• TEDx, Pseudoscience and the Rupert Sheldrake controversy

    As the blog HumanistLife states:

    TEDx has been on the receiving end of criticism, for promoting bad science and pseudoscience, and recently, Rupert Sheldrake’s talk (below) has been on the receiving end of a lot of comment.

    For those of you who are not aware of Rupert Sheldrake, he is a pretty famous investigator and ‘scientist’ looking into parapsychology and supposedly giving the best evidence (or arguing from other research evidence) for the existence of psychic powers and whatnot. His specialist area concerns Ganzfeld experiments. I would really suggest reading the excellent article I reposted on testing parapsychology. As wiki explains:

    ganzfeld experiment (from the German for “entire field”) is a technique used in the field of parapsychology to test individuals for extrasensory perception (ESP). It uses homogeneous and unpatterned sensory stimulation to produce the ganzfeld effect, an effect similar to sensory deprivation.[1]The ganzfeld effect has been utilized in many studies of the neuroscience of perception, not only parapsychology. The deprivation of patterned sensory input is said to be conducive to inwardly generated impressions.[2] The technique was devised by Wolfgang Metzger in the 1930s as part of his investigation into the gestalt theory.[3]

    Parapsychologists such as Dean Radin and Daryl Bem say that ganzfeld experiments have yielded results that deviate from randomness to a significantdegree, and that these results present some of the strongest quantifiable evidence for telepathy to date.[4] Critics such as Susan Blackmore and Ray Hyman say that the results are inconclusive and consistently indistinguishable from null results.[5][6][7]

    If you frequent skeptic forums, you will know these studies have elicited some massive debate between pro-psychics and skeptics which still rage. One criticism is the publication bias or file drawer problem, as explained by wiki:

    This is usually a bias towards reporting significant results, despite the fact that studies with significant results do not appear to be superior to studies with a null result with respect to quality of design.[2] It has been found that statistically significant results are three times more likely to be published than papers affirming a null result.[3] It also has been found that the most common reason for non-publication is an investigator’s declining to submit results for publication (because of the investigator’s loss of interest in the topic, the investigator’s anticipation that others will not be interested in null results, etc.), a finding that underlines researchers’ role in publication bias phenomena.[2]

    In an effort to decrease this problem, some prominent medical journals require registration of a trial before it commences so that unfavorable results are not withheld from publication. Several suchregistries exist, but researchers are often unaware of them. In addition, attempts to identify unpublished studies have proved very difficult and often unsatisfactory. Another strategy suggested by a meta-analysis is caution in the use of small and non-randomised clinical trials because of their demonstrated high susceptibility to error and bias.[2]

    In this context, Sheldrake has proposed morphic fields and morphic resonance to explain psychic phenomena, broadly speaking. His work on telepathy are central to arguments concerning him:


    Sheldrake’s research into telepathy between humans and animals, particularly dogs, was the main subject of his 1999 book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (see below).

    In 2003 Sheldrake published research on human telepathy in an experiment where subjects guessed which of four people was going to telephone or send an email. Sheldrake reported that the subject guesses the person correctly about 40% of the time instead of the expected 25% (p=.05).[25]

    Sheldrake’s work was the theme of a plenary session titled “Anomalies of Consciousness” of the 2008 Toward a Science of Consciousness conference,[26] where he presented his work on telepathy in animals and humans,[27] followed by three critiques of his work on the sense of being stared at.[28][29]


    The scientific community has been very skeptical of Sheldrake’s claims, and this has riled the man and his supporters who claim that there is a scientific conspiracy against them; that Sheldrake and others have produced results which need to be taken seriously.

    And so he appeared on TEDx, as you can see here.


    [HA! UPDATE – video has been made private…]

    Sheldrake is a Christian, which also potentially informs his work, possibly underlying some of the basis, and certainly title, for his last book, The Science Delusion.

    The HumanistLife blog, in response to the controversial invitation to Sheldrake to speak, posted this very amusing and skeptical take on TED talkers, taken from Vanity Fair. I am a big fan of TED, but can well see the humour in this!


    Category: Skepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce