Scientific claims you know are wrong


I just read about this new claim, made at a meeting, regarding “phone telepathy” in which some people claim to know that someone is about to call them, just before the phone rings. Now, a researcher is claiming to have conducted a controlled experiment that supports this. For the key details seee the Reuters news story or the link at CNN. But here is the key part of the article:

Each person in the trials was asked to give researchers names and phone numbers of four relatives or friends. These were then called at random and told to ring the subject who had to identify the caller before answering the phone.

“The hit rate was 45 percent, well above the 25 percent you would have expected,” he told the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The odds against this being a chance effect are 1,000 billion to one.”

Now, it is entirely possible that the Rupert Sheldrake who conducted this research is on the up and up. However, every time I have seen claims that make me giggle like this one did, they have turned out to be wrong. But rather than claim that after the fact, I will put it out there in the blog world. I state, with complete confidence, that the conclusions of Sheldrake (that people use telepathy to sense when someone is going to call) will be shown to be wrong. Now – I do not know how it will be shown to be wrong. For example, his method theoretically should have controlled for the fact that when the phone rings sometimes you can guess who is calling by the hour of the day or by world events (e.g., my brother will call just after any major REDSOX event). Nevertheless, it will turn out that something is amiss.

Anyway, people can get a good giggle out of doing a google search (giggle from google) with his name and checking out some of his other work (like that Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home). Now I am not saying that we know everything about human perception. Nor am I saying that there is no way that we know everything about all the means of animal communication. But do people know, even when all behavioral variables are removed, who is about to call them simply from telepathy? I predict, the answer, despite how much fun it would be to be true, will be, alas, no.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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