11. Dr. Richard Wiseman on Rupert Sheldrake’s DogsThatKnow
Guest: Dr. Richard Wiseman discusses the skeptical community, paranormal research, quirky psychology, and what’s lacking in paranormal research.
Announcer: In this episode of Skeptiko, well-known researcher and skeptic, Dr. Richard Wiseman, explains why collaboration is needed in parapsychological research.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: The public are actually quite badly served by the science community in that sense that there’s a deep wanting to know what’s going on from some members of the public. So I think a coming together where people actually design experiments, conduct those experiments, interpret them, in a collaborative way may be a lot more constructive way forward.
Announcer: Stay with us for Skeptiko.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and we’re joined today by well, a very busy man, as we were just chatting about. Dr. Richard Wiseman is a professor of psychology in the UK and holds Britain’s only chair in the public understanding of psychology. He’s published many academic papers, as well as some very popular books, including the soon to be released, Quirkology, that I hope we’ll hear some more about in a minute. Along with his numerous media appearances and science stage shows, he’s currently working on a television show in the UK. So without anything else to report, Dr. Wiseman, welcome to Skeptiko.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: A pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me on the show.
Alex Tsakiris: You bet. You know, as I was just mentioning, from your e-mail and from chatting with you a minute ago, I understand you’re working a little bit on a new television show. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: A little bit, yes. I mean, it’s a hidden camera show. It’s a psychology show. We’re going out watching and observing and manipulating people’s behavior in all sorts of different settings, so sometimes there’s a speed dating, sometimes in the office and so on. So it’s an attempt to get psychology across to the public. It is a very, very long series. It’s a 20 part series and we’re about 2 weeks into filming. So yes, exciting times.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, I guess here in the States we’ll have to keep our eye on YouTube for that, unless it comes over here. And how about the book, Quirkology? That’s quite an interesting title. When is that coming out and what’s that about?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, it comes out in Britain in about a month’s time, in America in September. And it stands for “quirky psychology,” and it really is a collection of some of the experiments I’ve been doing over the years. Some have been concerned with belief in the paranormal and superstition, but a lot of them are much broader than that. They’re looking at unusual fringe areas of psychology, me talking about some of my favorite studies conducted by other people in those areas. And it’s just a celebration of the weirdness that sometimes is psychology. So anything in terms of the mainstream isn’t in there, but all those kind of weird, strange studies that you’ve kind of heard about, I’ve been a party and don’t know quite whether they’re true or not, they’re the ones that make up Quirkology.
Alex Tsakiris: Sounds fascinating, and it sounds like a very good fit with much of the work that you’ve done. And again to that point you know, looking over your bio, of course one thing that pops out to anyone is you’re a very accomplished stage magician, and I was wondering if that interest – how that interest may have influenced your world view and your interest in science, and particularly skeptical scientific inquiry.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think it absolutely did. I mean, I was a magician since age maybe eight. Very much interested in magic. And of course, there’s a big overlap between magic and the paranormal. Lots of magicians have been sort of very skeptical about the paranormal over the years. And some of them, like Houdini and Randi and so on, very high profile skeptics. It has to be said there are also some magicians that perhaps believed in the paranormal and have endorsed the phenomena as well.
But my own take from a very early age was from a skeptical one, and I think the reason for that is that you are used to, when you perform magic, sort of seeing something or doing something that look miraculous but you know it has a normal explanation. And that just puts you into that mindset of always looking for that normal explanation. So I wasn’t one of those people that paint the paranormal because I had you know, an unusual experience or didn’t wake up one night and see a ghost at the end of my bed. It was really driven by the magic side of things, and so I think I’ll always have that as that kind of skeptical inquiring side of it.
Alex Tsakiris: In as much as you saw that you could create that same kind of awe and wonder in people with an effect that you know was purely human-made.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Absolutely. And so when you see some psychics working you instantly recognize that that’s a magic trick or that they’re using certain psychology to fool people. And of course, I mean some people have labeled magicians the kind of honest deceivers because they’re the ones that tell you yes, this is a magic trick and go right ahead and fool you. And some of the fake psychics, they’re using the same tricks in a much more exploitative and not quite so pleasant way, are the dishonest deceivers. They’re the ones that are not telling you that it’s a trick, they’re trying to alter your world view, often get you to import – make important life decisions on the basis of something which is little more than a magic trick.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, you know of course you’ve earned quite a reputation as a skeptical, scientific investigator. Some of our previous guests like Marilyn Schlitz have been very complimentary of your efforts and consider you a collaborator. And others haven’t been and consider your work more in the debunking vein. So what I thought we might do on Skeptiko, where we do kind of explore these issues and try and incorporate both sides, both views, is go through some areas of skepticism in the skeptical community and I want to raise some issues that I think are maybe critical of that community and I want to see some of your views and see how that plays out. Would that be okay?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Yes. It’s fine.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Okay, well first, what I’d kind of like to tackle is kind of the overall position of the skeptical community and has it become perhaps institutionalized and dogmatic in some of its scientific views? And is it painting itself into a corner scientifically? Now let me kind of elaborate and then I want to get your ideas on this. But first let me say that I consider myself scientifically skeptical. I admire the scientific method and further, you know 90 percent of the things that somebody like you says, or Michael Shermer, I’m in total agreement with.
But then I look at some of the cutting edge stuff that’s going on in fields like physics and zoology, biology, medicine, and I look at sometimes the dogmatic way that the skeptical community positions itself and I fear that you know, maybe it’s impeding scientific – science’s progress. And let me give you a small example. You know, if anyone – and I invite anyone to do this – if you go to Google and you just type in “collective intelligence,” or “emergence” and you add the word “fish” or “insects” or “flock,” you get dozens of very, very scientific papers. People exploring ideas that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think were lifted right out of paranormal research. You know, non-locality of consciousness and inner-connectedness of consciousness. So the question is this, does the skeptical community risk kind of falling out of step with where real science is going by maybe being a little bit too materialist and reductionist in its kind of world view?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think it’s a complicated question. I think there is no doubt that skepticism as I see it, and I don’t speak for any skeptical group at all. This is a purely personal point of view, is that it’s a method. It is a way of finding out what the world is like, and it’s far from perfect, and it will frequently make mistakes, but as far as I’m concerned, it is the best method. You come up with hypothesis, you test them, you accept or reject your slowly refined knowledge of the time. It shouldn’t be a world view.
It shouldn’t be that you know, we rule certain phenomena out, a priori, and we say therefore if there’s any evidence for those phenomena, the evidence must be spurious or fake or whatever. However, on the other side of things, when you’ve worked very hard to get a world view that seems to work, you don’t want that world view overturned on the flimsiest of evidence. So to me it’s a way of looking at the world. It ends up with a body of knowledge and if you want to overturn that knowledge, if you want to say there are actually some paranormal phenomena which don’t fit into that world view, then your evidence better be pretty good.
And in my opinion, the evidence simply isn’t there for that sort of thing. Now, there’s a second aspect I think to your question. It’s well okay, but should we continue looking for these sorts of rather strange, bizarre phenomena? And I think my answer to that is quite complicated. I think well, it depends what else we might be doing with our time, who’s paying for that, and so on. I sometimes use the analogy that if time and again you went searching for unicorns and you didn’t find them, just how many adventures, how many journeys do you go on before you say well, they’re probably not there, I’m not going to waste any more time.
If you’re really committed and you’re having fun and someone else is paying for it, well you’d probably go on quite a lot of journeys. But every journey you make, you’re not doing something else, or the resources we put into assessing the paranormal are not going into other areas which might be more productive. So it’s a complex answer to what I think is a complex questions. But my fundamental take on this is skepticism is a method, not a world view.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. But you know, that’s a fair enough answer. I was kind of going in a slightly different direction and that’s that I think this focus on the paranormal – and we’re all at a loss for words here. The language doesn’t really fit with everything that’s going on. But is kind of superseded by a lot of work that’s going on in other areas that’s moved way past the whole materialistic or this view of consciousness that mind equals brain. And that’s my point. I mean, if you go into physics and you want to talk about a materialistic world view, I mean there’s just – it doesn’t exist anymore. And I’m suggesting the same is true when you go into areas like zoology. And I was just looking over Robert Laughlin, you know, Principles of Emergence, Nobel Prize Laureate. I mean, he sounds like a parapsychologist.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, I don’t know those areas so I can’t comment on them. In psychology I’m going in the other direction. Certainly when you look at cutting edge brain science, it’s heavily reductionist. It’s about what is happening in the brain and that is pretty much it. And it’s not about anything happening outside of the brain or mind-to-mind communication without any known mechanism, and so on. And in fact, there’s been a squeezing of all of the fringe areas in psychology and so for example, social psychology where you look at you know, how people behave in everyday life or whatever, has been heavily kind of squeezed by the kind of neuroscience which is now the dominant paradigm within psychology, which is very, very reductionist. So I don’t see the pattern that you’re referring to in my own area, and that’s the only area I have kind of knowledge of.
Alex Tsakiris: Sure. Fair enough. Well, all right, let me raise another issue. And that’s a fine way of kind of I think, resolving that first point. The other kind of criticism, I guess I’d have that I wanted you to address, is it seems to me that the skeptical community almost seems a little schizophrenic in kind of its approach. And let me explain. On one hand, you know it stands as this kind of bulwark against religious dogma that tries to pass itself off as science. And I think this is great.
I mean, I would – I think that’s a courageous stand for a community to take, which is the skeptical community. And I think that they’ve done that and they’ve done a job of that when a lot of other people really wouldn’t stand up and directly say, no, we need more proof of this. There’s a scientific method. It’s a better way of kind of understanding the world we live in.” But on the other hand, it seems to me that the skeptical community has kind of meandered into being this self-appointed watchdog of science.
And I don’t know that that fits. I mean, it’s like there are two things being said. Like on one hand we’re saying hey, all you believers, let’s just leave it to science. Science will figure it out and it will decide. And on the other hand the message is, well, you know, science isn’t really able to sort out things like the paranormal, so let’s kind of help it along.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think they’re good points. And again, I would distinguish between being a skeptic, which basically to me is look very carefully at the evidence. If the issue matters to you, look carefully at the evidence. And what I find amazing is I meet people who are strong believers in the paranormal. They say this is the most important decision they’ve ever made in their lives, and then I say, “Well, what’s it based on?” You know, assuming it’s not their own experience, you know, sometimes it is and that’s fine, but often they’ll say, “Oh, the scientific evidence.” And I say, “Well, have you read all the evidence then, because it’s a really complex area and I’ve been working in it 12 years and still you know, it’s a tricky one.”
“Well, no I haven’t got time to read the papers. I’m leaning on their expertise to look into them.” And so on. And I find that incredible. I think if people do want to adopt these beliefs, they should be well-informed. And lots of people are not. And that’s what – and I think they should have therefore a skeptical attitude to these things, an inquiring attitude, and an informed attitude. Then, there’s organized skepticism, which is where groups of skeptics get together and that’s where the problems can sometimes start, because in some ways they can be good campaigning bodies, where we say hold on a second.
Most scientists are not very good at speaking out to the public, talking to policymakers, releasing info about the impact of their science for society and maybe even for education. And I think organized skepticism has a very important role to play in all of those processes. When it then turns on itself and tries to be scientific and carry out scientific research, often it doesn’t do a very good job of it.
And sometimes the reason for that is the expertise in there or the funding’s not there, or things are being done very quickly for television shows or whatever. So I think skepticism is a great world view. I think that the organizations that campaign for the public facing activities are great. I don’t think they themselves should be doing the research. And that’s sometimes when they fall foul of some of the issues I think you are referring to there.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So you’re saying as an advocacy group or as a megaphone, they can serve a purpose, but not for doing research.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Yeah. I mean, I think they could fund research. I think they could encourage scientists to do research in particular issues, but to be honest, nowadays if you want to be doing good research you really need to be in a university setting. You need to have quite a lot of funding. You need to have a lot of expertise and time to do it properly. And for the most part, people involved in the skeptics groups don’t have those things. And so the best [inaudible 0:15:51.3] in the world, sometimes it’s not the best quality research and they end up doing something which they themselves wouldn’t be particularly impressed with, had others done it. So I think that I would push for paranormal research from a skeptical perspective or from a proponent’s perspective, whatever, to be happening within a university context.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. Fair enough. Do you think that sometimes skeptical organizations, PsiCop and all the organizations we know, sometimes come across a little bit too much as a watchdog for science? I mean, for me that always throws up a red flag. It’s kind of like the Discovery Institute here in the US that says, oh, you know, scientists aren’t really doing enough good work on understanding our Creationist point of views, so we’re going to help scientists along. I mean that’s an immediate red flag. Do you think that there’s some – there’s a little bit of a problem with any group saying, we need to be a watchdog for science, when really the gatekeepers are already in place?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, on some areas – or in some areas they are in place and in others they’re not, so if you have someone to the university who is doing research into for example, the paranormal, and doing it badly and then going out to the public and saying, hey, look, I found evidence for X, Y, and Zed, and that evidence is based on very shaky methodology, if other scientists were speaking out, then I think that’s great. There’s no need for skepticism, skeptical organizations.
But in the absence of those other scientists, then I think it is reasonable for the skeptical groups to go, hold on a second, what’s exactly happening here? Because that person has normally gone to the public and said these things. I mean, organized skepticism is normally only concerned when the public are involved. They rarely get involved in you know, something being published in an academic journal and not going much beyond academia.
It’s only when that scientist you know, gets picked up by the media, goes out to the public, or whatever, that you get skeptical organizations involved. So in that sense, I think it’s justified. I would hope there are other checks and measures in place within academia. But it when it leaks out into the public and those sorts of checks and measures suddenly drop away, I think there’s sometimes an issue.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Okay, still, it’s a little bit of a problem for me, but I understand your point. And I think that it’s hard for anyone to sit on the sidelines when important issues are making their way into the public and obviously influencing people’s decisions, so that’s certainly understandable. Well, you know, the third and final area I really wanted to chat about was how experiments are done and how skeptical investigators, real scientists like yourself and sometimes less than real scientists, kind of approach these issues.
And that’s where I wanted to talk about – and you know from our e-mail correspondence – I want to talk a little bit about an experiment you did a while ago with Rupert Sheldrake and J.T. the psychic dog. And let me start by saying, I understand your reluctance to dwell on this too much. You’ve done a large amount of work and for anyone interested, and I hope you are interested, they can check out your Web site which is really very, very nice, very extensive. Has a lot of good information there. I’ll have a link to that in the show notes. Anyone interested can really just type in “Richard Wiseman,” and Google and you’ll come right up to the top, so that’s to your credit, too.
But here’s the point on this experiment that I wanted to kind of go over. First off, this is back ten years ago and you did an experiment with Dr. Sheldrake regarding testing whether or not dogs could sense when their owners are coming home. Do you want to – I’m sure you’ve talked about this many times. Do you want to kind of set the background and tell us a little bit about your work here?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Yeah, I think it’s very important to know the context of that early work. There are lots of TV shows that, obviously over in America and in the UK as well, that present a less than critical view on paranormal phenomena. And there’s one particular show that’s over here that was very well watched. I may have a segment on J.T. the psychic dog that showed an experiment that had been conducted by Austrian TV, I think, where J.T. went to the window when his owner was returning home from a distance. And so it looked as if J.T. was picking up on some sort of psychic bond with the owner.
And I was the skeptic on the show and they kind of tanked me and said, what do you think? And I said, “Well, we don’t know because we can’t get access to the rest of the footage. We don’t know how often J.T. is going to the window. If he went to the window a lot, then clearly, in fact, if he was there when the owner was coming home is less impressive than it might be otherwise.”
And Rupert had gotten involved at his very early days as well, so Rupert knew the owner and said, “Why don’t you come up to North England and conduct some experiments.” And so my research assistant and I went up there, conducted an experiment, and using the methods that we came up with, we decided that the initial clip that had gone out on TV wasn’t presenting the full picture and we didn’t think J.T. was psychic. And that was published in the British Journal of Psychology.
Rupert then conducted his own experiments with the dog and came to a different conclusion. He thought there was something going on and Rupert published those in a book and a couple of journal articles and then we’ve had some back and forth over my original study, and kind of the best way of interpreting those. And as you say, that information is available, I think on Rupert’s Web site, but certainly on mine as well.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Here’s my point, I guess, that I want to jump right to. Is that you’re obviously an accomplished scientist with a very well established set of credentials. Dr. Sheldrake was well trained and is a competent scientist, as well. So when we come across a situation where there’s this much controversy, how is the lay public supposed to sort something like this out? And in reading this, reading the controversy, you know, why couldn’t there have been more collaboration? More coming together in terms of finding a way to fit your data with his data in a way that made sense?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, I suspect in this particular instance, we were addressing two different questions. I was looking at something that had been on television and saying, “Is that true?” And running an experiment to assess that claim, and concluding it wasn’t. Rupert was, I think, asking the far more general question, or is J.T. psychic, though? Running a much larger number of experiments and coming to the conclusion that yes, indeed he is.
So I think we were actually looking at two different questions, which is where some of the confusion is. Now we could have been, I guess, trying to work together to look at that large body of data that Rupert had collected and sort of picked that apart and said, well, is that really strong evidence and so on. I have done that many, many times over the years with many different claims. In this particular instance, I’m not that impressed with the data that Rupert’s collected. I think it’s really interesting, I think there are some methodological problems with it, and part of that is because you’re trying to do an experiment in the real world with an animal and that is just inherently messy thing to do.
But I have done that many times, and normally it’s a kind of difficult interaction because you have two people coming at it from very different perspectives, and not particularly pleasant of an experience to go through for either side. I do think though, that some lessons have been learned from those sorts of years, which is why I ended up doing the collaborative work I did with Marilyn. And therefore, I think those sorts of collaborations, which are set out from the very start to be a collaborative venture, well you’re not criticizing one another’s experiments.
You’re actually running a joint experiment together, all very constructive. And in fact, my point of view at the moment is pretty much that’s the only way those sorts of joint studies are the only way of resolving the psi debate within science. I would encourage other skeptics and proponents to work together like that. Where what we were doing with Rupert was somewhat different. I think we were testing two different claims. He came up with a body of data. Yes, I guess we could have gone backwards and forwards on it. I’ve done that many times with other areas and it’s hasn’t been a particularly sort of pleasant experience.
Alex Tsakiris: I think you make a couple of good points. And the one that I really want to draw out is, the “gotcha” science. And I think you’re making a good case for how – why that shouldn’t happen. And that’s that the skeptic or the debunker, and I think you are careful in your history. Your track record suggests that you’ve avoided doing this in the past. But the debunking coming in, find a way to knock down the claim, rather than to really dig into what the underlying truth may be. I think that occurs much more frequently than this kind of collaborative spirit that you’re talking about does.
And I think for the lay public, which I am a part of, there’s a real, real interest in of coming together and understanding whether or not the real scientists who are out there exploring this stuff on the frontier, whether there’s anything to it. Because the noise factor in this endeavor is huge. I mean, the noise, the bunk, the junk that gets thrown in there from the fringe people and the people who are just delusional for whatever reason, creates a lot of noise. But there’s some very serious people when you talk to them, when you read their books, they’re not easily dismissed. And I guess what we’re all waiting for is, where is the real collaboration of someone who’s really intelligent from a skeptical side that going to come in and fit that with their world view and the controversial world view – to kind of come to a deeper truth.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think all that is true. And I think that public are quite badly served by the science community in that sense that there’s a deep wanting to know what’s going on from some members of the public. I mean, some have just made up their minds on the basis of seeing you know, a few ghosts or having some rather strange experiences and so on. And clearly that’s not about assessing the scientific evidence.
When it comes to the actual evidence, I mean, as I say, I’ve been looking at, say ESP research for about 12 years. I think I’m pretty knowledgeable in terms of methods and results, and it still takes me a long time when I get a new paper, say refereeing it for a journal, which is happening right at the moment. That’s why it’s on my mind. To look at that paper and think, hold on a second, where are the problems here? So you know, if I’m struggling with it, well, most members of the public are going to be, as well. And it doesn’t help them to hear both sides of the argument. To hear say, Rupert saying one thing and me saying another, because that’s just kind of confusing for them.
So I think a coming together where people actually design experiments, conduct those experiments, interpret them, in a collaborative way may be a lot more constructive way forward. I have to say, when we did it with Marilyn with the two experiments together, it’s not the easiest thing to do because it means one person’s working away from home, these things are enormously time-consuming to do.
But I do think they’re worthwhile and I think if the research efforts of Marilyn and I show anything, it’s that it can be done and it can pay dividends.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I wonder if there’s any way to go back and re-analyze some of the work that you and Rupert did with the J.T. experiments? I mean, there’s still the videos, there’s still the data. He’s still out there suggesting that when you take your data and you plot it with his criteria, it’s a replication of his work. Is there some way to take that data and take a fresh look at it and see if it really is robust in that way? And it really can be – and it’s one experiment, I mean, let’s get that clear, too…
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: …it’s not going to overturn the foundations of science. It’s just one experiment, but…
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, yeah, I mean, I suspect it’s quite problematic because it depends how the data is collected, so I don’t think there’s any debate, but the patterning in my studies are the same as the patterning in Rupert’s studies. That’s not up for grabs. That’s fine. It’s how it’s interpreted.
So without sort of boring your listeners too much, if you’re going to do an experiment with a psychic dog, you want to know that the return times of your owner are random, because if they’re non-random, then the dog may be picking up on the patterning that when the owner goes out at a certain time of day, they tend to be gone for an hour, another time two hours, it may be the clothing the owner’s wearing or the signals the owner unconsciously gives off. All that’s information to the animal, so you want random return times.
Then the other problem is, that as the owner stays away from home for longer and longer, the dog will naturally go to the window for longer and longer. And so you need to have trials where you have short, medium and long return times. Now Rupert has that sort of data, but as far as I know, I haven’t got enough random trials that are long, medium, and short to make an absolute certain case that yes, indeed, the dog was picking up something. So I say by looking at his data, that yeah there may well be something going on.
They don’t look to me quite as methodology rigorous as you would need in order to be able to make that decision firmly in one direction or another. I would sort of tick the “more experiments needed” box, under slightly more rigorous conditions. I think as is so much of his work, it’s very easy to look at it and go, yeah, a priori, that looks like there’s a cased something there, but things need to be done with a little bit more rigor and in this instance, that hasn’t happened.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I’m sure that he would agree with you on more work. I think one of the frustrations that a lot of folks face in this field – and I think the lay public is unaware of , you alluded to a minute ago – is just how difficult it is to do this work. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of money, and of course, in parapsychology and well as many fields of academia, it’s just hard to marshal those resources behind a project.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Absolutely. And of course, most of Rupert’s work is outside the lab, particularly if you’re dealing with animals. It’s not easy. This is not an area that attracts a huge amount of funding. You know, even if you do publish the work, there’s not a great deal of scientific kudos to be had from publishing you know, the psychic phenomena are or indeed are not true. So we’re in this rather difficult area of having the public fascinated. And I think one thing scientists who do work in the area, but yet as a working scientist it’s a difficult area to do work in. It may change in the future. I suspect it hasn’t because it hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, but I think we need to make the best of the resources that are available to us.
Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Wiseman, what do you see as the future of this kind of work? And I know that in your role as someone who has been asked to be this public figure for science, you’re in tune with both, the scientific community and to a certain extent, what the public, at least in Britain and the UK are interested. What is the interest level, both within the public community and the scientific community, and what is the path forward for this kind of work?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, I would love to be incredibly upbeat and optimistic about the future of the field, but I do find that increasingly difficult. I think there is a sadness that we know about 50 percent of the public believe in say, ESP, about a third roughly have had experiences, these sort of things, and yet when they turn on the television to watch a show about a topic that they care about, normally they see absolutely dreadful science.
You know, if it’s a ghost investigation, they see all sort of terrible let’s walk through the haunted house and see where the ghosts are. So they need to be better served. They deserve to be better served. On the other side of the fence, you have the scientists, who it seems to me, are becoming more and more conservative, more and more reductionist. It’s harder to get funding for any sort of fringe area in psychology, as I’ve said before, let alone parapsychology.
So I think we have this gulf between the public interest and need and thirst for knowledge and what’s being served up by the scientists. And I find that kind of sad. I don’t see it changing any time soon. And that maybe the Internet will change things. Maybe people’s ability to get access to more and more information will mean that those that do want it will be able to get access and look at it. But you know, from my own point of view, the area – I have found it harder and harder to work in the area over time, which now if you look at some of my more recent work, it’s gone way outside of parapsychology…
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: …into areas that are still fringe within psychology. But have certainly broadened from the narrow scope of ESP and PK. So I’d like to be optimistic. I find it a little bit tricky. I think that maybe over time things will change but at the moment, I think the public is not well served by science.
Alex Tsakiris: And how has your recent work and your book, Quirkology, how has that been influenced and informed by your understanding of the parapsychology field or how it’s moved. Has that influenced you at all?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Well, it came about because I was reflecting a couple of years ago on what was it about parapsychology that I found so interesting. And it’s not because I’ve had weird experiences. It’s not because I particularly enjoy the back and forth of endless debates with proponents. It’s the fact that it’s a bit strange, and it kind of leads you to strange people and strange places and it’s kind of quite a lot of fun.
And I realized there were actually quite a lot of areas in psychology that were exactly like that. And so I conducted some research into what’s called “Chronopsychology,” the influence of your date of birth on your personality, which sounds like astrology but actually there’s a kind of firm biological, psychological underpinnings of some of those effects. Some other work, I looked at speed dating, and then there’s the whole kind of non-verbal communication, how very subtle changes in language and so on can affect the success of a speed dating session.
Alex Tsakiris: Uh-huh (yes). Uh-huh (yes).
Dr. Richard Wiseman: And kind of enjoyed it. Kind of was having fun with it. And these are all topics again, that are really interesting to the public. And so Quirkology includes my work on the paranormal, but is much, much broader than that. So at the moment I’m just having lots of fun conducting these rather strange experiments.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. And is any of that work making its way directly into the television show that you’re producing, or is it more…
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Absolutely. About 50 percent of the TV show is based on experiments either from the book or that I’ve conducted. So we’re doing them all, getting out there into the real world, so you know, a lot of the work which is also conducted by the people on how we’re perhaps not as attentive and able to see changes in their environment as we’d like to be, so you can swap one person for another and most observers don’t notice. All of that we’ve been having fun with. We’ve got various animal costumes, gorilla costumes and badger costumes and things, so we’re out doing some real experiments in the street.
Alex Tsakiris: Sounds fascinating. We’ll definitely be on the lookout for that in whatever form it makes its way over here to the States. Anything else you’d like to tell us about that’s going on in your world that we should keep a heads-up for?
Dr. Richard Wiseman: I think we’ve kind of covered it. As you say, a lot of my stuff is on richardwiseman.com and that Web site’s going to be expanding massively very soon. So, yes, I think we’ve covered it and it’s been fun.
Alex Tsakiris: It has been a real pleasure for me and I do appreciate you taking the time.
Dr. Richard Wiseman: Okay, a pleasure, thank you.
Alex Tsakiris: Once again, I’d like to thank Dr. Richard Wiseman for joining us today. If you’d like more information about his Web site or his new book, check out our show notes at www.skeptiko.com . While you’re there, consider dropping me a note. Tell me what you like about the show, maybe what you don’t like about the show, other guests you’d like to hear from. And there’s also a link there where you can send me a voicemail. Well, that’s going to do it for today. Bye for now.
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