The final sentence of my contribution to the booklet accompanying the Royal Mail collection of stamps celebrating the centenary of the Nobel prizes drew forth extraordinarily strong reactions from scientists interviewed by The Observer. It was suggested, for example, that I had 'hoodwinked' Royal Mail into including in its booklet something that was 'absurd', that I had 'gone off the rails', that my intellect had been damaged by my interest in the subject. These comments sit uneasily with the fact that recently a committee appointed by Trinity College, Cambridge, including five University professors, three of them Fellows of the Royal Society, organised a conference on the subject of 'Rational Perspectives on the Paranormal'. During the conference, a very distinguished member of the university described family experiences that he felt provided definitive indications of telepathy being a reality. Physics World, the monthly magazine of the Institute of Physics, the professional organistion for physicists in the UK, thought the meeting of sufficient interest to send its deputy editor along to report the meeting in detail.
Clearly, what is rational and what is irrational is different for different people. Absolute certainty that an idea is wrong, as implicit in some of the comments regarding the booklet concerned, is an attitude that has no place in science and one that discredits the scientific enterprise. The radio interview following publication of the article in the Observer highlighted the superficial nature of the arguments typically used by critics, who often form themselves into groups dignifying themselves with names such as The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It is worthy of note that a founder member of the latter organisation soon left it out of disgust at its unobjective ways of proceeding.
The critics of Royal Mail and its booklet would have been wise to maintain silence, or to have kept their comments within the scientific community. Now that they have disclosed their opinions to a wider audience and made the matter one for open debate, they may find that their days are numbered. Recognition may come about that it is in general these 'sceptics' who have been doing the hoodwinking, not those who express positive professional judgements regarding the paranormal.
(c) Brian Josephson, October 2001.