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Wolpert vs Confucius

by Guy Lyon Playfair


Practising What You Preach

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To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge. - Confucius

This was one of the sayings of Confucius discussed in a series of 5-minute BBC Radio 4 programmes, the speaker on this occasion (28 February 2006) being Professor Lewis Wolpert, famous for his little joke about brains falling out of open minds.

He didn't agree with the great Chinese philosopher whose Analects are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. "How the hell do you know when you know?", Wolpert wanted to know. He pointed out that "people have very strong beliefs about all sorts of things, and they say that they know there is telepathy, they know that they can make contact with the dead, they know that all sorts of alternative medicine treatments work, but how do they really know?" He added that "it's quite common to have totally false knowledge", implying that any knowledge of the subjects mentioned above must be false.

Evidently he had forgotten the ringing endorsement he gave some years ago to St. John's Wort, which seems to have helped him overcome a much publicised bout of depression and is now recognised as an effective treatment for minor attacks of that affliction, as conceded recently by Exeter University Professor Edzard Ernst, who tests these things properly.

The only way to acquire genuine knowledge, Wolpert revealed, is "by doing science, by doing experiments, by looking at the evidence", as scores of researchers have been doing with telepathy for at least 120 years. (For a concise summary, see Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe). As for contacting the dead, readers of Linda Williamson's excellent new book Ghosts and Earthbound Spirits may conclude that this can not only be done but is being done all the time, not only by rescue-circle mediums but also by pioneer psychiatrists like Dr Alan Sanderson. (See Spirit Release Foundation for details).

Wolpert does not always practise what he preaches. Those who attended the sold-out debate on telepathy at the Royal Society of Arts in January 2004 were given an impressive display of not looking at the evidence. As his fellow debater Rupert Sheldrake was showing his video clip of N'kisi, the African Grey parrot from New York giving as convincing a display of telepathy as we are ever likely to get, Wolpert, seated at the table with his back to the screen, did not even turn round as the videotape of the event clearly shows. Having opened the debate by declaring that there wasn't any evidence for telepathy, he apparently could not bear to be confronted with some. How the hell does he know what he claims to know if he doesn't study the evidence? By his own definition, not very good science. Will we still be paying homage to the wisdom of Wolpert in the year 4500?

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