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Wolpert Evaluates the Evidence

by Guy Lyon Playfair

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Back on his feet and apparently fully recovered from the knockout he suffered at the Royal Society of Arts debate on telepathy in January 2004, Professor Lewis Wolpert returns to his crusade against ‘paranormal beliefs’ in his new book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Faber & Faber 2006), portentously subtitled The Evolutionary Origins of Belief.

Wolpert’s prose is indeed, as claimed by a critic quoted on the back cover, ‘clear, direct and euphonious’, yet other adjectives come to mind such as disingenuous, tendentious, or downright mendacious, as for example on the second page of the Introduction:


I do not believe in paranormal phenomena, such as communication with the dead, telepathy, mind reading, ghosts, spirits, psi, psychokinesis, levitation - the evidence is just not there.


It is of course there, as Wolpert knows perfectly well since he actually mentions some of the best of it - the 1994 paper in the Psychological Bulletin - though without bothering to give either the title or the authors. (For the serious critic, these are Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer by Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton). Wolpert then alleges that ‘those who have examined the report closely have conceded that the necessary evidence is flawed’. This is one of the standard copouts, guaranteed to get the skeptic off any hook. However good any evidence is, an anonymous skeptic will be found who claims it to be ‘flawed’.

Here, Wolpert collides head-on with his fellow skeptic Ray Hyman, who did what Wolpert has never done when he made a very thorough examination of the work of Honorton and others, concluding that the methodology was sound and the results could not be easily explained away, at least not by him.

The only psi researchers Wolpert mentions by name are James Randi and Richard Wiseman. The list of references includes four papers by Wiseman but not a single one by a member of the Parapsychological Association or from any of the five leading peer-reviewed parapsychology journals. Much space, however, is devoted to the Cottingley fairies, the whatever-it-was that crashed near Roswell in 1947, the fantasies of Erich von Däniken and Rev. Jim Jones, and the Indian Rope Trick. No space at all is devoted to the many eminent scientists, including several Fellows of the Royal Society and a handful of Nobel laureates who have been piling up the evidence for at least some of the things Wolpert alleges not to exist for well over a century.

‘Many of our beliefs,’ Wolpert concedes in a refreshing outburst of candour, ‘are not based on evidence that we have examined’ and ‘we are quite casual about evaluating evidence that goes against beliefs we hold strongly.’

Indeed!

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