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19 September 2003 @ 08:54 am
Last night I went with the lovely Kev Hopper to an event called Skeptics In The Pub. I'd not been before. The idea of the event is that someone gives a talk on a subject related to the paranormal or some other Fortean phenomena, and then a room full of skeptical people tear them to bits in a post-talk discussion. Nice idea.

The trouble with last night was that the speaker, Dr Rupert Sheldrake, was such a pleasant chap, backing up all his claims with a lot of pretty convincing data, that no-one could really lay a finger on him. He has been doing experiments for years to assess whether people can tell when they're being stared at. In the cold light of day it sounds ludicrous, I know. But he's done experiments to 'prove' it, and many skeptical scientists have had to harrumph and grudgingly admit he might be right.

Anyway, the discussion afterwards featured a load of arrogant twonks falling over themselves to bray in loud, self-satisfied voices whilst wearing smug grins to inform Sheldrake that it was all crap. There were some exceptions. But one dickhead in particular chortled outrageously loudly at his own pathetic wit whilst gurning around the room looking for support, which, remarkably, he received. Then a skeptic scientist from Goldsmiths College stood up and said something like "OK, this sounds interesting - maybe we could do some collaborative research?" before sitting down, clearly expecting the whole room to burst into spontaneous applause at this show of scientific generosity. It didn't.

I AM a skeptic (although I'd prefer to spell it sceptic) but I won't be going again. It's one thing to have the pleasure of being surrounded by intelligent people, it's another to get profoundly irritated by people whose brains are too clogged with philosophical musing to be able to behave in a socially acceptable fashion.

Back at home I calmed down by watching Steve Whatley selling crap jewellery on the Ideal World shopping channel, and soon everything was back to normal.

Soon: conversations in lifts. A series.
Alfred Armstrongalfaguru on September 19th, 2003 10:49 am (UTC)
Sheldrake's claims are absurd but the trouble is that to pick apart the design of his experiments requires patience and technical skill. The process is likely to be very pedantic and not at all good pub entertainment.

The whole exercise seems flawed anyway: having a load of people who have already made up their minds on a subject lectured to by someone holding a contrary view. Whatever the merits of either case, it's not going to work.

I found an examination of one of his claims: http://www.csicop.org/si/2000-03/stare.html

There is a long dispute between him and Randi about the psychic pets thing, which seems to boil down to Randi asking to examine the animals and him finding excuses not to produce them.

I wonder if Steve Whatley knows when people are watching him?
jamesward on September 19th, 2003 12:06 pm (UTC)
I kind of wanted to go to one of these things but now I'm not so sure. I think the best thing to do would be to go to the lecture and then leave afterwards so you don't have to watch someone being torn apart by a bunch of smugs
the heiressthe_heiress on September 19th, 2003 02:04 pm (UTC)
Yes, me too. It is a nice idea and I'm saddened it didn't work - naturally I'll lazily place all my trust in Rhodri's opinion rather than finding out for myself. I find that's the best way.

But I suppose the thing to do is leave straight after the lecture to go to a different pub to discuss it without all the prejudiced wankers. A new club; 'open minded people in the pub'.
jamesward on September 19th, 2003 02:25 pm (UTC)
But I suppose the thing to do is leave straight after the lecture to go to a different pub to discuss it without all the prejudiced wankers. A new club; 'open minded people in the pub'

Yes, I was thinking along those lines too, but you'd have to make sure the Skeptics didn't catch on to what you were doing "Hey you're supposed to stay here and bully the crazy man! What are you doing, come back!"
the heiressthe_heiress on September 19th, 2003 02:40 pm (UTC)
I've got the solution!

You tell the skeptics that you're stepping outside "to move milk bottles with the power of your mind".

They'll be too busy sneering at the concept to notice that you've actually grabbed your jacket and left for another pub.

Hey presto, a clean break and it's your round. Make mine a jack daniels and ginger ale.
Alfred Armstrongalfaguru on September 19th, 2003 04:12 pm (UTC)
This article: http://www.csicop.org/si/2000-09/staring.html shows how hard it is for people sitting round in a pub to evaluate claims by someone like Sheldrake.

Essentially his experiment was crap because what he called random sequences were not really random, and his volunteers subconsciously learnt how to play them.

It's like playing stones-scissors-paper against a computer. If the computer plays truly at random you'll score roughly even. If there's a pattern to the way the computer plays - providing it's not too subtle - over time you can learn to beat it more often than it beats you.

The idea that domestic animals are psychic is a laugh, too. Yes, that's why our dogs jump on the bed at five o'clock in the morning - because we are psychically willing them to do it, in our sleep.
(Anonymous) on October 9th, 2003 09:21 am (UTC)
Skeptics in the Pub
Hi there

I run Skeptics in the Pub.

I agree Sheldrake made a very convincing case. He indeed is a charming man. However, as has been pointed out here, people find it difficult to believe him because the consequences of his theory are so large.

I find Rhodri’s attitude to SitP a little difficult to understand. On the one hand, he criticises on person for making a sneering comment (which was only one of about thirty or forty other, non-sneering questions) but then when Chris French (the scientist from Goldsmiths) makes an offer to do collaborative research, Rhodri finds this ripe for sarcasm also.

As for the other comments here, they are obviously made in ignorance.

Skeptics, by and large, are genuinely open-minded people who are willing to listen to someone’s ideas, and give those ideas a through testing (obviously within the context of a meeting in the pub). All my experience with running the meetings is that even if people thoroughly disagree with a speaker, they can express their disagreements in a calm, rational and collegiate fashion. I am sure Rhodri will agree that that was the spirit that the vast majority of the questioning was conducted in.

I would be sad if people decided to come simply for the lectures and failed to stay for the discussion, which is often, in my view, by far the best part of the evening.

If you are interested, as a believer, as a skeptic or as someone whose mind isn’t yet made up, I hope you find some time to come along to Skeptics in the Pub. Wouldn’t it be nice to make up your own mind about it?

Nick Pullar