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Casually Evaluating Apparent Evidence

by Guy Lyon Playfair


Wolpert Returns to the Fray

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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, F.R.S. returns to his crusade against 'paranormal beliefs' in chapter 9 of his new book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Faber and Faber, 2006), portentously subtitled The evolutionary origins of belief. Does this mean that we are in for a cogently argued and evidence-based inquiry into why people believe in things considered impossible by those who have not studied them?

Sadly, no. Wolpert's prose is indeed, as claimed by a critic quoted on the back cover, 'clear, direct and euphonious'. Yet other adjectives insistently come to mind: disingenuous, tendentious and even downright mendacious as on the second page of the Introduction (pp.x-xi):


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.


The evidence is of course there as Wolpert knows very well though he tries to get off this hook by patronisingly labelling it 'apparent evidence' (p.155). He even mentions some of the best of it of recent times - the 1994 paper in the Psychological Bulletin - though without bothering to give us the title or author's name. (For the serious student, these are Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer by Darryl J. Bem and Charles Honorton). However, 'those who have examined the report closely have conceded that the necessary evidence is flawed'.

We are not told who these experts are, but Wolpert was presumably not referring to his fellow sceptic Ray Hyman, who has made a commendably thorough study of Honorton's Ganzfeld work (which Wolpert clearly hasn't), concluding that the methodology was sound and the results could not be explained away easily, at least not by him. The only psi researchers mentioned in this 21-page chapter are Richard Wiseman and James Randi. The list of references includes no less than four papers by Wiseman, none by a member of the Parapsychological Association, and none from any of the six leading peer-reviewed parapsychology journals.

Instead, much space is devoted to everything from witchcraft, the Cottingley fairies, the fantasies of Erich von Däniken and the Rev. Jim Jones of Guyana mass suicide fame to the Indian rope trick and whatever it was that fell to earth near Roswell in 1947.. No space at all is given to any of the eminent scientists, including several Fellows of the Royal Society and Nobel laureates, who have been piling up the evidence for psi since the 1860s and are still doing so.

By way of compensation, at least one of the more enduring mysteries of life is solved at last - how does Uri Geller make disabled watches start? It seems (p.158) that he has 'cured' many stopped watches simply by putting 'energy' into them by holding them in his hand. The reason is that in many cases a watch has stopped because it is jammed with dust and oil; holding it in his hand warms it up and frees it to work again.

Gosh! Can it be that simple? Never mind the other cases. 'Many of our beliefs,' Wolpert confesses in a refreshing outburst of candour, 'are not based on evidence that we have examined.' (p.140). And he concludes this chapter of disinformation by admitting what we had already noticed, that 'we are quite casual about evaluating evidence that goes against beliefs we hold strongly.' He speaks, euphoniously indeed, for himself.

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