Leading scientists have criticised Britain's premier public forum on science for hosting a series of lectures on controversial research into the paranormal that suggests the possibility of mental telepathy and the existence of consciousness after death.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) was sharply rebuked yesterday for allowing paranormal researchers to have a public platform at its annual Science Festival, held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
Mainstream scientists expressed surprise that the BA had invited Rupert Sheldrake, who investigates paranormal experiences, and Peter Fenwick, a retired neuropsychiatrist who investigates near-death experiences, to its annual meeting.
Lord Winston, a former president of the BA, said that he knew of no properly conducted studies indicating that telepathy and the paranormal were anything other than nonsense. "It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields," he said.
Dr Sheldrake presented details of an experiment that purported to demonstrate a scientific basis for believing that telephone telepathy - when someone is alerted subconsciously about a telephone call before it is made - really does exist.
"Dr Sheldrake's experiment involved recruiting 63 people and assessing whether they could guess who out of four close friends or relatives was about to call them.
"If they were just guessing and there was no telepathy involved they would be right one time in four, on average 25 per cent," Dr Sheldrake said.
The hit rate turned out to be 45 per cent. "This comes out with odds of a thousand billion to one against it being a chance effect. So it's not just chance coincidence," Dr Sheldrake said.
Dr Fenwick, who helps to run a forum on science and spirituality called the Scientific and Medical Network, claimed that he may soon be able to show the existence of consciousness after death. However, Professor Peter Atkins, of Oxford University, said that there was no reason to suppose that telepathy or the afterlife was anything other than a "charlatan's fantasy".
Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Sussex and the organiser of the paranormal session, said:"We at the British Association feel we should be open to discussions and debates which are seen as valid by people generally inside and outside the scientific community."