Peace reigned at the University of East Anglia. Bunny rabbits hopped in newly mown grass. The lake, undisturbed in the September sunshine, reflected the angles of Sir Denys Lasdun’s famous ziggurats. Meanwhile, deep in the concrete jungle behind them, the British Association Annual Festival of Science was feverishly connecting, engaging and outreaching. From the Broad’s tranquil shore, you would never have known.
But the British public had only 12 hours to wait before quite a different picture would emerge in the pages of The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent, from which you would think that the shining lake had been a seething morass of angst and bile. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the whole edifice of science was apparently being assaulted and insulted - at the hands of an organisation founded to promote it. Scientists’ screams and moans were drowned only by the occasional sound of breaking glass, as various defenders of scientific rectitude – Lord Winston, Prof. Richard Wiseman, Sir Walter Bodmer, Prof. Peter Atkins and “A Royal Society spokesman” – apparently ripped their heads off in protest and threw them out of the windows. “Uproar at top science forum” thundered the Thunderer. “Festival attacked” screamed the Telegraph. “Scientists angry” asserted the Independent.
Interestingly not one of those allegedly indignant luminaries was anywhere near Norwich at the time. Stranger still, all five managed to utter the identical angry words to all newspapers. How had they done this? Perhaps it was telepathy. Perhaps there was a more rational explanation. What could have moved the grey eminences of science so?
As the bunnies hopped, the BA Media Centre organised a press briefing to promote a session taking place later that afternoon entitled Beyond the brain: making science personal. The session’s preamble set the tone:
“Evidence that the effects of the human mind extend beyond the physical brain tend to be dismissed and ridiculed by reductionist science. But just how good is the latest evidence for telepathy, remote cognition and out-of-body experience? Should science accept the first-person perspective... or is it just “new age” woolly thinking?”
The session was due to hear from Dr Peter Fenwick (Scientific and Medical Network) on near-death experiences and Prof. Deborah Delanoy (University of Northampton) on remote cognition. Also present was Dr Rupert Sheldrake (Director, Perrrot-Warwick project on unexplained human abilities, funded by Trinity College, Cambridge) who would present his latest experiments testing the reality of “telephone cognition” – the common experience of receiving calls from people about whom one has just been thinking. The session would be rounded off by a debate, chaired by Quentin Cooper, between the three speakers and the open-minded sceptic, Prof. Chris French (Goldsmith’s College, London).
After listening in respectful silence, the assembled pack posed a few polite questions. Rupert Sheldrake came under closest questioning about the rigour and security of his experiments, which seemed to show a statistically significant indication of telepathic ability among his subject group. But despite the pack’s best efforts, Sheldrake’s methods were not exposed as flawed. Nothing was thrown. All heads remained attached to necks.
French not given
Had one lingered, however, one would have seen the Chair of the Festival Programme Committee Prof. Helen Haste (Bath University) defending the BA’s decision to allow the press conference to proceed in the way it did. Where was the sceptic on the panel? Where was the balance? Why was the BA giving credence to charlatanry? In reply she emphasized the bona fides of all the researchers. Although the work was controversial it had been rigorous and scholarly. French’s presence at the panel discussion later would allow for dissent – though she admitted it was unfortunate that he had not been at the press conference.
“We feel at the BA that we should be open to discussions or debates that are seen as valid by people inside the scientific community, as long as they are addressed in acceptable ways. These seem to be phenomena that are commonly experienced but have not been subjected particularly effectively to scientific investigation. This is a legitimate area of research. I do think it is appropriate at a festival like this to have people who are serious about their approach and scientific methods” she said.
So what, as a science journalist, was one to make of this story? One could quite legitimately write a story saying “scientists uncover evidence of the reality of extra-sensory perception”, which was essentially what Rupert Sheldrake was saying his experiments showed – and many, like Richard Sadler, writing in the Daily Express, did. Julie Wheldon (Daily Mail), took the same approach, but also emphasized scientific criticism and used the drummed-up quote from Prof. Peter Atkins. The Oxford University chemist opined that because there was no reason to suppose telepathy to be “anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy”, researching it was “a complete waste of time”.
Non posse, matey
Yet the BA’s archives are full of discussions of topics regarded by the establishment of the time as little better than witchcraft, but which were later vindicated. The usual reason these ideas were seen, in their time, as voodoo was because no-one (especially physicists) could see how they possibly could work – what is known as the “non posse” argument – denying evidence because of a lack of causative mechanism.
As I found out while researching my forthcoming book Supercontinent – our once and future world (Granta), the BA meeting in Hull in 1923 saw British geologists considering continental drift. According to a report of the meeting in Nature, the main scientific opposition occurred over Alfred Wegener’s (mistaken) idea that the Atlantic had completely opened during the Quaternary. The basic concept of drift itself posed no problems for those present - although in the United States at the time, continental drift theory was universally rejected – even reviled – ostensibly on the basis that no known physics could make it work.
Ironically geophysicists eventually proved the reality of drift – but then, because they themselves had found the clinching evidence, it no longer seemed to matter that they still had very little idea how it actually worked. Physicists had never let the lack of mechanism prevent belief in the Earth’s magnetic field, after all. Physicists were similarly adamant that our planet could not be as old as geologists suspected, because an initially molten Earth would cool to its present condition in a few tens of millions of years. Unfortunately physics hadn’t then heard of radioactivity, whose discovery made a mockery of their assumptions.
Yet at no time did the opposition of the scientific establishment ever hinder the BA discussing these ideas. I was reminded of this when Sheldrake said, at the press briefing, that if his findings about telepathy were vindicated, they would not destroy physics – they would add to it.
Disorder in court
But back to the BA Media Suite. Mark Henderson, whose paper (The Times) devoted most effort and space to scorning the story, told me: “I just didn’t want to be faced with the possibility of having to write a story that said “Experiments suggest telepathy is real”. The BA provided no counter-comment so we went to our contact books. I mean – are we journalists or stenographers?”. Roger Highfield (Daily Telegraph) agreed: “Why was the sceptic allowed to appear later at the session, before say 100 people, but not at the press conference with an audience of millions? That puts you in danger of the sort of coverage it got in the Mail - basically taking the line, with just a little bit of counter-comment tacked on at the end.”
Could Roger not have simply ignored the story, if he disapproved of it so strongly? Apparently not. “The news desk would have been clamouring for a full page – and I’d have written it, gladly, if the research had appeared in Nature or somewhere reputable, but it hadn’t. Scientists don’t take this stuff seriously, so why should we? We have enough crap to wade through as it is. And it’s good to have a little mutiny once in a while, isn’t it?”
Not everyone saw it this way, smelling a controversy being “cooked up”. John von Radowitz (PA) said: “It isn’t our role as journalists to be science’s guardians of virtue or arbiters of good taste. That’s simply not our job. I think what they did was absolutely disgraceful.” This view was echoed by a Times correspondent, Milton Wainwright (Sheffield University) who complained in a letter published later in BA week of “certain self-appointed gatekeepers of science…attempting to halt progress by denying fellow scientists a platform”.
Alok Jha (Guardian), whose 300-word sidebar Telepathy work dismissed as fantasy reported the misgivings of Wiseman and Atkins, who were quoted at length in other broadsheets, but fell short of alleging there had been any “row”. He felt unhappy with other broadsheets’ approach. “I warned the desk what to expect and explained why I was unhappy about it. Luckily they just said “OK – write it short and be sceptical”. They also said: “it sounds like those papers have suffered a sense-of-humour bypass”, which was pretty spot on, I think”.
Not everyone’s desks were so understanding. To the question “how free did you feel to ignore the story?”, answers varied; but everyone I spoke to agreed that any freedom they may have enjoyed was eroded – or removed – by the broadsheets going big. It may well be that their tactic won Sheldrake and co. a lot of coverage they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
Julie Wheldon (Daily Mail), whose piece drew Highfield’s criticism for being too positive, says she would have preferred not to cover the story. She describes the resulting piece, “with a bit of counter-comment tacked on” in Roger’s words, as “the most qualified I have ever written for the Mail, where the general rule is “don’t knock your own story””. Julie also questions the professed outrage at the lack of counter-comment at the briefing. “Isn’t it our job to be the sceptics?” she asks. “And the truth is there was no “row”. In a way, I think, they lied to their readers.”
Dick Ahlstrom (Irish Times), writing in a different market, was able to rise above the whole thing. “I just thought the flimsiness of the evidence hardly justified the conclusions, so I ignored it.” Pallab Ghosh (BBC TV) also deployed the bargepole – though BBC Breakfast, on which he frequently appears, wasn’t able to resist Sheldrake’s claims after all the newspaper coverage. And so I woke up on Thursday to the sight of Bill Turnbull and Kate Silverton interviewing both Sheldrake and French.
Some of the critics were, I hear, surprised by the critical context in which their quotes were put. Roland Jackson, Chief Executive of the BA, was clearly not taking the “row” too much to heart. He told me: 'I was a bit surprised at the tabloid approach taken by some of our more reputable newspapers so I've decided to switch to the Sun. At least they printed a decent telepathy quiz.'
For Helen Haste it provided a juicy new example of media dynamics to include in the science communication course she runs at Bath University. Pallab, too, discovered an unexpected up-side to the whole sorry debacle. “I was initially outraged when I saw that the BA had given a platform for telepathy” he told me. “But once I found out that it had wound up Roger Highfield, I saw that it was a really good idea, and was all for it.”