35. Dr. Steven Novella and Dr. Richard Wiseman on “Dogs That Know” Research

Skeptiko Host, Alex Tsakiris, offers a point-by-point response to the comments of noted Skeptics, Dr. Steven Novella, and Dr. Richard Wiseman. During the 30-minute show Tsakiris examines Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s, “Dogs That Know” experiment and the criticisms leveled against it. Tsakiris also discusses the critismes of Dr. Richard Wiseman and reveals how his claims are contradicted by published reports on the experiment.
Response to Skeptics, Dr.Steven Novella and Dr. Richard Wiseman

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Alex Tsakiris

Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris, and those of you who’ve been following the last few episodes of Skeptiko know that we’ve been having an ongoing debate with the folks over at the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. It all started a few weeks ago when, out of my frustration with the skeptical community, I reached a breaking point and said “Look, this is impossible! Skeptics aren’t interested in research. They don’t support it, they don’t read it, they don’t do it.” Well that episode generated quite a response from Dr. Steve Novella. Steve called me out a little bit, challenged some of the examples I was using to make my case, and this in turn led me to join the folks at The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe for Episode Number 125 of their show, which was very well done, was very fair, we had a good exchange. And they published almost the entire interview even though it was very long. So if you haven’t heard that please go and check it out. Now, a good part of that discussion was Steve, centred around one particular experiment done by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, to see whether some dogs have an unexplained ability to know when their owners are coming home, basically whether some dogs might be psychic. Now after the interview I went back and researched some of the points Steve had made, and I found that there were some pretty serious factual errors, but I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to put those out. And then came Episode Number 126 of The Skeptics’ Guide, where Steve interviewed Richard Wiseman, the principal skeptical researcher who’s really faced off with Rupert Sheldrake on this experiment. And I’ve got to tell you after listening to that interview I was pretty mad. And that’s when I decided I want to put together this show, and respond to the inaccuracies in those two interviews. And then I got into doing it and I realised that there’s another point that needed to be made. And that’s that even though there’s a lot of disagreement between us, we’re also finding some common ground. Some common ground in our desire to dig through this stuff and really find the truth. So I want to start this show with a clip from Jay Novella that captures some of what I’m talking about.

Jay Novella

“One thing I got from listening to you, I got the impression that you felt that a lot of skeptics, you know, really are emotionally against these types of researches, and don’t want the results to be true. And I just want you to take a look at this for real. I really do want there to be… I want psychic power to exist, I want the, the secret to be true. It’s not like I fight against those things at all. I really would love it if somebody could prove something supernatural.” (clip, Jay Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Now I don’t think this clip means that Jay wants to be a believer. It just means to me that there are a lot of folks who identify themselves as skeptics, who are not cynical, not dogmatic, and who are open-minded enough to look at the data. And that’s great. That’s certainly the way I strive to be. I’ve changed my mind on plenty of things over the years because I’ve just learned that what I thought was true, probably wasn’t true. So in this episode you’re going to hear points where I strongly disagree with Steve and Richard Wiseman. And I hope we can look at these disagreements with an open mind, without flinching away because the implications might hurt James Randi’s feelings, or change science as we know it. Because science is going to do just fine no matter what we find out. In fact what we’re doing is what good science is all about, that is using the tools of science to strip away our prejudice or bias and plainly examine the data, and then follow that data through to the truth. So I’m glad we’re having this serious scientific discussion. I’m glad that Steve and Richard Wiseman are finally really digging into this stuff. Because this experiment, like all experiments in this field, require that you really dive into the data. So let’s do that. I want to start on a clip from Steve on a point that we really butted heads on. We couldn’t seem to resolve it. Steve said he looked at the research he saw it one way, I looked at what Sheldrake said and saw it completely differently. Here’s Steve outlining the point.

Steven Novella

“There is a pattern in the data of the dog going to the window, more and more over time. Even Sheldrake acknowledges that, even in his data. He says his data rules that out as an explanation, but he still acknowledges that a pattern is there.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay so one of the claims against this experiment that’s been repeated over and over, is this idea that what’s really going on is merely that the dog is anticipating more and more as time goes on, so the longer the trial goes on the more the dog anticipates. So when you end the trial with the owner coming home, of course you’ve captured that increased anticipation and, whala!, you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that this dog was psychic when in fact it was just showing normal  kind of doggy stuff. Now I countered this point in an earlier broadcast by pointing out that Sheldrake had thoroughly accounted for this, and had published all the data necessary for anyone to prove this. But in our interview Steve took a slightly different angle and tried to point out that while this increased anticipation pattern might not explain everything, it is in the data. After the interview with Steve I went back to the published papers on this experiment. It’s really amazing how much is out there for anyone to read, there’s a ton of it. I also contacted Dr. Sheldrake because I wanted to hear from him on this. He was nice enough to provide me with a pretty detailed response by email. So let’s go back and listen to what Steve offered as evidence for his conclusion that this was still an issue.

Steven Novella

“Then even like in Sheldrake’s paper he writes “Although he tended to spend longer at the window when SH was on her way home after a long rather than a short absence”. So he’s admitting that the pattern is there. So then he goes on to explain why it doesn’t explain his data.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay so you can see where Steve is going. But do you think he might have taken that little snippet from Sheldrake out of context? I thought maybe he did at the time, but I wasn’t really familiar with that quote. So let’s google it and find out. Quote. “Although he tended to spend longer at the window.” Close quote. Google it. Mm only one result, a paper by Sheldrake and Pam Smart titled ‘Testing a Return Anticipated Dog’. Okay, let’s search for the quote. Oh here it is!

“Although he tended to spend longer at the window when SH was on her way home after a long rather than short absence, (comma) Cain did not show an increasing tendency to go to the window prior to her return the longer SH was out.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Okay, so as much as I’d like to give Steve a pass on this because he’s a busy guy who’s trying to crank out a podcast every week along with being a neurologist, this just doesn’t cut it! Steve was trying to make a point, that the first half of Sheldrake’s sentence was, in Steve’s words, “admitting that the pattern is there”, but Steve’s ignoring the second half of the sentence that says the exact opposite. Here again is the whole sentence:

“Although he tended to spend longer at the window when SH was on her way home after a long rather than a short absence, Cain did not show an increasing tendency to go to the window more and more prior to her return the longer SH was out.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

What’s ironic here is that Sheldrake seems to be writing this sentence as a warning to skeptics to not do the kind of data mining that Steve has done. If you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, let me give you an example from Steve’s own show to demonstrate what I mean by data mining. You might recall that a few months ago Steve commented on a report that Virgos were better drivers than anyone else. He pointed out how this is a classic example of data mining. I mean okay if you’re comparing the driving records of billions of American’s, and you group them by zodiac sign, somebody has to be best right? But that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just looking for a pattern in the data that isn’t there. But that is exactly what Sheldrake is warning against here. He’s saying look, I broke these trials into groups of short, medium, and long, and if you’re not being careful you might be tempted to see a pattern in the anticipation between long trips and short trip, but, he’s saying, that pattern is not there. And as if this wasn’t clear enough in that sentence, Sheldrake goes on in the discussion section of the same paper, just a few paragraphs down, to say this:

“Cains visits to the window when his owner was on the way home can not be explained in terms of going to the window more and more as time went on. He did not do this. In all ten trials he did not make a single visit to the window in the thirty minutes prior to SH setting off to go home.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

It’s also worth noting that this is the second, follow-on experiment we’re talking about here, the one with Cain, the dog that spent one percent of his time at the window when the owner wasn’t coming home, and twenty six percent of his time at it when she was. So common sense would tell you there really can’t be a pattern in that one percent versus the twenty six percent. And of course it’s also worth noting that Sheldrake has consistently and repeatedly addressed this issue from every possible angle. So let me repeat. There is no pattern of increased anticipation over time. And if you think otherwise, it really behoves you to look at the data. Okay so let’s look at Steve’s next point.

Steven Novella

“Wiseman’s position is that his data can be explained by the phenomenon of the dog going to the window more frequently as time goes by.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Well Wiseman may or may not maintain that, but it just simply isn’t true. As I’ve already pointed out there is no pattern in the data. And I’m going to have more to say about Wiseman’s four trials that he ran using Sheldrake’s video camera over a six month period, later in this show. But right now I want to read you a quote from Dr. Sheldrake. Now he’s got an interesting anecdote regarding what went on in the first experiment and I’ll share that with you later. But here he is talking about the final three trials that Wiseman did.

“The data for the other trials of Wiseman’s are shown in our Journal of Scientific Exploration paper, and do not show a pattern, or increasing anticipation over time.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Okay, on to Steve’s next point, and for this one you have to listen carefully because there’s actually two clips that I’m playing back to back, and you’ll understand why when I get down and explain it.

Steven Novella

“A lot of the trials were not random, and, and therefore we can think about any kind of a, of a habituation effect of the dog. However he did do the completely random return times, it actually wasn’t completely random, it was random within certain parameters but it was random enough. However, the number of those trials that he published in his study was actually very low. It wasn’t, there wasn’t a large number of trials that were, that were randomised. So I think that makes it difficult trying to interpret, interpret that data.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay this is a little more confusing, and you really have to listen to the whole interview to figure this out, but let me try and go over what’s going on here. First of all see there’s two points. The first is randomness, and we’re going to talk about that in a minute. And the second is the number of trials. Now the way he gets to the number of trials is kind of interesting. He starts out by saying, hey you know what, we should really focus on the second experiment, the one with Cain, because the first experiment, well you do not have this problem with this pattern thing that might be in the data, and you know it’s not as statistically significant as the second one, the second one has this great effect size, so let’s focus on that. Well the other reason that we might suspect that he’d like to focus on that is that there’s a lot fewer trials run in the second one, so it can get to this point where you say gee there really isn’t enough data to look at. But is it really valid to dismiss that first experiment so easily? Remember it’s two points, one is that there is this pattern in the data of increased anticipation and we’ve already thoroughly covered that, that pattern isn’t there. And the second point is that maybe it’s more statistically significant. And that really isn’t true either. If you look at the statistics he’s really got that mixed up. The first experiment with GAT is actually more statistically significant. So his reasoning for shifting the focus to the second experiment doesn’t really make any sense. And what we’re left with is that both the first experiment with GAT, and the second experiment with Cain, provide us plenty of trials to look at, remember about two hundred in all. So with that out the way let’s look at Steve’s other point, randomness. Now if you go back and listen to his quote it’s a little confusing. At one point he seems to be saying that the trails aren’t random, and then at the other point he seems to be saying that they are random, random return times, random start times, what’s he really talking about? Well unless you really dig into this, you might get the impression from what Steve is saying that the lengths of the trip that the dog owner was taking were not random, and you might therefore conclude that maybe the dog was just getting used to the pattern of behavior of the owner, but that’s not the case. The length of time the owner was away on these trials was always random, on every single trial. What Steve latched onto was the fact that the time they started the trials wasn’t always randomised. So for example let’s say you ran a couple of trials, and you started them both on two consecutive days at 1pm in the afternoon on both days. And the first one you ran for an hour and the second one you ran for ninety minutes. Now does not randomising all the start times matter? Well think about it. You’re measuring whether a dog knows when their owner is coming home. Does it matter when you start or when you finish? Look at it this way, if I told you I was going to the grocery store for some random amount of time, you didn’t know how long I was going to be gone, and I told you that I was leaving at one o’clock, would me telling you that I was leaving at one o’clock help you to be able to determine when I was coming home? Well of course it wouldn’t! Knowing when I’m leaving has no bearing on predicting when I’m coming home, and the same is true in this experiment. Non-randomised start times is a complete non-issue. It’s just a way to deflect our attention off the research conclusions. Okay let’s look at Steve’s final criticism of this experiment.

Steven Novella

“And the other thing I notice in the data is that the, the significance comes almost entirely from the period of time of the last data point, the period of time when the owner was on her way home. Now Sheldrake says that the dog, for example you know hearing her car was not possible because she was, you know, seven kilometers or ten kilometers away when she left home, but that whole period of her return is included. It’s possible, maybe, again I was not physically there, this is not, I don’t know if anyone’s done this analysis, but it seems, it occurs to me that it’s not, maybe the dog heard the car when it was one kilometer away, and that that’s responsible for, in many of these trials, that last ten minute period is, is where all the significance comes from.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

So this one got me thinking. I did recall that Sheldrake had used taxis on many of his trials so as to rule out the dog tuning in to a familiar car sound, but I wasn’t completely sure. And so I asked Dr. Sheldrake. And even though he’s answered these questions dozens of times, and even though all the data is published and available on the internet, he answered. Here’s from his email:

“Novella is probably right, that the last minute or two of the owner’s return trip would enable the dog to hear Pam coming. That’s precisely why we never included data from the last few minutes. As we point out at the bottom of page 238 of our Journal of Scientific Exploration paper, the final point on the graphs, represented by a filled circle, represent the first ten minutes after Pam got in her car and started travelling homeward. As we go on to say…”

and he’s quoting his paper,

“All homeward journeys lasted at least thirteen minutes. Thus, JT’s reaction in the last three or four minutes of Pam’s journey were omitted from the analysis in case he could have been responding to the sounds of her car approaching. In fact most journey times were more than fifteen minutes long, so more than five minutes of JT’s behavior were omitted.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Okay so this issue of the dog hearing the car as it approaches, and that contaminating the data, has been fully accounted for. And again, it’s all been published, it’s all available for anyone to read, and has been for years. Now I guess the last point that I wanted to make about Steve’s comments, came at the end of the interview, and related to burden of proof. Here’s what Steve had to say:

Steven Novella

“I, I have to completely disagree with you on that. I think the burden of proof is always on the person who is trying to establish a new, and especially a new claim, especially a completely new phenomenon. It’s not up to me really to be able to prove what the, what the error was in the research. I mean Sheldrake needs to do it in such a way that it rules out the possibility of error.” (clip, Dr. Steven Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Now I’m going to have more to say about what constitutes valid scientific criticism when I talk about the comments of Richard Wiseman, but I just wanted to point out, that in every example of Steve’s comments that we’ve talked about, the answers were readily available, in published papers that everyone has online access to. And in this respect the burden of proof is squarely on the person levelling the criticism. They’re the one who have to carefully read the published data and only make comments that are supported by what’s already been published. But like I say, I realise that Steve is trying to produce a weekly podcast, and maybe he’s moving a little less cautiously than he normally would. I would just hope, in the future, he’d be more careful. So everything that I’ve covered thus far is from episode 125 of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe show, when I was a guest on the show. Well Steve followed up our interview with an interview with Dr. Richard Wiseman on episode 126 of his show. And while most of the interview focused on Wiseman’s quirkology work, they spent the last ten minutes or so discussing Sheldrake’s experiment. I want to start by playing the whole clip for you and then I’ll break it down later. Here goes.

Steven Novella

“Richard, you and I have both been interviewed on a uh, a podcast called Skeptiko, with Alex Tsakiris, and part of what you discussed was the um, the Rupert Sheldrake psychic dog experiments. Let me just give you an opportunity to, to update us on, on that. Have you had a chance to, to look at, this you know Sheldrake’s data or his research, and what do you think about it?

Richard Wiseman

“Yeah the dog thing we did, I can’t remember now, too many years ago. Um, it was when the, uh, claim, wasn’t very well formed about really what the dog was doing, how it was informing you that it’s owner was allegedly coming home. And, and, and so we tested the dog very early on in this process, we didn’t find any evidence of psychic ability. Rupert then came along with his own tests using a different, ah, procedure, and claimed the dog was, was psychic.”

(clip, Dr. Steven Novella and Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

You know I really have to hand it to Dr. Wiseman, he’s actually quite a good public speaker. Very smooth, very engaging. Unfortunately he seems to have a poor memory, and a very loose handle on the facts. I want to go back and break down exactly what he said about the ‘dogs that know’ experiment and compare it to the facts, so that you can see what I mean.

Richard Wiseman

“Yeah the dog thing we did, I can’t remember now, too many years ago. Um…” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay this might sound like a minor point but it’s oh so aggravating! And that’s Wiseman feigning memory loss when it comes to this experiment. As if it’s so far in the distant past that it hardly ever crosses his mind. Well even though the original research might have been carried out more than ten years ago, both Wiseman and Sheldrake have publicly commented on this research every single year since. And Wiseman gave a presentation on this experiment at James Randi’s skeptic’s conference just last year! So much for failing memories. But that’s really just a sideshow, let’s get to the main points.

Richard Wiseman

“…it was when the, uh, claim, wasn’t very well formed about really what the dog was doing, how it was informing you that it’s owner was allegedly coming home.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Sounds good huh? Okay, here’s what really happened, and this is from Sheldrake’s published report on this.

“When my experiments with the dog JT were first publicised in Britain in 1994, journalists sought out a skeptic to comment on, and Richard Wiseman was an obvious choice. He put forward a number of points that I’d already taken into account, but rather than argue academically, I suggested that he did some experiments with JT himself, and arranged for him to do so. I had already been doing videotaped experiments with this dog for months, I lent him my video camera. Pam Smart, JT’s owner, and her family, kindly agreed to help.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Okay so, contrary to what Wiseman would like to portray as his involvement in the early stages of this project, Sheldrake had actually been compiling his data for months, and had formed some clear ideas about what he thought was going on and how to test it. But let’s go back to Wiseman’s version of the story.

Richard Wiseman

“…and so we tested the dog very early on in this process…” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay I want to stop it right there. Because details are important. “we tested very early on in this process” Wiseman states. Actually he and his assistant conducted four tests, two in June of 1995, and two more five months later in December of 1995. These dates are important, because Wiseman leaves you with the impression that he came in, did his tests, and that was the end of it. In fact, the tests were five months apart, and all the while Sheldrake was running tests of his own. And, Sheldrake and Wiseman were talking during this time. Wiseman for example is the one who suggested to Sheldrake that the data be plotted in ten minute intervals, and Sheldrake agrees. They’re communicating, because they’re collaborating, right? Okay, back to the story.

Richard Wiseman

“…we didn’t find any evidence of psychic ability.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

It must be noted here that Wiseman is making this claim based on a bizarre criteria, that was totally his own invention and went against all the pre-trial discussions he’d had with Sheldrake. Namely, Wiseman decided to only evaluate the dog’s success or failure based on their first trip to the window. That is, if that first trip corresponded to the time when the owner was beginning her trip home, it was a success. Otherwise, the dog trial was a failure. So even if the dog spent 580 seconds of the owner’s 600 second return trip home, the experiment could still be deemed a failure. Oh, and by the way, that’s exactly how much time JT spent by the window during Richard Wiseman’s second trial – 580 out of 600 seconds. And yet, of the four trials that he did, and several of the other trials were equally impressive, and yet Wiseman ruled his tests a failure. Oh yeah, there’s another interesting anecdote from the Wiseman trials. This is from Sheldrake:

“One of the trials was at Pam’s sister’s flat, and the trial clearly shows the dog going to look out the window. Around this time Wiseman asked Pam’s sister “What’s his behavior like when he’s anticipating her arrival?” to which she replies “Just like he did then.” JT left the window and vomited. Wiseman counted this as a failure because he wasn’t at the window long enough, although later they checked and JT’s behavior did correspond to the exact minute Pam was told to come home by Wiseman’s assistant.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Now, that’s not exactly how scientists normally collaborate. In fact, this brings up another point that I wanted to make, and that is, what constitutes appropriate scientific criticism? This subject came up several times in my conversation with Steve, and it’s also relevant to this clip with Richard Wiseman. You know as I was preparing for this episode I was looking through some of the Skeptiko Forum posts and I ran across a comment that really struck me. It was from a Skeptiko listener named David Bailey, and he was commenting how so much skeptical research seems to follow a completely different set of rules. He writes:

“It’s considered completely reasonable for a researcher with little or no prior experience to set up a sci experiment and report a null result, contradicting other published work in the literature. Where else could you do that in science?” (quote, David Bailey)

He goes on to say:

“Many years ago I remember repeating a published chemical synthesis four times before I got it to work. I never even thought of writing a paper reporting my failure to produce the work.” (quote, David Bailey)

And then he goes on from there, and here’s the part that I think is particularly relevant to Wiseman’s work.

“In normal science, you contradict other researchers only after contacting the original workers for guidance, and a lot of careful thought. (quote, David Bailey)

So as you listen to the rest of this, judge for yourself whether Wiseman adhered to these normal scientific protocols. Okay, next:

Richard Wiseman

“Rupert then came along with his own tests using a different, ah, procedure, and claimed the dog was, was psychic.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

So here again he’s mixing up the whole timeline thing to make it sound like Sheldrake came along after he’d done all his work, and as I’ve already explained the situation’s exactly the opposite. Remember Sheldrake even lent him his own video camera that he was using to record the trials. But this next part is really great, listen to this.

Richard Wiseman

“And then we analysed our data, and found the same patterns in our data that he has in his.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

I mean this guy is so smooth. Again, let’s go back to the real story, from Sheldrake.

“I was astonished to hear that in the summer of 1996…” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Okay this was six months after Wiseman completes his fourth trial with the dog JT. Sheldrake continues:

“… Wiseman went to a series of conferences, including the World Skeptic’s Conference, announcing that he had refuted the psychic pet phenomenon. He said JT had failed his tests because he had gone to the window before Pam set off to come home.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Keep in mind Wiseman’s wacky criteria for success or failure, okay. Sheldrake continues:

“In September of 1996, I met with Wiseman and pointed out that his data showed the same pattern as my own, and that far from refuting the effect that I had observed, his results confirmed it. I gave him copies of graphs showing my own data, and the data from the experiments he and Smith had conducted with JT, but he ignored these facts.” (quote, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake)

Sheldrake goes on to point out the many misrepresentations made by Wiseman, and concludes by stating:

“I confess that I am amazed by his persistence in this deception.” (quote, Dr, Rupert Sheldrake)

Pretty strong words from a guy who is generally quite reserved. Okay, next Wiseman admits the obvious, and that is that his data matches Sheldrakes. I should point out that Wiseman had never admitted this, until he appeared on a Skeptiko show earlier this year. So he really waited a long time to come clean on this. But here he does the same thing with Steve:

Richard Wiseman

“And I think those patterns are, are there as well.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

There you go. I must say, it’s an interesting admission. I mean, it’s great that he’s coming clean after all these years of denial, but it hardly seems to really sink into him that Sheldrake has done 200 trials, and achieved amazing results, and despite his best efforts to debunk him, his own data matches Sheldrake’s. But wait, there has to be an escape hatch in there some place for Wiseman. Oh okay, here it is, let’s listen:

Richard Wiseman

“But if the question is interpretation of them, I think there is a complexity to this, because you have really two competing explanations ah for, potential explanations for what’s happening, in addition to him potentially being psychic.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay, and what do you suppose those alternative explanations are?

Richard Wiseman

“One is that the dog is simply going to the, this porch area, more and more over time.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay, well we’ve already covered that one pretty thoroughly. There’s absolutely nothing there, and he should know that by now. Let’s hear his second reason.

Richard Wiseman

“And the second is the dog somehow knows when his owner is going to be coming home, ah because of the ah, ah, the sort of behavioral cues that the owner might have given before she left, or indeed the owners parents who are with the dog all the time, may have given while they are with the dog.” (clip, Dr. Richard Wiseman)

Alex Tsakiris

Okay, I don’t know how you cue a dog as to when you’re coming home, when you don’t even know when you’re coming home yourself. But maybe Wiseman has some ideas on that. Let me, let me go over that one more time. See, when the owner is leaving home, they don’t know when they are going to be told to come home. In fact the experimenter doesn’t even know the time they’re going to be coming home because it’s randomly determined after the owner leaves. So this is just another ridiculous, unsubstantiated idea, that Wiseman is throwing out there to try and muddy the waters and make it look like there’s some big fatal flaw in these experiments. But I must say, at this point, he’s not really to be taken seriously. Now Steve continues on in this interview, and they go on to talk about their views on the philosophy of paranormal research and all the rest, but one really has to stop and wonder. If you can’t get this one right, this one that you spent ten years investigating, why should we trust your views on the field as a whole? It’s really an issue of credibility. Now I suppose the one thing that could be said in defence of Wiseman, was that he was in a no-win situation from the start. I mean back in 1995 he’s contacted by this television show and asked to serve as a skeptic, and answer the question, is this dog psychic? I mean what are you supposed to do? You can’t say “Okay, I’ll do a couple years of research and get back to you.” So it’s very tempting to do exactly what Dr. Wiseman did. You go in as a debunker, you look for something to disprove the claim, and maybe you move a little bit more quickly than you normally would, a little less carefully, and then you come out and you say what everyone wants you to say. “No that dog isn’t psychic, we proved it!” And now the real problem starts. Because once you’ve said it, you have to defend it, and  it becomes, well it becomes what it has become, a real mess, where these silly objections are raised and then addressed, only to be replaced by more silly objections. And it’s harder and harder for a skeptic to step back and just say what should have been said ten years ago: “Okay, interesting result, let’s see more.” Now there’s one last loose end that I wanted to try and tie up on this episode, and it kind of comes back full circle to the whole science thing, and it kind of comes back to another quote from Jay Novella from the Skeptic’s Guide Interview Number 125. You may recall that when confronted with the published data, Jay said:

Jay Novella

“If those stats are, are what the scientist actually believes, I have to one hundred percent question that scientist’s methodology, because Alex, you’re talking about dogs being psychic. That is in, at it’s base level it’s a ridiculous statement, and you have to take that as if somebody told you they saw a 900ft Jesus.” (clip, Jay Novella)

Alex Tsakiris

Now what really surprised me about this, was the response that this quote received from Skeptic’s Guide fans. I mean they loved it! And this just struck me as strange, because even if you admire Jay’s honesty and directness, as I do, his comments are completely unscientific. In fact, they epitomise exactly the kind of trap that scientists struggle to avoid, that is letting your preconceived bias blind you from looking at the data. Now you may recall that Steve tried to dress up this remark by suggesting that maybe there’s not sufficient prior plausibility for these experiments. But with surveys indicating that millions of Americans have observed this phenomenon, we can’t really invoke that here. So if you love science like I do, then you can’t really embrace Jay’s remark. They’re, they’re not science, they’re just dogma. Okay so I’ve touched on all the points that I think are factually incorrect, or maybe just misrepresenting the accounts that really went on. So where do we go from here? Is there any way to move past these differences and productively figure out what’s going on here? Well yeah there is. That path has actually been laid out, by Dr. Steve Novella and Dr. Richard Wiseman and Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. It’s actually one point there everyone agrees on. And that is that the path forward is more research, collaborative research, where the legitimate concerns for good science are allowed to co-mingle with the excitement of new discovery. Because science is exciting! It’s exciting to think about whether our furry little friends really do know more than we think, whether that special bond we feel with them is something more than our imagination. And it’s scientific to ask, can it happen, how does it happen, under what circumstances does it happen? These are real scientific questions. And I for one want to move a little bit closer to the answers. I want to move a little bit closer to the truth. Well that’s going to about do it for this episode of Skeptiko. Just so that you know I did send a pre-release version of this broadcast to Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella. Dr. Wiseman got back to me with a nice email saying that he planned to respond on his website so we’ll look for that, and I haven’t heard from Dr. Novella but it is right between Christmas and New Years, I’m sure it’s a busy time for him. I’m sure we’ll hear from him eventually as well. If you’re interested in more information on this ongoing discussion that we’ve been having, be sure to check out the Skeptiko website where you can download copies of all our previous episodes for free. That’s at Skeptiko, s k e p t i k o .com, where you can also check out our forums, participate in conversations there, and find links for contacting us. So until next time, thanks for listening, and bye for now.

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