November 22, 2021

Steven Pinker likes to portray himself as an exemplar of science fighting against a rising tide of unreason. But in relation to phenomena that go against his own beliefs, he is remarkably irrational himself: he asserts that evidence is not required to assess the reality of phenomena he does not believe in, because they cannot possibly be true. How can a champion of rationality adopt such double standards?

In his new book Rationality, Pinker is adamantly opposed to telepathy and other kinds of extra-sensory perception (ESP). His position is that they do not happen because they cannot happen. He freely admits that he pre-judges the evidence by claiming that these purported phenomena are extremely improbable, assigning them an infinitesimal “prior probability”, in the language of Bayesian statistics. He acknowledges that “believing in something before you look at the evidence may seem like the epitome of irrationality”, but he justifies his refusal to look at the evidence by classifying these phenomena as “paranormal’, lumping them together with seemingly unrelated topics like homeopathy, astrology and miracles.

He then invokes an 18th-century argument against miracles by David Hume. As Hume put it, either miracles are impossible because they “violate the laws of nature” or because “no testimony is sufficient to establish” they contradict what has “frequently been observed to happen”. In Pinker’s paraphrase: “Which is more likely – that the laws of the universe as we understand them are false, or that some guy got something wrong?”

To clinch his argument, Pinker invokes physics. He is not a physicist himself, so he relies on the authority of Sean M. Carroll, a theoretical physicist who claims that the laws of physics rule out ESP. Other physicists disagree. Pinker rounds off his discussion by quoting Carl Sagan’s mantra: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette, Pinker explains why he rejects the “primitive intuitions” that lead most people to believe in ESP. He and his fellow rationalists “unlearn these intuitions when we buy into the consensus of the scientific establishment — it’s not as if we understand the physiology or neuroscience or cosmology ourselves”.  Instead, they buy in as an act of faith.

For readers wondering how acts of faith might bias our judgements, Pinker helpfully identifies “the Myside bias” as “probably the most powerful of all the cognitive biases, namely, if something becomes an article of faith within your own coalition, and if promoting it earns you status, that is what you believe”.  This surely applies to himself.

Is Hume’s argument against miracles relevant to ESP? Hume was writing about descriptions of biblical miracles. He was right that they are not frequently observed. But is telepathy a unique miracle that is said to have happened far away and long ago? No. It is frequently observed today.

The most common type of telepathy occurs in connection with telephone calls. Research carried out in Europe and the Americas shows that most people say they have thought of someone for no apparent reason, and that person then called, or that they knew who was calling when they heard the phone, before looking at the caller ID or answering. Similar kinds of telepathy occur with text messages and emails. (I give details of these surveys and summaries of experimental tests in my book The Sense of Being Stared At).

Telepathic experiences are not an extraordinary claim, but an ordinary claim. It is Pinker who is making an extraordinary claim by asserting that telepathy cannot happen and that most people are wrong about their own experience. Where is his extraordinary evidence? He has none, and, even worse, believes he doesn’t need any.

Telepathy is frequently observed in animals. In random household surveys in the UK and the USA, roughly half of dog owners said that their dog anticipated the return of a member of the family by waiting at a door or window, in some cases more than 10 minutes in advance. About 30% of cats did the same. In many cases, people said that this happened when the person came home at a non-routine time, and by public transport or in unfamiliar vehicles such as taxis. The animals’ responses were not simply a matter of routine or hearing familiar vehicles approaching; they seemed to depend on some other kind of connection between owners and their pets.

Sceptics will reasonably ask whether people could be mistaken in making these observations. Perhaps people know who is calling because they are familiar with that person’s habits and unconsciously anticipate when they will call. Or perhaps they think of people frequently and forget all the times those people do not call. Perhaps people dote on their pets and are victims of wishful thinking, remembering when their dog or cat was seemingly waiting for them, and forgetting when it was not. Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Fortunately, science and reason provide a way forward: the scientific method. Scientists test hypotheses. Several researchers, including myself, have carried out hundreds of experimental tests of telephone telepathy to investigate whether random guessing explains the results, or whether something else is going on. For these tests, the subjects chose four people they knew well to serve as potential callers. Then, in filmed experiments, they sat beside a landline telephone, with no caller ID. For each trial, one of the four potential callers was selected at random and asked to call the subject.

When the phone rang, the subject said to the camera who she felt it was, for example ‘Jim’. She was right or wrong. She could not have anticipated that Jim would be calling by knowing his habits, because he was selected at random. By chance, about 25% of the answers would have been right. In fact, in hundreds of trials, the average hit rate was 45%, hugely significant statistically. You can see a film of one of these experiments and the results of many randomised experiments published in peer reviewed journals here. We found similar positive effects in experiments on email and text-message telepathy.

I have also carried out more than a hundred filmed experiments with dogs that behave as if they know when their owners are coming home. The filmed evidence showed that the dogs anticipated their owners’ arrivals even when they returned at random times, unknown to them in advance, and in unfamiliar vehicles. You can see a test independently filmed by the science unit of Austrian State television (ORF) and results of numerous tests published in peer-reviewed journals here.

Pinker is not alone in his denialist stance. He is a prominent member of an advocacy organisation called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which publishes the Skeptical Inquirer: The Magazine for Science and Reason. His CSI colleagues include Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. CSI’s well-funded campaigns are designed to discredit “claims of the paranormal” in the serious media and the educational system. Organised skepticism is remarkably effective, and CSI has an international network of affiliated groups, as well as many local skeptic chapters and online vigilantes, ever ready to ‘debunk’ the paranormal. (In the UK, organised skeptics use the American spelling with a ‘k’ rather than the British spelling ‘sceptic’ to indicate their affiliation with the American Skeptic movement.)

With their support, Pinker thinks he has bought into the “consensus of established science” — but this consensus is sometimes illusory. His understanding of scientific consensus is not based on empirical data, such as surveys of scientists’ opinions worldwide or on experimental research, but rather on the beliefs of his CSI colleagues. He puts his faith in a denialist coalition in which rationality is unfortunately scarce. Their echo chamber is now greatly enlarged through Wikipedia. CSI encourages groups like ‘Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia’ to train committed skeptics as editors and administrators.

Dogmatic skeptics currently control practically all the Wikipedia entries on subjects they regard as ‘paranormal’ as well as the biography pages of those who research these taboo topics, including me. The Wikipedia entry on parapsychology portrays the entire subject as ‘pseudoscience’. The entry on pseudoscience defines it as “statements, beliefs or practices that claim to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method”.

By this criterion, Pinker is a practitioner of pseudoscience. He makes statements that claim to be scientific and factual but which violate the scientific method by ignoring the evidence. His particular kind of pseudoscience is especially damaging. As a professor of psychology at Harvard, he models dogma and prejudice in the heart of the scientific establishment.

How different from one of his predecessors at Harvard, William James, who was refreshingly open-minded and curious about experiences that could not be readily explained. If Steven Pinker is prepared to defend his views on telepathy in a public debate, chaired by UnHerd, I would be happy to argue that it is more rational and scientific to look at the evidence than to ignore it.