Monday, 3 June 2013

Sheldrake v Atkins Debate Transcript

I grabbed this from a cached copy of from seems to have been taken down adn thought I would preserve it here. I can't vouch for how accurate it is but it matches my memory of the discussion. 

BBC Radio Five Live September 6, 2006.
The discussion started with the interviewer asking Rupert Sheldrake to describe his work on telephone telepathy, and on his similar test with emails. Sheldrake described the results. In the videotaped telephone telepathy tests, the average hit rate was 45% compared with 25% expected by chance, with odds against this being a chance coincidence of billions to one
The discussion continued as follows:

Interviewer: However let’s talk to a leading scientist, Professor Peter Atkins, who is a biologist at Lincoln College Oxford. Professor Atkins why is all this a total waste of time in your view?
Atkins: Well, you can’t rely on any of these experiments. And by the way I’m a chemist not a biologist. But there is no serious work done in this field. The samples that people use are very tiny, the effects are statistically insignificant, the controls are not done in a scientific way. On the whole there’s just no point in doing it. There are no serious reasons for believing there should be an effect of telepathy anyway. There is no mechanism within modern science to account for it. There’s nothing that drives people to believe in it except sentiment, emotion, and things like that.
Interviewer: Well it would be useful wouldn’t it? I can think of all kinds of….
Atkins: Well this is the point, nature has been around for several billion years and the pressure of evolution and natural selection would have brought out telepathy to be one of the major senses, after all look what’s happened to vision. Vision is enormously important to survival and several independent emergencies of vision and the optical system have occurred, but with telepathy it would be fantastic. You wouldn’t need vision you’d just know what was to go on around you. The fact that evolution hasn’t done it in a billion years seems to me to be really convincing evidence that it’s all nonsense.
Interviewer: On the other hand when he produces his evidence, he said 25% was what you would expect, but what he got was 45%, that is remarkable.
Atkins: No, that’s just playing with statistics.
Interviewer: Let’s put that to Rupert. Rupert Sheldrake, he says you’re just playing with statistics. He doesn’t believe a word of it. What do you say to him?
Rupert: Well I’d like to ask him if he’s actually read the evidence? May I ask you Professor Atkins if you’ve actually studied any of this evidence or any other evidence?
Atkins: No, but I would be very suspicious of it.
Rupert: Of course, being suspicious of it in advance of seeing it is normally called prejudice.
Atkins: Yes, there’s always reason to believe in bizarre phenomena by looking into alternative explanations within the scientific milieu. For example people guessing, because of a particular time of day that someone’s going to call.
Rupert: These tests exclude that, you seemed to have missed the point of the experiments. They’re done by random selection. You know, I started from the kinds of objections you’re putting forward, that’s the starting point, then we try to go on and test those in rigorous scientific tests.
Atkins: But they’re not rigorous.
Rupert: How do you know? You don’t know a thing about it, you haven’t looked at the evidence. I think you’re talking from a point of view of prejudice, dogma and frankly lack of information. I would never presume to comment on your experiments in chemistry without reading them.
Atkins: But I’ve read your experiments in the past on other off the wall ideas that you’ve had.
Rupert: Have you? Well we can discuss any of those you’d like to.
Atkins: But none of them proved to be valid.
Interviewer: Thank you both very much…Anecdotally, I bet lots of listeners have had that funny feeling about the phone….

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