97. Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman Clash Over Parapsychology Experiments

Lively debate between biologist Rupert Sheldrake and telepathy skeptic Richard Wiseman reveals wide rift between skeptics and psi proponents

sheldrake-wiseman-debate3Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for a spirited debate between biologist, author, and telepathy researcher, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, and noted researcher of anomalous psychology, and parapsychology skeptic, Dr. Richard Wiseman. During the 90-minute episode Sheldrake and Wiseman discuss the scientific evidence for telepathy and other psi phenomena.

The debate covers a range of topics, but according to moderator Alex Tsakiris, the real friction began after the debate ended, “During the debate, Dr. Wiseman appeared eager to participate in collaborative research with parapsychologists.  He went to great lengths explaining why skeptics and psi proponents should team-up on experiments of telepathy and other psi phenomena.  But during an email exchange following the debate (published on the Skeptiko website), his stance took a radical change.”

According to Tsakiris, Wiseman stonewalled attempts to create a skeptics/proponents research forum,  “I contacted three very prominent psi researchers and convinced them to take Wiseman up on his offer.  They agree, but Wiseman would not.  He made various demands aimed at agitating the other researchers, and even balked at a mere one-hour initial dialog.  I was stunned, especially since I offered to fund the research.”

The discussion began with Professor Richard Wiseman offering a defense for scientific skepticism regarding psi phenomena, “In terms of my own research, some of it has looked at the notion that certain individuals possessing very strong psychic abilities, the mediums and the psychics and so on, and I’m very, very skeptical about that data. I don’t think it shows anything particularly remarkable in terms of psychic ability going on. And then I’ve done a small amount of work, although other people have done a lot more, into the notion that psi is a more subtle signal. There, I’m fairly skeptical about the literature. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue the case that psi definitely exists on the basis of that literature.”

But Sheldrake challenged the idea of relegating telepathy and other psi phenomena to the fringes of science, “I just want to go back a bit to what Richard called the Humian argument against miracles. Hume’s argument against miracles was that miracles are extremely rare and it’s more likely that people have been lying about them than that they actually happened. They so defy the common experience of humanity. Now, I think the argument is exactly reversed when it comes to phenomena like telepathy. They’re not extremely rare. Whether it’s 30 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent of the population who have had them, the details don’t matter. The point is these things are very common.  Hume’s argument was that commonsense, the kind of common experience of the bulk of humanity, is what gives credence to something. So I think it’s completely inappropriate to apply an argument against miracles to phenomena which happen on an everyday basis to large numbers of people.”

Next, the discussion examined the institution of science itself.  Wiseman was asked to defend his statement, “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that [psi] is proven. That begs the question do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”.

In defense of this, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” argument, Wiseman stated, “I think that parapsychologists by not far from 100 years of research have failed to come up with that level of evidence. It’s not to say they couldn’t in the future, but to me there just hasn’t been the level of progress that you would expect given the amount of work that’s been put in… that strength of evidence simply isn’t there.”

To which Sheldrake responded, “Again, I come back to the fact that what we’re dealing with here is an ideological issue. I mean, what Richard calls mainstream science and there’s a kind of materialistic faith that many scientists have, at least in public. Many of them in private have telepathic experiences and have quite different views.

Nevertheless, he’s right. There is a kind of materialistic ethos in science. I think that itself is something we need to question and look at because it leads to an extraordinary blindness. He said that if you said there’s a car outside, you wouldn’t need to look. If you said there’s a spaceship, you would, because that’s an incredible claim. So it’s okay for cosmologists to claim there are entire universes out there, a whole lot of universes, not just one, but trillions. No one bothers to look. The reason that gets past the filters is it doesn’t overturn a particular ideology. What’s at stake is not science itself but ideology.”

Special thanks to Bruce Mann.

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Alex Tsakiris: We have a very special live dialogue today between Dr. Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at University of Herefordshire in the UK. In addition to his job there at the university, Dr. Wiseman, as many of you know, is also a parapsychology skeptic and an author of many popular books such as Quirkology, which explores the quirky way our mind works.

Greetings, Dr. Wiseman. Thanks for joining us today.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: A pleasure to be here.

Alex Tsakiris: We’re also joined by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, biologist, Director of the Perot-Warrick Project at Trinity College, Cambridge. He’s an author of such books as A New Science of Life, a book about his morphic resonance theory.

Welcome, Dr. Sheldrake.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Thanks for inviting me along.

Alex Tsakiris: So one of the things that sparked my interest in having this dialogue today was a recent article by Dr. Wiseman about the methods and results of parapsychology research. I want to give both of you a chance to dig into the meat of that.

I thought we might start framing up this discussion by a point I think we’d find agreement on, and that’s that these phenomena we’re talking about when we talk about psi, or psychic abilities, these phenomena seem very real. Or at least a very real possibility to most people. I mean, most people either because they have some kind of personal experience or a family story; they suspect that something might be going on here.

They hear stories like, for example, everyone’s heard the story about the twins who are separated by great distance but when one of them suffers a severe trauma, the other one experiences it on some physical level. We all hear these stories and I think most people say, “Wow, I think that probably might happen some of the time.”

So I guess I’d start with each one of you by asking, 1) whether or not you think that statement is true, whether most people think that there’s some phenomena going on, and 2) how your particular research that you’ve done over the years comes into play in explaining this sense of connection that so many of us feel but can’t quite explain. Would you like to start, Dr. Wiseman?

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Certainly. In terms of the first part of that, surveys tend to show that around about 50 percent of the population believe in some sort of ESP or psi phenomena, very roughly. It varies from time to time but there’s roughly about 50 percent. So that would suggest that when you ask people what that belief is based on as far as experiences, it’s around about one-third of people. It suggests that roughly a third of the population had the sort of experience you’re talking about and then roughly 50 percent believe in that. That leaves another 50 percent that don’t have those experiences and don’t believe.

In terms of my own research, some of it has looked at the notion that certain individuals possessing very strong psychic abilities, the mediums and the psychics and so on, and I’m very, very skeptical about that data. I don’t think it shows anything particularly remarkable in terms of psychic ability going on.

And then I’ve done a small amount of work although other people have done a lot more into the notion that psi is a more subtle signal. I guess it’s more into experimental parapsychology. There I’m fairly skeptical about the literature. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue the case that psi definitely exists on the basis of that literature, as I’ve also said elsewhere.

It’s also not clear to me that the skeptical position can explain everything that’s going on there. So I see that literature more as a justification for carrying on rather than finding some actually existing. For me, the real issue is how do we carry on in the future in a way that we get to some sort of closure on the problem and that we’re not having exactly the same discussion in ten years time.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, Dr. Sheldrake, would you like to comment on any of that?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes. Richard and I agree. There are a lot of people who believe in these phenomena. I mean, the numbers who have experienced them I think is rather higher than he claims. But even if we take say a third of the population having had experiences, my own surveys and quite a number of others show it’s more than that, especially with telephone telepathy. A lot of people have had these experiences.

My own approach in my own research has been to start from what people experience. Not from laboratories but to start with the actual experiences. As part of that I’ve built up large databases with thousands of stories from people about their experiences, to build up a kind of natural history of what they claim is going on. For example, telephone telepathy is by far the commonest claim of telepathy in the modern world. I wouldn’t have found that out unless I’d done surveys and had built up databases.

I also found that many people claim their pets are psychic; dogs that know when their owners are coming home, for example. And again, surveys show these things are quite common. About 50 percent of dog owners claim their animals anticipate the arrival of a member of the family. So there’s no doubt these claims are common. In my experience, the people making these claims are not particularly credulous; many of them do try to lean over backwards to think of normal explanations.

I think the evidence for these phenomena is quite good. It’s happened under adverse conditions. There are a very small number of parapsychologists, grants are hard to come by, and the subject is subject to an enormous amount of negative attitudes on the part of other academics, particularly by organized skeptic groups. So these conditions don’t make it a very easy field to work in.

The thing that I rather disagree with Richard Wiseman on is the possibility of closure. I mean, he says that he wants closure, and his article in Skeptical Inquiry he says he wants closure and he’s just said it now. I don’t think that will happen because in my experience, it’s not really a question of evidence. I’ve encountered skeptics the whole time, some of whom like Richard are well-informed. Others are extremely ill-informed, incredibly bigoted, and very emotional.

They know nothing about the evidence. They don’t care. They don’t want to know about the evidence. They’re absolutely convinced these things are impossible and everyone who says they’re possible is a charlatan, a fraud, or stupid. The remarkable thing for me is just the enormous strength of this incredibly strong at times kind of scientific fundamentalism. I don’t think one’s ever going to convince people with that world view on the basis of evidence anymore than one could convince Creationists on the basis of evidence for evolution. So I think we’re dealing with a kind of conflict of world views here. So, admirable as this desire for closure may be, I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me sharpen up that point just a little bit by interjecting something. I throw in the phrase, “burden of proof.” I think maybe what this issue comes down to is at what point does the burden of proof shift from one side to the other, where it’s obviously impossible scientifically to even prove something, right? We’re always just kind of nudging towards one theory or another. At what point does the evidence mount and the personal experience and personal history across time, across culture of all these experiences; at what point does that gain enough weight to say, “Okay, now the burden of proof is on the other side to disconfirm what seems to be going on here.”

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I don’t that ever happens in science. The burden of proof is always on the claimant to produce the evidence.

To address Rupert’s point, and it’s a good one, that there is certainly some individuals I think on each end of the spectrum where this isn’t about the evidence at all. So for some skeptics it doesn’t matter how much evidence you produce. They’re not going to say this thing is true. That’s always the kind of Humian position where you’re talking about how much evidence you would need to believe a miracle. In a sense it’s always easier and in some ways more logical to believe that your witnesses were lying or wrong or whatever. That’s at one end of the spectrum.

On the other end you have the extreme believers who will never disbelieve, no matter how flimsy the evidence. So I think those end groups you’re not going to shift one way or the other. What you have in the middle of the spectrum is a group of people who I think are more reasonable and would look at the evidence and say, “Okay, what have we got here? Is there enough to prove that this remarkable thing called psi (I think it is remarkable if it exists) is there enough evidence to say that something’s going on?”

Because mainstream science is very conservative. It would be very slow to embrace something like that. So I believe that mainstream science would embrace it if the evidential base was strong enough. The evidential base does need to be very strong. And if you look at the parapsychologists looking at their own evidence, for the most part, they acknowledge it’s not as strong as perhaps it should be and could be, and there are big issues particularly about replication.

Now this gets to your burden of proof argument. I think for me, and I suspect a lot of other scientists, it’s not about one-off studies, it’s not even about a single lab replicating that study. It would be about a large number of labs, many of which weren’t being run by proponents, being able to run a psi study and reliably get a psi effect. Parapsychology has come close to that in the past, but has not achieved that.

What my article was asking was why that might be the case and what might be different in the future.

Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Sheldrake, do you have a quick response to that? Then I want to move on to the next issue, which I think rolls right into this.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: I just want to go back a bit to what Richard called the Humian argument against miracles. Humian’s argument against miracles was that miracles are extremely rare and it’s more likely that people have been lying about them than that they actually happened. They so defy the common experience of humanity. Now, I think the Humian argument is exactly reversed when it comes to phenomena like telepathy. They’re not extremely rare. Whether it’s 30 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent of the population who have had them, and whether it’s 50 percent of dogs or 40 percent, the details don’t matter. The point is these things are very common.

Humian’s argument was that common sense, the kind of common experience of the bulk of humanity, is what gives credence to something. So I think it’s completely inappropriate to apply an argument against miracles to phenomena which happen on an everyday basis to large numbers of people. In my view, the burden of proof lies very much with skeptics to prove that people are deluded about their own experiences. Anyway, that was just to take up the Humian argument because I think it’s a complete misuse of Hume to say that.

To come to the actual body of evidence, I agree with Richard that it’s not about one-off studies. It’s about replication. One more point about what people would embrace – it is a curious thing that the scientific community is not particularly conservative in some areas, but it’s very conservative in this area. For example, when cosmologists come up with the idea that there are multiple universes, billions of actual universes besides our own for which there’s no evidence at all, instead of this causing outrage, it becomes totally mainstream. Magazines like New Scientist write about it on a regular basis. The President of the Royal Society holds this view and suffers no attacks as a result of it.

It is an extraordinary thing that in some areas like physics, people can put forward outrageously counter-intuitive views and get away with it. Whereas in this area, the resistance is very, very strong. I think it comes from an ideological basis from the ideology of materialism. That’s why I think it’s so controversial and why we’re dealing all the time not just with evidence but with a huge amount of baggage of a philosophical and ideological kind.

Alex Tsakiris: I was going to move on but you had a lot to say there so let’s see if Dr. Richard Wiseman would like to weigh in on that.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I don’t get caught up in the Humian things. I think that’s a bit of a red herring. What I was meaning with that was not that the experiences aren’t commonplace in terms of the public, which they certainly are, but rather in terms of science in terms of the scientific world view we’ve built up. The notion that someone is psychic or could predict the future is quite a radical idea. That’s where the Humian concept  of therefore it would be easier to think that the witnesses or even your scientists were lying or mistaken rather than embrace where it would come from.

In terms of are we dealing just with evidence here, I think Rupert’s absolutely right. No, we’re not. Scientists are human and they’ve got all the biases that everyone else has got. Yes, this is an area – one of the reasons I find parapsychology fascinating is that it is this kind of interface between evidence and belief. So yes, I think it’s absolutely the case that people don’t assess the evidence in an objective way whether one went from one direction or the other, from a believer or a skeptical direction.

But I do think it’s the case that if the evidence were extremely strong, if it were overwhelming, if it was extremely convincing, then there would be a shift within mainstream science. I don’t think that shift is impossible. I think the database just doesn’t justify it at the moment.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I think that’s going to roll right into the next question I have. I have one question for each of you and then I want to give each of you a chance to respond like we just did. So, Dr. Wiseman, let’s start with you again. Here’s a quote that I think has generated quite a bit of stir and let’s drill into it a little bit. This is you being quoted in the UK’s Daily Mail: “I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven. That begs the question do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal?”

Then you went on in a subsequent interview and further refined that by saying: “That’s a slight misquote because I was using the term in more of a general sense of ESP. That is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc. as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”

Now, I think you can see where I’m going with this, but in a most recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, titled, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose,” you begin with: “After more than 60 years of experimentation, researchers have failed to reach a consensus about psi.”

I guess the question is this. Aren’t these two quotes of yours really at odd? I mean, if parapsychology research has really brought us to the point of proving psychic abilities by the standards of any other area of science, isn’t that quite an achievement? And shouldn’t we be really commending that accomplishment? I’m sure you’re going to have a lot to say about that, so dig into it in any way you like.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: First of all, I do actually commend parapsychologists. I count myself as a parapsychologist and carry out that research. That is, I was very much part of that community, not so much now. I do commend them for doing the research and doing it in a systematic way and attempting to be as scientific as possible. That has led us to a basic place which is messy in many ways.

But if you take the general ESP claim, which might include Ganzfeld and some of the other ESP paradigms as well, I think it’s true – I don’t know there’s any kind of objective way that could be measuring this, but my feeling is if that were a claim about the effect of alcohol on memory, then we’d go, yeah, there’s probably something to it. But the claim here is far more radical than that. It would lead to a massive shift within science. It would overturn most of what we know within psychology. I don’t know about other areas, but certainly within psychology. So for me the evidential bar, as it were, needs to be much higher than that.

I sometimes say to people it’s a bit like if I say, “Outside there on the road there’s a car,” you’d go, “Well, fine. I don’t feel the need to go outside and look at the car.”

If I say, “Well, it’s a spaceship,” then you might think, ‘Well, actually I do want to look at that. You know, an alien spacecraft.”

I say, “Yeah, it’s an alien spacecraft.”

Well, you wouldn’t take my word for it. You’d go outside. You’d require a higher level of evidence. And I think that parapsychologists by not far from 100 years of research have failed to come up with that level of evidence. It’s not to say they couldn’t in the future, but to me there just hasn’t been the level of progress that you would expect given the amount of work that’s been put in. So the article was really about how we might try to push that forward and try and get some closure, i.e., can we produce the level of evidence one would need, and if not, do we agree not to carry on with the endeavor?

Alex Tsakiris: Boy, before I even let Dr. Sheldrake get in there I want to just fill in to a couple of points there because 1) you seem to be saying that there should be some kind of subjective measure other than the normal means of science, peer review, the normal means we have in place for measuring certain claims that we’re going to label as extraordinary. I’m just wondering how we would and why we would layer on top of the institution that we have on science, why we would layer that on top?

And then 2) you kind of alluded to some again, subjective sense of how much body of evidence would be required. Those just seem awful fuzzy to me.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, I think they are. I mean, the basic approach to all of this is that your own belief system magically influences how much evidence you need. So within mainstream science we’ve already said people will be pretty skeptical about the idea of psychic ability because it overturns the current scientific world view. So they will require a very strong database. You can’t really put numbers to it. You can’t say, “Oh, 10 studies coming out of this lab, and 2 studies out here.” It doesn’t really work like that.

But it’s that notion they will require a very strong database and though it’s kind of agreement I think from a lot of parapsychologists, not all, but a lot is that strength of evidence simply isn’t there. There is a huge problem with replication. And unless you have some sort of phenomenon that replicates reliably outside of proponents running the experiments in particular, you won’t get mainstream science taking psi, as it were, onboard.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, Dr. Sheldrake.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Again, I come back to the fact that what we’re dealing with here is an ideological issue. I mean, what Richard calls mainstream science and there’s a kind of materialistic faith that many scientists have, at least in public. Many of them in private have telepathic experiences and have quite different views.

Nevertheless, he’s right. There is a kind of materialistic ethos in science. I think that itself is something we need to question and look at because it leads to an extraordinary blindness. He said that if you said there’s a car outside, you wouldn’t need to look. If you said there’s a spaceship, you would, because that’s an incredible claim. So it’s okay for cosmologists to claim there are entire universes out there, a whole lot of universes, not just one, but trillions. No one bothers to look. There’s no evidence at all.

The reason that gets past the filters is it doesn’t overturn a particular ideology. What’s at stake is not science itself but ideology. It’s not as if science has a conclusive theory of consciousness. Psi phenomena are related to consciousness in some way. No one knows quite how. But it’s not as if established science has a completely watertight, good theory of consciousness. It doesn’t. Consciousness study is one of the frontier areas of science where there’s no consensus at all. It’s one of the areas where science is most open, least fixed, and least certain.

So I don’t think it’s true that it would involve a huge overturn of established science. It would be a shock to people who have a strong atheist or materialist faith that excludes psychic phenomena. But I don’t think that to science itself, actual scientific theories of consciousness, it would necessarily be a huge shock because we don’t have good theories of consciousness. In fact, this would help us develop them, I think, if we took into account psychic phenomena.

Alex Tsakiris: Very good. Dr. Wiseman.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I’m not an expert on consciousness. I don’t know that area very well. But certainly within psychology I think we kind of don’t have a problem. We don’t see studies being run on memory or perception or whatever where people seem able to do extraordinary things and we go, “My goodness, how did they know which number was going to come up next in random memory sequence?”

So in a sense, if they did, you’d notice that anomaly and seek an explanation for it. But people are not doing that. I do think they’d find the idea of thinking these people might be psychic and look into the future or to communicate telepathically, that would be quite overturning of even some experimental methods. Because suddenly getting control groups or whatever would be extremely difficult. So I think it would certainly within psychology be seen as a massive shift in how we understand human abilities.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Before I leave this I can’t help but come back to this point again, though. I mean, if we’re talking about proving psychic abilities by the standards of any other area of science, and then at the same time we’re talking about mainstream science and this institution that can’t be overturned and there’s this huge upheaval that would happen, how would we ever get to the point then? I guess you’ve said that there would be some massive amount of data that would come in very convincingly from a number of different sources.

How do we ever get over the hump in terms of having that paradigm shift? Having that change? When do the standards become enough? And who are we really looking to convince? How will we know we’re progressing along that line, or maybe not progressing along that line? Either one of you.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: It’s not like there’s a kind of bench of ten scientists to convince. It doesn’t work like that. I think that a quota of objective scientists, whatever that means. Some people have an axe to grind in one direction or another with the psi question. If they looked at the experimental database currently, they’d say, “That’s interesting. There are clearly pockets of significance which are rather curious.”

The problem in science and this is a very important thing, particularly in psychology, as I said before is one of replication. I think if parapsychologists could solve that problem. At least it’s not a novel idea, certainly not my idea. Parapsychologists themselves have been talking about this for decades.

If you could say, “Here’s an experiment which qou can conduct end with a very cood chance that you will capturi psi in the lab,” and that allos you then to vary conditions and so on. That wculd be a huge step toward acceptance within the,mainstream sciejtific community” That probably aeans just more |eople doing thap type of researoh and publishinc on it. Without$that, most scieftists will look(at it and go, “My goodness, why$should I bother(trying to do these experiments shen the parapsyohologists themsalves are tellinc me this stuff loesn’t replicata?” So I think tdat would be the$issue.

Alex Tsakiris: Any thoughts on any of that, Dr. Sheldrake?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, I’m in favor ob replication, tgo. We completelq agree about thit. I think that when we look at the existing body of evidence in Richard’s article in Skeptical Inquirer called, “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: How Parapsychologists Nullify Null Results,” he’s of course preaching to the choir in the Skeptical Inquirer. This is a highly skeptical magazine with 60,000 or so subscribers who are committed, most of them, to a skeptical position.

His article paints a very unflattering picture of parapsychology and it makes it sound as if these results are completely unreproducable, it hasn’t really gotten anywhere, etc. He said something at the end I completely agree with which is that when you look at the data, it’s rather like “this giddy process results in an ambiguous dataset that just like the classical optical illusion of the old hag and the attractive young woman, never contains enough information to allow closure in one direction or another.” I agree with him on that. The old hag and the beautiful young woman is my experience, too, of the “heads I win, tails you lose.” He claims that parapsychologists explain away null results.

My experience is that skeptics explain away positive ones. For skeptics it’s “heads I win, tails you lose.” Whenever I get experimental data, for example, in my telephone telepathy tests which seem to show a telepathic effect, the main reaction of skeptics is not to say, “How fascinating. Let’s try and replicate them.” One or two have reacted like that. The main reaction I get is, “Oh, well the experiments must have been flawed.” People don’t even feel they need to spell out the flaw in many cases. They just dismiss them as flawed if they’re positive.

I had a paper rejected from The Journal where the editor said any positive evidence to parapsychology shows the paper’s flawed and therefore there’s no point in even refereeing it. So this level of prejudice is very, very widespread. That’s why I think that closure in these conditions is not going to be very easy.

But my own view about replication is that we need to find experiments that can be done quite widely. That’s why I’m working on automated telephone telepathy experiments, because I think through the media, if we enable large numbers of people to do standardized experiments with valid statistical randomizations, then it might be possible to achieve very high levels of replication. Actually, a lot of my own research agenda is directed exactly to that issue. So I think we agree about the importance of replication.

One thing I’d like to say about Richard’s research is that in many ways the skeptics are often saying parapsychologists get all this publicity. Actually, skeptics get a huge amount and none get more than Richard. I think that the skeptical publicity actually sets back the cause of replication. People in the scientific community, if they think about these things at all, rely on reports they get in things like New Scientist or The Daily Telegraph.

Then they read in The Daily Telegraph that Richard’s done a Twitter experiment on remote viewing and sadly, it’s given negative results, more or less as he expected. Yes, another piece of evidence against parapsychology. This has a huge effect on shaping the negative attitude and making it much, much less likely that people think it’s worth giving any funding to this field or worth wasting any time in it or getting student projects and psychology grants and so forth. So this is part of the maintaining of this negative attitude which actually freezes the situation and prevents the kind of replication.

So, Richard, I think that your attitude’s extraordinarily ambiguous. One the one hand, you’re really interested in the field and you’ve made positive contributions to it. But on the other hand, your public activities often seem to be designed to undermine the field and to reduce any chance of replication or funding or interest because you portray it as being something that just doesn’t work.

Alex Tsakiris: Good. I was really worried we were all being way too nice to each other. So let’s use that as a launching point. Dr. Wiseman, please respond.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: First of all, I think being nice to each other is a good thing.

Alex Tsakiris: I was totally being facetious. I very much appreciate you coming on and I appreciate the dialogue. But I think when we gloss over things with, “Oh, we’re all in this together, we’d all like to get to the truth, we all believe in science.” These kinds of platitudes don’t really move the discussion along. Of course we’d all like convincing evidence. We’d like more replicability, all that stuff.

But let’s get back to Dr. Sheldrake’s last point because that stance that you’re taking in terms of “yea for parapsychology, come on just a little bit further” does belie at least the perception that many people have about some of your research and some of the positions you take, particularly inside the skeptical community.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think with any of the experiments, I have to note that parapsychologists are very skeptical of them when they come out with a null hypothesis being supported. So if the Twitter experiment had come out positive, then that would be a great thing for parapsychology. The same experiment with the same design can either be seen as a terrible thing when it comes out null or a great thing when it comes out positive. I think all of these things, whether they’re public experiments or lab-based experiments, need to go into the mix.

I would say that the problem with this field is basically this stuff doesn’t replicate. We can keep on going, “Well, there’s not much funding and mainstream science doesn’t take it seriously, and we get rejected for journals.” I’m sure all of this is true to some extent. I’m sure that is the case.

However, for me, the basic problem is that for about 90 or 100 years, parapsychologists have been looking for this thing and it proved to be remarkably elusive. What I talk about in the Skeptical Inquirer article is this kind of jumping from one ship to another. It used to be card guessing, dream telepathy, and there’s Ganzfeld, there’s remote viewing. The reason those jumps have occurred is this stuff does not replicate.

That’s caused some parapsychologists – I don’t think Rupert, but I’m not certain – to argue there’s something about psi which means it kind of knows when not to replicate, as it were. As the conditions get tighter, psi doesn’t come out because it sort of knows not to. After a while it will naturally fade away and you need a new paradigm. So it’s kind of arguing a kind of God-like omnipotence to psi. That’s how far it has to go to explain the lack of replication.

So I think the healthier attitude would be to say, “Hold on a second. How can we stop this? How can we stop this happening in the future so that in the next ten years we’re not in the same position again and we can reach some kind of closure?” That may include, my goodness, shock-horror, being open to the fact that psi doesn’t exist and we’ve been kidding ourselves all the way along. That’s where I’ve been with the arguing of the article.

Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Sheldrake, what do you think about Dr. Wiseman’s attempts to “replicate” psi experiments through public demonstrations and other means? As well as other skeptical researcher’s attempts to replicate this work?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: The Twitter experiment was an example of something he criticizes parapsychologists for trying out new things, jumping from one ship to another. This was trying out something new. It was trying it out in a very public way, in an experiment that was almost – I wouldn’t like to say it was deliberately designed to fail but everybody who heard about it that knew anything about remote viewing predicted it would fail.

To me, it looks like an experiment designed to capture enormous publicity, to give an almost guaranteed negative psi result and therefore to muddy the water about the whole subject and set back any positive considered discussions in the field. It didn’t. His Twitter experiment certainly didn’t live up to the guidelines for extrasensory perception research written by him and Julie Milton. It wasn’t very well done. The data had never been published in detail as far as I know. When I asked the details and the number of actual participants, Richard gave me some rough figures. He said, “If my memory serves me correctly…”

This is not serious science. Yet it masquerades as serious science and gets far more publicity than people who are prepared to do years of heavy lifting in this field. So for me, the problem is that this kind of approach, this kind of highly publicized approach of experiments designed to fail, is not helping the case in replication. It’s muddying the waters and actually helping to create the impression that there are all these null results.

It’s a funny thing. Richard, when I talk to you privately, you seem totally reasonable but your public persona seems quite different. When you become a showman who’s doing stunts that seem to me designed to try and undermine any belief in people who like having scientific validity of psi.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: On a couple of those points, the Twitter experiment I think is methodologically sound. One of the things I’m interested in is using new media like Twitter for experiments outside of parapsychology as well, and that was part of the agreement there.

Just in terms of the data, this is kind of interesting as it gets back to one of Rupert’s points earlier on. We had it written out and submitted for publication and it was rejected. So that’s a case of a high profile null result being rejected by a journal, mainly because they like actually publishing null results. So it’s kind of interesting. We will submit it somewhere else and hopefully it will eventually make it into the public domain.

I don’t get too distracted away from what I think is the core problem, which is that within parapsychology even the parapsychologists themselves say, “We don’t have something which is a replicable phenomenon.” That’s a huge problem. So the article…

Alex Tsakiris: Who in particular is saying that?

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Oh, pretty much everyone in parapsychology as far as I know. Entire conferences have been held on the lack of replication. I mean, not everyone. There’s some people that argue that it does replicate, but the majority, I understand, know that there is a problem.

Alex Tsakiris: The folks that I’ve had on my show, we’re talking to one, Dr. Sheldrake, but certainly Dean Radin and the IONS Institute, feels that his presentiment experiment has been replicated at least a dozen times by numerous labs all over the world. I think the Global Consciousness Project has an enormous amount of data that’s been analyzed and sliced and diced by many different people. We’re currently involved in collaboration with Dr. Chris French. So I think we have to be careful in where we throw around those terms.

I have to kind of take exception with the point that was just being discussed not really being the main heart of it. I think what it gets to and what Dr. Sheldrake was trying to get to, is if we were really trying to replicate remote viewing, which you’ve said has been proven by any normal standards of scientific investigation, blah, blah, blah, why wouldn’t we go to the folks who have already said they’ve isolated the phenomena? Why wouldn’t we do a real replication of something that has shown some results rather than – I understand your desire to experiment with new media and that’s understandable. But how would we ever replicate if we don’t do to the folks who have already done the work?

Dr. Richard Wiseman: The problem is if you look at some of the other big databases, the R and G database for example, a huge amount of effort is put in by Fryberger to try and replicate that. No results straight across the board. So it was a complete disaster in terms of replication.

If you look at the Ganzfeld database, it looked good for a while, and there’s no one arguing now that that effect was replicated. There are still pockets of significance, there’s no doubt about that but you wouldn’t argue for widespread replication.

If you look at the remote viewing literature, as far as I know, there’s no replicable effect there. I don’t know where you would go to get that. There are a few studies which showed very, very marginal effects. I don’t know what literature you’d point to go there. If you go there, the guy’s doing it day in and day out without a huge effect size. So this is not a strong literature.

What will happen if these things come into play and fashion, and presentiment is a good example of it, a fairly recent player in the field, if it comes into fashion and then you find this stuff doesn’t replicate, then everyone jumps ship to another paradigm. That’s very, very problematic.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t you’d get the kind of agreement that you think on that. But let me back off and let Dr. Sheldrake step in on that point.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: First of all, when it comes to Ganzfeld, there have been many studies, there have been many meta-analyses. You did one that showed as a matter of fact, most other meta-analyses have shown there was an effect. So there’s been a dispute, but not every experiment in Ganzfeld works. Not every clinical trial of an antidepressant like Prozac works. In medicine when you’re dealing with human phenomena, in clinical trials, a whole other field, sometimes they give positive results, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s no better than placebo.

That’s why meta-analysis is used in these areas where you don’t have total reproducibility. Medicine is a perfect example of a science where you can’t just go into a lab and get the same effect every single time with drugs because it’s a complex situation. So meta-analysis seems to be a perfectly valid way of going about it in most psi phenomena like Ganzfeld. Most meta-analyses do show replicable effects.

When we look at other phenomena, the ones I’ve looked at myself, for example, which you don’t mention in your article – I’ve been sort of air-brushed out of your view of parapsychology. The dogs that know when their owners are coming home – perhaps this isn’t the moment to get into our disagreements about that, but there’s a phenomenon that I’ve replicated with a different dog. You did some experiments that gave results that showed a similar pattern to my own and you interpret them differently. But that’s not exactly as if hundreds of people have tried to do this and it just hasn’t replicated. Insofar as it’s been done, it looks like a replicable pattern with differences of interpretation.

When it comes to telephone telepathy, a field in which I’ve worked for quite a number of years now, my own experiments replicated. I’ve done one for television which was replicated under controlled conditions. It’s been replicated at the University of Amsterdam. It’s been replicated at the University of Fryeburg. These are all published replications in peer-reviewed journals. So again, I just don’t recognize this picture that you’re painting.

I’m trying to do a replication with Chris French but he’s been saying he’s about to begin for the last nine months and as of today they still haven’t begun. I have tried to work with skeptics, principally with Chris French, but he’s so busy being a skeptic in the media or on television there’s not much time left for the heavy lifting of actual experimental work. So I just don’t recognize this picture of failure to replicate.

The sense of being stared at has been widely replicated. You yourself did experiments on it. Your first ones gave positive results. Then you became the starer yourself. You rather dismiss experimental effects in your article as a mere excuse that parapsychologists bring out. But the best evidence for the remote staring studies with Marilyn Schlitz where she got positive, significant effects and you got non-significant ones, she did the looking in her trials, you did the looking in yours. This seems to me a fairly consistent picture. This sort of broad brush picture you painted in the Skeptical Inquirer, mostly in vague generalities, doesn’t fit with the way I see the data myself, or with my own experiences.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: They’re interesting points and it could be that we’re talking about slightly different things here. Just to get back to the staring studies briefly. Marilyn and I ran some studies. The last one, which was the largest one, I didn’t show any effect at all so we actually failed to replicate the experimental effect there. There are issues with replicating that, as well.

I think what I mean by the term – and you’re absolutely right, you never expect 100 percent of studies to replicate. It doesn’t work like that. The problem with doing meta-analysis is that it’s almost by definition, it’s retrospective. So there’s always issues about file drawer, about multiple analyses, about how you cut the data, as to which studies are included and which are excluded, which conditions you take within a study, and so on. There are a lot of decisions that go into a meta-analysis and that’s why often it’s so controversial.

What I’m suggesting in the Skeptical Inquirer article is that we do what’s really required in the gold standard of science, which is to say, prospectively, let us run 10 studies, let’s suppose 10 Ganzfeld studies. Let’s just run them under conditions where we think they are maximally psi conducive and minimize any possible experimental artifact and get rid of the idea of multiple analyses and cherry-picking studies and so on. We agree on how many of those studies would have to come out significant in order to agree that the effect is replicated. Then we get on and we do that.

Now when you go into that prospective phase, some of the parapsychologists are not quite so certain about what conditions are psi conducive. They say, “Well, we got it in the past. We don’t know if we’re going to get it in the future. We don’t know if it will work under this circumstance or this circumstance.” And that’s what I mean about the lack of replication.

Alex Tsakiris: Why do you say that? Who is saying they won’t sign up on that program? I think there’s plenty of folks that I’ve spoken with that would sign up on that deal right now, would want to prospectively lay out the terms for replication and get everyone involved. I think we could find the folks to do it. Qualified folks.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: If you could then that’s great. If we could all sit around the table and for something like the Ganzfeld which is very well understood in terms of methodology, would be a very good one. We could all sit around the table, we get 10 studies, we’re going to do it, and that’s fine. I would add the caveat that having gone through that entire procedure, if it all turns out to be null, you can’t jump ship to another paradigm. Or maybe you can once more, but you can’t carry on in the future forever like that.

Alex Tsakiris: I think you’d get people to agree with that, too.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Okay, then in which case, that would be absolutely fine. My guess is that people who have gone out there and done this stuff will be kind of reluctant to say that. That’s my guess. They might say in public, but when push comes to shove, in a very high-profile, important activity like that, they may not feel quite so confident. I may well be wrong.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t want to speak for Dean Radin, but I think Dean Radin does those kinds of experiments every day. I visited him for an interview at his location a few months ago and he sets up and does those kinds of things, if not on a daily basis, on a very regular basis. Yeah, I think we could find folks that you would agree are qualified to do that kind of thing. I’m sure we could get Dr. Sheldrake to participate in some way in that, as well. I don’t want to speak for you, you’re right here on the line, Dr. Sheldrake.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: As I said, one of the things I’m trying to do is develop automated procedures like the automated telephone telepathy test. It’s already up and running. And do replications using an agreed procedure which would be standardized for everyone because it’s automated, with different groups doing it. I’m already trying to do that. I’m already trying to do it with skeptics, Chris French’s group. The problem is to get them to do it because they’re too busy doing other things. We’ve got the funding.

Alex Tsakiris: I think Dr. Wiseman’s offering to participate in that process and at least be one of the people at the table, engaging with other skeptics to do that. Is that right, Dr. Wiseman?

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Yes. I must say I’m not just saying this off the top of my head. I’ve sat around the table with parapsychologists where we have tried to come up with these sorts of procedures. Where they’ve been very confident that they would get an effect and they have not displayed that confidence. They kind of said, “Well, it kind of seemed to work in the past, but you never know, and so on.” So I’m not coming from a total position of not having any experience of that.

But certainly, I think the way forward would be to get 10 people, a number of skeptics, and a great number of parapsychologists, to agree on what is the best shot. Currently, what’s the best shot? It would be really interesting to know whether they can agree with that, to be honest. Because maybe one would go, “Ganzfeld,” another would go, “telephone telepathy,” another would go, “presentiment.” It might be very difficult to even get that consensus.

Alex Tsakiris: I think from practical terms you’re saying we couldn’t have very many, but I think we could say if it was Ganzfeld and telephone telepathy, then it’s just a matter of agreeing on some kind of protocol, prospectively, and some kind of path towards publication and peer review. I think all those things are very doable. It just takes an effort and an interest on all parties to do it.

I think everyone agrees that something like that is necessary to break us out of this logjam that we seem to be in in terms of spinning around. This discussion we’re having here could have been had 5 or 10 – it was conducted 5 years ago and 10 years ago, so we need something to break us out of this.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I completely agree with that. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the article. I think the worry is that if the field carries on as it’s carried on in the past, there’s not going to be any difference than we’re going to have if other people are having this discussion in 10, 20 years’ time. Instead of, I think, where there could be a real sense of closure one way or the other. That’s not to say that sense of closure isn’t difficult. It might take onboard Rupert’s point about ideology at play, as well.

But I think we can certainly help the process by going right and instead of everyone doing different things and pulling in different directions, and so on, let’s sit around the table. We’ve got limited resources; it’s getting harder and harder to do any kind of fringe science within mainstream activities at the moment, parapsychology included. Let’s use those limited resources in a sensible way.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I think we need to wrap this up given the time that we put this on. Dr. Sheldrake, any final thoughts from you?

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, I’m in favor of an agreed group of people prospectively setting up replications. It’s just a measure of how does one make that happen? So I agree with that, the need for replication. As I say, a lot of my current work is designed towards that, to create conditions where that could happen.

But I do think that Richard’s desire for closure is unrealistic because even if you did an experiment and you got all the parapsychologists in the world – there aren’t many of them, about 20 or something, full-time parapsychologists, maybe less. Even if they all signed up to this replication, and even if it gave negative results, and they all said as you’d like them to say, Richard, “Okay, we give up. We’ll undergo some job re-training thing and just become regular psychologists.”

It’s not going to go away. People are going to go on having psychic experiences. Dogs are going to go on knowing when their owners are coming home. The media are going to go on reporting these things. It’s just that there would be nobody left in the academic world with any expertise in these areas that could comment on them or research them.

On the other hand, say it gives a positive result. Say all 10 locations all get positive results for presentiment or telephone telepathy. Is the The Skeptical Inquirer going to go out of business? Are the skeptic groups going to wind themselves up? Are skeptics around the world going to say, “We’re not skeptics anymore. It’s all proved.” They’re not. They’re going to go on saying the experiments were flawed, there was something wrong with the procedure. If only they’d had different methods and more rigorous methodology this result wouldn’t have happened. There must have been collusion of some kind.

That’s just not going to happen. So I’m in favor of doing the replications but I think it’s completely unrealistic to assume that the phenomena will go away, that there will be a closure. I don’t think there can be a closure because the evidence is going to keep appearing. People are not going to stop having spontaneous examples of telepathy with themselves or their pets or other psychic phenomena.

And there are always going to be skeptics who essentially come from a materialist or atheist ideological point of view. I don’t think myself that materialism or atheism need be against parapsychology. In fact, quite a number of leading parapsychologists like Dick Bierman are materialists and atheists. They are looking for an expanded form of materialism.

I think, in fact, it’s not really an issue of religion versus no religion or even materialism versus non-materialism. I think it’s a problem of a very narrow kind of dogmatic materialism that’s not going to go away however much evidence there is. It may gradually die out and decline as an ideology but closure won’t arise from this replication, whichever way it goes. And even if it’s sort of ambiguous and gives a marginal effect, I think it’s an unrealistic dream.

I’m all in favor of more research, more experiments, more replications, cooperative endeavors, but I just think your dream of closure, Richard, isn’t going to happen.

Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Wiseman, why don’t we give you the final word on this?

Dr. Richard Wiseman: I’m slightly more optimistic. You’re absolutely right, there will be people out there who are not going to change their opinion one way or the other. We don’t want to be interested in them because by definition they’re not very interesting people who won’t change their opinion.

If you had 10 people sitting around the table and the skeptics agreed on the methodology and the parapsychologists and maybe a few people who haven’t got a particular interest in the field but were prepared to do some experiments, they all went away and you got an impressive rate of replication, I don’t think all skeptics would turn around and to, “Oh, well, there was a problem. Let’s just ignore that.” They would be rather curious about that and want to engage in that debate and possibly that would lead to further work and so on. So I’m not that pessimistic about it.

What I am pessimistic about is the future of the field without something like that. As we all know, the funding is getting harder and harder to obtain and I think we need to use the resources in a very, very careful way. I would say it’s worth a go. We haven’t done it before. If we continue what we’ve done in the past, we’re not going to move on very quickly. I’m slightly more optimistic.

Alex Tsakiris: Very good. I want to thank you both very much for participating in this dialogue, these kinds of give-and-take dialogues are really, as you two have demonstrated, are really not that difficult or not that challenging or adversarial. They don’t have to be. This was certainly very pleasant. But there really aren’t enough of them.

With regard to your last point, Dr. Wiseman, I will personally move that forward and agree to fund that to some degree to see that happen, because whether Dr. Sheldrake is right in terms of providing closure and whether he’s right that the cynical skeptics will never be moved over, I don’t know. But I do agree with you, Dr. Wiseman, that we have no choice other than to push in that direction. It’s the only way that makes sense.

Thanks again so much to both of you for joining me today on Skeptiko.

Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Thank you.

Dr. Richard Wiseman: Thank you very much.

Email exchange following the debate:

From: Alex Tsakiris
Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 9:48 AM

Hi Dr. Wiseman… thanks again for joining me on Skeptiko a few weeks back (almost ready to air).  Your dialog with Dr. Sheldrake was terrific.  Of course, it will wind-up being just another forgettable debate if we don’t follow-up along the lines discussed. To that end, I have contacted several psi researchers about your suggestion/proposal.

Dr. Roger Nelson (Global Consciousness Project), Dr. Dean Radin (presentiment) and Dr. Sheldrake (telephone telepathy) have all expressed willingness to explore the possibility of creating a forum for “skeptics and believers” (everyone hates those terms, but we’re stuck with them) to collaborate.  Here’s a suggested (very high level) game-plan:

1 – Identify and invite forum participants… perhaps you could identify who you would like to invite on “your side” for each of the above experiments.  I’ll ask the same of Nelson, Radin and Sheldrake (but those three will probably be sufficient).

2 – Review current research.  I’ll ask each psi researcher to compile a summary of their research including published and unpublished documentation.  The group will review the research and make recommendation for future collaborative experiments.

3 – Fund small-scale psi replication experiments.

4 – Report results.

Sound reasonable? Please let me know any suggestions you may have. I’d like to schedule a follow-up discussion (our first forum of skeptics and believers) for March… doable?

Best, Alex

From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


Hi Thanks for that – I think the first stage would be for the proponents to come up with their ‘best shot’ – that is, the design which they, as a group, believe has the best chance of eliciting psi effects.  Will be interesting to see if they can do it!


cheers Richard


From: Alex Tsakiris

Ok, but it’s hard to sell such a, “give me your best shot” offer to psi researcher.  They believe they have replicated experiments demonstrating psi effects… they’re likely to shoot back with, “give me YOUR best shot”… this gets us nowhere.

I’d like to find a way to keep the dialog going and move things in the direction/spirit of your proposal without setting too many preconditions.  We gotta lot of smart guys here… you will figure out the proper next steps. I just want to make sure y’all keep talking.

Are you in for an hour long conference call in late March?  We can set direction/timeline/goals/etc. during this first session and aim for something like what you’ve suggested for the second forum. Also, happy to invite a skeptical journalist/podcaster to jointly participate… I’d suggest D.J. Grothe’s ForGoodReason.

Best, Alex

From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


If they think that then it is just a question of them saying which data base and conditions are the best. I really think the first stage is for them to identify their strongest evidence and say that they think the effect will replicate. When we tried to do this in Vancouver  no one would promise anything.


From: Alex Tsakiris

I think everyone needs to feel comfortable with the process… and the fairness of it… that’s why I’m suggesting we use the first session to jointly decide “stages” and the like.

Will you agree to join us for such a session?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


I am just sooooo busy at the moment that I am turning down stuff all over the place. I don’t really want to get sucked into something. I would suggest that you have the initial chat with the proponents and see where it goes.


From: Alex Tsakiris

I’ve had initial conversations (via email) with Nelson, Radin and Sheldrake… they all are confident they can “deliver the goods” if the rules are clear and forum is fair… I think we need a first session to make everyone confident this won’t be agenda-driven.

I understand the time restraints… I’ll do my best to accommodate schedules and make efficient use of time.  The initial commitment is 1 hour in late March (at a time convenient to you and other participants).  After this first session we can do a lot of work off-line with occasional email exchanges.  We’ll have another session when the experiments/protocols take shape.

Can I count you in?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


As I have said, get the expt and conditions sorted and then get back to me.


From: Alex Tsakiris

not sure what you’re asking for… all these guys have published their experiments… and they’ve agreed to meet and discuss collaboration with you and other skeptics.  I like the ideas you put forth in our interview, but they are going to take a little follow- through… this seems like such a small step… what’s the hold up?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


We just need them to agree on what the frontrunner is. Let’s asume that we can only do one type of study – what is the best one to do to have the best chance of yielding a psi effect ?


From: Alex Tsakiris

That definitely needs to be on the table… maybe first thing… but we’re not going to get anywhere if the perception is that you’re dictating preconditions.  I think I can get Sheldrake, Radin and Nelson to show-up with an open mind and a willingness to enter into the dialog… I’m asking you to do the same… just 1 hour.  Will you?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


i am running out of ways of saying no! Have a chat with them and see if they agree about the best paradigm.


From: Alex Tsakiris


i am running out of ways of saying no!


— if that means you’re moving closer to agreeing… that’s good 🙂

Have a chat with them and see if they agree about the best paradigm.


— ok… I’m happy to have another chat with Sheldrake, Radin and Nelson about this, but I can’t really insist they decide which of their experiments best suits this format… as you know, each of these researchers is partial to their own.

I’ll be in touch,


From: Alex Tsakiris

Dr. Wiseman… per your request, I’ve re-contacted Sheldrake, Nelson and Radin.  As I expected, they are open to a dialog about replicating their experiments, but they balked at the idea of setting preconditions before an initial dialog.

As they pointed out to me, a real dialog about replicating psi experiments would have to include a discussion about the role skeptics (and you in particular) have played in past attempts to isolate psi phenomena through collaborative experimentation.  And, the apparent double-standard between the level of controls you deem appropriate for your psi experiments (e.g. Twitter RV), versus the standards you demand of psi proponents.

I think our initial discussion has to be about establishing a level of trust among all parties.  It’s going to take an new level of openness and fairness among everyone involved if we’re going to design experiments with the best chance for success.

Again, I hope you’ll agree to follow-through with this dialog in the spirit of collaboration you expressed during our interview.



From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


I don’t really get this – all we need is for them to agree about the best shot re replicating psi – that should be a straightforward question


From: Alex Tsakiris

What’s not to get?  They want to be sure the process will be fair.

As far as which experiment, as you know, each of these guys hasspent years on their work… it’s not a trivial matter to ask which experiment is best suited for replication.  That’s why we need you involved 🙂

Moreover, the collaboration process we’re contemplating doesn’t require one singular experiment… just that we design/run/replicate good experiments.

I’d like to reach some closure on this before I publish our interview.  You left listeners with the impression that you were open to collaboration with psi researchers.  If you are, then I would expect you to be more willing to follow-through.  I’ve asked you to spend 1 hour in dialog with the psi researchers… that’s avery small commitment.  You’ve been very reluctant to accept thisinvitation.  Why?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


because i get loads of invites to stuff. it is v simple – they just decide on the best paradigm and conditions for the study and thats that.  it really doesn’t requite my input.  However, once they have come back with an answer then I am happy to think about how best to move forward re making it happen.


From: Alex Tsakiris

I’m know you, and Sheldrake, and Nelson, and Radin get, “loads of invites to stuff”… but as we discussed in the interview… and as we can see from this email exchange… we’re at a bit of an impasse.

It doesn’t seem like asking everyone to spend an hour on the phone discussing groundrules and basic parameters is out-of-line.  I keep asking you why you won’t agree to this initial meeting. The only answer I get is that we don’t need one…  this seems like a unilateral decision/demand since everyone else thinks we do… not the best way to begin a collaboration.

Please join us for an initial hour long phone conference discussing how we might engage in a collaboration between skeptics and psi proponents (to be jointly hosted by me and a skpeitcal journalist of your choosing)… or, just tell me you’re not interested.


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


totally interested in the idea of them saying what is their best paradigm. But you don’t need me for that initial call.


From: Alex Tsakiris

I hear you saying you’re totally interested in hearing what they think is the best paradigm for testing psi, and you’re not interested in the initial dialog I have proposed, is that correct?


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman

Yes. The question to them is ‘what paradigm (as in ganz, or telephonetelepathy or precentiment) is most likely to yield evidence for psi,and what conditions (eg if ganz, video targets and creativeparticipants) and number/size of such experiments would be needed’. See if they can agree on an answer. You don’t need me for that.


From: Alex Tsakiris

This is a non-starter.  We’re at about round 20 in this email exchange and I can’t even get your “buy-in” for a call on basic groundrules.

The perception among some psi proponents is that you don’t “play fair” regarding psi science.  I don’t think this email exchange is going to change that… but it may surprise a lot of skeptics.

Let me know if you change your mind regarding a dialog with psi proponents without preconditions.

Thanks again for taking part in the Skeptiko interview and for sharing your views via email.

All the best,


From: Dr. Richard Wiseman


well, that is the question that matters, so it will be interesting to see what they say…just to repeat….


‘what paradigm (as in ganz, or telephone telepathy or precentiment) is most likely to yield evidence for psi, and what conditions (eg if ganz, video targets and creative participants) and number/size of such experiments would be needed


I think lots of people would be amazed if the parapsychologists couldn’t come up with an answer


From: Alex Tsakiris

Sat, Mar 6, 2010 at 10:25 AM

ok, thx.