THE NEED TO TELL A GOOD STORY
This piece appeared in the March 2006 issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria', the newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry
There is a theme that connects most of the main articles in this issue of the ASKE newsletter, namely storytelling. We are all storytellers and most of the time the stories that we tell others, as well as ourselves, are intended to be true accounts of real events. In this instance the storytellers are journalists, other people employed in the media, and academics.
Like other sceptics, I do not feel the need to believe that there is no true reality and that the different stories that are told about the same events are all equally valid. Of course we may intentionally lie or be mistaken. More importantly here, the stories we tell may be constructed to accord with our own beliefs, hopes and prejudices and to fulfil our own needs. Some would say that this is inevitable: there is something akin to the Uncertainty Principle at work whenever we engage both in observing and in describing events that take place in the world of shared experience. Thus, accounts of reality can at best only be approximations, stories 'based on events that actually happened' as old films were sometimes described.
Nevertheless, to strive to 'tell it like it is (or was)' is not a precept to which sceptics would claim exclusive rights. Honesty is a universal virtue. That is, to an extent that depends on the circumstances, there is a responsibility on the storyteller to do what he or she understands is required to convey the reality of the situation. Whilst the facts can never really 'speak for themselves' we can endeavour to be their faithful representatives.
I would like to discuss an article that I recently read in a local newspaper. I want to make it clear that in the discussions, unless I state otherwise, I am at all times talking about the characters in the stories and not the actual people on which these characters are based.
The newspaper in question is the Rossendale Free Press. Although I live in Sheffield I have this newspaper delivered every week; I grew up in Rossendale (in Lancashire), and have been reading the Free Press on and off for 50 years now.
The story of the enchanted dog
The article is entitled 'Connect with your Pets' and features Ms Pam Smart of Ramsbottom. Pam was the owner of a dog called Jaytee, now deceased.
According to the story, a decade ago 'The terrier became renowned for his proven telepathic ability. He could sense, with uncanny precision, when Pam had set off for home wherever she was - distance was not a factor'.
The story goes on to describe how Pam's parents had noticed that Jaytee would suddenly go to the window a short time before she got home. Dr Rupert Sheldrake ('regarded as one of the world's most innovative biologists') became involved and 'travelled from London to carry out the first of hundreds of experiments with Jaytee, which invariably proved that he could indeed sense when Pam thought about coming home'.
As a result of this, 'Pam and Jaytee went on to feature in numerous TV documentaries, books and periodicals'. According to Pam - 'who had previously worked as a secretary' - 'Having Jaytee completely changed my life. I took part in things I could never have dreamed of, and learned about topics I could barely imagine before. It opened my mind up'.
Pam is now working as Dr. Sheldrake's full-time research assistant. They are keen to hear from people who think that they are able to wake their pet just by staring at it, 'perhaps with the thought in their head that they'll take them for a walk soon'. 'I'd love for other pet owners to feel as privileged as I do', Pam says.
The moral of the story
This is a wonderful story. In it are clear echoes of the dreams and fairy tales of our childhood. There is just a hint of Cinderella. Thanks to a benign wizard, who turns out to be a Prince, her dog is found to be enchanted and her life is transformed. The story is complete. Hero and heroine ride off together with more magical escapades ahead. No doubt readers will be hoping for a sequel; meanwhile, they can digest the moral of the story: there is hope for all; magic does happen, even in the most mundane of circumstances, and it can really turn frogs into princes and princesses. However, unlike most fairy stories, there is no wickedness to overcome, no monster to slay, no villain to be banished from the land.
Enter more heroes
But there are different stories based on these events, and sequels that see the emergence of more characters assuming various roles. The authors of one such story are Richard Wiseman, Matthew Smith and Julie Milton. In their story, the authors put to the test Jaytee's claimed psychic abilities, namely that he runs to the porch (or in some cases a window) whenever his owner starts to return home. The investigators do their best to 'let the facts speak for themselves' by presenting to the reader tables that list the times that Jaytee does this while his owner is away on four separate occasions. Also given is the duration of each visit and the possible reason (e.g. other dogs were walking past, otherwise 'No obvious reason').
I think it fair to say that, with the best will in the world, the reader will be hard pressed to detect in these data the presence of any 'uncanny precision' on the dog's part to sense when its owner 'thought about coming home'. And this represents the conclusions of the authors.
This story is rather more akin to those in which there is some mystery and the reader is at first uncertain as to whether this is to be explained by supernatural powers or whether more mundane influences are at work. Enter the heroes, by whose efforts and integrity the mystery is, in this case, found to be the result of simple human error and self-deception. And if such can be thought of as a monster, so the monster is slain.
The emergence of The Villain (or villains)
Now more instalments, sequels and versions of the story are told. The main ones are by Dr. Sheldrake himself who describes a series of tests on Jaytee proving that the animal is indeed enchanted. In these stories Wiseman, Smith and Milton are revealed as mere apprentices of their trade and are castigated for failing to realise that Jaytee was indeed demonstrating magical powers when they visited him. But our erstwhile heroes are unbowed and they mount a counterattack. Now gauntlets are not so much thrown as hurled upon the ground, lances are sharpened, armour reinforced, trumpets sounded, and the battle lines are well and truly drawn.
Will good triumph in the end? Will the true prince be crowned? Will the real villain or villains be vanquished? I fear that in the modern vernacular 'This one will run and run'.
Thus our story of Jaytee now becomes the saga of Jaytee. Cue for songwriter.
Let me add my tuppence-worth. Sheldrake's experiments are more thorough and extensive than Wiseman et al.'s who only did four experiments (one of which, incidentally, is ignored by Sheldrake in his rejoinders). Wiseman et al. argue that the tendency for Jaytee to wait longer at the door or window when his owner is returning (the 'telepathic' effect claimed by Sheldrake but different to the original one claimed for Jaytee, namely that he signals his owner's decision to return) is plausibly explained by the length of his owner's absence. Sheldrake disagrees, pointing out that his own data do not indicate that Jaytee waits longer with an increasing period of absence. I am wary of applying those data to the data of Wiseman et al. and I think they still have a valid point so far as there own results are concerned.
But I don't imagine that an experimental behaviourist will be at all impressed by any of this research. Remember the Skinner box? An animal or bird (usually a rat or a pigeon) is placed in a restricted environment and a specific behavioural response (the 'operant') is rewarded, say by the press of a lever or the peck of a key. An operant compatible with the Jaytee phenomenon would be the animal's occupying a particular part of the cage.
In the operant conditioning paradigm the favourite measure is the occurrence or rate of responding over time but in Jaytee's case, the duration of response is also of interest. These indices will be determined primarily by the consequences for the animal of the response; in the Skinner box this is usually the delivery of primary reinforcement (food) or secondary reinforcement (tokens, the appearance of the person feeding the animal, etc.). Potent variables that affect the frequency and duration of responding include the reinforcement schedule (e.g. how regularly the response is reinforced), the presence of discriminating cues (i.e. the presence of other stimuli that correlate with the probability that a response will be rewarded), certain bodily states - hunger, satiety, fatigue etc. - distracting rewards, potential sexual partner, and so on). In any experiment, all possible influences should be controlled so that the effect of the independent variable on the targeted response is unambiguous.
I don't think that the Jaytee studies meet these standards. Wiseman et al.'s investigations are very limited. Sheldrake's methodology and design are far too unwieldy; duration of owner's absence, time of day, day of week, season, and even the time since the dog was fed may be potent variables and neither study provides convincing controls for these.
I would go for a much simpler design that allows better control of these factors and that, while not very ambitious, would provide a clearer-cut test of a true anticipatory effect. I would want to be able to sample the dog's behaviour at a specific time of day (e.g. 14.00 to 14.15) when the absent owner is not on her way home and compare it with the same time period when she is, keeping all other relevant factors constant, especially time of owner's departure from the house. Apart from perhaps studying just two or three such periods I would attempt nothing more ambitious than this. Could I have some research money please?
Incidentally, Sheldrake also examined Jaytee's behaviour in the 10-minute interval prior to his owner's setting off back home. Although I cannot find any reference to his original reason for doing this, logically one would consider this to be a test of the telepathic hypothesis: the dog should not show evidence of any increased tendency for anticipatory behaviour during that interval since the owner is not even aware when she is going to head off back home. In fact there was an increase in duration of time spent at the window during this period over the preceding period of absence, though not as much as after the decision to return home.
The scientific method attempts as much as possible to explain new observations according to present knowledge without making additional assumptions of which there is little existing evidence or any known rationale. In other words, when new data and observations arrive we must put them with all existing evidence and knowledge and attempt to frame our explanations from a consideration of the whole and not just our latest observations. Hence, explanations of new data that are improbable from a consideration of the a priori evidence should still be considered as improbable; explanations consistent with the entire body of evidence should be offered whenever possible.
For example, the above, unexpected finding should alert us to the likely effect of factors already known to influence occurrence of responding, such as the interval schedule of the delivery of reinforcement. Sheldrake's explanation is that in the period prior to the signal for his owner to return, Jaytee was responding to her expectation that she would soon be receiving the signal from the researchers. In the case of Wiseman et al's experiments, the experimenter who accompanied the owner (PS) on her excursions out 'could well have communicated his anticipation to (PS) unconsciously, for example through an increasing tenseness as the predetermined time approached' and this is then relayed telepathically back to Jaytee some miles away.
Is this science? I don't think so.
Sheldrake, R. & Smart, P. (1998) A dog that seems to know when its owner is returning: Preliminary investigations. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 220-232.
Sheldrake, R. (1999) Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. New York: Crown.
Sheldrake, R. (1999) Commentary on a paper by Wiseman, Smith and Milton on the "psychic pet" phenomenon. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 63, 306-311.
Sheldrake, R. (2000) The "psychic pet" phenomenon. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 126-128.
Sheldrake, R. & Smart, P. (2000) A Dog that seems to know when his owner is coming home: Videotaped experiments and observations. Journal of the Scientific Exploration 14, 233-255.
Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (1998) Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the 'psychic pet' phenomenon British Journal of Psychology, 89, 453-462.
Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (2000) The 'psychic pet' phenomenon: A reply to Rupert Sheldrake Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 46-49.
Papers may be accessed online at www.sheldrake.org and www.psy.herts.ac.uk/wiseman
With appreciations to Rupert Sheldrake, Pam Smart, Richard Wiseman, Matthew Smith, Julie Milton, and last but not least, the late Jaytee: outstanding individuals who, as the real-life versions of the characters portrayed in these stories, are truly heroes and heroines of our time.