Letters: Rupert Sheldrake; Open Minds; Ockham's Razor; Thought

Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Letters: Rupert Sheldrake; Open Minds; Ockham's Razor; Thought


Rupert is Wrong

It would be hard to imagine anyone missing the point by much more than Rupert Sheldrake did in his article in Vol. 10, No. 1 claiming that "hard" sciences do not regularly conduct blind research.

Using double blind procedures for part or most pans of an experiment requires justification because blinding is always more time-consuming. Of course, in some fields such as parapsychology this justification has turned into a necessity. Why should this be so?

One reason has to do with eliminating false positives. When the expected signal is in the order of magnitude of concommitant noise it is easy to mistake the two. Whether it's canals on Mars, n-rays or homepathic degranulation experiments, the human proclivity for finding patterns where there are none has to be eliminated by blinding.

In many of the experiments in the hard sciences the signal is way out of the range of the noise, and so blinding is not justified.

Another reason for blinding lies in whether the experimenter might--knowingly or otherwise--subtly influence the course of an experiment. Calculating horses, dowsing, mind reading--all have been shown to involve covert manipulation by the experimenter.

On the other hand, the course of the majority of chemical reactions, for example, is usually only alterable by overt and obvious rigging. If I pour concentrated hydrochloric acid on magnesium filings then there is really nothing subtle I can do to stop the ensuing reaction.

Having said this, there is a neat trick you can do with a bowl of slightly alkaline bromphenol blue that can make it look like you're doing psychic chemistry. Even here blinding is not necessary, just an airtight covering for the bowl.

--Lee Traynor, English for Science and Technology, University of Hanover, Germany

Rupert Is Right

I believe Rupert Sheldrake's article on blind research brings up a good point. Specifically, I am currently finishing a book chapter investigating if, in psychophysiological research, those who edit data for artifacts are blind. This is an interesting issue because editing data is usually necessary, contains subjective decisions, and can really alter the final numbers. At least with the psychophysiological variable Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia, 39 out of 40 articles that were reviewed for the chapter did not use a blind editor. Simply put, an editor may inject a bias and create results that do not exist. A friend of mine tells me the same applies to EEG (i.e., brainwaves). It's interesting because psychophysiology is supposed to be "hard science," but in many portions of the research subjectivity is involved. In any case, I think many areas of science are not using blinded procedures across the board, which may or may not he problematic. At least in the sub-discipline that I am familiar with (psychophysiology), I think it is a big deal.

--Todd C. Riniolo, Department of Psychology, Medaille College, Buffalo, NY

More Open Mind Quotes

Regarding James Hrynyshyn's article, "When Brains Fall out" (Vol. 10, No. 1): When I was young and the earth's crust was still warm, one of the shibboleths that always set my teeth on edge was, "Remember, Johnny, you must always keep an open mind." I felt that if the chance that something might possibly bee correct was a reason not to dismiss it, then the chance that it might also possibly be wrong was a reason to doubt it.

Happily, my eighth-grade English teacher provided my classmates and me with a quotation of educator Irving Babbitt's that I have used repeatedly to fend off The Enemy: "It is well to open one's mind, but only as a preliminary to closing it for the supreme act of judgement and selection."

A few years later, I came across William A. Orton's "If you keep your mind sufficiently open, people will throw a lot of rubbish into it."

My arsenal grew apace as I discovered Carlye Marney's "A window stuck open is as useless as a window stuck closed.

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Letters: Rupert Sheldrake; Open Minds; Ockham's Razor; Thought
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