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Comments on Steven Pinker’s view of the Paranormal

by Brian D. Josephson, Ph.D.

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge
Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973

Brian Josephson
Dr. Brian D. Josephson

In a talk in his BBC Radio 4 series ‘Think with Pinker’, Steven Pinker asked ‘why do so many of us believe in so much quackery and flapdoodle?’, characterising extrasensory perception as ‘paranormal woowoo’. I can imagine such language slipping out in the course of casual conversation, but on the BBC, in a programme where the text must have been carefully thought out in advance?

Something must have led to this being said in such an uncritical manner, so I thought I’d email Pinker to find out what had led him to speak in this way in regard to the paranormal. In response he came up with two arguments. The first has, at first sight, a degree of plausibility, and is the following: if there really are people with the claimed paranormal abilities, they could use these to win consistently at betting, and we would learn about that. However (as described in a recent Guardian article) it seems this does not happen, because when such people start to win significant sums of money the bookies take note, responding to the threat that they pose by imposing limits on how much they are allowed to bet. As a result, we cannot safely infer that there are no people who can use their paranormal abilities to win large amounts at betting.

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Brian Josephson

Brian Josephson
Dr. Brian D. Josephson

Cavendish Laboratory
University of Cambridge
Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973

Biography
Cambridge Homepage

Comments on Steven Pinker’s view of the Paranormal

by Brian D. Josephson, Ph.D. Cavendish Laboratory, University of CambridgeNobel Laureate in Physics, 1973 Dr. Brian D. Josephson In a talk in his BBC Radio 4 series ‘Think with Pinker’, Steven Pinker asked ‘why do so many of us believe in so much quackery and flapdoodle?’, characterising extrasensory perception as ‘paranormal woowoo’. I can imagine...

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Pathological Disbelief: The Lindau Lecture

by Brian D. Josephson, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973 Nobel Laureates’ Annual Meeting, Lindau, Germany – June 30, 2004 (download slides) Dr. Brian D. Josephson Abstract: This talk mirrors “Pathological Science”, a lecture given by Chemistry Laureate Irving Langmuir (1). Langmuir discussed cases where scientists, on the basis of invalid processes, claimed the validity...

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Modern Skepticism: Western Civilization’s Scientific Wahhabism

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, October 25, 2019
© Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD

The history of scientific and medical research is pervaded with examples of denigration and suppression by a dominant scientific elite. In the absence of dissent, innovation and vision that promises progress and reform, a population succumbs to conformity and eventually stagnation. We only need to look at Iran under the control of ayatollahs, the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Wahhabi sect’s zealots in Saudi Arabia to get a snapshot of a repressive and ill culture that emerges when conformity is obligatory and dissent is outlawed and persecuted. Science, after it contorts into a secular religion unto itself, can likewise become totalitarian. Scientists are not less immune to bias, prejudice and fanaticism than the most staunch religious extremist. It is now time to make a concerted effort to expose the movement of modern Skepticism in its true colors.

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Medical Skepticism: Today’s Scientific Cultural Disease

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, August 5, 2019
© Richard Gale and Dr Gary Null PhD

Modern day Skepticism is one of those annoying contagions that won’t go away. It is rather like a persistent Candida yeast infection. It is painful to common sense. Worse, Skepticism flares up when you least expect it. On the internet, primarily on Wikipedia, its ideology and propaganda go largely unnoticed, camouflaged by sharp criticism serving as a non-appointed jury rather than an objective voice of logic. Therefore, we have no reservations in stating that the extreme scientific reductionism represented by Skepticism, especially biological and medical skepticism, is a serious threat to medical innovation, scientific discovery and in the long term public health. Although Skepticism has been a worldview dating back to the nineteenth century, today’s Skepticism is far more radicalized.

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Gary Null and Richard Gale

Founder and executive producer of the Progressive Radio Network, Gary and Richard respectively, shed light on skeptic skulduggery

Medical Skepticism: Today’s Scientific Cultural Disease

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, August 5, 2019 © Richard Gale and Dr Gary Null PhD Modern day Skepticism is one of those annoying contagions that won’t go away. It is rather like a persistent Candida yeast infection. It is painful to common sense. Worse, Skepticism flares up when you least expect it....

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Modern Skepticism: Western Civilization’s Scientific Wahhabism

Originally published on the Progressive Radio Network, October 25, 2019 © Richard Gale and Gary Null PhD The history of scientific and medical research is pervaded with examples of denigration and suppression by a dominant scientific elite. In the absence of dissent, innovation and vision that promises progress and reform, a population succumbs to conformity...

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The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich

A Skeptic’s Progress
by Ted Dace

After decades of concealing the mystical experience that wrenched open her mind at age 17, Barbara Ehrenreich was finally coming to grips with what happened that sunny morning in 1959. But now she faced a quandary. Long revered as a dedicated atheist, even accepting awards from organizations of “freethinkers,” a.k.a. skeptics, how could the noted author and theorist tell the world she’d once seen God – or if not God, at least the Other? By writing Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich courageously broke ranks, demonstrating that the scientific mind need not be burdened by ideological “skepticism.”

Atheism ran deep in her family. Her dad, who’d escaped the mines of Butte, Montana by way of an education in metallurgy, liked to regale the wife and kids Sunday mornings with classic atheist tracts. So when 12-year old Barbara Alexander began to question the point of existence, the one place she would never go for answers was religion. This complicated her task enormously. Paraphrasing Pascal, “How shall we redeem this obscene slaughter called history,” ask Will and Ariel Durant, “except by believing, with or against the evidence, that God will right all wrongs in the end?”

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Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?

Part 1: Birth of a Movement
by Guy Lyon Playfair

CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) [now simply CSI, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation] came into existence at the 1976 convention of the American Humanist Association (AHA) held in Buffalo, NY, from 30 April to 2 May.

Its two principal begetters, Professors Marcello Truzzi (sociology, Eastern Michigan University) and Paul Kurtz (philosophy, State University of New York) were both resolute sceptics with good track records as campaigners against the rapid spread of interest in occult and paranormal subjects that took place in the early 1970s following the publication of Colin Wilson’s best-seller The Occult (1971) and the dramatic appearance on the scene of Uri Geller.

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Richard Milton

British journalist and writer reviews books by dogmatic skeptics

Voodoo Science

Review of skeptic Robert L. Park’s book Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2001 “Even if you showed me the evidence … I still wouldn’t believe it.”– Dr. Jonathan Miller Dr. Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science, is professor of physics at the University of Maryland. He also runs the...

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The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Review of skeptic Robert Todd Carroll’s book The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, John Wiley and Sons, 2003 Robert Todd Carroll is one of a growing band of non-scientists – he teaches philosophy – who believe they are qualified to tell us what we should and shouldn’t believe...

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The Undergrowth of Science

Review of skeptic Walter Grazer’s book The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-deception and Human Frailty, Oxford University Press, 2000 In the film ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ there is a famous scene where religious fundamentalists (actually women wearing false beards) gather eagerly to stone to death a blasphemer who has profaned holy law. The further...

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The Enfield Poltergeist on “Sky TV” UK

What Hath Sky Wrought?
by Guy Lyon Playfair

Sky Living TV showed the first of three parts of its serial The Enfield Haunting on May 3, 2015 after a well-organised publicity campaign that sold quite a number of my book on the subject even before the screening.

It also generated some good news articles by reporters who had first-hand experience of the original events, notably Michael Hellicar of the Daily Mail, and Douglas Bence, a member of the Daily Mirror team who first covered the story and but for whom we might never have heard of the case.

The programme was seen by about 850,000 people. It was given a surprisingly good reception by both critics and viewers; the general consensus seemed to be that the film was very well made – and very scary.

But was it a fair account of what actually happened?

It got off to a good start with Timothy Spall, looking remarkably like the chief investigator of the incident Maurice Grosse, rolling up in a shiny red E-type Jaguar similar to Maurice’s.

He then met the four children, whose mother, convincingly played by Rosie Cavaliero, had been one of the the first witnesses to the early events:

  • the knocking on the walls
  • the chest of drawers sliding towards her
  • and the marbles and bits of Lego flying about when it seemed impossible that any of her kids could have thrown them.

Near the end of Part One, however, the story veered away from fact toward fiction.

Matthew Macfadyen, playing me, is levitated up to the ceiling – which never happened to me or anybody else as far as I know (except perhaps to D. D. Home 150 years ago).

Oh dear, I thouht, it’s going to be just another ‘horror’ film. Although viewers were assured at the start that the film purported to be ‘Based on Real Events’, that was just one of many incidents that were only very loosely based, if at all, on reality. The Jaguar, at least, was real.

More perplexing was the omission of a number of real events, some of them recorded by photographer Graham Morris on motor-drive sequences, which were as dramatic as anything Sky’s special effects wonks could come up with:

  • the self-twisting curtain
  • the bedclothes pulled off of Janet
  • the flying pillows
  • the gas fire wrenched out of the wall
  • the cushion materialising on the roof
  • Janet seen levitating from across the road
  • and the most dramatic incident of all, a book belonging to Janet apparently going through the wall into the house next door, where it was indeed found, there being no conceivable normal explanation for how it got there.

Also lacking was any mention of our efforts to record proper scientific evidence, which we did successfully for at least two of the phenomena:

  • the extraordinary male voice that spoke through Janet
  • the rappings we heard on many occasions on floors and walls.

The young Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who played Janet, is already an award-winning actress of whom I am sure we will hear more. She had a good go at producing the eerie male voice, but it did not sound in the least like an old man, as had the real Janet’s. Mention might have been made of the recordings we made with the laryngograph, which showed fairly conclusively that Janet was using her ‘false vocal folds’, not at all easy for an untrained person to use, let alone a 12-year old girl.

As for the raps, these have now been analysed by our colleague Barrie Colvin and shown to have acoustic signatures quite unlike the ‘control’ raps made by me at the time, which means they are not at all easy to fake. His lengthy report was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 2010 but was widely ignored.

Poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment; it may not occur to the producers of such programming that they cause real distress to ordinary, innocent people. If you were to visit your doctor complaining of a headache, for instance, how would you feel if you were told that there were no such things as headaches, that headaches had long ago been debunked by scientists as medieval superstitions, the imaginations of the childish, or that perennial favourite explanation of debunkers who never bother to investigate, ‘attention-seeking behavior’? This is just the kind of reaction poltergeist victims face regularly.

The Enfield family even faced it from the psychiatrist made responsible for the mental well-being of children, who, as it happened, refused even to see them. I should add that with the exception of this fellow the local council was very supportive and sympathetic, but the welfare officers I met pointed out, correctly, that they were not trained to deal with poltergeists. (Perhaps they should be!)

Throughout the Enfield case Society for Psychical Research members Maurice Grosse and I, along with about thirty other people, constantly witnessed incidents for which no normal explanation seems possible.

Poltergeist incidents have been reported for at least five hundred years. Yet we’ve never heard any serious discussion, violating much of what we think we know about science, about how they happen.

And why did they happen to this particular family when they do not to thousands of families in similar circumstances? It has been easiest for pseudoskeptics to dismiss the evidence en bloc and put it all down to childish ‘pranks’ – or to use it for fantasy entertainment.

So did Sky TV do well by the Enfield Poltergeist story? Well, yes and no. Poltergeist outbreaks are inherently dramatic, often more so in real life than they tend to be in fiction. The Enfield case was definitely one that needs no fictional additions.

Rupert Sheldrake

Articles by british scientist and author Rupert Sheldrake
on dogmatic skepticism.

Ofcom Finds Against National Geographic TV

Complaint by Scientist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake Upheld by Official Adjudication In August 2005, with many subsequent repeats, National Geographic TV Channel broadcast a programme called “Is It Real? Psychic Animals” (also called “Is It Real? Animal Oracles”) in which a professional media skeptic tried to debunk Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and Aimee Morgana’s research on the...

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The Skepticism of Believers

What I Have Changed My Mind Aboutby Rupert Sheldrake A reply to Edge.org’s “The Reality Club” Question of 2008 I used to think of skepticism as a primary intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth. I have changed my mind. I now see it as a weapon. Creationists opened my eyes. They use the techniques of...

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Controversies and Enquiries

by Rupert Sheldrake From: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, by Rupert Sheldrake, Broadway Books, 2011 “Almost all the people who have attacked me as a result of the research with animals described in this book have been fellows of CSICOP, militant atheists, or career skeptics, not professionals who actually know about...

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The Problem with Negative Media Skepticism

Dogmatic Skepticism Does Not Advance Scienceby Rupert Sheldrake After a recent exchange with Michael Shermer about the value of “positive” skepticism, I received the following letter from Rupert Sheldrake, the English biologist who is widely considered one of the leading thinkers in consciousness and post-Darwinian evolution. He offers a case in point about how fair...

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