Rupert Sheldrake and the Sense of Being Stared At

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

If you haven’t read about Rupert Sheldrake’s set of experiments on staring, you should. Here’s a link to his site:

I recently saw another attack on his experiments in Richard Shermer’s column in the Scientific American.

Many people are quick to point out that the experiments have been replicated many times — just as scientific protocol demands. Objections have been taken into account and changes made in the experimental design, still with positive results. Here’s one example,

(You will notice in Sheldrake’s response that he says he does not endorse the idea of a “universal life force.” As you know, I think there is one. It does not change the quality of his evidence.)

What I haven’t seen (I’ve probably missed it) is a discussion of the not-too-recent, failed attempts by skeptics to replicate the experiment, which was cited by Shermer. In that experiment they found a case where the results appeared no better than random. I don’t find this too hard to believe. From that they concluded that the effect did not exist. I have two thoughts on this:

1. The trivial one is that non-replication is not the same as refutation. They got the result they wanted and quit.

2. The non-trivial one is that the skeptics assumed that every starer is equal and that finding one person who was not effective at staring is the same as proving no one can stare effectively. If you know about behaviorist training, imagine what the results would be if you intended to train a rat to press a bar when a light came on and the light was burned out. Failure… but success was within reach if only you replaced the light bulb.

Here’s the real joke, in the skeptical replication experiment, the first sender got weak positive results and they replaced her for the second set of trials where they found no effect. Dim bulbs, all.

Defense of the status quo is a good thing. New ideas do need to prove themselves. I’ll have more to say about how ideas come to be accepted later.