Responses to "telepathy row" article

On September 30th. 2001 The Observer published an article by its science editor, Robin McKie, concerning the mention of telepathy made in a booklet accompanying stamps issued by Royal Mail in celebration of the Nobel prizes centenary. The article presented a picture of intense hostility among scientists to the inclusion of this comment. The published responses by myself and by Royal Mail can be found on the Observer web pages, while additional unpublished letters by Stephan Schwartz and by Bernard Carr can be found below, plus supportive comment from a graduate student, and (added Nov, 12 2001) an article by Robert Matthews in the Sunday Telegraph.

From the Sunday Telegraph, November 4, 2001:

Time travel

Robert Matthews is just four steps away from feasting with Henry VIII

AS an example of the genre, it is sans pareil: a press release proclaiming that a new book published last week contains "practical instructions" for building a real time machine. Apparently, I was "just four steps away from conquering the shackles of time", and on the brink of feasting with Henry VIII. All for less than a tenner.

Yes, and Einstein was my great aunt. Of course it was all PR blather. In his new book, How to Build a Time Machine (Penguin, £9.99), Paul Davies, a physics professor, admits that time travel "seems doubtful, or even impossible, to us today". If there's any hope for would-be time-travellers, it lies in creating a "spacetime wormhole" that would allow us to tunnel back into the past. As Prof Davies admits, however, no one has the foggiest how to do this.

At the very least, Penguin's PR department has been a touch over-enthusiastic about the prospects for time travel. That's not to say that the book isn't worth buying; it's an entertaining tour around a fascinating topic, conducted by a world-class physicist. What struck me while reading it, though, was why the subject of time travel is regarded as a perfectly acceptable research topic by many reputable scientists (and those that fund them), while subjects such as extra-sensory perception most certainly are not.

Just consider: there is no credible evidence that time travel has ever been achieved, but that has not stopped serious scientists pondering ways in which it might be. In contrast, there is now a wealth of evidence for the existence of ESP, obtained by researchers from reputable universities on a repeatable basis. Yet, any scientists who dare suggest ways in which ESP might be possible can expect a heap of ordure to be tipped on their heads by fellow academics.

Only last month, the Nobel prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson found himself berated by guardians of the scientific good for comments he made in a booklet accompanying the Royal Mail stamps that mark the centenary of the Nobel Prizes. Prof Josephson suggested that quantum theory (to which he has made profound contributions) might possibly hold the key to understanding ESP.

The ordure duly descended. Among those dispensing it was Dr David Deutsch, of Oxford University, who opined that there wasn't a shred of decent evidence for the existence of ESP. It was an outburst that conjures up images of stone-throwing academics in glass houses, for Dr Deutsch is well-known in the physics community for his work on parallel universes and time travel. Indeed, he is referred to as a "time-travel expert" in Prof Davies's new book - which as a job-title is arguably right up there with ghostbuster.

Of course, Dr Deutsch has every right to ponder such fascinating topics as time travel. Yet, unless he has come up with some mathematical proof of the impossibility of ESP, he is skating on very thin ice in condemning a field of research on the grounds that it lacks credible evidence.

Indeed, critics of the claims for ESP would do well to recall the early history of quantum theory, now regarded as the most successful theory in all science. In 1900, the German theorist Max Planck solved a problem concerning heat that had baffled all other physicists. To do it, Planck had to claim that energy emerged from hot objects not as a stream, but in tiny packets he called "quanta".

Planck's arguments were utterly at odds with accepted physics, and had little going for them apart from giving the right answer. The same could be said of many later developments in quantum theory. Indeed, one wonders how they ever got past the referees who vet submissions to academic journals.

Certainly, if Planck had faced the kind of political correctness promulgated by some scientists today, quantum theory might well have been strangled in its cot.

From Stephan A. Schwartz:

One does so wish, when reading a supposedly authoritative newspaper such as yours, that the reporter had made at least a token pass at doing his homework. I refer here to "Royal Mail's Nobel guru in telepathy row" by science editor Robin McKie, (Observer Sunday September 30, 2001).

Mr. McKie's article would lead one to think that when Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson proposed that telepathy and related phenomena were worthy of proper scientific study, and that quantum physics might shed light on these matters, he was espousing some harebrained position rejected by the whole of science. That, to use one of the quotes Mr. McKie thought representative, he had come "unstuck." A survey by Christopher Evans, which was published in 1973, asked readers of the respected British publication New Scientist to state their feelings about what was called Extra Sensory Perception. Fifteen hundred readers responded. The readership profile provided by the New Scientist, defined its readers as being mainstream working scientists, or those science oriented. Of the 1500 readers, 67 per cent considered ESP to be an established fact or, at the least, a strong probability. Eighty-eight percent of the 1500 considered psychic research to be a legitimate area for scientific inquiry.

In the late 80s, the United States' Congress asked nationally recognized mathematician and statistician Professor Jessica Utts of the University of California - Davis to assess the reality of the psychic in research the U.S. government had funded. In her 1995 report, she concluded:

"Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude ... have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.

"The magnitude of psychic functioning exhibited appears to be in the range between what social scientists call a small and medium effect. That means that it is reliable enough to be replicated in properly conducted experiments, with sufficient trials to achieve the long-run statistical results needed for replicability."

Mr. McKie had no trouble finding all the deprecating quotes he used, one wonders why he seemed unable to find anything positive to say that would have provided objective balance and a more honest representation of what is actually going on in this field. It couldn't be hidden bias, I am sure.

Stephan A. Schwartz
Author and Research Associate
Cognitive Sciences Laboratory

From Professor Bernard Carr:

Professor Brian Josephson came in for considerable criticism in your last issue ("Royal Mail's Nobel guru in telepathy row", September 30th) and I would like to say a word in his defence. It does not surprise me that many physicists are antagonistic towards attempts to link quantum theory to telepathy. Physicists have long between uncomfortable with attempts to incorporate even normal aspects of mind (let alone paranormal ones) into physics. However, this attitude is not universal and other physicists are equally uncomfortable with attempts to formulate a "Theory of Everything" without any reference to one of the most basic features of the Universe - the existence of consciousness. It is not inconceivable that some future paradigm of physics will make such a link but, until one has such a theory, one cannot decide whether it will be able to accommodate phenomena like ESP.

The existence of such phenomena is of course controversial but I must take issue with David Deutsch's brash dismissal of Josephson's claims as "utter rubbish". While I have tremendous respect for Deutsch as a theoretical physicist, his dogmatic assertion that "telepathy does not exist" and that "the evidence for its existence is appalling" makes me wonder to what extent he has studied the evidence or indeed read much about the subject at all. I would not criticize him for not studying the evidence - there is not time to study everything and everybody must be selective in which avenues of research they choose to pursue - but he should not make pronouncements unless he has. On the other hand, in comparing ESP with bridge-building and medicine, he makes a very cogent point. For until ESP can be exploited in some technologically reliable way - and even its proponents would accede that this is not yet the case - its study will probably always be viewed with suspicion.

What David Deutsch and other physicists may not realize is the striking extent to which parapsychology has attained academic acceptability in the last few decades. About 50 people in the UK alone have now obtained a PhD in parapsychology, 15 of whom have gone on to obtain permanent academic positions in university departments, where they give lecture courses and continue to pursue their research in the subject. There are currently 8 such departments in the UK. To a large extent this is due to the pioneering efforts of Robert Morris, who as Koestler Professor at Edinburgh University, has supervized many of the first PhDs. The cautious approach to the subject which characterizes his school has won the subject new-found respect, as emphasized by the fact that he recently served as President of the Psychology Section of the British Association.

Admittedly this new-found respectability is currently confined to Psychology Departments and does not extend to the physics community. This is unfortunate because, if the phenomena studied by parapsychology are real, they must involve some interaction with the physical world, so the subject will probably never be taken seriously unless it can be given some acceptable physical basis. I have my doubts as to whether quantum theory alone will provide this but it is at least legitimate to speculate on the matter. Even if one regards the probability of ESP being real as small, its significance if established would be so immense that it is surely worth investing some effort into studying it.

Yours Sincerely

Bernard Carr
Professor of Mathematics & Astronomy,
Queen Mary, University of London

In welcome contrast to the negative views expressed by some more 'experienced' scientists, a graduate student from the Biocomputing Group at Wayne State University, Detroit writes:

"Seems the Post Office is making a real contribution to science by promoting an unconventional direction."

return to Home Page