Letter sent to Nature, March 11, 1996:

The following is the version of the letter sent to Nature Correspondence originally, minus the references which are essentially the same as in the second version. The reason why it was not published in the journal, according to an editor to whom an enquiry was made as to its fate, was that they 'simply did not have the space for it'. When this was challenged, it was suggested that an additional problem was that I had not 'specifically refuted' points made by Crane in his review.

Perhaps. Or should we see instead an indication that there is some truth in the much-maligned sociologists' theory that science is to some extent a 'social construct'?

Much the same might be said concerning the response made by Physical Review A to criticisms of its having published within its pages a paper referring to parapsychology (see note). See also

The original version of the letter follows:

Inaccurate Assessment of Psi Research

Readers of Tim Crane's review of Nicholas Humphrey's "Soul Searching" will discover from my own review of the book that Humphrey's at first glance very strong arguments for dismissing claims of the paranormal are flawed; as an attempt to dispose of the paranormal once and for all the project was a failure.

Arguments against the paranormal typically ignore or misrepresent the experimental evidence, or fall into the category of 'sophistry'. Take for example Crane's 'why can psychic powers bend spoons but not prevent air crashes?', a question that by taking it for granted that psychic powers do not influence the probability of an air crash occurring, effectively assumes the result it purports to prove (see also the comments on specialist skills in my review). Again, differences in opinion among parapsychologists as to whether paranormal phenomena may be susceptible to explanations of a scientific kind or not are elevated into 'a strange paradox at the heart of the parapsychological research programme'. In any case, if a phenomenon had sufficient intrinsic interest of its own, would the impossibility in the minds of some of explaining it by science be a valid reason for not studying it?

As for talk of Hume and miracles, did not superconductivity appear equally inexplicable when discovered first, and for decades thereafter? Is not "the right way to approach claims about parapsychological phenomena" not to quote Hume as proposed by Crane, but that normal in science, namely setting up experiments to investigate the claims? But current analyses of the experimental evidence, which examine the replication question rather carefully and thereby expose some of the errors to which naive interpretation may be prone, present those wishing to characterise belief in the paranormal as irrational with considerable difficulties, since such analyses come out in favour of the phenomena being real, not against.

My review discloses the crude devices used by Humphrey to evade this issue. How much longer does one have to wait for scientists to be prepared to face the possibility that the truth may be very different from what they have stated it to be? (For references, see second version of the letter).

Nature's UK Web site US Web site

The episode involving the Physical Review is described by Jonathan P. Dowling in the April 1996 issue of Physics Today, page 81:

"The Physical Review editorial board has changed its policy so that purely conjectural papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics are no longer acceptable for publication."

If such a ruling had been in force in 1935, the famous paper of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, relating to the question of whether quantum mechanics is complete, would not have been eligible for publication in the Physical Review! Why was this ruling made? Apparently as a result of complaints concerning a paper by H.P. Stapp of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Phys. Rev. A 50, 18 (1994)). By ordinary standards, Stapp's paper is impeccable. However, it commits the 'sin' of citing as a primary motivation for the work the results of certain experiments in parapsychology.

sophistry: reasoning that while being at first sight plausible is actually fallacious or unsound; named after the Greek Sophists, who used such methods of reasoning intentionally in order to outwit their opponents. The word was revived recently by Lord Justice Scott, who in his report on the 'arms-to-Iraq' affair applied it to the explanations offered to him by certain politicians as justification for misleading statements they had made in the House of Commons.