That’s not a particularly exciting effect. We already know that humans have memory, that practice helps, etc… We also know that much mental processing is unconscious. Priming is a specific effect of unconscious memory (properly called implicit memory).

Establishing priming is only showing a particular behavior of something that undoubtedly exists. I can’t think of any reason why it should be so but neither of any reason why it shouldn’t. Then again I’m not a psychologist.

In a telepathy test one will have at least two participants between who any normal communication is (supposedly) impossible. Then the experimenter will employ some method to show that communication actually happens. This is where experiments differ.

Parapsychologists argue that if they gain evidence that communication happens while it should be impossible, this must be telepathy. There are problems with that logic but that isn’t the point of this post.

The difference between priming and telepathy should be clear. One has a firm basis, the other, by definition, has none. That’s not even mentioning that people have been trying to establish telepathy for well over a century without managing to convince more than a tiny handful of the validity of the phenomenon.

Bottom line?

I think that Wiseman’s heart is in the right place but the quote is nonsense and those who criticise him for it are justified in doing so. It’s not the only time that he has said something that made little sense to me but it probably happens out of a desire not to call the emperor naked but rather to say something nice.