Sep 6, 2006
By Mark Henderson, Science Editor
SCIENTISTS claiming to have evidence of life after death and the powers of telepathy triggered a furious row at Britain’s premier science festival yesterday. Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged.
Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA’s decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics.
The disputed session featured research from Rupert Sheldrake, an independent biologist who is funded by Trinity College, Cambridge, that claims to have found evidence that some people know telepathically who is calling them before they answer the telephone.
Other presentations came from Peter Fenwick, a doctor who thinks deathbed visions suggest that consciousness survives when people die, and from Deborah Delanoy of the University of Hertfordshire, whose work suggests that people can affect the bodies of others by thinking about them.
Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference. Some said telepathy has already been found wanting in experiments, and had no place at a scientific meeting.
“Work in this field is a complete waste of time,” said Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford. “Although it is politically incorrect to dismiss ideas out of hand, in this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy. ”
Other scientists said that while discussion of the subject was acceptable, the panel’s lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists. Several members of the BA said that they would raise the matter with its ruling council.
Sir Walter, a geneticist and cancer researcher, said: “I’m amazed that the BA has allowed it to happen in this way. You have got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale, but it’s quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view. It’s extremely important in cases like this, especially for the BA which represents science and which people expect to believe, to provide a proper balancing counter-argument.”
Lord Winston, the fertility specialist, said: “It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists.”
Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, who is a sceptical researcher of the paranormal, said: “The issue is about controversy and balance in science. This is not a balanced panel. Whether paranormal phenomena are a reality is an intellectual discussion. But it is the principle that is important. If the issue was race and intelligence, and you had three people saying one race are less intelligent than another, that would be outrageous.”
Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, a sceptic of the paranormal, joined a panel discussion, but did not present a paper or attend the press briefing.