I have lectured and written about the scientific taboo that prohibits scientists from openly studying psi. One way this prejudice manifests is by being invited to give a lecture at a scientific conference, and then finding yourself disinvited after someone on the conference committee discovers that the invitee has an interest in parapsychology. The idea of psi is so troubling to this person that he or she (mostly he) insists that the committee cancel the invitation. One can imagine the hysterics that must accompany this request.
This invite-disinvite sequence happened to me a few years ago, for a talk I was invited to give at the United Nations on the frontiers of consciousness. Someone chickened out when they discovered that I actually study this topic rather than think about it, and so I found myself disinvited. I discovered this only after asking the organizers several times for more details about the venue, conference dates, and speaking schedule. Apparently no one thought it necessary to inform me.
Giving the snub is probably considered easy when the individual’s academic affiliation or perceived status are low. When I was at Princeton I found it easy to get almost anyone’s rapid attention by simply mentioning where I worked. Assessing credibility by one’s affiliation is common, and unfortunate, for the same reason that stereotyping is so popular: It’s a convenient way to make a snap decision if one doesn’t have time, inclination, or interest in doing one’s homework.
But what happens when both academic affiliation and status are extremely high? Does the snub still happen? It sure does. I give you Brian Josephson. Josephson is a full professor at Cambridge University, and he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1973 “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier, in particular those phenomena which are generally known as the Josephson effects.” Full professor at a major university with a Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of status within the rarefied world of high-powered academia.
But Josephson is also one of a few Nobel Laureates who is publicly known for having an interest in psi. There are others like him, of course, but they prefer to keep quiet because the taboo is both powerful and unkind. This is the story of a perfectly outrageous case of prejudice.
April 27, 2010: See the above link at Prof. Josephson’s site for updates to this case.
April 29, 2010 (London time): Another new update, from the (London) Times Higher Education
Reported by Matthew Reisz
An extraordinary spat has broken out after a Nobel prizewinning physicist was “uninvited” from a forthcoming conference because of his interest in the paranormal.
Details of the conference in August for experts in quantum mechanics sounded idyllic. Participants were due to discuss “de Broglie-Bohm theory and beyond” in the Towler Institute, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery in the Tuscan Alps owned by Mike Towler, Royal Society research fellow at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory.
Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.
The physicist and science writer David Peat, biographer of David Bohm (co-founder of de Broglie-Bohm theory), was considered tainted because of his books on “Jungian synchronicity” and “connections between Native American thought and modern physics.”
Brian Josephson, head of the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge, was rejected on the grounds that “one of his principal research interests is the paranormal.”
Professor Josephson, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductivity, has long been one of the discipline’s more colourful figures.
In 2001, he attracted derision from some of his peers when he discussed telepathy in his contribution to a booklet issued to celebrate the centenary of the Nobel prizes.
Recent developments in quantum theory, theories of information and computation “may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research,” he wrote.
Speaking this week, Professor Josephson said: “I was keen to attend the conference and would have concentrated on the theoretical ideas and touched on the paranormal as only one aspect. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for cross-fertilisation.”
News of the exclusions led to what Dr. Towler described as a “great email storm.”
Even spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller joined in, and on 24 April Dr. Towler “renewed the invitation” to Dr. Peat and Professor Josephson but not to the third rejected participant, American theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti. Dr. Towler claimed Dr. Sarfatti had “written something like 100 emails” since his invitation was withdrawn, “many … suggesting that we are in the pay of the CIA”.
Dr. Peat agreed to participate while Professor Josephson was considering his position.