Where science meets woo

In my latest book, Extra Sensory, I look at whether there is a scientific basis for the likes of telepathy, telekinesis, remote viewing and precognition. When I tell people I've written this (and will be selling books at the Seriously Strange event), particularly those from the science community, there is often a sharp intake of breath. 'You don't want to get yourself involved with that stuff,' they say. I understand the response, but I think they are wrong.

It is easy to see why there is that sharp intake of breath. In a Facebook discussion of my book, where someone had generously recommended it, before long others were contributing with information about 'chi/qi' and even 'quantum healing.' There is a tendency to lump a lot of things together, not all of which sit comfortably with science. However this rather misses the point of what I'm trying to do with the book.

First of all I make the clear distinction of only considering the paranormal, not the supernatural. By this I mean I am looking at abilities that are outside our current understanding, but could have a natural, scientific explanation. So, for instance, I don't cover spirit mediums, whose claims are definitely supernatural. There is a grey area - ghosts, for instance, seen as the manifestation of dead people would be supernatural, but if they were instead a physical phenomenon (like the old 'stone tapes' idea) they could be examined as paranormal. However, I thought it best to draw the line as safely as possible and excluded them too.

What I then set out to do was to see if I could come up with an potential mechanisms for, say, telepathy to work, and to examine the evidence from the quite extensive academic work that has been done to try to discover and test such abilities. It is a fascinating, if frustrating tale, because it contains some very dramatic characters (Uri Geller, who gets a whole chapter, springs to mind) and an awful lot of fraud, bad science and statistical pitfalls.

There are examples of all three, for example, in the most famous early academic work by J. B. Rhine in the 1930s. Rhine did vast numbers of experiments, mostly for telepathy and clairvoyance. But there were clear examples where fraud could easily have taken place. Rhine used some very sloppy experimental conditions. Perhaps worst, of all, he had a tendency to misuse the statistics. A classic example is where Rhine comments on a particularly successful run 'The probability of getting 15 straight successes on these cards is (1/5)15 which is one in over 30 billion.' This is falling into the trap known as cherry picking.

You can see the problem with what Rhine is doing by comparing it with a similar response to a lottery winner. Last week someone in the UK won the Euromillions jackpot. The probability of doing this is 1 in over 116 million. Okay, not quite the same as Rhine's number, but impressive enough. However, we don't conclude that either the winner was clairvoyant, or that he or she cheated. Because there wasn't a single entrant. And similarly, by using that '1 in over 30 billion' number, Rhine was picking out a single set of results, based on the values of those results, from many thousands of attempts. This is, at best misleading.

I think it is important to take an unbiassed look at the paranormal that is neither a simple dismissal of evidence (there's a wonderful quote from Rupert Sheldrake, where he was to be in a TV show with Richard Dawkins and Dawkins is alleged to have said 'I don't want to discuss the evidence'), nor blind acceptance of woo. This is partly because so many people have experienced something that may be paranormal, but also because I don't believe it is scientific simply to say 'I would never look at something,' if it could have a physical explanation, dismissing it without considering the evidence.

You can get Extra Sensory as a hardback or a Kindle ebook from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com (and it is, of course, available from bookshops and in other ebook formats).