Startling revelations concerning the U.S. Government-sponsored Project Star Gate remote viewing programme are contained in a recent book, The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Master Spy by Joseph McMoneagle – military remote viewer No. 001 – who by his retirement from the Army in 1984 had taken part in more than 1,500 intelligence tasks, receiving the Legion of Merit for his leading part in “a unique intelligence project that is revolutionizing the intelligence community”.
The “unique project” involved the use of Army personnel who were in effect trained to demonstrate clairvoyance on demand, sitting in their rundown hut in Fort Meade, Maryland or the rather more comfortable premises of SRI International in California, mentally travelling all over the world in search of terrorists, kidnap victims, hostages. crashed military aircraft, secret Soviet bases and much else besides.
There is more that we may never know about this pioneer programme of applied psi functioning. Dr Harold Puthoff, who was closely involved in setting up the project at SRI, has said in a televised interview that “at its height it was being used on almost every major security issue” and that there existed “file cabinets full of data that probably won’t be declassified in our lifetime”. (“Natural Mystery”, Channel 5 (UK), 24 July 2000).
Some data, at least, have been made public. The successful location of a crashed Soviet aircraft in Zaire was announced by no less than President Carter. McMoneagle gives full details of several cases from the search for kidnap victims General Dozier, Col. Higgins and CIA agent William Buckley to the spotting of a secret Soviet submarine and the prediction of the Skylab landing date and site.
There can be no doubt that McMoneagle and his fellow remote viewers proved again and again that people can be trained to demonstrate clairvoyance and put it to practical use in real-life situations, sometimes obtaining information that cannot be obtained by any other means. So, if Star Gate was such a success, how come it was scrapped? Not only that, but why did the CIA go to such lengths to claim that the project had never been of much use anyway? For this is exactly what they did. Back in 1986, the National Research Council had issued a report: Enhancing Human Performance, by David Goslin, who concluded that “little or no support was found for the usefulness of many other techniques such as… remote viewing”.
Eh? Did he look for such support in the right places, one wonders? As McMoneagle now reveals, no, he didn’t. He explains: “We were under direct orders during the 1986 study not to talk to the members of the NRC.blue-ribbon panel, and we didn’t. Not only did they not talk with us, they were denied access to any of the project’s remote viewing materials or historical files from 1979 through that study in 1986.”
In 1995, the CIA asked the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to set up another blue-ribbon panel to review work done since 1986, the president of AIR then being none other than David Goslin. He and his colleagues, who included the prominent skeptic Ray Hyman, duly announced that, among other things, remote viewing “failed to produce actionable intelligence”.
Now comes McMoneagle’s stun-grenade. The authors of the NRC and AIR reports did not have the necessary security clearances to do what they had been asked to do. “So, no one in either blue-panel review group has ever seen the information they claim to have had access to.” They did not see the remote viewers’ reports, they did not get any feedback from the people those reports were sent to, and they interviewed only a handful of newcomers to the Project. The AIR team did not even talk to McMoneagle although he offered his cooperation on several occasions. They seem to have gone out of their way to avoid anybody who actually knew anything about Star Gate. So much for Skeptical Inquiry in action.
One can only speculate as to why the CIA was so determined to rubbish a project they had known all about ever since they helped set it up. They must have known perfectly well what skilled viewers could deliver, which on at least one admitted occasion was good enough for the president. Yet they wanted the public to believe that it had all been a waste of time.
McMoneagle’s opinions are, perhaps, more valuable than those of the NRC and AIR teams (with the honorable exception of statistician Jessica Utts, who did her best to set the record straight in The Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 10, No. 1, 1996), which also has valuable contributions from Star Gate veterans Harold Puthoff, Russell Targ and Edwin May. These three knew as much about Star Gate as anybody involved in it, and so naturally were not invited to be panel members.
McMoneagle’s verdict on the use of psi for intelligence gathering: “I can emphatically state that it works, it’s here, and it will continue to be reinvented from time to time until it becomes part of the established, historically accepted background. Wishing it can’t, won’t, doesn’t make it go away.”
If the AIR team had really wanted to evaluate remote viewing, they might have been better off watching television. McMoneagle has now taken part in 22 live remote viewings, of which he reckons 17 were successful. The first of these, in 1995, was made by an exceptionally sympathetic team, LMNO Productions, and was shown on the ABC special “Put to the Test”. Yes, television does occasionally get it right.
British viewers saw him in action in the 1996 series “The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna”, in which he was only partially successful thanks to confusion with the protocol, for which hardline skeptic Dr Richard Wiseman was responsible.
One of McMoneagle’s most successful demonstrations was in front of those who attended a meeting at the Rhine Research Center. The ubiquitous Wiseman was again involved in changing the protocol to suit his requirements, which did not prevent 29 out of the 30 members of the audience matching McMoneagle’s drawing to the correct target out of a pool of five possible targets. Of this demonstration, shown on the Discovery channel, McMoneagle notes drily that “Richard has refused to discuss it since”.
“There is so much proof for the existence of psi,” he concludes, “it’s foolish to continue spending time, money, and effort ‘proving it’ to the satisfaction of idiots’.”
The paper ‘Using Neuroimaging to Resolve the Psi Debate’ by Samuel T. Moulton and Stephen M. Kosslyn (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20 (1), 2008) must have brought tidings of great joy to sceptics. Not only do the Harvard University psychologists claim their findings to be ‘the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena’, but add that if they are sufficiently replicated, ‘the case will become increasingly strong, with such certainty as is allowed in science, that psi does not exist.’
They reach these conclusions after a lengthy series of telepathy/clairvoyance tests in which sixteen closely bonded pairs (parent/child, brother/sister, twin, roommate) took part. One of each pair was put in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, enabling the researchers to see the brain at work as it dealt with incoming stimuli, while the other was taken to another room, shown a picture and asked to transmit it mentally to the one in the machine, who was shown the same picture plus a control one, and asked to guess which one had supposedly been sent by psi by pressing a button.
Results were almost exactly at the 50% chance level (1842 correct guesses out of 3687, or 49.9%). The authors found no differences at all in the brain scans made when guesses were right or wrong. Hence their conclusions quoted above.
They do concede that there is evidence for what many believe to be psi, and cite one of Louisa Rhine’s spontaneous cases in which a mother woke at 4 am feeling her son was calling to her for help, and learned later that he had been shot at exactly that time.
Ah, they say, but this is only anecdotal evidence, which is known to be beset by ‘cognitive bias’, ‘availability error’, ‘confirmation bias’, ‘illusion of control’ and ‘bias blind spot’. One or more of these ‘may explain apparently paranormal evidence that people report’. In any case, ‘the positive evidence that has been reported is merely ‘anomalous’,’ and ‘despite widespread public belief in [psi] phenomena and over 75 years of experimentation, there is no compelling evidence that psi exists.’
Having thus dismissed all human testimony because of its ‘inherent uninterpretability’ (an attitude fortunately not adopted in courts of law), the authors reveal their own set of biases by giving a shamefully sloppy and tendentious account of previous lab experiments. Researchers from Myers to Honorton and Sheldrake who have reported positive results are mentioned briefly in passing without readers being given much idea of what they actually did. Meta-analyses are dismissed with a wave of the hand because of their ‘instability’. No mention of the frequently replicated decline or sheep-goat effects. More inexcusably, no mention either of at least five MRI studies (Standish, Achterberg, Kozak et al.)* that did find evidence for psi. So why didn’t Moulton and Kosslyn?
The obvious answer: there wasn’t any in their experiments. Or if there was, the signal was lost in the noise as receivers were asked to make 240 guesses over a 90-minute period. They could not possibly have reached the relaxed state essential for telepathic reception in an hour and a half of non-stop guessing and button pressing.
It seems from the authors’ general tone that this was the result they wanted and expected, and although they concede that ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’ the title of their paper strongly implies that the psi debate has been solved. One negative result has cancelled more than a century of positive ones.
No serious psi researcher would ever claim to have proved psi to exist. Proof, in 21st century science, is confined to mathematics. Elsewhere, there are only probabilities, and as all those meta-analyses have shown, despite their alleged and undefined ‘instabilities’, the probability that all published (by definition no longer anecdotal) case histories and controlled lab experiments can be explained by chance alone is microscopic to the point of invisibility.
The real debate is between those on whose research these findings are soundly based and those who list spurious reasons to reject that research en bloc. If articles like this one continue to be published, the debate will go on for ever.
* For a summary, see R.A.Charman (2006). ‘Direct brain to brain communication – further evidence from EEG and fMRI studies.’ Paranormal Review October, 3-9.
Nancy Zingrone argues that whereas parapsychology has made substantial scientific progress in the past 120 years, techniques of criticism have not advanced correspondingly. Ms Zingrone suggests that this state of affairs is partly self-inflicted. Parapsychologists have been too willing to accept inadequate standards of criticism from the skeptical community. This article outlines four ways in which critics have failed to go the distance in their approach to psychical research and parapsychology and seeks to put the skeptics on notice – tolerance of inadequate, incomplete, and unfair criticism is a thing of the past.
Over the history of psychical research and parapsychology, in the exchanges between critics and proponents, it has been the critics who have set the agenda. Critics have claimed the right to set the standards by which research in our discipline must be conducted. Further, critics have kept us from equal participation in the negotiation of what constitutes appropriate standards for their critical enterprise. As our discipline has progressed, we have accumulated what appears to be, at least to us, a fairly consistent set of claims about the reality of the phenomena under study, about the conditions under which the phenomena are likely to occur, and about the persons who are likely to show what seems to be psychic ability in life and in the laboratory. That is, since the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, we have made substantial progress in the scientific sense. We have done this beyond the boundaries of mainstream science, without adequate funding or personnel, and, at many points, under siege from opponents, skeptics, and critics. When useful and productive criticism has been levelled against us from without, or brought up from within, we have profitted methodologically and otherwise. We have valued the impact of useful criticism on our science. But, unfortunately, not all criticism is useful.
When I look over the history of criticism itself, it seems to me that the critical enterprise has not progressed much methodologically over these last 120 years. Perhaps this lack of progress stems from the unwillingness or inability of critics to take criticism, to draw lessons from the reception their work receives in our community. This sad state of affairs is partly our own fault. We have allowed critics who “fail to go the distance” in scientific terms to flourish among us. We have joined the scientific community and the skeptical/critical community in rewarding inadequate and unfair criticism. We suffer frequently and without protest the proliferation of criticism that is out-of-date by many decades or inherently flawed methodologically or statistically. Worse still we have, on occasion, behaved as if any critical claim, no matter how superficial, no matter how wrong-headed, is vastly preferable to any positive claim. We have rewarded critics who save for themselves what the magical community calls “multiple outs”, that is, ways to preserve the contents of their criticism against all evidence to the contrary. We have often rewarded critics who perform a kind of rhetorical and scientific sleight of hand, but who, on the basis of their prominence in other fields or in the popular culture, just seem too important to call to task, however useless their message.
Of course, critics have long accused us of constructing and maintaining multiple outs for ourselves, of setting up unfalsifiable hypotheses, of preserving our phenomena at all costs, of fitting our results to our beliefs rather than modifying our beliefs as the results accrue. Critics themselves, however, have been as guilty of this behaviour as we have been, if not more so. But because critics have been able, historically, to set the agenda, they have so far avoided being held accountable for their failings. They raise doubts – frequently without evidence of any kind – and once raised, they “dine out” on these doubts. They rest secure in the knowledge that it takes less effort and less intellect to raise doubts than to answer the empirical questions inherent in the doubts. We, on the other hand, are expected to lay those doubts to rest whether they are reasonable or not, and in spite of the fact that doing so is often a debilitating detour from our own scientific agenda, costing us many more hours of work and dollars of funding than we have to give.
It is my belief that the time has come for us to put the critical community on notice – tolerance of inadequate, incomplete, and unfair criticism is a thing of the past. To be heard and to have an impact, future criticism will have to “go the distance”. Some critics are like lazy runners who begin the foot-race with their colleagues, agreeing to the rules of the run at the outset, but somehow circumventing those rules along the way. Seldom seen on the track between the starting gate and the finish line, they still appear in the winner’s circle after the race, diverting attention from their own failings by turning a critical eye towards others. Their effort serves no one completely, least of all the pursuit of knowledge. In our difficult discipline, it may well do us harm to open the gates of the winner’s circle to them. It is about time we drew attention to these lazy runners, about time we recognized their failure to go the distance, about time we demanded that they at least run the race with us.
In this paper I will outline four ways in which critics have failed to go the distance in their approach to psychical research and parapsychology. These failures fall under four headings: a lack of critical thinking; a lack of self-reflection; a lack of openness to communication; and a lack of interest in the consequences of their criticism.
A Lack of Critical Thinking
There are three ways in which critics exhibit a lack of critical thinking. Firstly, critics often propose conventional hypotheses to explain those phenomena which seem paranormal without providing any acceptable evidence to support their claims, either in general or in particular.
One example of this practice can be found in the writings of an otherwise fairly responsible and informed critic, James E. Alcock. A professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Alcock has made a name for himself publishing articles and books that criticise psychical research and parapsychology (Alcock 1979, 1981, 1987). In one of his more recent essays (1996), he has suggested a variety of explanations for spontaneous experiences, among them coincidence, subliminal and subconscious perceptions and misperceptions, and the common experiential histories of the experiencers. All of these counter-explanations are plausible in general, and should, of course, be tested in the first stages of analysis of any ostensibly psychic experience. However, even a cursory understanding of the literature of psychical research makes it obvious that these counter-explanations can not be applied reasonably to all reported experiences, much less all properly investigated experiences. Yet Alcock and other critics apply such notions in a blanket fashion to any and all seemingly psychic experiences, past, present, or future. When he offers these counter-explanations Alcock neither cites research to support their goodness-of-fit to the data that exists, nor does he attempt to apply them to data he has gathered himself. Like many critics he merely raises the doubt, and then reifies his own unwillingness to do research into a principle: that it is the responsibility of our community to test his hypotheses and not his. (Alcock has done some valuable work on the correlates of belief, however. See, for example, Alcock & Otis, 1980; Otis & Alcock, 1982)
Alcock is not alone in refraining from making claims that are unsupported by either his own research or that of others. A wide variety of other examples are easy to find in the critical literature. Take, for example, Andrew Neher (1980), who, in a discussion of auras, once stated that: “The expectation of seeing an aura is, of course, sufficient to produce the perception of an aura in some individuals with strong imagery” (p. 187). Not only had virtually no systematic work been done on aura vision reports when Neher made his statement, but even work conducted since then has not tested for a correlation between expectancy sets and aura vision. In fact, only one recent study has found that aura claimants reported more vivid imagery in general than did those who do not claim to have experienced aura vision (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1994). Although, much support for the point Neher made was not available when he made the point, 2 the lack of supporting research – his and others – did not stop him from making sweeping causal claims about the experiences.
Zusne and Jones (1989) make equally strong and equally unsupported claims about the causal underpinnings of auras. They said “A person who has strong imagery and expects to see auras because of his religious upbringing, for instance, will see auras even though no corresponding sensory event is taking place” (p. 80). Their support for this contention rests, surprisingly, on historical anecdotes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Baron Karl von Reichenbach’s claims to have seen an “Odic force” around magnets. Their statement is plausible, of course, and would be a useful hypothesis to test. But, neither Zusne nor Jones seem daunted by the fact that no scientific data existed at the time to support their specific claim, nor did they personally feel the need to do the appropriate research.3
Secondly, when critics do provide “evidence” to support their counter-claims, they are often uncritical of the source and validity of that evidence. For example, Zusne and Jones were perfectly willing to hark back to a single experiment they conducted but never published (Zusne & Jones, 1978), citing it as a failed replication, and on which flimsy foundation they placed evidential weight for the non-existence of ESP. Similarly, Martin Gardner included this paragraph in his 1983 work, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener:
“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.” (p. 60)
Because a search of the literature turns up very few disconfirmatory experiments by skeptics – whether one searches in psychology, in parapsychology or in the skeptical and critical literatures – one must assume Gardner is referring to informal, unpublished results. Honorton (1993) commented on this particular passage: “Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction” (p. 194).
Paul Kurtz’s comment (1978) in a Skeptical Inquirer article provides another example:
“The basic problem, however, is the lack of replicability by other experimenters. Apparently, some experimenters – a relative few – are able to get similar results, but most are unable to do so (p. 21).”
To whom is Kurtz referring when he says “most”? No references are given to either the successful or the unsuccessful replicators in this instance, although a little farther along in the same article, in a critique of the then-fledgling ganzfeld research, Kurtz remarked (p. 25):
“But given the sad experience in the past with other alleged breakthroughs, we should be cautious until we can replicate results ourselves. Moreover, we do not know how many negative results go unreported. (I should say that I have never had positive results in any testing of my students over the years.)”
The implication of this passage is unavoidable: that informal, unreferenced, unpublished student research outweighs, evidentially, the entire experimental base of scientific parapsychology. The skeptical argument is then that:
1. scientific disconfirmatory “evidence” exists (which can not be substantiated in Gardner’s or Kurtz’s case);
2. informal experiments conducted in the classroom with students count as evidence (an assertion our community would never be allowed to make);
3. a single unpublished experiment counts as evidence if the author conducted the experiment him – or herself (as in the Zusne and Jones example).
These assertions set up instances of private (or non-existent) research as equivalent or superior to the formal experiments published in refereed journals in our field. It does not take a close reading of these examples to conclude that some critics apply lower standards of evidence to the support they provide for their own positions than they would ever allow proponents to apply to theirs.
One egregious example of this double standard comes from the writings of James Alcock. To support the notion that seemingly precognitive dreams might have cryptomnesic components (an altogether reasonable assumption), Alcock (1981) used an unreferenced anecdote from “psychologist Carson Bock” (p. 86). Bock apparently told Alcock that, while being coaxed through a tunnel as a therapeutic exercise, a patient of Bock’s claimed to have dreamed about the tunnel the night before. The patient, Alcock wrote, was later told about an article published years before in which a photograph of the tunnel appeared. The patient remembered having seen it then. Bock believed that the memory must have bubbled to the surface in the patient’s dreams the night before his session because he had recently arrived at the hospital (and this was a detail about the hospital which the patient had locked away in his memory). Whether the article included photographs of other sites in the hospital, Alcock does not say, nor – on the other side of the evidential coin – does Alcock mention whether or not the patient knew about Bock’s use of the tunnel in his therapeutic practice and could therefore have been expected to single out that site in his anticipatory dream as being of potentially personal importance.
Of course, it is possible that some seemingly precognitive dreams can be explained by coincidence, by cryptomnesia, or by unconscious knowledge of other sorts. Alcock would have been on firm ground if he had used Bock’s patient’s experience as a rhetorical device to illustrate a brief review of scientific evidence supporting his point.4
If the author using anecdote in this weak way had been someone other than Alcock, I would be more disposed to afford some latitude here, given that the most relevant scientific studies were published in our literature and most critics and skeptics seem to be woefully unfamiliar with the content of our journals. Alcock is, however, quite familiar with our literature: yet he chose to offer the Bock anecdote without qualification or support, as evidence in and of itself. Given his level of scholarship in psychical research and parapsychology, one could also have expected that Alcock might have attempted to apply cryptomnesia as an explanation, however briefly, to some published case of an ostensible precognitive dream. But he apparently did not feel the need to contextualise his friend’s experience with his patient, nor to qualify the debatable point he seemed to be implying, that all, most, or even many seemingly precognitive dreams are cryptomnesic.
If one reads the articles Alcock published before 1981, it is obvious that Alcock does not see anecdote as proper scientific evidence. This is a common stance in science in general, and in psychical research and parapsychology as well. It is not at all unreasonable (e.g., Thouless, 1969, 1972), even though some of us would argue that close study of anecdotal material can be very fruitful, scientifically-speaking. A reading of Alcock’s review of parapsychology as a science that appeared in an early issue of Skeptical Inquirer (Alcock, 1979) underscores his rejection of anecdote as evidence. In this review, Alcock criticised Osis and Haraldsson’s (1977a) summary of the evidence for survival provided by their death-bed vision research. In their book, At The Hour of Death, Osis and Haraldsson (1977b) presented the results of Osis’s pilot study and their own extensive replication of survey and interview research conducted with doctors and nurses in the US and in India. In their studies, Osis and Haraldsson had asked respondents if they had ever observed dying patients, if within this set of observations they had ever observed behaviours that seemed to indicate that the patient had experienced a death-bed vision, and if so, to describe that experience as they observed it.5 Osis and Haraldsson also sought experiences in which patients had recounted such a death-bed vision to the respondents as well as experiences in which the doctors or nurses themselves witnessed something around the dying patient which seemed to them to be indicative of such an experience, even if the patient did not report such an experience personally.
Setting aside the fact that the research was based on a survey which is certainly an acceptable method of research, and setting aside the fact that the anecdotes, albeit second-hand, were gathered systematically from credible witnesses first as reports and then through follow-up elaborative interviews, Alcock (1979) says: “However, can we have any confidence in the veridicality of the patients’ reports? The authors in this case didn’t even interview the patients … . [Osis and Haraldsson] … argue that these trained observers are likely to be more accurate in their accounts of what the patients reported than would be the patients themselves. This is difficult to accept, of course, since what they were really doing was asking for anecdotal reports about the observer’s impressions of what a patient was experiencing in a situation that occurred in all likelihood years before” (p. 29, my emphasis).
Although Alcock’s concerns about the veridicality of the reports as depictions of the patients’ first-hand experience are reasonable, his characterization of the research and its goals as inherently and weakly anecdotal is simplistic and misleading in the extreme. Osis’s pilot study on the topic (Osis, 1961) made a point of labelling the phenomena of interest as “hallucinatory behaviour” which gave the appearance that patients had had a deathbed vision (p. 10, my emphasis). Osis and Haraldsson were well-aware of the methodological advantages and disadvantages of their approach. They devoted a number of pages, in both the pilot study and in the replication, to a discussion (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977a) of efforts they made to improve on previous death-bed vision case collections. Such early case collections as that conducted by William Barrett (1926) had compiled experiences from any observer; from family members who might reasonably be assumed to be compromised observers operating under extreme emotional and psychological duress, and from dying patients whose perceptive faculties could reasonably be assumed to be compromised by either their medical condition or by the treatment they were receiving. It is equally obvious that Osis and Haraldsson were well aware that, by surveying individuals who had merely observed these behaviours, they were working at one remove. But for them, the key element in choosing doctors and nurses was to obtain accounts from skilled, dispassionate observers (Osis & Haraldsson, p. 14). In addition, they had hoped, in both the pilot study and the replication attempt, to interview experiencers and other witnesses directly.
Unfortunately, in both studies, respondents were unwilling to provide specific details necessary for further corroboration such as the names of the dying persons, their family members or other witnesses. Indeed, some respondents were even unwilling to provide the exact dates on which their observations occurred (p. 15), presumably to prevent Osis and Haraldsson from obtaining identifying information from other sources such as medical records.
One additional and very important advantage of focusing on physicians and nurses in both studies was that Osis and Haraldsson could ask questions about their respondents’ general experience with dying patients so as to assess the prevalence of death-bed-related hallucinatory behaviours and subsequent apparent mood changes attributed by the patients to such experiences. Having access to expert medical testimony also allowed Osis, in the pilot study, to compare the reported content of the experiences of terminal patients with non-terminal ones, and Osis and Haraldsson, in the replication, to look more deeply at the impact of a variety of medical, psychological, and cultural variables on the type and content of reported experiences.
By the time Osis’s pilot study and the Osis and Haraldsson cross-cultural study were combined with a general treatment of the background of deathbed visions into At the Hour of Death (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977b), the authors had begun to make a strong case that their work provided evidence in support of the survival hypothesis. Still, even with that rhetorical bent, the book provided a fairly detailed description of the methodology used in both studies (see, for example, pp. 28-37) as well as a fairly complete tabular presentation of the results (pp. 223-238). Rather than deal with the empirical content of the book in his article, however, Alcock’s “horror of anecdote” argument hinged on the gross over-simplification “The authors in this case didn’t even interview the patients …” (Alcock, 1979, p. 29). He rejected the interviews with doctors and nurses a priori, never giving any indication that Osis and Haraldsson understood the methodological risks of such interviews. In addition, although the point is made in passing in their book (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977b) – and not in the detail in which it appears in the scientific reports (Osis, 1961; Osis & Haraldsson, 1977a) – it is obvious even to casual readers that the authors of At the Hour of Death had hoped, from the beginning of the decade-long research program, to interview the patients themselves when possible, or their family members and other witnesses when not. It was only the unwillingness of the doctors and nurses to share identifying information that thwarted this aim. (This is not to dwell on the fact that, given that the experiencers, by definition, would have either already died at the time the study was conducted or have been further into the process of dying, first-hand interviews would have been difficult, if not impossible or unethical, in most cases.)
One must assume that Alcock understood what he read. Perhaps the pro-survival tone of the book influenced his ability to take in the details of the underlying research and thus, he felt pushed into focusing on what he saw as the anecdotal nature of their research. Or perhaps, like many critics, he deliberately oversimplified his description of the work so as to make it an easier target for ridicule. Alcock’s review does not show that he has an understanding of the unexpected logistical difficulties that often bedevil even the most well-thought-out research program (and one would presume that he does have such an understanding, given that he has conducted survey research himself). One wonders what Alcock would have done if, after gathering thousands of questionnaires and conducting scores of interviews, he found that doctors and nurses could not be convinced to provide the necessary information to do what first-hand interviews were possible. Would Alcock have scrapped the project and left the data he obtained unanalyzed on some forgotten shelf? I doubt it. More likely, as Osis and Haraldsson did, Alcock would have made a reasonable, albeit pragmatic, decision to investigate a set of claims the best way possible, to analyze the data obtained, and to report the findings with the proper qualifications. Because they made that reasonable pragmatic decision, Osis’s and Haraldsson’s efforts resulted in a creative and important contribution to the literature on survival.
It is likely that Alcock was making a pragmatic rhetorical decision6 to set aside his distaste for anecdote in order to use Carson Bock’s patient’s tale “as is”, even though at the time there were relevant scientific articles available in our literature on cryptomnesia and in the mainstream psychological literature on forgotten memory with which this anecdote could have been scientifically contextualised. Apparently, however, Alcock’s ability to make pragmatic decisions does not translate into the ability to understand the pragmatic decisions of others. Instead of discussing, acknowledging, or even quibbling with the methodological constraints faced by Osis and Haraldsson as they conducted their studies, and in spite of the systematic methods they used to collect the data they did analyze and present, Alcock dismissed the entire research program as merely anecdotal and, by implication, useless and unscientific. At the same time in his own prose, Alcock was perfectly happily to rely on one unreferenced and unexamined story from one lone clinician drawn from one personal caseload.7
One can read the Alcock examples even more closely. Was Alcock tacitly evoking a corollary to the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Was he telling us that conventional claims require no evidence at all? Certainly this seems to be what Zusne and Jones, Neher, Gardner and Kurtz are saying when they rely on their own unpublished, informal experiments, on untested generalisations, or on a mythological body of “evidence” to bolster their points. If so, this is a corollary that we are well within our rights as scientists to reject categorically: All explanations, conventional or extraordinary, require real evidence.
A third way in which skeptics and critics betray a lack of critical thinking is their frequent inability to be self-critical. One would expect that if they reflected for a moment on the force of their arguments, they would understand the need for “real” evidence when any conjecture is being made. But this does not seem to happen. One would also expect that critics and skeptics would understand that, having proposed conventional hypotheses, they are the scientists who are in the best position to test these hypotheses. In general, critics have not taken up the challenge of their own conjectures. Finally, one would expect that critics would be able to apply their critical sense to themselves – to their biases, their habits, and the complications that arise from their disciplinary identities.
The fact that some critics – such as Chester Kellogg and John L. Kennedy in the 1940s, and Susan Blackmore and David Marks in the 1980s, and Richard Wiseman and Christopher French in recent years – have been or are now active scientists in this domain is laudable. However, the problem of self-reflection also plagues even the most accomplished of these. There have been instances in which critics have set up criteria to test the claims of the paranormal that are so arbitrary and self-limiting as to be almost beside the point. It is almost as if some critics avoid designing experiments that might provide evidence that would disconfirm their own dearly-held beliefs. Although it is difficult to design experiments that test our treasured hypotheses or to think about the goodness-of-fit of our preferred methodologies to the question at hand, this kind of intellectual flexibility is one of the most important tools of science. Just as critics have a right to expect us to think deeply about why and how we conduct our research, we have a right to expect critics to do the same.
Unfortunately, a number of modern examples force one to assume that critics and skeptics have no difficulty designing experiments so as to ensure that confirmatory evidence, if it has the bad taste to appear, can be rhetorically ignored. A recent set of experiments conducted by Richard Wiseman and his colleagues (Wiseman, Smith & Milton, 1998) seems to fall into this category. These experiments center around the reported phenomena of the “psychic pet” (Brown & Sheldrake, 1998; Sheldrake & Smart, 1997; Sheldrake & Smart, 1998; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000b). In 1994, the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake with a dog named Jaytee was publicized by the British press. The owner of the dog, Pamela Smart, had claimed that Jaytee seemed to know when she was returning home. Sheldrake set up a series of observational tests of this claim, moving from hand-recording of the dog’s behaviour to videotaping, plotting the data graphically as he went along (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, pp. 225-226; Sheldrake, 2000, p. 127; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 238-239). In this series Sheldrake and Smart tested a variety of normal hypotheses for the dog’s behaviour by varying the distances from which Smart travelled to come home, the length of her absence, and the vehicles in which she travelled (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, p. 222; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 236-237). Richard Wiseman and his colleagues, in response to an invitation from Sheldrake, decided to test Jaytee for themselves, using the video equipment Sheldrake had set up for the purpose. Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments both preceded and succeeded Wiseman’s four experiments (Sheldrake, 2000, p. 126; Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, pp. 222-223; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 237).
Ultimately Wiseman and his team published their report in the British Journal of Psychology (Wiseman et al., 1998) and Sheldrake and Smart published their work in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998) and in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a). In the Wiseman, Smith, and Milton experiments, Wiseman and his colleagues developed an operational definition of the dog’s behaviour which was not based on Sheldrake’s original research but rather on a media simplification of the phenomena.8 In his videotaped experiments and in the observational studies that preceded them, Sheldrake tested the claim made by Pamela Smart, Jaytee’s owner, that her dog frequently exhibited what appeared to be a possibly paranormal anticipatory pattern of behaviour with some specific features. For example, Smart had claimed that Jaytee waited by the window when she was on her way home, sometimes coming to the window to wait slightly before she formed the intention. Rather than test whether or not Jaytee, in fact, showed such anticipatory behaviour, Wiseman and his group chose to test specifically the media claim that the dog “always goes to the window … when her owner starts home” (Wiseman, et al., p. 454). To test this claim, they devised a method of analysis which effectively discarded all of the behavioural data they collected except that which occurred during a 10-minute block of time beginning at the point at which the outbound experimenter (Smith) and the owner (Smart) began the journey home. Each experiment was captured on three hours of video-tape which was then segmented into 18 10-minute observational blocks. Two additional criteria were used: Firstly, if Jaytee visited the window during the target block, no other conventional reason should be visible to explain the visit to the window and if such a reason did exist then Jaytee could not be said to be responding to his “signal”. Secondly, if, Jaytee visited the window for “no obvious reason” (Wiseman et al., p. 455) before the target block, any activity during the target block, even if it occurred for “no reason” was disregarded.9
Before the Wiseman team went to press with their four experiments, Sheldrake reanalyzed the data Wiseman and his team discarded as beyond the area of their interest and found that it confirmed the broader claim Smart had originally made, and in fact, when graphically presented, replicated very closely Jaytee’s pattern of anticipatory behaviour obtained in the subset of the Sheldrake-Smart experiments completed at that point.
Wiseman et al. have disagreed that their data replicated Sheldrake and Smart’s data, of course. Further, in preparing their own paper for publication, although they were aware of it, they completely ignored Sheldrake’s reanalysis. Wiseman argued that Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments were unpublished at the time Sheldrake presented the reanalysis to them and that the “only claim that had been made about Jaytee’s abilities at the time of [their] … experiment” was the one they chose to test (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 47), that is, the media claim. Wiseman and his group have also said that they were unsure when they were shown the reanalysis whether Sheldrake had been analyzing the Sheldrake/Smart data in terms of behavioural patterns plotted on a graph before Wiseman et al. completed their segmented analysis (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 47-48), or that Sheldrake and Smart had instituted that procedure only when the disconfirmatory results of the Wiseman group became known. Wiseman offered these arguments to explain why no mention of Sheldrake’s reanalysis was made in their published paper, and why Wiseman and his team continue to characterise their four experiments as having settled the debate on “psychic pets” once and for all (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 48)10.
I will speculate later as to why Wiseman and his colleagues seem to categorically dismiss the publication of the observational experiments that were not videotaped, even though these experiments were published in a peer-reviewed journal – this journal – in 1998. Further, considering that the Wiseman team must have been in contact with, even in consultation with Sheldrake and Smart as they designed their experiments, it is also exceedingly difficult to believe that they did not know what the underlying scientific question was and thus were forced to fall back on the simplistic media claim. Finally, the assertion that the graphical reanalysis of Jaytee’s behaviour might have been a kind of post hoc data manipulation on Sheldrake’s part designed to counter the fact that the Wiseman team considered their own results to be disconfirmatory is an exceptionally weak argument for the reasons I will outline below.
Firstly, the data Sheldrake reanalyzed and presented in a graphical form to Wiseman before his paper was submitted to the British Journal of Psychology were gathered by the Wiseman team themselves. Consequently, whether or not Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments were complete or had been published in a peer-review journal is altogether beside the point. The issue at the heart of Sheldrake’s reanalysis – that the data Wiseman and his team collected and discarded appeared to support the claim that Jaytee showed what seemed to be anticipatory paranormal behavior – is separate from the issue of whether or not the Sheldrake/Smart analytical methodology had been tested by peer review and published. Sheldrake’s claims about the Wiseman team’s own data could easily have been checked – in terms of the accuracy of the data as it was plotted, the appropriateness of the statistical method used to analyze it and the shape of the plots that resulted, considering that the Wiseman team could have had no objection to the data itself. Had the Wiseman team cared to do so they could have raised Sheldrake’s reanalysis and their examination of it in their BPS paper, presenting their arguments for their dismissal of it. Such a discussion would have lent some rhetorical and substantive weight to subsequent arguments with which they have attempted to justify the operational definition of Jaytee’s behaviour they devised. Secondly, in the meeting in which Wiseman received the reanalysis, he could easily have asked Sheldrake how he had been analyzing the data he had collected before and after the Wiseman team began to publicize their findings. Indeed, one wonders why the Wiseman team did not know this seemingly key detail about Sheldrake’s experiments before they conducted their own experiments, considering that they were stepping into a pre-existing research program. Because Wiseman et al. appear not to have asked this simple question, one gets the impression that, at worst, the Wiseman team did not trust Sheldrake as a scientist (why else would one design an experiment completely without the benefit of essential knowledge of pre-existing research on the same topic) or at best, did not trust Sheldrake as an informant about his own work (which implies an assessment of competence and honesty that the Wiseman team has not made public). Further, even after the publication of the Sheldrake/Smart experiments, the Wiseman team have proceeded in print and in public as if no reanalysis of their own data had ever been done – that is, they have continued to privilege the simplistic media claim they tested over the underlying scientific question that was at the root of Sheldrake’s research program with Jaytee. Is this acceptable science practice? One wonders.
If the Wiseman team found Sheldrake and Smart less than credible as scientific colleagues or informants, I and others (Radin, 2001, p. 237) have found the conclusions promulgated by the Wiseman team to be less than credible as well. To build a case that a scientist is worthy of credibility, that scientist must also show the ability to be self-critical (and is, therefore, a trustworthy informant). In order to establish credibility in the realm of published scientific results, the author of any experimental report must follow the conventions of science practice both as regards the conducting of experiments and as regards the structure of the report (Bazerman, 1988). One such important element is “explicit intertextuality” (p. 324-325), rhetorician of science Charles Bazerman’s term for the need to embed one’s experiment – and especially the report of it – in the appropriate scientific surround. That is, a scientific report must show evidence that the experimenter or group who authored the report have taken the scientific “measure” of the claim they say they have tested. That is, they must show evidence that they have read the relevant published literature, and if a published literature does not already exist, it is expected that they will show evidence in their report that they have taken the time to discover from the relevant experimenters what has been done previously in all the essential details. If it is apparent from the published report that these criteria have been fulfilled, the arguments made in the report – whether confirmatory or disconfirmatory – carry more rhetorical weight in the sense that they are more convincing, more satisfying in a substantive sense, and more useful scientifically.11
A convincing disconfirmatory study was conducted by J. M. Kmetz (1978) and published in the Skeptical Inquirer. The series of experiments reported in Kmetz’s paper were designed to replicate Cleve Baxter’s work on the supposed “primary perception” of plants and lower organisms. In his report, Kmetz described his evident willingness to test the underlying scientific claim seriously and to involve Baxter in the process of methodological refinement as the replication attempts proceeded. Kmetz’s respectful treatment of Baxter and his descriptions of his efforts to test Baxter’s claims fairly combined to make the report of his disconfirmatory results quite convincing. This was true even though Kmetz’s paper appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer.
The ability to be self-critical should also extend to the discipline in which the scientist operates. Are the methods of our own corner of science practice the appropriate ones for the task at hand? The inability to ask this question leads to a kind of scientific ethnocentrism which I think also complicates the Sheldrake/Smart-Wiseman et al. example. Wiseman’s team are experimental psychologists and Sheldrake is a biologist. Had Wiseman’s team been comparative psychologists who routinely work with animals, examining their purposive behaviour as it unfolds over time, they might have shared some operationalising or analytical ground with Sheldrake, or at least, shown more understanding of the content of his original claim. Operationalising complex behaviour into simplistic tasks for the purpose of analysis is a fairly common practice for experimental psychologists. (The reduction of Jaytee’s anticipatory behaviour to a single 10-minute block out of a three-hour observational period is an example of such a reductionistic operationalism.) Obviously reductionism is not useless as science practice, but it can have severely limited usefulness when the original phenomena is truncated beyond all meaningful recognition. Rhine’s operationalisation of spontaneous psychic experiences into card-guessing tasks was roundly criticized for obscuring the complexity of those experiences for the purpose of providing crude proof of extrasensory perception (e.g., Tyrrell, 1948a, p. 37; 1948b, pp. 85-86). Because Rhine’s operationalism at least tested the original claim, however, even in a limited way, the results are still useful as the bedrock upon which modern experimentation has been built. This is so even though the complexity of the phenomena (both in terms of the target material, the response modality and the subjective experience of the participant/experiencer) has been re-established (Alvarado, 1998, pp. 40-42).
When the experimental test is not an adequate test of the original claim, however, and indeed, discards relevant evidence, science is not served. One clue that a kind of disciplinary enthnocentrism may have blinded the Wiseman team to the inappropriateness of their analytical methodology lies in their apparent inability to accept any mode of analysis other than the one they chose as anything other than post hoc (that is, illegitimate). Another clue that interdisciplinary ethnocentrism has blinded them is their statement that: “the Science Unit of Austrian State Television carried out one of the first formal experiments with Jaytee” (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 46). This statement sets aside the observational experiments Sheldrake had done before the Austrian television demonstration event.12 Observational studies may not normally be accepted as scientific evidence in those areas of experimental psychology in which the emphasis is on the definition of specific tasks and the accuracy or timing of task completion. However, such observational studies are common in comparative psychology and in biology in which the emphasis is on animals and their behaviour, both in captivity and in the wild, in response to natural or manipulated conditions. In these disciplines, systematic observation of behaviour is an accepted experimental tool for the development of scientific knowledge (and because variables can be introduced or controlled for in such investigations, the term “experiment” can be appropriate). Typically in such observational studies and experiments, data is gathered and analysed in exactly the same way Sheldrake analysed his data. Therefore, Sheldrake’s comment that “the plotting of graphs is not normally regarded as a controversial procedure in science” (Sheldrake, 2000, p. 127) can be seen as underscoring the differences between what is normal science practice to him and what is normal science practice to Wiseman and his group. Set in a comparative psychology or biology context, the operationalism and method of analysis used by the Wiseman team was wide of its mark, analogous to the poor soul who drops his or her keys in the middle of a dark patch and then looks for them under the light, no matter how far away the light might be from the point at which the keys were dropped, simply because they feel more comfortable searching in an illuminated space. Such misfits between the underlying scientific question and the method have provoked a number of scientists to call for a widening of the methodological repertoire in parapsychology (e.g., Alvarado, 1996; Braud & Anderson, 1998; White, 1964; 1992). The arguments of these authors have persuasive force. After all, that the method should fit the question is not a controversial assertion.
A Lack of Self-Reflection
In order to be self-critical, one must have the ability to be self-reflective. Critics have often shown that they lack this more fundamental ability. They seem, in some instances, to be unable to face their own experience and/or their lack of it. It is one of the myths of science that intellectual training provides immunity against our personal tastes and temperaments. There is, of course, a lessening of the impact of our own worldview that comes from disciplined thinking and training, but we can not be other than what we are. As human beings, psychical researchers and parapsychologists have often had to engage in some soul-searching to determine how much of our openness to particular ideas and particular phenomena is a consequence of our early training, our social mileau, or our personal experiences. Critics, on the other hand, to a large extent, have been able to maintain the fiction of complete objectivity for themselves.
Presuming that critics act in good faith, what might be influencing their attitudes towards paranormal phenomena? Let us speculate for a moment. How many of them doubt that spontaneous experiences could possibly occur because they themselves have never experienced anything? How many of them assume that those who report spontaneous experiences are necessarily suffering from psychopathology because the first experiencers they met were people who were a little strange or a little frightening? How many of them are convinced that whatever seemingly paranormal effect they witness must necessarily be the result of fraud or misperception because they have learned and performed magic tricks and without testing this hypothesis, they assume they have fooled everyone in the room? How many of the critics with training in magic believe that the average person is capable of the deception in which they themselves regularly engage and the discomfort which they themselves regularly endure just to produce a trick?13 Only the critics themselves can answer the question of what obstacles their own psychology and their own experience have thrown up along the road to objectivity. But if they will not look inward honestly, how can such obstacles be overcome? Many critics are quick to point out to us that we do not have the necessary experience to understand what we see. In some situations, they are absolutely right. But how has their experience distorted their own perceptions? Are they sure their interpretations of their own experiences are reasonable?
The sociologist of science Robert K. Merton proposed many decades ago the existence of four norms in science (Merton, 1973): communism (the willingness of scientists to share data and collaborate freely); universalism (the notion that scientific data and science practice rises above the specifics of the scientist or the institution); disinterestedness (the notion that scientists must approach their science practice in a dispassionate, even-handed way, allowing the data and not some personal or institutional agenda to shape their work); and organized skepticism (the need for self-criticism and criticism of the work of others, with a belief that criticism is one of the most important engines driving the refinement of science practice, fact and theory). A number of writers have noted that these norms do not, in fact, describe science, but are rather ideals to which scientists aspire (e. g. Gieryn, 1995; Hess, 1997, pp. 56-58). Others (e.g., Mitroff, 1974; Mulkay, 1975) have noted that for every norm Merton identified there exists an “anti-norm” which can be more at work in everyday science practice than the Mertonian norms14.
Still as ideals the norms are socially useful. It is a productive strategy to try to conduct research that runs contrary to one’s own preconceived, unempirically-held beliefs, or at least to try not to bend one’s science to one’s faith. For many modern scientists, this is the most important seachange to come with the Scientific Revolution, this movement away from science done within an occult context (e.g., Vickers, 1984). Critics regularly accuse parapyschologists of being unable to shake off their belief systems in the face of evidence, of allowing their science practice to become an exercise in intellectual wish-fulfillment. To some extent this accusation serves to remind us that we really do need to understand our own motives as we enter the field to encounter experiencers and as we approach the laboratory bench. But, we can ask, are the critics aware of their own motives?
Alcock (1987) makes the following points about the motivations of scientists in general:
“If one is to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of something, one must surely believe that is it likely that “something” exists. If researchers did not believe it is possible to cure diseases, they would hardly be motivated to try to find the cure. … While curiosity can explain why researchers initially turn their attention to the study of particular phenomena, the researcher’s belief structure is very important in maintaining enthusiasm for continued research when no convincing evidence is forthcoming. Otherwise, he or she might well decide that the trail being followed was a false one.” (p. 541)
The impression Alcock gives in this paragraph is that passion for one’s research area and a belief in the existence of a particular subject matter and its importance is a normal element of scientific research, even if such passion and belief can persist in the face of little evidence. However, Alcock really does not mean to be as egalitarian as he sounds. Almost immediately Alcock shows that he really only means to extend the privilege of passion for one’s research to members of his own community. The passionate parapsychologist is instead tarred with the brush of fanaticism:
“[P]arapsychologists] … often show unrelenting tenacity in the maintenance of their belief that paranormal forces are real: Despite their professional frustration with the paucity of evidence, and despite the difficulties they face in the effort to win legitimacy in university communities and in the halls of science, they continue to persevere, confident, it would seem, in the view that, just as the great Lavoisier had to admit that he was wrong about the extraterrestrial source of meteorites, the day will come when science will be forced to recognize the reality of psi and all their efforts will be vindicated.” (p. 541)
Alcock seems to be unaware that lauding passion and persistence in the face of little evidence in science at large and then decrying a similar level of commitment in our community is prima facie contradictory. He is very clear in all his writings that he believes no persuasive evidence of any kind supports the existence of anything we would class as paranormal. In addition, Alcock also seems to believe that the presence of social and intellectual obstacles to a particular set of explanations are, in and of themselves, proof that the set of explanations are necessarily false only in our discipline – that is, “great Lavoisier” being confronted with disconfirmatory evidence about the origin of meteorites only happens in mainstream science and that we psychical researchers and parapsychologists are foolish to believe such a moment might lie waiting in the future of our field.
But the histories and sociologies of science have shown us that scientific consensus is a result of a wide variety of factors, some of them more social, political and economic than rational (e.g., Myers, 1990; Shapin & Shaffer, 1985; Taylor, 1996). In addition, Alcock does not seem to be able to see that a correlate of enthusiasm for a phenomena or for an explanatory model in a “normal” scientist can reasonably be expected to be associated with a certain confidence in the ability of one’s own ideas to win out against one’s opponents.
The key here to Alcock’s (1981) objections to paranormal phenomena may lie in the following paragraphs. In them Alcock speculates on what he thinks would happen if extrasensory perception, precognition, or psychokinesis were proved to be real:
“But what chaos we would have. There would, of course, be no privacy, since by extrasensory perception one could see even into people’s minds. Dictators would no longer have to trust the words of their followers; they could “know” their feelings. How would people react if they could catch glimpses of the future? How could the stock market function if traders could use precognition? If most people could foresee the future, how would life be with millions of people all attempting to change present circumstances so as to optimize their personal futures? What would happen when two adversaries each tried to harm the other via PK? The gunfights of the Old American West would probably pale by comparison.
“If psi exists, practically everything is possible, and science, the very tool that most parapsychologists swear allegiance to in their examination of psi, will be superfluous. It will turn out to have been a gigantic error, since the uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) influence of psi, perhaps poorly developed, would have presumably been operating throughout the history of science; scientific laws as we know them may simply be a sort of “psi-consensus”: the experimenter effect happened to work in the same direction for all who tried a given experiment. It would seem, then, that “scientific validation of psi” would be a contradiction of terms: if psi exists, science as we know it cannot.” (p. 191)
One can clearly hear his anxiety. For Alcock, the prospect of psychic functioning is absolutely terrifying. It sounds as if the existence of psi would upset absolutely everything he holds dear – privacy, order, science, the reliability of scientific truth. For those of us who do psychical research and parapsychology, who have come into contact with the findings in a way that is less emotionally-charged, we know that the magnitude of the effects and the incompleteness of the information and action conveyed can not possibly have the impact on life and science that Alcock predicts. Even the “psychic stars” are not strong enough, or accurate enough to produce the magnitude of effect that Alcock fears. As for science being formed by a kind of false “psi consensus”, it seems to me to be a reasonable off-shoot of the findings of science studies to assume that there may be, in the mix of objectivity and subjectivity that is science, a psi-propagated experimenter effect that has some influence, albeit small, on consensus-building. As I have said elsewhere, as objective knowledge of nature grows it is likely that the influence of subjective and social variables lessen in impact on the shape of that knowledge (Zingrone, 2001, p. 13). Further, given the weak effects of even the strongest psychic functioning for which we have evidence, I find the notion that psi might be in the mix altogether palatable, and certainly not worrisome enough to even hinder, much less eradicate, scientific progress per se. The point is not to fault Alcock for his belief system, however, nor to characterise him as completely and totally compromised by his beliefs. Rather the point is that Alcock and other critics like him also need to be reminded that objectivity is a goal, an ideal, something that cannot be approached, even remotely, if we remain blind to our own motivations. What, one must ask, has Alcock done to hold his beliefs in abeyance when he comes into contact with the literature of proponents?
A Lack of Openness to Communication
The third way in which critics fail to go the distance is their lack of openness to communication. Some critics protect themselves from competing on an even playing field by erecting barriers to communication. They raise social and rhetorical barricades to protect themselves from debate. As human beings, it is difficult for us to come into full contact with the experience and understanding of others, particularly when what others say seems threatening to us, to our time-worn notions of how things work, to our carefully-constructed and jealously-maintained intellectual structures. The experience and opinions of others can come crashing through our barriers like a river raging out of control.
But psychical researchers and parapsychologists have long been subjected to this onslaught. Some have even invited it. Many of us understand that we have to tear down barriers, that we have to face experience in its rawest form, that we have to listen to and even welcome opposing voices because of what we can learn, of how we can improve. There is no profit in a race that is won by sabotaging, diverting or otherwise running your opponents off the track.
When critics talk about counter-hypotheses for spontaneous experience one wonders if they have ever even listened to the tale of one being told. They seem to clutch at conventional explanations that block the nuances of the voices of the experiencers. They set aside experiences and experiencers with ridicule and derision. They have even, on occasion, justified ridicule as an effective weapon (Kurtz, 1996, p. 609). If other critics share the same emotionally-charged fears that Alcock expresses, one can hardly blame them. For such critics spontaneous experiences may represent chaos, disorder, an unstoppable slide back into the Dark Ages, the re-enchantment of the modern world.
But even for those of us who find paranormal phenomena easy to contemplate, it is difficult to refrain from trying to control our confrontation with the personal experiences of others. We struggle to hear accounts of spontaneous experiences without allowing our analytical capacities to distort the tales being told. We are aware that if we come to the spontaneous paranormal experiences of others with a reified analytical framework, we will hear only that which fits the frame. For many of us, contact with experiencers has to occur in two stages. In the first stage we try to uncritically gather as many details as possible, to listen to as many personal theories of the experiencer as they are willing to offer, and to go away with the fullest depiction of the experience in the experiencer’s own voice. In the second stage we allow our analytical tools to operate, so that we may sort through misperceptions, false memories, elaborations, and embellishments. At this stage we are as aware – or perhaps even more aware – of the conventional hypotheses that are likely to supplant the paranormal attributions of the experiencer. If we are doing our jobs correctly, even though we ourselves are passionate about our work and open to the possibility of the paranormal, we will systematically work through conventional hypotheses as we analyze these experiences. It is supremely important to us to be able to attach a kind of probability judgement to the tales we’re told. It is part of our remit to do so. Critics, on the other hand, do not seem to be systematic in this. The first conventional hypothesis that occurs to them, no matter how implausible, seems to suffice.
One thing we know for certain is that we must avoid trivialising the experiences we are told just as we must avoid ridiculing and deriding the experiencers. The climate that is set up and maintained by trivialisation and ridicule is one in which no self-respecting experiencer would care to come forward. To what end should they tell their experience? To have it dismissed as simple misperception without examination? To see it used as evidence of incipient schizophrenia, of delusion, of fraud?
In addition to erecting social barriers to communication with experiencers, some critics spend a great deal of time erecting rhetorical barriers that prevent a useful flow of communication between them and us. In the published literature there are a number of examples of critics who privilege themselves unfairly over the course of a debate. Take, for example, these titles, published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Barrington & Palladino: Nine Major Errors
Fontana & Palladino: Ten Major Errors
Martínez-Taboas, Francia & Palladino: Nine Major Errors
(Wiseman, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c)
These titles are the rhetorical equivalent of building a Roman fort on a hillside in the Midlands in plain sight of a tribe of Bronze Age Britons – communication among equals is not the point. Instead, just as a Roman fort signaled the imposition of a hierarchy of power and privilege, these titles award rhetorical advantage to the writer and rather than inviting response (or in this case, rewarding the willingness to engage in useful debate), they label the writer’s opponents as fools. Little further response – save that which is weakly defensive or unproductively angry – is left to the opponent. The rhetorical result of these titles on the ensuing exchange is the same whether or not the critic intended to disadvantage his opponents. How is the pursuit of knowledge served by such strategies as this?
Readers of this journal will recognize these titles. In 1992, Richard Wiseman published a study drawn from his thesis research, The Fielding Report: A Reconsideration (Wiseman, 1992). Wiseman’s article situated the Fielding Report in its historical context briefly, gave brief biographies of the sitters, outlined the content of the report, focused on some of the ways in which Palladino had been known to fake her phenomena, as well as past criticism of the report. Wiseman’s original contribution to the debate on the report was to examine very closely the idea that an accomplice could have had access to the room through a panel in the door that was partially covered by the curtain of the medium’s cabinet or by some other means, and thus could have aided in the production of faked phenomena during the séances. Wiseman’s arguments were ingenious and insightful. He concluded that the accomplice theory was not a weak one by any means, and that the report could be characterised as “flawed” in a variety of essential ways that either make it impossible to rule out the accomplice theory in the case of some of the phenomena reported, or to get a truly exact idea of the conditions under which the seances were held. Quite rightly he noted that future mediumship investigations should be written in such a way as to attempt to “minimise retrospective counter-explanation” (p. 151). Wiseman acknowledged that such a task could be daunting but he quite reasonably set aside the difficulties such an approach would entail because of the importance it could have to both the conducting of future studies and to the evidential strength of the published reports that would result. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research published three comments on Wiseman’s original paper. Two of them had titles that were themselves somewhat inflammatory:
Palladino and the Invisible Man Who Never Was (Barrington, 1992).
The Fielding Report and the Determined Critic (Fontana, 1992).
The third had a more conservative title:
The Feilding Report, Wiseman’s Critique and Scientific Reporting
(Martínez-Taboas & Francia, 1993).
Barrington’s reply touched on the context in which the Naples sittings occurred and drew some comfort from previous séances in which similar phenomena were produced but the possibility of an accomplice had been ruled out. Then she focused on the actual events across the series of séances, when the accomplice could have arrived, and when he must have departed from the cabinet so as not to be discovered when the séances ended. She concluded that an examination of the time frame and the movement of the experimenters into and out of the cabinet after the séances showed that it would have been impossible for an accomplice to have escaped unnoticed. She concluded “Except in a world of fantasy where anyone can get away with anything, there is too much in the Palladino sittings that is unexplained by Wiseman’s confederate theory and is inconsistent with it” (p. 339).
In his reply, Fontana (1992) commented that while Wiseman raised the question of whether or not an accomplice could have been at work in the Naples séances, “… [h]is argument rests entirely on alleged ambiguities, omissions and inaccuracies in the Fielding report itself” (p. 341). Fontana noted that a determined critic could always find some way to maintain his or her suspicions even in the face of greater and greater detail about the security procedures and precautions that had been taken. In doing so, Fontana actually produced a good security checklist for séance room experiments. Fontana’s other criticisms focused on the ambiguity of the report text and how it could be understood in a variety of ways, the logistics of building a trap-door undetected, the timing of entry and exits for a possible accomplice, and whether or not the cabinet curtains could have obscured an open panel.
Martínez-Taboas and Francia (1993) focused on two aspects of Wiseman’s paper; his purported lack of “patience” with “scientific documents … [which do not] present all the details necessary to counteract all possible normal explanations” (p. 120-121) and the details of Wiseman’s accomplice theory. The former involved a critique of what they saw as Wiseman’s out-dated understanding of science and what a scientific report should include; and the latter, like Barrington’s and Fontana’s critiques, examined details of the security procedures and the séance phenomena that seemed to preclude the presence of an undetected confederate.
All four commentators engaged Wiseman’s points in a very active way, returning to the Fielding Report for a closer reading of the details. As such, while clearly in disagreement over the likelihood that an accomplice was active during the seances, their comments were “informative, interesting and productive”, (Wiseman, 1993d, p. 217), one of Wiseman’s stated goals for the debate. They were, of course, quite forceful in their disagreements but nothing in their prose warranted Wiseman’s characterisations of the disagreements as “errors.” According to Wiseman (1993a), among Barrington’s “errors” were that she “incorrectly assumed that Feilding would have mentioned the appearance of the ceiling in Baggally’s room, if it could have contained a false panel” (p. 20), that “the ‘accomplice’ hypothesis is disconfirmed by Palladino not asking for a curtain to be hung at the back of the séance cabinet” (p. 22), and that “as some phenomena in the Report appear inexplicable, the ‘accomplice’ hypothesis should not be taken seriously” (p. 25). Among Fontana’s “errors” (Wiseman, 1993b) were that he “incorrectly argues that a faced door panel would have been likely to have been detected after the termination of the eleven seances” (p. 39), that “the position of the séance curtain should not be reconstructed from either the original floor plan or the photographs taken at the time of the investigation” (p. 41), and that “the séance curtain could not have been pulled forward so as to obscure the lower panel of the right-hand door connecting Baggally’s room to the séance room” (p. 42). Among Martínez-Taboas’s and Francia’s “errors” (Wiseman, 1993c) were that “the investigators would have noticed an accomplice entering, and leaving, the séance cabinet” (p. 133), “that an accomplice would have been present in the cabinet, and therefore would have been detected, when the investigators looked inside the cabinet” (p. 135); and “that the accomplice hypothesis is falsified by the occurrence of ‘inexplicable phenomena’ after the end of the sixth séance” (p. 137). One does not need to have read the Fielding Report itself to know that these “errors” are not errors per se: they are disagreements about the likelihood of the behavior and observational habits of the experimenters, about the true positioning of the curtain and the door, and about the importance of phenomena that can not be explained by an accomplice, or that seems to have occurred after the accomplice would have had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid being detected. When one does read the Fielding Report (1963), it is obvious that there is a lot of interpretative latitude available to the reader and that varying conclusions are not only possible, but probable.
So what happened here? Wiseman made a series of assumptions and probability assessments, probably based on his study of the apparatus, his knowledge of magic, and his reading of the Fielding Report. Barrington, Fontana, Martínez-Taboas and Francia have made different assessments based on their readings of the Fielding Report and the other intellectual and experiential contexts out of which they personally operate. Although all four respondents showed some emotional engagement in the topics in their initial commentaries which could be read as a passion for the topic and a reasonable preference for their own differing views, the tone of both Barrington’s and Fontana’s replies to Wiseman’s reply showed some real alarm at the use of the word “errors”. The heat of the debate had clearly been ratcheted up a notch. As Barrington (1993) said “Ten major errors are ten reasons for alarm and despondency, but I have to say that my panic subsided on learning the nature and the quality of the complaints” (p. 196). Fontana’s (1993a) reply was even stronger: “Not only does he fail to identify any of the ‘factual errors and logical flaws’ to which he refers in his abstract, he makes a number of major errors (of misrepresentation) of his own” (p. 198). After Wiseman wrote his summary reply (1993d), Fontana (1993b) returned with a brief letter to the editor in which he complained again about the “misrepresentation” of his and Barrington’s points in Wiseman’s summary reply. It is clear from the tone of Fontana’s letter that it is unlikely that Fontana would be amenable to collaborating on the joint article Wiseman hoped for in his summary reply (Wiseman, 1993d, p. 217). Had Wiseman chosen to deal more respectfully with his commentators, given the ambiguity of the Fielding Report itself and the impossibility of knowing for certain what actually happened in the Naples séances, perhaps the resulting round of further debate would have lead to something like the collaborative effort he sought. But who wants to collaborate with someone who insists that his own opinion is “truth” and your opinion is “error”?
Making rhetorical choices that work against your stated goals is not the particular province of the critics of parapsychology. Recently, a rhetorician of science Leah Ceccarelli (2001) examined several documents that attempted to forge a consensus across disciplinary boundaries in biology and genetics. In one section of her book (pp. 113-156), Ceccarelli focused on the prose in E. O. Wilson’s (1999) book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and noted that the rhetoric he used in an effort to build an interdisciplinary bridge produced anything but positive feelings. Rather than communicating the merging of two disciplines for a common goal, Wilson used military imagery, the rhetoric of a conqueror. She compared Wilson’s attempts at persuasion to those of two scientists whose bridge-building books led to the consilience for which Wilson had hoped, Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1937) Genetics and the Origin of the Species and Erwin Schrödinger’s (1944) What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Ceccarelli showed that both Dobzhansky and Schrödinger used rhetorical strategies that brought the two sides closer to each other, making the points of one side more understandable to the other, showing each how important each group’s methods were for progress, with prose that allowed each group to “hear” criticisms and statements that deprivileged their own situated understandings without the emotional noise that such confrontational points normally engender. According to Ceccarelli, Wilson, on the other hand, raised the noise to such a decibel level by his rhetoric choices that any bridge-building message he meant to convey was lost. The group he hoped would be conquered were incensed and even members of his own discipline were angered on behalf of the other discipline. Wilson’s fondly-hoped-for consilience did not occur.
To my mind, in the controversy over the Fielding report, Wiseman’s rhetorical strategies more closely mirror Wilson’s than Dobzhansky’s or Schrödinger’s. Wiseman’s willingness to label disagreement “error” and to maintain that a document so distant in time and so open to interpretative reading had only one reasonable reading – his – is not unlike Wilson’s attempt to bludgeon his readers into submission with military imagery. To promote dialog there has to be mutual respect, and mutual respect often flows from a healthy sense of one’s own vulnerability to error. When one chooses absolutist, unqualified, self-privileging language, the reader “hears” arrogance and disrespect. In addition the heat of the debate over the Fielding Report was also raised by the mass of séance room detail which Wiseman glossed over in his report and in his replies to his critics as by his rhetorical choices. But because of his choices, the important methodological issues for future mediumship research that Wiseman raised – such as the need for a heightened awareness of the possibility of sustained and sophisticated deceptive techniques, as well as the need for extreme clarity in language when describing observations, and extreme accuracy when plotting floor plans and reporting on the structural details of the séance room – were somewhat lost in the angry noise he himself inspired. Deviating from the qualified, measured, and respectful language that is expected in scientific prose has consequences. The social consequences for the participants in the debates are unfortunate; the substantive consequences to progress in science in general and for methodological and theoretical refinement in a field of endeavor in particular can be devastating.
A Lack of Interest in the Consequences of Criticism
The final way in which critics fail to go the distance in their contact with spontaneous cases and with our community of researchers is their lack of interest in the consequences of their criticism. Many critics write (and speak) as if they have no consciousness of the fact that they are creating and maintaining a climate in which experiencers are afraid to “tell” their experiences. Sometimes the creation and maintenance of this position of disadvantage seems to be a mere by-product of efforts by critics to create and maintain their own self-identity as worldly-wise, objective, scientific, unable to be fooled and so on.
We all like to believe that our understanding of the world has some objective reality in it; that we, unlike the impressionable horde around us, have been able to perceive without prejudice. But we are all human. We all bring our own intellectual, social, and psychological baggage to every act of perception and interpretation. None of us is completely worldly-wise. None of us is wholly critical or scientific. Consequently, it seems to me that a certain empathy for others is warranted. Our confidence in our own points of view ought to be tempered by some humility. If the experiencer is a fallible observer, so are we fallible listeners and fallible interpreters. Each experiencer is different from all others. There are subtleties among experiencers that are important to the progress of our science. We need to know and to understand the varieties of experiences as fully as we are able.
But critics will frequently dismiss the experiences of others with facile generalisations, with or without any evidence to support those generalisations. Television documentaries have sought out those commentators who are willing to debunk psychic experiences in a few well-chosen, quotable sound bites. Sometimes the debunking is warranted and necessary, and in other cases, it can only be justified on the basis of a superficial understanding – or a self-motivated misunderstanding – of the details of the experience with which the debunker is presented on camera. One does not often hear from the mouths of TV critics any consciousness of the impact of their quick and sometimes thoughtless commentary. Neither the impact on the experiencer as a person, nor the impact on the depth and subtlety of explanatory models in psychical research and parapsychology are taken into account.
There is also an impact on the credibility of science. Alcock’s anecdote about Bock’s patient’s seemingly pseudo-precognitive dream may make sense to some experiencers whose experiences lack depth and complexity. But to those whose experiences do not yield to such obvious conventional explanations, Alcock’s dismissal is just the unknowing “nattering-on” of yet another over-rated expert. Superficial dismissals do not serve the needs of science, nor do they serve the needs of experiencers. Perhaps some of the wilder forms of public belief in the paranormal arise from such weak explanations as these. It does not take a psychical researcher to know that spontaneous experiences and the people who have them are far more complex than the average critic or TV-debunker appears to believe. The experiencers, their friends and families know this too.
Related to the climate in which the experiencer finds him or herself, is the climate many critics create for us as scientists. The social costs of being a “proponent” are many, and known only too well to most of us. Many critics, as David Fontana has said, regularly label us “fools or frauds”: whether or not they use those exact words, their meaning is quite clear. Wider science sees us as deluded, willing distorters of objective truth because of our personal experiences, our tastes, our beliefs, our deepest psychological needs. It is true that wider science and critics alike often write from a naive scientism – they take science to be the unified and objective enterprise positivist philosophers and pre-revisionist historians of science have portrayed it to be, an enterprise impervious to social forces, able to objectively identify bad science and pseudoscience and shrug them off. But science is neither unified (e.g., Gallison & Stump, 1995) nor impervious to social and psychological forces (e.g., Hess, 1997). Scientists and the scientific enterprise are far more complex than many critics appear to understand. So if we operate through the fog of our fallibilities, if we swim upstream against social, political, and economic forces that complicate our scientific lives, then so do the critics and all those who hold to a simplistic notion of science practice and the unexamined delusion of their own unassailable objectivity.
Can it be true that many critics behave if they have never really noticed how complicated the world really is, as if they have never turned their focus inward? When one reads their writing in a systematic way – from the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer (e.g., Alcock, 1979, 1984; Bunge, 1992; Hansel, 1981; Kurtz, 1978; Marks, 1982; Singer & Benassi, 1980-1981) to the entries in Gordon Stein’s (1996) Encyclopedia of the Paranormal to their various book-length treatments of the paranormal (Alcock, 1981, 1990; Hansel, 1966, 1980, 1989; Gardner, 1981, 1983, 1992; Kurtz, 1986; Marks & Kammann, 1980) – one gets the impression that what characterises the genre is exceptionally superficial reasoning. It is almost as if whenever a critic feels that a finding might be the result of bad methodology, inadequate statistics, or motivated misperception, then, whether they have thought their feeling through, whether they can find evidence for their belief or no, whether the complexity of their scenarios of incompetence or fraud makes them a priori logistically impossible or completely implausible – it must be so. Because they know they are right, because they know we are wrong, skeptics uncritically believe they hold the scientific high ground. Any social or rhetorical barrier they erect against us becomes, in their view, wholly justified, even if the consequence of their actions is that they push us off the map of science entirely.
Paul Kurtz, for example, in his essay “Is parapsychology a science” (1978) rules out the possibility that any results produced by parapsychologists can be taken as evidence.
It is not enough for parapsychologists to tell the skeptic that he, the parapsychologist, has on occasion replicated the results. This would be like the American Tobacco Institute insisting that, based on its experiments, cigarette-smoking does not cause cancer. (p. 23)
Kurtz is right of course when he says “Esoteric, private road-to-truth claims need to be rejected in science, and there needs to be an intersubjective basis for validation” (p. 23) but the replication he seeks is replication on demand by specific individuals – not done in the laboratories of proponents or even the mildly interested, but rather in the laboratories of “the most thorough-going skeptics they can locate” (p. 31). The enterprise, in other words, if it is carried out by us – or perhaps even by our sympathizers – is a priori suspect.
On the other hand, when critics and proponents work hand in hand, mindful of the good faith of the other, even when wide chasms exist between them in terms of their valuation of findings, then progress is made. The Hyman-Honorton (1986) joint communiqué on the ganzfeld technique in experimental parapsychology is a case in point. Not only did the productive collaboration that produced this communiqué profoundly impact the future methodology of that technique, but the rapproachment that seems to be slowly occurring between some legendary critics and our phenomena may also have been, the result of Honorton’s and Hyman’s joint efforts. “Working” critics like Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman and Christopher French, no matter what specific flaws one can find in their methodology or the rhetoric in which they couch their work 15, are extremely important to our field, especially when they provide a mentoring atmosphere for the work of serious students. Likewise such “conservative” parapsychologists as Professor Robert Morris, who are better known for investigating what “is not psi but looks like it” are also important to our enterprise. But the importance of work from the conventional and the critical perspective, in and of itself, does not in any way negate the work of those among us who pursue the paranormal, who are convinced that the accumulated evidence proves that the phenomenon, at least in principle, exists, and who shift the focus of our work to the investigation of process and mechanism. We are all capable – critics and proponents alike – of contributing to scientific progress, especially if we are able to be self-reflective about what we believe and what is needed in our work to guard against our own fallabilities. In the parlance of pop psychology, we need to “own” our motivations, the implications of our research, and the consequences of our conclusions. We need to incorporate these attributes into our individual and social identities as scientists.
Many critics, however, rhetorically build for themselves an identity of incisive analytical ability that, for some, incorporates a complete ignorance of their own deeper selves. They seem to claim that anything beneath, or arising as a consequence of, the surface content of their own criticism is a complete surprise to them.
Another point at which there seems to be a disconnect in the minds of critics between what they say and what happens because of what they say is the willingness of some critics to spin elaborate scenarios of purported incompetence without evidence well within the hearing of the funding agencies or other institutional supports upon which the criticized person depends for their ability to work and to live. But should these institutional supports be withdrawn as a result of the criticism, most critics will claim they never meant to curtail the research, only to help make it more useful, more tightly-controlled, more methodologically-rigorous. If something more dire happens to the criticised person as a result of their critique, well, then, that consequence is also a complete surprise to them, a result well beyond their powers of intellect to predict. One finds it difficult to decide whether it is better to suffer such self-delusion quietly, or to face the often brutal honesty of such a person as David Marks who is perfectly willing to call for an end to psychical research and parapsychology, even if he does it in a conference organised for the benefit of a group that has provided important funding and seemed, at the point of Marks’ comments, to be wavering in its support (Simmonds, 2000, p. 20).
In any case, whatever the consequences that befall the criticised person, many critics will maintain that it is unreasonable to attempt to hold them accountable for the consequences of their critical statements. I disagree strongly. I agree that criticism per se must not be crushed and that it is a lot to ask to the critic to think ahead, to weigh the consequences of their particular message on the person or the research program about which they wish to speak. But I believe that the strength of, and demands for, evidence connected to every critique must be moderated by the reasonably-foreseeable consequences of that critique. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, well, then, criticism that carries damaging consequences requires evidence commensurate with the damage that will probably result. A criticism that destroys a reputation or brings an entire line of research to a screeching halt must be supported by strong evidence that the criticism is valid or strong disclaimers that the criticisms are speculative. If not, then it is reckless and irresponsible, and should be labeled as such. So, just as we “own” the methodology we employ, just as we own the consequences of our research on our participants, our colleagues, our discipline and science as a whole, critics must own their rhetoric and its consequences.
I have argued here that criticism that fails to go the distance in any of the ways I have outlined is incomplete, inadequate, and of little use to science. I have also argued that if a critic believes a conventional hypothesis is a better explanation of some phenomena or other, and no evidence or little evidence exists to support his or her contention, then he or she has a responsibility to conduct the research to fill that substantive void. I have argued that critics must strive to remove the social and rhetorical barriers to communication that are in place, and that they must refrain from constructing more. I have argued that critics must learn to be self-critical, to confront their biases and preconceptions and to think clearly about their rhetorical choices especially when they promote consequences that are debilitating to scientific progress and devastating to the careers of their colleagues.
We must all strive to be task-oriented and not ego-oriented, no matter how difficult that goal may be. What is important here is to understand the experiences and findings that point to paranormal models of explanation, to determine whether or not such models of explanations are justified. The point is not to build barricades against competing theories but to provide an environment in which competing theories can contend with one another on equal terms. Armchair criticism is not useful. Blind criticism – which sees neither its own flaws nor any consequences – is not useful. If critics wish to be heard they will have to progress methodologically, they will have to evolve. It is no longer enough merely to raise a dissenting voice. There must be substantive content in that dissent and a consciousness of the context in which that dissent is raised.
As we move through our second hundred years in psychical research and parapsychology, we have to recognize that without us the critics have no impact, no influence, and no audience. We are running too hard towards our scientific goals to be slowed by criticism that is methodologically flawed. We have come too far to let others set our agenda. Future critics must go the distance to be heard. We must see them on the track as the race is run – doing the research, showing evidence that they understand the scientific terrain into which they have ventured, proving that they are committed to engaging in competent, self-critical science practice, behaving as if they understand that in this enterprise they are colleagues and not tourists. Finally, it is our job to close the starting gate to those who defend their right to remain tourists, who have repeatedly been impervious to counter-criticism, whose research programs are more self-promotional than scientific. It is time that we welcome only those who are willing to run the race with us, even if, at the finish line, our assessment of the evidence and its meaning are still worlds apart.
1. The author wishes to thank Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado and Dr. Robert L. Morris for comments on earlier drafts of this paper which was presented both at a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1997, and at a meeting of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research in 1999. The author also wishes to acknowledge the financial support of the following institutions which provided funding for various phases of the project of which this paper is a part: the Parapsychology Foundation in New York, the Society for Psychical Research in London, the Perrott-Warrick Committee of Cambridge University, the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology of the University of Edinburgh, and the Institut für Grenzegebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg, Germany.
2. See footnote 3 for references.
3. Although precious few scientific works existed which speculated on the nature of visual auras (e.g., Beal, 1974; Beck & Guthrie, 1956; Dreistadt, 1972; Fraser-Harris, 1932; Kenneth, 1932; Tart, 1972) at the time Zusne and Jones wrote their book, a large literature on perceptual processes and perceptual illusions and distortions was in existence (Artamonova, 1969) – a literature to which Zusne has made substantial contributions of his own, in fact (e.g., Zusne, 1975; 1977; 1993). But the authors chose not to cite findings from which analogies relevant to their statement about aura vision could be drawn. Had they been commenting on a phenomena less marginal, one can assume that they would have felt compelled by the norms of the genre in which they were writing to provide at least some evidence for their argument.
4. Unfortunately for Alcock almost nothing was available in the psychological research literature specifically on cryptomnesia in 1981, although discussions of it did exist in the literatures of psychical research and parapsychology. In fact, in parapsychology, cryptomnesia is an important causal explanation that must be treated and ruled out, if possible, whenever a claim such as death-bed visions, precognitive dreams, drop-in communicators, mediumistic phenomena and so are made. Sceptics, however, rarely, if ever, cite references published in the literatures of psychical research or parapsychology, a fact which is probably the source of their tendency to grossly underestimate our understanding of the phenomena. This is particularly unfortunate in this case, because a number of studies existed in our literature before 1979 that were more relevant to and supportive of his point than Alcock’s own anecdote (Berendt, 1970; McHarg, 1978; Nisbet, 1975; and Stevenson, 1970). A number of treatments of crymptomnesia as a possible causal factor in ostensibly paranormal experiences have been published since as well (e.g., McHarg, 1983; Stevenson, 1983; and Venn, 1986). As for the psychological literature, a search in the American Psychological Association’s database PsychInfo turns up 135 references which touch on forgotten memory and were published before Alcock wrote his book. At least some of this literature (e.g., Calef, 1972; Lubursky, 1967) would have been useful in a more scientific contextualisation of the Bock anecdote, which, had Alcock chosen to do it, would have rendered the Bock anecdote acceptable as part of a wider rhetorical strategy to support his argument.
5. A death-bed vision experience is one in which the dying patient seems to see a panorama they take to be the afterlife, or to talk to deceased persons or religious figures who, they apparently assume, have come to take them to the afterlife.
6. I am using the term “rhetorical” here in the sense of a strategic use of argument, or specific rhetorical device which by its use is intended to add to the persuasive weight of the document. I am not using the term in the sense of “empty rhetoric” or in any other pejorative way. That is, I am following the approach to rhetoric and its uses that was reinstated with such publications as A New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/1971) and taken to such fruitful analytic ends when turned towards scientific writing in publications along the lines of Rhetoric of Science (Gross, 1990).
7. In defense of Alcock’s reliance on his friend as a trusted informant, J. Carson Bock (1954, 1961, 1975) has published articles which indicate a serious and scholarly interest in therapeutic issues. In scientific writing, it is usual, however, to establish the credibility of one’s informants in some manner, citations of published work being preferable. In this instance, Alcock also chose not to provide any positive evidence that Bock is an informant who deserves our confidence, other than the fact that Alcock chose to cite him.
8. Whether serious scientists should be building a research program based solely on the simplistic claims of the media -and then touting their results in equally simplistic press releases or in presentations or published reports that rely heavily on the unqualified language of certitude which is more appropriate to journalism than to science – is a topic to which an entire paper could be devoted.
9. In their defense, the Wiseman team were attempting to impose such controls on the data stream as to be able to infer with reasonable certainty whether or not the dog’s behaviour had a normal or a potentially paranormal cause. However, a great deal of behavioural data was discarded, and Sheldrake (Sheldrake, 1999) isn’t the only person who has argued that the analytical method the Wiseman team chose misrepresented the meaning of the actual data collected (Radin, 2001, p. 237).
10. One must ask whether it is ever reasonable in science to claim to have found positive proof or disproof on the basis of four simple experiments. This is an especially important question to ask when the experiments being touted as having settled a debate were not embedded in a wider research program designed to test the underlying scientific question, and when the results of the experiments in question directly contradict results from a series of other experiments that were embedded in such a wider program.
11. The Wiseman team’s unwillingness to rely on anything that has not been previously published, even when details are readily available through normal collegial contacts, is a strategy that is not only limiting to their scientific practice but unjustified. Nowhere is it written that unpublished material may not be used, nor that personal communication, apprenticeship with other scientists, or consultation with relevant experimenters is beyond the pale in science practice. In fact to dig beneath the published record is not only normal behavior in mainstream science but sometimes absolutely essential to replication attempts (e.g., Collins, 1974; 1975). Departing from normal science practice is not a meaningless act and it is legitimate to ask what it signals in this case: is this a pragmatic strategy that can be justified substantively or does it signal that the Wiseman team’s foray into this particular scientific terrain was merely an exercise in debunking.
12. Whether it is ever defensible to characterise a media event as a “formal experiment” in a scientific sense when the journalistic agenda is so completely different from the scientific one is a topic for a different paper.
13. Whether the literature of the psychology of deception goes far enough in investigating the psychological needs, motivations, personality traits and states is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that behavior that is viewed as “normal” by magicians can seen exceedingly pathological to the rest of us.
14. For example the anti-norm of organized skepticism is “organized dogmatism”, an attribute which often characterizes both the “true disbeliever” and the “true believer” alike (Zingrone, 2001, pp. 8-9).
15. I must add here that I have not made specific studies of the work of either Blackmore or French. Their inclusion in this sentence should not be construed that I have uncovered flaws in their work that I am not detailing here. They only appear here because they are working sceptics/critics as Wiseman is.
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For the past couple of years, as a sideline to my usual work as a fiction writer, I’ve posted a series of online essays on paranormal phenomena.
The topic is always controversial. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, some people continue to maintain that no such phenomena exist. Those who hold most tenaciously to this opinion characterize themselves as “skeptics.”
Now, as has been frequently pointed out, this use of the term “skeptic” is more than a little misleading. In common usage, a skeptic is someone who maintains an open mind, insisting on evidence for any claim. The more unusual the claim, the more stringent the evidential demands. According to this view, the skeptic has no private agenda, no personal bias, but serves only as a guardian of the truth, who weeds out unsupported allegations and superstitious imaginings. The skeptic is the proverbial Missourian; though willing to be convinced, he says, “Show me.”
That’s the theory. In practice, things are different. Far from being a state of habitual open-mindedness, today’s skepticism is characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence, and unwillingness to critically examine its own biases. These tendencies, in turn, rest on a very definite agenda, promoted by a clear and comprehensive worldview, a philosophy of life. This philosophy is rationalism.
In a 1995 essay, Gene E. Veith ably summarizes rationalism’s basic tenets:
“Coming of age in the eighteenth century, rationalism ‘excluded on principle’ everything that could not be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed. Revelation was ruled out as a means of knowledge, and belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the visible universe was dismissed as primitive superstition. Not only did modernists [i.e., rationalists] believe in the inerrancy of science, they also had a devout faith in progress. The ‘modern,’ almost by definition, was superior to the past. The future would be even better. Modernists genuinely believed that science would answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles would solve all social problems. Through rational planning, applied technology, and social manipulation, experts could engineer the perfect society.” (Veith, 1995).
Here we have not innocent open-mindedness, but a narrow and intolerant creed, which is today often recognized as such. The word “skeptic” is, in fact, increasingly conjoined with “dogmatic,” “zealous,” and “militant.” Some people accuse skeptics of being nothing but cynics in disguise. A few wags have dubbed them “septics.” Admittedly, that’s not very nice – but, truth be told, skeptics have brought such attacks on themselves by repeatedly characterizing their opponents as credulous, gullible, simpleminded, ignorant, irrational, and foolish.
Want proof? Look at skeptic Andrew Stuttaford, a frequent contributor to National Review Online. “A séance,” he writes glibly, “is, by definition, a gathering of the credulous” Stuttaford, 2003b).
Apparently, then, all the researchers who have ever studied mediumship – the noted psychological theorists William James and F.W.H. Meyers among them – were either dupes or dopes. Stuttaford on Crossing Over star John Edward: “He’s a fast-talking psychic with slow-witted fans.” Although he admits, “I have no idea … how Mr. Edward does it,” Stuttaford opines that “it … takes, how can this be put politely, a certain special something in the minds of his subjects. It cannot be put politely. Those special somethings are naivety, superstition, and a problem with rational thought (Stuttaford, 2001).”
Crossing Over fans shouldn’t take undue umbrage. Stuttaford has many other dislikes. Even Walt Disney movies earn his opprobrium. “It’s not easy to decide which Disney character is the most repellent,” he muses. “That simpering Bambi would be better roasted, carved and surrounded by potatoes, gravy and parsnips (Stuttaford, 2003a).”
Stuttaford approaches the world from a rightist political perspective, but happily there is political balance among skeptics. Left-leaning gadfly Christopher Hitchens denounces all spiritual interests and phenomena as a “tsunami of piffle” embraced by the “feebleminded.” He has high praise for Houdini, who “toured far and wide, exposing and announcing the callous hoaxes of the ectoplasm-artists.” Hitchens doesn’t mention the fact that Houdini himself is credibly accused of a hoax; the master magician’s assistant confessed to having planted a suspicious article among medium Mina Crandon’s effects so that Houdini could conveniently discover it later. If Hitchens is aware of this detail, he doesn’t allow it to dim his enthusiasm for the famed “fairy-flattener” (quoted in Shermer, undated).
Perhaps paralleling Stuttaford’s animus toward Walt Disney, Hitchens has his own bete noir in the person of Mother Teresa, the target of his scathingly polemical pamphlet The Missionary Position. Reviewing this 98-page “book,” one critic takes note of “Hitchens’ genuine hatred of Mother Teresa. He uses anything and everything to paint her as a phony … This isn’t a reporter examining both sides of an issue; this is a guy with a vendetta (Milner, 1995).”
People who dislike Walt Disney and Mother Teresa must have some heroes of their own. And they do. Well-known skeptic Michael Shermer reports that, although he regards Ayn Rand’s philosophy as a cult, nevertheless “I actually have a photograph of Rand on my wall, next to other photographs including Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, [James] Randi, [Stephen Jay] Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway, G. Gordon Liddy, Houdini, [and] my wife (Shermer, op. cit.).”
What can we learn from Michael Shermer’s wall? His heroes can be divided mainly into professional skeptics (Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, James Randi, and Houdini) and scientists or science writers of a sharply rationalistic bent (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway). What connects the people on Shermer’s wall is not politics. Asimov, a committed liberal, wouldn’t have found much ideological common ground with Watergate felon Liddy. Nor is it a shared view of human nature. Sulloway, who applies Darwinian methods to the study of siblings’ birth order for the purpose of explaining human behavior, would scoff at Rand’s romantic view of man as “a being of self-made soul.” Nor is it any particular point of agreement on scientific issues. Gould, an innovator in the field of evolution, vigorously disputed Dawkins’ old-fashioned, unreconstructed Darwinism.
No, the overarching theme of Shermer’s portrait gallery is something deeper. It is the same basic worldview summarized in the quotation from Gene Veith above. For the most part, the thinkers on Shermer’s wall are rationalists – arch-rationalists, one might say – who do indeed “exclude … everything that [cannot] be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed.” Certainly most of them rule out mystical insight “as a means of knowledge” and “dismiss … as primitive superstition … [any] belief in a supernatural realm.” (Martin Gardner, a philosophical theist, is an exception to the latter point.) They “believe in the inerrancy of science” and have “a devout faith in progress.” They “genuinely believe … that science [will] answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles [will] solve all social problems,” allowing “experts” to “engineer the perfect society.”
It is this shared commitment to Reason with a capital R that unites these otherwise disparate opinion-shapers. One may even call it a shared faith, though the appellation will not be met with approval by those on whom it is bestowed.
Of course, there’s more to this rationalist faith than the positions already laid out. Rationalism takes its most clear-cut, dramatic, and bracingly simple form in its view of history.
For thousands of years, the story goes, the forces of reason have been doing battle with the forces of unreason, and the rise and fall of civilization follows the victories and defeats in this ongoing war. The ancient Athenians first enshrined reason as the basis of culture and politics, and in so doing, they created the first democracy and the first great literature and art. But Athens fell to the uncultured, unphilosophical Spartans and later to the boorish Macedonians, and the light of reason was nearly extinguished – until the Roman Empire, scavenger of subjugated cultures, adapted Greek philosophy to its own ends. Rome built a complex technological society that endured for centuries. But the Romans made the fatal mistake of adopting Christianity, a move that catapulted them directly into the Dark Ages.
The poverty, superstitious ignorance, and utter stagnation of medieval times persisted until the rebirth of reason known as the Renaissance. This opened up a new era of optimism, prosperity, and scientific progress, all made possible by the burgeoning philosophy of secular humanism, which reached its zenith in the Enlightenment.
Since that time, the forces of unreason have staged an increasingly successful counteroffensive. America is now under assault by a variety of pseudoscientific or openly irrational movements that fall under the rubric of the New Age. If these pernicious ideas consume our culture, then our society will go the way of the Roman Empire, and our future will be a new Dark Age. In this apocalyptic battle of ideas, nothing less than the survival of civilization is at stake.
As you can see, the rationalist version of history is an exciting story, full of high drama, complete with a cliffhanger ending. Will civilization commit suicide? Will all be lost? Tune in next week …
Great stuff. The only problem is, it’s not quite the whole story. In fact, a lot of it isn’t even true.
For instance, the view that ancient Athens was a stolidly rationalistic society is a nineteenth century myth that has long since been exploded. We now know that, as early as the seventh century BC, Black Sea commerce had opened Greek society to Eastern mystical ideas. Asiatic teachings of soul-body dualism, reincarnation, and metempsychosis were picked up by leading Greek thinkers, most notably Pythagoras.
Although the intellectuals of Periclean Athens – the Athens of the fifth century BC – were undoubtedly more committed to the primacy of reason than earlier generations had been, Athens remained a hotbed of competing intellectual currents. The same leaders who praised reason also relied on oracles for guidance. The same tragic playwrights who brought powerful psychological insights to their studies of human nature also infused their tragedies with gods and monsters. Euripides’ last and arguably greatest play, The Maenads, is a celebration of the wildly irrational religion of the god Dionysus, whose intoxicated followers frolicked naked in the woods in orgiastic abandon.
The admixture of rationalist and irrationalist ideas in Athens helps explain the Hellenistic period which followed, when occultism again gained the upper hand. Had Athens been as uniformly rationalistic as its admirers suggest, the Hellenistic practitioners of alchemy and astrology would never have had a chance. (For a full discussion, see Dodds, 1951.)
What about the decline of the Roman Empire? True, the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon argued at very, very great length that Christianity was responsible for sapping the Romans’ manly pagan virtues and leaving them open to attack by more vigorous barbarian hordes. Like other rationalists of an aristocratic bent, Gibbon waxed euphoric about the heyday of the Empire: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he could, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (quoted in Pagels, 1988).”
Undoubtedly these years, from A.D. 96 to A.D. 180, were a time when at least one portion of the human race was “happy and prosperous” – namely, adult males who enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship. They were, however, a minority of the population, the majority being made up of women, children, resident aliens, and slaves. For them, Gibbon’s golden age was decidedly less lustrous. Elaine Pagels writes, “Within the capital city of Rome, three quarters of the population either were slaves – persons legally classified as property – or were descended from slaves. Besides being subjected to their owners’ abuses, fits of violence, and sexual desires, slaves were denied such elementary rights as legitimate marriage, let alone legal recourse for their grievances.”
Did anyone stand up for these marginalized people? One group did – the Christians. Pagels observes that Clement of Alexandria, an influential second century Christian, “attacked the widespread Roman custom of exposing abandoned infants on garbage dumps, or raising them for sale: ‘I pity the children owned by slave dealers, who are dressed for shame,’ says Clement, and trained in sexual specialties, who were sold to gratify their owners’ sexual tastes. Justin, in his Defense of the Christians, complained that ‘not only the females, but also the males’ were commonly raised ‘like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep,’ as a profitable crop of child prostitutes … Many Christians were themselves slave owners and took slavery for granted as unthinkingly as their pagan neighbors. But others went among the hovels of the poor and into slave quarters, offering help and money and preaching to the poor, the illiterate, slaves, women, foreigners – the good news that class, education, sex, and status made no difference, that every human being is essentially equal to any other ‘before God’ … (Pagels, op.cit.).”
When Gibbon declaims on the glory that was Rome, it is best to keep in mind the “profitable crop of child prostitutes” and the abandoned infants languishing in garbage dumps. And when he insists that Judeo-Christian religious values “weakened” Rome or made it “effeminate” and “soft,” it is worth remembering what casual, everyday atrocities the pagan world was capable of.
But did Christianity weaken Rome in a military sense? Did it cause the Empire’s downfall and bring about the Dark Ages? Although Gibbon thought so, more recent research has widely discredited this idea. In a recent book, Greg S. Nyquist observes, “Those who … regard Christianity as responsible for the collapse of Roman Civilization fail to realize that only the Western half of the empire fell. The Eastern half, which was every bit, if not more, Christian than the West, remained a viable political force during the entire period of the Middle Ages. While Western Europe suffered through centuries of abject poverty and feudal anarchy, Byzantium persevered amid a veritable sea of enemies (Nyquist, 2001).”
As with any large-scale historical event, the actual reasons for Rome’s fall are complex and numerous. The Empire was overextended and difficult to defend, and the Romans were eventually obliged to employ Germanic tribesmen as mercenary soldiers to patrol the borders. Unfortunately, the emperors and the senate were notoriously stingy in paying the mercenaries’ wages. As a result, the mercenaries periodically rose up against the authorities. One of these rebellions ended in the overthrow of the emperor in AD 476.
That date is often cited as the official fall of Rome, although the Empire, in a somewhat altered form, actually persisted for another two centuries. It collapsed only after the advancing Islamic armies took control of the Mediterranean Sea and made it, in the words of historian Henri Pirenne, “a Moslem lake.” The end of Mediterranean commerce sent shockwaves through eighth century Europe, from which the continent’s economy could not recover. (This theory is elaborated in Pirenne, 1974; I’m indebted to Nyquist for bringing Pirenne to my attention.)
Perhaps the most cherished chapter in the rationalists’ historical overview is that the long, dreary interlude of the medieval period was brought to an end by a glorious rebirth of reason.
Again, the truth is more complicated. In fact, the medieval period blends rather seamlessly into the Renaissance. There were small businessmen, merchants, engineers, artists, philosophers, even nascent scientists in the late Middle Ages, just as there were astrologers, witches, spirit mediums, and religious fanatics in the Renaissance.
Jean Gimpel, in The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, explores the often neglected technological and commercial innovations of the medieval period. “The Middle Ages,” he writes in his preface, “was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe … Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, western Europe experienced a technological boom … Capitalist companies were formed and their shares were bought and sold … Many of the tasks formerly done by hand were now carried out by machines … There was a marked increase in the general standard of living.”
Later he writes, “It is an astonishing concept to the modern mind that medieval man was surrounded by machines … The most common was the mill, converting the power of water or wind into work: grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper …” A survey of England undertaken in 1086 by William the Conqueror reported 5,624 water mills. “On rivers like the Wylye in [the county of] Wiltshire the concentration of mills is remarkable: thirty mills along some 10 miles of water; three mills every mile.”
Readers who prefer to get their history through historical novels might want to look at Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which incorporates a great deal of recent research into its picture of the medieval world (Crichton, 1999).
If the Middle Ages was less mystical than rationalists suppose, the Renaissance was less rationalistic than they would like to believe. Rationalists sometimes credit the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle with laying the foundation for the new progressive spirit of the Renaissance. A case can be made that at least equal credit belongs to Aristotle’s polar opposite, the semi-mythical ancient Egyptian known as Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes Thrice-Great. The corpus of occult writings attributed to this figure, known as the Hermetica, first returned to Western European hands in 1460, when Cosimo de Medici acquired some Hermetic texts from Byzantium. More texts turned up, and by 1593 a complete volume was published in Italy.
The Hermetica is crowded with occult lore of all kinds – astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, magical rituals, invocations of pagan deities. Interlaced with this rather banal material is a more uplifting mystical vision of a hierarchical, purposeful cosmos in which the human spirit is continually evolving toward reunion with the godhead.
Renaissance intellectuals were fascinated by the Hermetica. Such leading figures as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola became deeply committed to this occult philosophy, which has many similarities to the mystical traditions of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism – and nothing at all in common with classical rationalism. If we want to find the inspiration behind the works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and perhaps even Shakespeare, we would be better advised to look at the Hermetica than at, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
It is true, of course, that rationalism eventually became the dominant mode of thought among intellectuals in the West, a trend that culminated in the Enlightenment in the middle to late 1700s. Even this development was less triumphal than contemporary rationalists make it out to be. The climax and apotheosis of the Enlightenment was not the American Revolution, which blended rationalist and religious sentiments in a common-sense mixture, but rather the French Revolution, which began as a revolt against the privileged but evolved swiftly into a radical onslaught on all religious beliefs, customs, traditions, and values. If you want to see the spirit of the Enlightenment, and therefore of scientific rationalism, in its pure, unadulterated form, look at Paris in 1793.
In that year the Jacobin party, in control of the Revolution, outlawed the Bible, closed all churches, and decreed the death penalty for anyone found guilty of practicing Christianity. The cathedral of Notre Dame was stripped of Christian symbols and transformed into a Temple of Reason, in which an actress made up as the Goddess of Reason received obeisance from the assembled mob. The local bishop was forced to declare that he worshipped no God, but only Liberty and Equality. An ass dressed in priestly garments, with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament tied to its tail, was paraded through the streets to its destination – a huge pile of religious books, which were ceremonially burned.
The new “Revolutionary Calendar” removed all references to Christianity, renaming Christmas as “Dog Day,” and All-Saints Day as “Goat’s-beard Herb Day.” Other holidays included Virtue Day, Genius Day, and, of course, Reason Day. The months of the year were renamed for the seasons and harvests – the month of Mist, the month of Frost, the month of Heat; the months of Seed, of Blossom, of Fruit. Even clocks were remanufactured to count out ten hours to each day, with one hundred minutes to each hour – apparently a more logical approach.
Finally a truly rational society was at hand, or so the reformers thought. But at the very time when the Jacobins were outlawing religion, and perhaps not by coincidence, they were also instituting the Terror – the indiscriminate murder of thousands by means of that shiny, new, technologically efficient killing machine, the guillotine. The dream-turned-nightmare came to an end in 1799 with a coup d’etat that established the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Still, this was hardly the last effort to wipe out all vestiges of tradition and build a new, utopian society on a purely “scientific” basis. The Nazi ambition to establish a master race was founded on the new science of eugenics, while the Marxist attempt to mold the New Soviet Man relied on behavior modification through incessant propaganda and reeducation camps, policies justified by the “rational, scientific” theory of Marxism itself. It has been aptly said, by theologian Thomas Oden, that “modernity” lasted exactly two hundred years – beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In making these points, I don’t mean to suggest that the pursuit of reason has had no beneficial social consequences. This is obviously untrue and would be just as much of an unwarranted oversimplification as the rationalists’ contrary position. What I am saying is that the pursuit of reason as an absolute, an end in itself, can lead to outcomes quite different from those that rationalists expect.
History is complicated. It is not a simple matter of good and evil, with the forces of good exemplified by reason, and the forces of evil exemplified by mysticism. It is more like a balancing act, in which both the rational and the nonrational aspects of human nature must find some degree of fulfillment in a stable social order. When the balance tilts too far to one side or the other, instability results. An excess of nonrational impulses can engender stagnant tribalism or despotic theocracy. An excessive commitment to reason as the be-all and end-all of life can usher in the chaos and madness of 1793.
Rationalists will have none of this. For them, all the ills of the world are the product of irrationalism and can be defeated by the systematic application of science, logic, and technology. This, they feel, is self-evident, and anyone who doesn’t see it is either dishonest or stupid. Since a great many people don’t see it, rationalists feel a certain contempt for the masses – contempt mixed with fear, since in a democracy the masses have considerable power.
All this is very much in line with the black-and-white mindset that typifies rationalists. There is reason, and there is its opposite, and never shall they meet. The ambiguities and complexities of the real world, the multiple causes underlying massive historical events, the nuances and subtleties of human nature are all quite alien to their streamlined and simplified vision.
For that matter, even some of modern science is alien to rationalists. This may seem odd, since rationalists are, if anything, champions of science. But if you examine them closely, you’ll find that they are often more committed to the scientific outlook of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth – or the twenty-first.
The nineteenth century was the heyday of rationalism in science. It was the age when Newtonian physics seemed on the verge of explaining the universe. It was also the age when Darwinian evolutionary theory seemed to have solved the mysteries of life itself. Not surprisingly, rationalists still feel at home in that era.
But science has undergone momentous changes in the past century. The Theory of Relativity and, even more so, the advent of quantum physics have undermined the old Newtonian world picture. Where Newton saw the universe as a great machine humming along in a neat and orderly fashion, following laws that could be mathematically calculated, producing results that could be predicted with pinpoint accuracy, the new physics sees the universe as a place of paradox and ambiguity. In the quantum world, a subatomic particle can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. The distinction between the observer and the observed, so crucial to the classical outlook, has dissolved, and it now appears that the observer can directly affect or even bring about the events under observation. Entities are able to influence each other over vast distances instantaneously – a multiply verified observation that has given rise to the idea that this is a “nonlocal universe,” a universe in which, at a fundamental level, space and time do not exist. Physicist David Bohm has compared the universe to a giant hologram, a multidimensional image projected out of a two-dimensional wave-interference pattern at the quantum level. Superstring theory argues that the essence of things is not any material object, but cosmic vibrational frequencies.
Meanwhile, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is increasingly seen as incomplete. Some biologists postulate a new view of evolution, “punctuated equilibrium,” in which new species emerge suddenly in response to environmental pressures. Other theorists apply chaos theory or quantum physics to the problem, while still others suggest, ever so carefully, that there may be something to the old Lamarckian notion that animals pass along acquired characteristics and thereby accelerate the evolutionary process. The origin of life remains a complete mystery, in which every proposed theory has been discredited and no new theories are thought to be in the offing. Molecular biologist Michael Behe, in Darwin’s Black Box, argues that cellular organization represents an “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained, even in principle, by evolutionary theory. Behe points out that even the simplest cell carries out millions of chemical reactions every second, in a meticulously choreographed array of sequences, and that all this activity is necessary if the cell is to metabolize nutrients, eliminate waste, and (most daunting of all) successfully reproduce. How the first cell ever developed out of nonliving antecedents is unknown, especially since examination of some of the oldest rocks on Earth has shown that microbes came into existence much earlier than previously believed.
In many respects, science is evolving into a more open-ended discipline, one that allows for and even celebrates the enigmas, paradoxes, and ambiguities of the universe. Rationalists are unhappy with this development. They resist it. They gripe about it. They make fun of it. They cannot come to terms with it.
Nor is this surprising. For the most part, the rationalist mindset is simply not flexible enough to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Although rationalists themselves would vigorously deny it, their worldview is essentially religious in nature – not because they believe in God or the supernatural, but because they believe that they have identified absolute truths and that virtue consists in defending those truths at any cost. Their contempt for religion as a mere “belief system” blinds them to the fact that their philosophy is itself a belief system, subject to the same bias and incompleteness as any other set of beliefs. Philosophically, they have committed themselves to a simple, straightforward theory of everything, and are unable or unwilling to see that this theory, like any theory, can never be more than a rough approximation of the truth.
The quest for truth is an ongoing process, a journey, not a destination. Indeed, science – and reason itself – can be best understood not as a final answer but as a method, a tool. If science is seen as a set of answers with which one must agree in order for one to be deemed “rational” – a viewpoint for which the term “scientism” has been coined – then any new information that challenges the existing scientific worldview is a threat to science and to rationality itself. In that case, one must be perpetually on guard against such threats, by assiduously debunking any new ideas or new observations that fall outside the established paradigm.
On the other hand, if science is seen simply as a method leading to provisional answers that are always subject to revision, then new ideas and new observations are no threat at all.
So now we can see, I think, why the more militant rationalists become militant skeptics – i.e., militant debunkers. Their penchant for denigrating and discrediting the paranormal is not simply a tic of the personality, but the ineluctable consequence of a certain fundamental view of life, mind, and the cosmos.
Unfortunately, people with a powerful personal agenda do not make the best skeptics – at least not if skepticism is understood as the exercise of unbiased objectivity.
Self-doubt – or at least the admission of same – is not characteristic of the skeptic, who prefers to radiate an aura of unshakable assurance. To admit any doubt is to cede territory to the forces of unreason – the primordial enemy, which, as we have seen, must be resisted by any means.
And here we come to what is, as I see it, the real problem with skeptics. They wish, above all, to be certain – and when reality doesn’t oblige them by offering clear-cut answers, they turn away from reality and seek refuge in pre-existing theory.
They oversimplify history as a battle between good and evil, and miss its complexities and subtleties. They resist modern developments in science and cling to outdated, nineteenth century conceptions. They jump to prearranged conclusions and shut their eyes – and their minds – to anomalous data and alternative explanations.
In their quest to prove themselves right, they lose sight of the ambiguities and paradoxes of life. In their desire to be safe and sure, they turn away from anything interesting and new.
They are creatures of comfort and routine, not explorers. They cannot think outside the box. They will, in fact, deny that there is or ever could be anything outside the box – and they’ll heap scorn on anyone who suggests otherwise. They’ll call names, cry fraud, and holler that civilization is in danger and the barbarians are at the gates. They’ll do anything, really – except examine their own assumptions with a remotely critical eye.
And that’s why I’m not a skeptic.
Boerner, R. Some Notes on Skepticism, undated. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.suppressedscience.net/skepticism.html
Crichton, M. Timeline Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999.
Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1951.
Gimpel, J. The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages Barnes & Noble Books, 2003, pp. viii – ix, 1, 12
McTaggart, L. The Field: the Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe, HarperCollins, New York, 2002, pp. 60 – 68.
Milgrom, L. Thanks for the Memory, The Guardian March 15, 2001. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4152521,00.htm ; also available at the Internet site: http://www.digibio.com/archive/20010315-Guardian.htm
Milner, M. Lives of the Saints, Philadelphia City Paper December 14-21, 1995. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.citypaper.net/articles/121495/article003.shtml
Nolen, W.A. Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle Random House, New York, 1974.
Nyquist, G.S. Contra Human Nature, Writers Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2001, p. 80.
Pagels, P. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 51-53.
Pirenne, H. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1974, p. 25 and passim.
Radin, D. The Conscious Universe, HarperCollins, New York, 1997.
Randi, J. Commentary, September 5, 2003. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.randi.org/jr/090503.html
Shermer, M. Hitchens on Fairies, Banned by Rand, undated. Viewed on August 28, 2004 at the Internet site: http://www.skeptictank.org/hs/ftale.htm
Stuttaford, A. Dead Men Talking: The Crossing Over Success, National Review Online August 11-12, 2001. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.nationalreview.com/weekend/television/television-stuttaford081101.shtml
Stuttaford, A. Who Shot Bambi? National Review Online June 21, 2003. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.nationalreview.com/script/printpage.asp?ref=/thecorner/03_06_15_corner-archive.asp
Stuttaford, A. False Memory Watch, National Review Online August 15, 2003. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.nationalreview.com/thecorner/03_08_10_corner-archive.asp
Targ, R. and Katra, J. Miracles of Mind: Exploring Nonlocal Consciousness and Spiritual Healing, New World Library, Novato, CA, 1999, pp. 153-154.
True, G.N. The Facts About Faith Healing, undated. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://www.netasia.net/users/truehealth/Psychic%20Surgery.htm
Veith, G. Postmodern Times: Facing a World of New Challenges & Opportunities. Modern Reformation 1995; Sep-Oct. Viewed on August 28, 2004, at the Internet site: http://jf.org/papers/p950807.html
Michael Prescott is a New York Times bestselling author. His published works include: Comes the Dark, Stealing Faces, The Shadow Hunter, Last Breath, Next Victim and In Dark Places. His latest book is Dangerous Games.
On February 14, 2005, UK television Channel 4 broadcast a program entitled “The Girl With X-Ray Eyes”. The presenters related the examination by CSICOP scientists of a Russian clairvoyant named Nahtasha Demkina.
Claims had been made that Russian teenager Natasha Demkina was able to diagnose medical conditions in people simply by observing them.
On UK television Channel 4 Natasha was examined by well-known media skeptics and CSICOP representatives Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman.
After a series of somewhat perfunctory tests, the scientists announced that Demkina’s claims were negated.
The result was a flood of adverse comment. The conditions under which the tests were conducted – and the criterion of failure applied by CSICOP – were severely criticised.
What was intended to be a victory for dogmatic skepticism turned into something else.
Here we present some of the criticism leveled at the investigators.
In these articles, longtime skeptic-watcher Guy Lyon Playfair takes a skeptical look at some of their activities. His books include: This House is Haunted, Twin Telepathy, The Flying Cow: Exploring the Psychic World of Brazil, and If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnosis.
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...
The Enfield Poltergeist Explained Again – The Deborah Hyde Version
by Guy Lyon Playfair Covering Things Up: Hyde’s Vague Generalisations and Outright Misformation For more than thirty years since the Enfield events ended, Janet, the (then) twelve-year-old who was the focus for much (but not all) of the activity, has done her best to avoid publicity, taking part in just one TV interview and one...
Lazzaro Spallanzani’s Scientific “Heresy”by Guy Lyon Playfair Bat ear to human radar technology delayed for decades due to the irrational science-denial of dogmatic skepticism. In 1794 the eminent Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-99), one of the founders of experimental biology, published a modest but heretical proposal. Long intrigued by the ability of bats to fly...
The Enfield Poltergeist – Joe Nickell Explains All
The Art of Cherry-Pickingby Guy Lyon Playfair ‘As a magician experienced in the dynamics of trickery, I have carefully examined Playfair’s lengthy account of the disturbances at Enfield and have concluded that they are best explained as children’s pranks.’ This weighty pronouncement comes from CSI (formerly CSICOP)’s chief hit-man and serial cherry-picker Joe Nickell, in...
Welcome to Skeptics Anonymousby Guy Lyon Playfair Organised skeptics tend to be pretty ignorant about the subjects they hope to debunk. L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania was for several years ‘actively’ engaged with the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT) after being introduced to it by an old friend, a sometime CSICOP supporter...
by Guy Lyon Playfair With the publication of Paul H. Smith’s Reading the Enemy’s Mind (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2005) we can now read the whole story of the U.S. military intelligence programme of ‘remote viewing’ that began in California in the early seventies and came to an inglorious end in 1995 with the...
by Guy Lyon Playfair Need a second income? Then why not become a Media Skeptic, one of those who pop up on our screens almost daily to assure us that “the paranormal” (or psi, as it is known in the trade) doesn’t exist? You don’t need any qualifications, though it helps if you have a...
by Guy Lyon Playfair Extract from a paper by Aristide Esser, et al. (International Journal of Parapsychology, 9 (1) 53-56, 1967), describing an experiment in telepathy between identical twins: “In a physically isolated subject, we have observed physiological reactions at the precise moment at which another person, the agent, was actively stimulated. We show the...
by Guy Lyon Playfair When Barry Marshall swallowed a mouthful of bacteria back in the 1990s and gave himself severe pains in the tummy, showing that gastric disorders were not due to ‘stress’, too much curry or whatever, but a bug called Helicobacter pylori, he had a job at first getting anybody to believe him....
by Guy Lyon Playfair There’s nothing like a session devoted to telepathy, near death experiences, and the distant mental influence on living systems (DMILS) at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) to set the usual sceptics buzzing as angrily as hornets whose nest has just been trodden on. “Theories...
by Guy Lyon Playfair Telepathy made the headlines at the end of September 2001. A whole page of the Daily Mail, half a page of The Observer and a sizeable chunk of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme were all devoted to it. What could have attracted so much of the media’s attention to a subject...
by Guy Lyon Playfair Startling revelations concerning the U.S. Government-sponsored Project Star Gate remote viewing programme are contained in a recent book, The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Master Spy by Joseph McMoneagle – military remote viewer No. 001 – who by his retirement from the Army in 1984 had taken part in more than...
by Guy Lyon Playfair One of the skeptics’ favourite tricks is to come up with a purely imaginary “explanation” for an apparently paranormal phenomenon. While doing research for my book Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection, I kept coming across remarks like this one, from twin expert Dr. Nancy Segal as reported in Newsweek (November 23,...
by Guy Lyon Playfair Samuel G. Soal (1889-1975) was one of the highest-profile researchers of his day. His book Modern Experiments in Telepathy (1954) earned him a degree from London University – only the second such honour to be awarded in Britain for a parapsychology-related thesis – and the long series of card guessing tests...
by Guy Lyon Playfair L. David Leiter of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, has no problems with what he sees as ordinary or individual skepticism. Writing in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Spring 2002) he describes this as “a useful and important human trait, the ability to recognise that any claim or theory, no matter how well...
by Guy Lyon Playfair “I’d love to publish it. If it’s watertight evidence I’d publish it as fast as I possibly could.” This surprising statement was made in the first of two parts of the BBC World Service series “Discovery: Who Runs your World?” in which the question was “Who decides which scientific research project...
Part 1: Good Skeptic Ian Wilson on Nostradamusby Guy Lyon Playfair There can be few whose writings have been quoted, misquoted, debunked and even faked so often and so long after their death as those of the French physician, astrologer and prophet Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566), better known by his Latinised surname of Nostradamus. Whenever...
Part 1: Birth of a Movementby Guy Lyon Playfair “I have come to believe that Paul Kurtz does not completely share my goals”, including “objective inquiry prior to judgment.”– Marcello Truzzi CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) [now simply CSI, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation] came into existence at...
Neuroimaging Used in Attempts to Resolve the Psi Debate
by Guy Lyon Playfair The paper ‘Using Neuroimaging to Resolve the Psi Debate’ by Samuel T. Moulton and Stephen M. Kosslyn (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20 (1), 2008) must have brought tidings of great joy to sceptics. Not only do the Harvard University psychologists claim their findings to be ‘the strongest evidence yet obtained against...
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 of phenomena that were unreal. My interest is in the counter-pathology involving cases where phenomena that are almost certainly real are rejected by the scientific community, for reasons that are just as invalid as those of the cases described by Langmuir. Alfred Wegener’s continental drift proposal (2) provides a good example, being simply dismissed by most scientists at the time, despite the overwhelming evidence in its favour. In such situations incredulity, expressed strongly by the disbelievers, frequently takes over: no longer is the question that of the truth or falsity of the claims; instead, the agenda centres on denunciation of the claims. Ref. 3, containing a number of hostile comments by scientists with no detailed familiarity with the research on which they cast scorn, illustrates this very well. In this “denunciation mode”, the usual scientific care is absent; pseudo-arguments often take the place of scientific ones. Irving Langmuir’s lecture referred to above is often exploited in this way, his list of criteria for “Pathological Science” being applied blindly to dismiss claims of the existence of specific pheomena without proper examination of the evidence. We find a similar method of subverting logical analysis in a weekly column supported by the American Physical Society (4).
“I started this journey expecting genuine debate, a battle of ideas, a war over the evidence, but that’s not what I found. I found a lot of frustrated researchers who were facing a well-organized, aggressive skeptical community…”
Science philanthropist Alex Tsakiris looked back at over thirty episodes of [his podcast] Skeptiko to examine what he learned from his interviews with skeptics Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, James Alcock and James Randi.
He outlined the three biggest failings of the skeptical community and how their inability to successfully handle new research into human consciousness has limited scientific progress. He took a critical look at the skeptical community and its impact on controversial science research.
Tsakiris explained how his opinion of the skeptical community has evolved:
“I started this journey expecting genuine debate, a battle of ideas, a war over the evidence, but that’s not what I found. I found a lot of frustrated researchers who were facing a well-organized, aggressive skeptical community that’s managed to change the rules of the game when it comes to how certain kinds of controversial science research is done.”
Tsakiris also offered a challenge to skeptics who are doubtful of psychic medium research, like the work being done by Dr. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona; Tsakiris offered to pay for a skeptic to follow Schwartz’s research protocol and then join him on the Skeptiko Podcast.
The 2007 interview is available for download free here.
Skeptiko is the first scientifically oriented Podcast exploring new research in controversial areas of science such as telepathy, psi, parapsychology, near-death-experience, reincarnation, and after-life encounters. Each episode features open, honest debate on new scientific discoveries. The show includes interviews with top research scientists and their critics.
Reproduced from the “Suppressed Science” Website *
Many who loudly advertise themselves as “skeptics” are actually “disbelievers”.
Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. A disbeliever, on the other hand, is characterized by an a priori belief that a certain idea is wrong and will not be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence to the contrary. Since disbelievers usually fancy themselves skeptics, I will follow Truzzi and call them pseudoskeptics, and their opinions pseudoskepticism.
The more belligerent pseudoskeptics have their own organizations and publications. In Germany, there is an organization called the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften e.V., or GWUP, ( “society for the scientific evaluation of parasciences”) which publishes a magazine called Der Skeptiker (“the Skeptic”). In the United States, there is the so-called “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal”, or short, CSICOP. The name suggests a serious, unbiased institute or think tank whose mission is to advance human knowledge by sorting out true anomalous discoveries from erroneous or fraudulent ones. Indeed, that was what some of the original members of CSICOP envisioned when they founded the organization in 1976. But in the very same year, CSICOP faced an internal crisis, a power struggle between the genuine skeptics and the disbelieving pseudoskeptics that was to tilt the balance in favor of the latter.
At issue was the Mars Effect, an extraordinary claim made by French statistician and psychologist Michel Gauquelin. Gauquelin had discovered an apparent statistical correlation between the position of Mars in the sky at the moment of birth of a person with the odds of that person becoming a sports champion, producing a genuine piece of empirical evidence that astrology might not be nonsense after all. This dismayed the pseudoskeptics, who until them had been comfortable dismissing astrology on purely theoretical grounds and were unwilling to even entertain the hypothesis that Gauquelin’s analysis might be correct. In 1976, in an attempt to make this embarrassment go away once and for all, Harvard professor of biostatistics and CSICOP fellow Marvin Zelen proposed a simplified version of the original Gauquelin study which he subsequently performed with the assistance of CSICOP chairman and professor of philosophy Paul Kurtz and George Abell, a UCLA astronomer. In order to get the result they wanted, the trio had to commit a total of six statistical blunders, which are discussed in detail in the article The True Disbelievers: Mars Effect Drives Skeptics to Irrationality by former CSICOP fellow Richard Kammann. Proper analysis showed that the new study actually supported the Gauquelin effect.
But Kurtz and his fellow pseudoskeptics had never been interested in performing proper science. Their minds had been made up long before the study was performed, and they adamantly refused to admit their mistake in public. This lead to the resignation of many fair-minded CSICOP members, among them Richard Kammann and co-founder Marcello Truzzi. Truzzi wrote about his experience in Reflections On The Reception Of Unconventional Claims In Science:
“Originally I was invited to be a co-chairman of CSICOP by Paul Kurtz. I helped to write the bylaws and edited their journal. I found myself attacked by the Committee members and board, who considered me to be too soft on the paranormalists. My position was not to treat protoscientists as adversaries, but to look to the best of them and ask them for their best scientific evidence. I found that the Committee was much more interested in attacking the most publicly visible claimants such as the “National Enquirer”. The major interest of the Committee was not inquiry but to serve as an advocacy body, a public relations group for scientific orthodoxy. The Committee has made many mistakes. My main objection to the Committee, and the reason I chose to leave it, was that it was taking the public position that it represented the scientific community, serving as gatekeepers on maverick claims, whereas I felt they were simply unqualified to act as judge and jury when they were simply lawyers.”
After the true skeptics had been purged from the committee, CSICOP and its magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, degenerated into little more than a propaganda outlet for the systematic ridicule of anything unconventional. Led by a small, but highly aggressive group of fundamentalist pseudoskeptics such as chairman and humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, science writer and magician Martin Gardner and magician James Randi, CSICOP sees science not as a dispassionate, objective search for the truth, whatever it might be, but as holy war of the ideology of materialism against “a rising tide of irrationality, superstition and nonsense”. Kurtz and his fellows are fundamentalist materialists. They hold the nonexistence of paranormal phenomena as an article of faith, and they cling to that belief just as fervently and irrationally as a devout catholic believes in the Virgin Mary. They are fighting a no holds barred war against belief in the paranormal, and they see genuine research into such matters as a mortal threat to their belief system. Since genuine scientific study has the danger that the desired outcome is not guaranteed, CSICOP wisely no longer conducts scientific research of its own (such would be a waste of time and money for an entity that already has all the answers), and instead largely relies on the misrepresentation or intentional omission of existing research and the ad-hominem – smear, slander, and ridicule.
Eugene Mallove, editor of Infinite Energy Magazine, relates the following telling episode in Issue 23, 1999 of his magazine:
“On the morning of July 14, 1998, I called Skeptical Inquirer’s editor, Kendrick Frazier, to ask him, among other things, what research or literature search he had done on cold fusion. He rebuffed me, saying that he was too busy to talk, because he was on deadline on an editorial project. We spoke briefly; he was transparently irritated. He said, ‘I know who you are.’ He said that he did not want to talk to me because, ‘We would have diametrically opposed views.’ I said, ‘Oh, what research have you done to come to your conclusions about cold fusion.’ I had thought that the careful investigation of ‘diametrically opposed views’ was part of the work of CSICOP. Perhaps I was mistaken. Frazier said, ‘I’m not an investigator, I’m an editor.’ The conversation ended with Frazier stating that he had nothing further to say.” [The entire article here: CSICOP: “Science Cops” at War with Cold Fusion.]
Even though it is largely run by scientific lay people, and its practices are anathema to true science, CSICOP has enjoyed the support of a number of highly prestigious scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, the late Carl Sagan, Glenn T. Seaborg, Leon Lederman and Murray Gell-Mann. This support has enabled it to project an image of scientific authority to the opinion shapers in the media and the general public.
For a detailed study of pseudo-skepticism in general, and CSICOP in particular, I refer the reader to George P. Hansen’s article CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview (published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research), in which CSICOP’s history, goals, tactics and membership structure are discussed in some detail. In his conclusions, Hansen finds that:
“CSICOP’s message has often been well received, particularly among scientific leaders. The growth of CSICOP, the circulation figures of “SI”, and the academic credentials of its readership prove that there is wide interest in the paranormal among the most highly educated members of our society. Many readers of ‘SI’ undoubtedly assume that CSICOP presents the best available scientific evidence. The readers are rarely told of the existence of refereed scientific journals that cover parapsychology. The effect of CSICOP’s activities is to create a climate of hostility toward the investigation of paranormal claims; indeed, at one CSICOP conference, the announcement of the closing of several parapsychology laboratories was greeted with cheers.”
The remainder of this text is devoted to a detailed discussion of pseudoskeptical arguments and debating tactics.
“If it was true, there is no way that science could have missed it!”
This is a variation of the end of science argument – since science already knows everything, and does not recognize the unconventional phenomenon, it cannot be real. Besides being based on a mere belief – that science has discovered everything there is to know – this argument ignores the nature of human perception. Even scientists tend to see only what they want to see, and that is how phenomena that we find completely obvious today, such as Wegener’s plate tectonics – look how South America fits into Africa! – went unnoticed for a long time, and were violently opposed when they were finally pointed out. As Arthur C. Clarke put it:
“It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them.”
True skeptics appreciate that the principal flaw of human perception – seeing what one wants to see – can afflict conventional as well as unconventional scientists. Their opinions are moderated by the humbling realization that today’s scientific orthodoxy began as yesterday’s scientific heresy; as the the December 2002 editorial of Scientific American puts it:
“All scientific knowledge is provisional. Everything that science ‘knows’, even the most mundane facts and long-established theories, is subject to reexamination as new information comes in.”
Confusing Assumptions with Findings
Pseudoskeptics like to claim that the assumptions underlying modern science are empirical facts that science has proved. For example, the foundational assumption of neuroscience, that the functioning of the brain (and, therefore, the mind) is explainable in terms of classical physics as the interaction of neurons, is said to be a scientific fact that is proved by neuroscience, despite the embarrassing and long-standing failure of this assumption to explain the anomaly of consciousness.
In a recent BBC program on homeopathy Walter Stewart (the same one who was part of the Nature team that visited Benveniste in his laboratory in 1988) is quoted on the subject of homeophatic dilutions:
“Science has through many, many different experiments shown that when a drug works it’s always through the way the molecule interacts with the body and, so the discovery that there’s no molecules means absolutely there’s no effect.”
But science has shown no such thing. That the functioning of biological organisms is reducible to the physical interaction of molecules is not the result of decades of bio-molecular research, it is the assumption underlying this research. The fact that homeopathy confounds that assumption refutes the latter, not the former.
“Debate Closed” Mentality
Since Pseudoskeptics have by their nature made up their minds on any question long before the evidence is in, they are not interested in participating in what could become an involved, drawn-out debate. On the contrary, their concern is with preserving their own understanding of how nature works, so discordant evidence has to be disposed of as quickly as possible. When sound evidence to that end is unavailable, anything that sufficiently resembles it will suffice. Pseudoskeptics like to jump to conclusions quickly – when the conclusion is their own, preconceived one. Once the pseudoskeptical community has agreed on an “explanation” that is thought to debunk claim X, that explanation then becomes enshrined in pseudoskeptical lore and is repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseam in the pseudoskeptical literature. Subsequent rebuttals are ignored, as is new data that support claims X.
Examples are legion:
Gurwich’s 1932 discovery of mitogenetic radiation is still derided by pseudoskeptics as a classical example of “pathological science” (Irving Langmuir, who coined the term, used it as an example), even though it has been vindicated by three decades of biophoton research.
Pseudoskeptics continue their ridicule of Cold Fusion as a mistake, even use “cold fusion” as a metaphor to refer to what they deem pathological science in general, ignoring a full decade of successful replication of the effect.
Parapsychology continues to be attacked by the hard-core pseudoskeptics with criticisms that were addressed and resolved long ago, leading Radin to remark that “…skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology, but also about the current state of skepticism!”
Overreaching and Armchair Quarterbacking
Faced with contradictory or inconclusive evidence, the skeptic will only say that the claim has not been proved at this time, and give the claimant the benefit of the doubt. The pseudoskeptic will make the (incorrect) counter-claim that the original claim has been disproved by the evidence (and usually follow up with generous amounts of name-calling and other extra-scientific arguments discussed below).
This distinction between simply not accepting a claim and making a counter-claim is important because it shifts the burden of proof. The true skeptic does not have to prove anything, because she is simply unconvinced of the validity of an extraordinary claim. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, making the claim that the extraordinary phenomenon only appears to be extraordinary, and has a conventional explanation, have to bear a burden of proof of their own. Do they? The general answer is no. Most of the professional pseudoskeptics engage in mere ‘armchair quarterbacking’, conducting no research of their own. As far as parapsychology is concerned, Radin sums this situation up as follows, “The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter studies to prove their claims is often ignored.”
For example, in 1983 the well-known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote:
“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming in from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming in from a much larger group of skeptics.”
As Honorton points out:
“Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptic’s experiments and see what you find.” In addition, there is no “larger group of skeptics.” Perhaps ten or fifteen skeptics have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms.”
Assuming False Scientific Authority
Many high-profile pseudoskeptics pass judgement based on scientific expertise they don’t have. James Randi, for example, shares the following tirade in a July 13, 2001 commentary on his web site:
“Just so that you can see how pseudoscience and ignorance have taken over the Internet merchandising business, I suggest that you visit [the “Hydrate for Life” website] and try to follow the totally false and misleading pitch that the vendors make for this product, magically-prepared ‘Penta’ water that will ‘hydrate’ your body miraculously. A grade-school education will equip you to recognize the falsity of this claim, but it’s obvious that the purveyors are cashing in on ignorance and carelessness. Just read this as an example of pure techno-claptrap:
“Normally, the water you drink is in large clusters of H20 [sic] molecules. That’s because its [sic] been affected by air, heat, and modern civilization. PentaTM is water that, through physics, has been reduced to its purest state in nature — smaller clusters of H2O [sic] molecules. These smaller clusters move through your body more quickly than other water, penetrating your cell membranes more easily. This means PentaTM is absorbed into your system faster and more completely. When you drink PentaTM, you’re drinking the essence of water. You get hydrated faster, more efficiently, and more completely than with any other water on earth.
“Folks, water is water. It’s burned hydrogen, no more, no less. The molecules of H2O — not ‘H2O’ as these quacks write — do not ‘cluster’, under any influence of the dreadful ‘air, heat, and modern civilization’ that you’re cautioned to fear. True, water exhibits surface tension, and the molecules do ‘line up’ to an extent, though almost any foreign substance in there disturbs this effect — soap/detergent ‘wets’ it readily. But water molecules in ‘clusters’? No way! The illustrations you see here are totally wrong and fictitious. There’s no such thing as ‘essence of water’, by any stretch of scientific reasoning, or imagination. This is total, unmitigated nonsense, a pack of lies designed to swindle and cheat, to steal money, and to rob the consumer. And ‘through physics’ has nothing to do with it. I await objections to the above statements. There will be none, because the sellers of ‘Penta’ know they’re lying, they do it purposefully, and they know they can get away with it because of the incredible inertia of the Federal agencies that should be protecting us against such deception and thievery. Those agencies just can’t do the job, and they bumble about endlessly while the public continues to pay through the nose. But notice: the Penta people, on their web page, beneath a family picture of the founders, clearly assert that: At first, [the Penta engineers] tested Penta on plants. They discovered that test seeds would germinate in half the time as the control seeds. Bingo! Hallelujah! We have the means for a test! A simple, inexpensive, clearly demonstrative, test! Such a demonstration would clearly establish the claim these folks are making. Ah, but will PentaTM apply for the million-dollar prize? Dear reader, with your experience of Tice, DKL, Quadro, Josephson, Edward, and all the parade of others who have declined to be tested, I think that you expect, as I do, that PentaTM will apply as promptly as Sylvia Browne did. The PentaTM page advises us to ‘Penta-hydrate – be fluid.’ Translation: ‘Believe this — be stupid.'”
Randi could not be more wrong. Water is not simply “water- burned hydrogen, no more no less”. It is a highly anomalous substance, and its fundamental properties are still the subject of basic research. Admittedly, the claims made for “Penta-Water” are scientifically extravagant. But can they be dismissed out of hand? Contrary to what Randi asserts with such rhetoric force and finality, water clusters are discussed in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The interested reader may want to visit Martin Chaplin’s web site for an overview of scientific work on water clustering. Chaplin is not a stage magician, but a Professor of Applied Science at South Bank University, London and holds a degree in chemistry. He is also an active researcher in the field of water clustering, and concludes that:
“…there is a sufficient and broad evidential base for it’s existence (the existence of the icosahedral water cluster), including the ability to explain all the ‘anomalous’ properties of water.”
The existence of scientific evidence for water clusters does of course not imply that “Penta” and similar products have any merit, but it does caution against outright dismissal of these kinds of product. Randi’s sweeping negative statements betray lack of knowledge on the subject and qualify him as a blundering pseudo-scientist. His petty, adolescent criticism of a simple typographic inaccuracy on the “Hydrate for Life” web site and his use of ridicule (he asserts that “Penta” is “magically-prepared” and works “miraculously” while the manufacturer simply states that the process is “proprietary”) support that impression. And yet, Randi rhetorically assumes an air of scientific authority, even infallibility.
Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer makes the following ignorant argument in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):
“The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for instance, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong. It was that they announced their spectacular discovery at a press conference before other laboratories verified it. Worse, when cold fusion was not replicated, they continued to cling to their claim. Outside verification is crucial to good science.”
The argument against “science by press conference” is a good one, but it would be more credible if Shermer applied it to accepted science too. A prime example is Robert Gallo’s announcement of the discovery of the “probable cause of AIDS” in a press conference in 1984 that preceeded publication of his research in Science and secured a political commitment to his alleged facts before critical scientific discussion could take place.
What makes Shermer’s argument ignorant is his use of cold fusion as an example. Real scientists who have actually studied the evidence for cold fusion have come to very different conclusions. In February 2002, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center of the United State Navy in San Diego released a 310 page report titled Thermal and Nuclear Aspects of the Pd/D2O System that discusses the overwhelming experimental evidence that the cold fusion effect indeed exists. Dr. Frank E. Gordon, the head of the center’s Navigation and Applied Sciences Department, writes in the foreword:
“We do not know if Cold Fusion will be the answer to future energy needs, but we do know the existence of Cold Fusion phenomenon through repeated observations by scientists throughout the world. It is time that this phenomenon be investigated so that we can reap whatever benefits accrue from additional scientific understanding. It is time for government funding organizations to invest in this research.”
Yet Shermer, a psychologist by trade, feels called upon to pass summary negative judgment on this field of research.
Double Standards of Acceptable Proof and Ad-Hoc Hypotheses
The true skeptic will apply her skepticism equally to conventional and unconventional claims, and even to skepticism itself. In particular, the true skeptic recognizes an ad-hoc hypothesis regardless of the source. The pseudoskeptic, on the other hand, reserves her critical facilities for unconventional claims only.
William R. Corliss, the author of The Sourcebook Project (a comprehensive collection of anomalies and unexplained phenomena reported in scientific journals) gives a salient example of that kind of behavior in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 16, 3, p. 446):
“One would expect a lively interface between the Sourcebook Project and the several groups of skeptics, as typified by the Committee for the [Scientific] Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). After all, my catalogs do challenge those paradigms the skeptics defend so ferociously. Actually, there has been no traffic whatsoever. While mainstream Nature has reviewed five of my books, the skeptics have shown no interest in evaluating any of the Sourcebook publications. The skeptics, it seems, are never skeptical of established paradigms, only those observations that threaten to disestablish them.”
The Skeptic’s Dictionary, a leading pseudoskeptical online resource, gives us a great example of this selective blindness. Under the heading “ad hoc hypothesis”, we find the following definition:
“An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of pseudoscientists.”
What Todd Caroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary does not see fit to share with his readers is that some of the most celebrated “discoveries” of mainstream science are mere ad hoc hypotheses designed to cover the failure of theories to agree with observational evidence. Some of these ad hoc hypotheses, such as the hypothesis that almost all of the matter and energy of the universe exists in a form undetectable by the instruments of science, that there is a particle that causes mass (the Higgs Boson), and that people who fail to improve on AIDS drugs must be infected with a resistant mutation of HIV, are then taken as facts, with the strongest evidence for the existence being that accepted theory requires them! And yet, you will search skeptical publications in vain for truly skeptical discussion of these subjects (as opposed to ones that agree with the mainstream consensus). “The Mainstream Consensus Is Always Right” seems to be the motto.
The following is an anecdotal example of an ad-hoc theory in established science. In its June 2002 issue, Scientific American ran an article on AIDS that contained a chart titled “World AIDS Snapshot” (p. 41). Combining the absolute numbers of people who are HIV positive with population figures from the CIA world factbook, I found that in Australia/New Zealand, only one person in 1548 was HIV positive, while in North America (Mexico counts under Latin America, according to the UNAIDS website), 1 person in 329 was. Given that the predominant strain of HIV is the same in both regions (clade B), how can the rate of infection be almost 5 times higher in North America than in Australia/New Zealand? Sexual (mis)behavior in both regions is comparable, as evidenced by the fact that incidence rates for classical STDs are virtually identical (according to WHO figures for 1999):
1 in 196
1 in 192
1 in 78
1 in 79
1 in 71
1 in 72
1 in 78
1 in 77
1 in 329
1 in 1548
I emailed Sciam staff writer Carol Ezzell and inquired what the cause of this discrepancy could be. I received the following reply:
“Our statistics come from the UNAIDS [Website]. Australia/New Zealand has a 0.1 percent adult prevalence rate, whereas North America has a rate of 0.6 percent. Most of the cases of HIV infection in Australia/New Zealand occur in men who have sex with men. A key tipping point in the broadening of HIV infection occurs when the virus rages through IV drug abusers and then enters people (men and women) who have sex with those drug abusers. For whatever reason, this hasn’t happened in A./N.Z.”
Actually, the alleged broadening of HIV infection into a general epidemic that affects large numbers of heterosexuals has not happened anywhere in the developed world, even though it was widely predicted by experts in the 1980s. The claim that it somehow exists nonetheless, and, for some unknown reason, more so in North America than in Australia/New Zealand, is a perfect example of “a hypothesis created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory”. Skepticism towards the prevailing view of “HIV/AIDS” seems to be called for, but you will find none in the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer and other “skeptical” publications.
Skeptic has published an article on this subject titled “The Aids Heresies – A Case Study in Skepticism Taken Too Far” (vol. 3, no. 2, 1995) by Steven B. Harris, M.D. that seeks to affirm the correctness of the conventional viewpoint and, in typical pseudoskeptical fashion, ignores at least one key argument of the AIDS critics. That is the argument that HIV tests are completely invalid. The Perth Group had already made that case in 1993 in a paper published in Bio/Technology (Vol.11 June 1993). Their claims were reported in a headline story on June 1, 1993 in the Sunday Times of London. Yet, over one year later, Dr. Harris does not even mention this critical component in the skeptical case against the conventional theory of HIV/AIDS in his article. Instead, he misleads his readers into believing that AIDS skeptics recognize the validity of HIV tests in the first place by stating that “critics of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis have had to struggle to keep up with sensitivity increases in HIV testing”.
To discuss an example in physics: University of Michigan physicist Gordon Kane writes about the Higgs Boson on the Scientific American Website under the heading “Ask the Experts”:
“There are currently two pieces of evidence that a Higgs boson does exist. The first is indirect. According to quantum field theory, all particles spend a little time as combinations of all other particles, including the Higgs boson. This changes their properties a little in ways that we know how to calculate and that have been well verified. Studies of the effect the Higgs boson has on other particles reveal that experiment and theory are consistent only if the Higgs boson exists and is lighter than around 170 giga electron volts (GeV), or about 180 proton masses. Because this is an indirect result, it is not rigorous proof. More concrete evidence of the Higgs came from an experiment conducted at the European laboratory for particle physics (CERN) using the Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider in its final days of operation. That research revealed a possible direct signal of a Higgs boson with mass of about 115 GeV and all the expected properties. Together these make a very convincing – although not yet definitive – case that the Higgs boson does indeed exist.”
A researcher making that kind of case for an unconventional phenomenon would be laughed out of town. A single sighting, so the skeptics would say, is anecdotal evidence and proves nothing. And that a theory requires it merely means that the scientists saw what they wanted to see. But particle physics is conventional science, hence different (i.e. much less stringent) standards of proof apply. Results are accepted, even said to be “convincing”, based on relatively weak and purely indirect evidence, and because a handful of experts vouch for their accuracy.
Another example of established science that should not be so established is the neutrino. Neutrinos are ghostlike particles that were introduced by Pauli as an ad-hoc hypothesis to save the relativistic law of energy conservation (which fails to correctly describe radioactive beta decay otherwise). Neutrinos can not be detected directly, and require giant detectors for indirect (statistical) detection. Decades of neutrino detection experiments have failed to detect the correct number of solar neutrinos. To account for the discrepancy, physicists have come up with the idea of neutrino oscillations. In other words, the neutrino meets several of Langmuir’s criteria of pathological science: the maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results and criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses. Maybe there is no neutrino, and the relativistic law of energy conservation is simply wrong? Autodynamics is a proposed theoretical alternative to relativity that correctly describes beta decay without a neutrino, but you won’t find it mentioned in physics journals or the pseudoskeptical literature.
So pseudoskeptics often fail to apply their skepticism to conventional wisdom. But worse yet, when confronted with evidence of unusual phenomena, pseudoskepticism itself will take refuge to outrageously arbitrary ad hoc hypotheses: swamp gas, duck butts and temperature inversions can create the appearance of flying vehicles in the sky, pranksters are able to produce elaborate geometrical designs in crops within seconds, in complete darkness, and without leaving footprints (but somehow changing the microscopic structure of the crops in a manner consistent with microwave heating), and shadows can conspire to make a mesa on Mars look like a face, an illusion that persists under different viewing angles and lighting conditions.
Critics of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (such as self-appointed “quackwatcher” Stephen Barrett) habitually employ this double standard. They will piously denounce alternative medical procedures for not having 100% cure rates, but ignore the fact that the side effects of conventional drugs kill over 100,000 in the US alone each year. They will condescendingly point to a lack of proper (i.e. double-blind) scientific studies supporting certain alternative procedures, and simultaneously ignore the fact that many conventional surgical procedures and drug protocols are equally unproven by the same standard. Worse yet, they will hold alternative medicine responsible for every case of malpractice that has ever been committed in its name, but they would not dream of applying the same standard to conventional medical practice.
The May 14, 2004 edition of Robert Park’s What’s New column contains the following gem:
“‘Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM) is a new international journal that seeks to encourage rigorous research in this new, yet ancient world of complementary and alternative medicine… particularly traditional Asian healing systems.’ So begins an Oxford University Press announcement. All eCAM papers are available online at no cost and without subscription. Unlike other open-access journals there are no author submission fees. Who pays, skeptics might ask? The ‘generous support of Ishikawa Natural Medicinal Products Research Center, co-owner of the journal with OUP.’ Yes, it’s the ancient-wisdom scam. … Other industries might be equally generous. Perhaps the Journal of Gambling Studies, which deals with gambling addiction, could cut a deal with the slot-machine industry. And perhaps Join Together Online, which opposes gun violence, could team up with the National Rifle Association. On the other hand, maybe not.”
Park’s double standard with respect to medical ethics boggles the mind. Corruption and violation of scientific ethics is endemic in the maintream medical system. Drug companies are permitted to write their own studies or to pay allegedly independent researchers to produce results, and to suppress results that are not favourable to their products. Medical journals receive significant funding from the pharmaceutical industry through advertising. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on August 9, 2004, Marcia Angell, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, made the following statement:
“Research is biased in favor of the drugs and drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry spends a great deal to influence people in academic medicine and professional societies. It does a super job of making sure [that] nearly every important person they can find in academic medicine [who] is involved in any way with drugs is hired as a consultant, as a speaker, is placed on an advisory board — and is paid generous amounts of money. Conflicts of interest are rampant. When The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of antidepressants, we didn’t have room to print all the authors’ conflict-of- interest disclosures. We had to refer people to the website. I wrote an editorial for the journal, titled ‘Is Academic Medicine for Sale?’ Someone wrote a letter to the editor that answered the question, ‘No. The current owner is very happy with it.’ That sums up the situation nicely.”
Dr. Park has evidently heard of Dr. Angell, because he mentions her as a skeptic of CAM in his May 11, 2001 column. But when the same person makes public statements that confirm that conventional medicine is suffering from a large-scale epidemic of the very same disease that Park finds intolerable in the field of CAM, he shows no interest, at least not in his What’s New column. If CAM studies are invalid because of financial conflicts of interests, should not the same ethical standard be applied to mainstream medicine? They should, but Dr. Park is apparently more interested in making a system of medicine he doesn’t like look bad than in applying ethical standards even-handedly and dispassionately.
Marcello Truzzi, one of the original founders of CSICOP, deftly exposes the hypocrisy of pseudoskepticism when he writes:
“Those who leap to call parapsychology a pseudoscience might do well to look more closely at the social sciences in general. Those who laugh at the implausibility of a possible plesiosaur in Loch Ness should take a close look at the arguments and evidence put forward for the Big Bang or black holes. Those who think it unreasonable to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects might do well to look carefully at the arguments and evidence of those who promote current attempts at contacting extraterrestrial intelligence allegedly present in other solar systems. Those who complain about the unscientific status quo of psychic counselors should be willing to examine the scientific status of orthodox psychotherapy and make truly scientific comparisons. Those who sneer at phony prophets in our midst might also do well to look at the prognosticators in economics and sociology who hold official positions as ‘scientific forecasters’. Those who concern themselves about newspaper horoscopes and their influence might do well to look at what the ‘real’ so-called helping professions are doing. The scientist who claims to be a skeptic, a zetetic, is willing to investigate empirically the claims of the American Medical Association as well as those of the faith healer; and, more important, he should be willing to compare the empirical results for both before defending one and condemning the other.”
Cremo and Thompson, in Forbidden Archeology, p. 24, write under the heading “The Phenomenon of Suppression”:
“One prominent feature in the treatment of anomalous evidence is what we could call the double standard. All paleoanthropological evidence tends to be complex and uncertain. Practically any evidence in this field can be challenged, for if nothing else, one can always raise charges of fraud. What happens in practice is that evidence agreeing with a prevailing theory tends to be treated very leniently. Even if it has grave defects, these tend to be overlooked. In contrast, evidence that goes against an accepted theory tends to be subjected to intense critical scrutiny, and it is expected to meet a very high standard of proof.”
Skeptics, both of the genuine and the pseudo variety, have elevated this double standard to a principle of science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! But this principle does not hold up to logical scrutiny, because a claim is only ordinary or extraordinary in relation to a theory. For the sake of making this point, let us assume a scenario in a hypothetical new science in which there are two pieces of evidence to be discovered, A and B, each equally credible, each one suggesting an obvious, but incorrect explanation (call them (1) and (2)). (1) and (2) are mutually incompatible, and a third, highly non obvious explanation (3) that accounts for both A and B is actually correct.
As chance would have it, one of the two pieces of evidence A,B will be discovered first. Let A be that piece of evidence, and further suppose that the scientists working in that hypothetical field all subscribe to the principle of the double standard. After the discovery of A, they will adopt explanation (1) as the accepted theory of their field. At a later time, when B is discovered, it will be dismissed because it contradicts (1), and because A and B are equally credible, but A is ordinary relative to (1) and B is extraordinary.
The end result is that our hypothetical science has failed to self-correct. The incorrect explanation (1) has been accepted, and the correct explanation (3) was never found, because B was rejected. I therefore submit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is not suitable as a guiding principle for sound scientific research. All evidence, whether it supports accepted theories or not, should be given the same level of critical scrutiny.
Pseudoskeptics of course would argue that they simply do not have the resources to be skeptical about everything, so they have to concentrate on the obvious targets. But that doesn’t get them off the hook. Pseudoskeptics apply the “extraordinary evidence” standard only selectively to controversial phenomena- namely, precisely when they fit their ideological preconceptions! When Doug Bower and David Chorley made the extraordinary claim that they had created all of the thousands of crop circles that had appeared in English fields between 1978 and 1991 (some of which had appeared on the same night in different regions of the country), there were no armies of skeptics loudly insisting that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Apparently, as long as the extraordinary claim is one that agrees with what the pseudoskeptics have “known” all along, it does not even require ordinary evidence. Bower and Chorley were never able to substantiate their claim, let alone prove it, but the “skeptical” community accepted it on faith – and without a trace of skepticism.
Responding to Claims that Were Not Made
(Demolishing Straw Men)
Benveniste (who showed that ultradilutions, i.e. homeopathic preparations not containing a single molecule of the original substance can still have a biological effect) was attacked by Nature editor John Maddox with the argument that dilutions of the kind used by Benveniste can simply not exist because they would require “1074 world oceans” (that is more water than contained in the entire universe) to manufacture. That is correct, if the definition of “dilution” requires that at least one molecule remain, but Benveniste (and generations of homeopaths) have readily conceded that very point! Everyone agrees that high homeopathic dilutions do not contain a single active molecule, so Maddox’s argument is nothing but the ritual dissection of a straw man. He is not alone – “skeptical” discussions of homeopathy invariably spend a lot of time making this completely uncontested point.
Our favourite resource for invalid criticisms, the Skeptic’s Dictionary, tries to downplay the important of the Gauquelin data by stressing that correlation does not imply causation. But astrologers do not claim causation! Both adherents and skeptics agree that astrology is a branch of magic, and as such is based on the principle of correspondences. This principle claims that nature exhibits meaningful, not necessarily causally mediated analogous behavior on all levels. The Gauquelin data shows correlation between the movements of the planets and certain aspects of human behavior; nothing more is claimed by astrology.
In a personal note published on James Randi’s Website, Robert Park makes the following statement about the “Motionless Electromagnetic Generator”, a claimed free energy device:
“I’ve been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was issued in the spring (What’s New, April 4, 2002). The claim, of course, is preposterous. It is a clear violation of the conservation of energy.”
But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of the MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of the vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this case would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually do that is an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves that in principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible (even though the potential energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is negligible). Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices such as the MEG on a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a physicists, he could not possibly be unaware of this. By making this argument, he is therefore intentionally misrepresenting the claims of the MEG inventors. They do not claim to have found a way around the first law; they merely claim to have accessed a source of energy not previously accessible to human technology.
(Note: The author is aware of no legitimate scientific evidence that the MEG works as claimed. The purpose of this example is not to suggest that it is a legitimate “free energy” device, but simply to point out the invalid nature of some of the arguments against it.)
Technically Correct Pseudo-Refutation
(credit for the term goes to Daniel Drasin)
Pseudoskeptics are fond of arguing that hundreds of respectable scientists believe that a certain idea is bunk, and therefore, it must be. When one points out to them that many scientific breakthroughs were ridiculed and dismissed by the scientific establishment of the time, they retort that not every idea that has been ridiculed or dismissed turned out to be correct. Correct, but completely irrelevant, because it responds to an argument that was not made. The argument was not that ridicule or dismissal by scientific experts is sufficient grounds for accepting an unorthodox claim, simply that it is insufficient grounds for rejecting it.
Robert T. Carroll, a Professor of Philosophy at the Sacramento City College no less, falls into this logical trap when he writes in his Skeptic’s Dictionary about what he calls “selective thinking”:
“Let’s begin with his version of the ‘they laughed at Galileo, so I must be right’ fallacy, a non sequitur variation of selective thinking.
“In his book Alternative Science, and on his web site under what he calls Skeptics who declared discoveries and inventions impossible, Milton lists a number of inventors and scientists who struggled to get their ideas accepted. Many were ridiculed along the way. But, like many others who commit this fallacy, Milton omits some important, relevant data. He does not mention that there are also a great number of inventors, scientists and thinkers who were laughed at and whose ideas have never been accepted. Many people accused of being crackpots turned out to be crackpots. Some did not. Thus, being ridiculed and rejected for one’s ideas is not a sign that one is correct. It is not a sign of anything important about the idea which is being rejected. Thus, finding large numbers of skeptics who reject ideas as being ‘crackpot ideas’ does not strengthen the likelihood of those ideas being correct. The number of skeptics who reject an idea is completely irrelevant to the truth of the idea. Ideas such as alien abduction, homeopathy, psychokinesis, orgone energy, ESP, free energy, spontaneous human combustion, and the rejection of evolution – all favored by Milton – are not supported in the least by the fact that these ideas are trashed by thousands of skeptics.”
True, but irrelevant! Milton’s argument shows precisely what it is supposed to show: that the skeptic’s knee-jerk dismissal of unorthodox claimants as “pseudo-scientists”, “fringe-scientists” and “crackpots” simply carries no evidentiary weight one way or another. In his skeptical zeal to convict Milton of blundering in the realm of logic, Carroll commits a much more elementary error than selective reasoning: he responds to an argument that is not being made. Milton’s argument is not “they laughed at Galileo, therefore every unconventional claimant is right”, it is merely “they laughed at Galileo, therefore unconventional claimants cannot be presumed wrong.”
Carroll’s attempt to hold Milton responsible for an argument not made is a variation of the popular pseudoskeptical technique of Demolishing Straw Men.
Making Criticisms that Apply Equally to Conventional
and Unconventional Research
It should be obvious that a criticism is invalid if it applies just as well to established science as it applies to an unconventional claim (such a criticism is called uncontrolled). But pseudoskeptics get away with using this technique anyway. What follows are some common examples of uncontrolled and therefore invalid criticisms.
Demanding an Unreasonable Degree of Reproducibility
Reproducibility means that a phenomenon can be demonstrated on demand, anywhere, at any time. Pseudoskeptics believe that an unconventional phenomenon can safely be considered nonexistent unless it is reproducible in this sense. But the same standard of evidence would invalidate much of accepted science. Discoveries in archeology are by their nature unique, non reproducible. Astronomy and geology are not reproducible in the strictest sense – astronomers cannot produce a supernova on demand, nor can geologists an earthquake. Even physics, the “hardest” of all sciences, is less and less reproducible in practice. Cutting-edge discoveries of high-energy physics, such as the discovery of the top quark are accepted by the physical community and then the public largely on faith, because no one else has the facilities to replicate them. The top quark is simply one of those discoveries whose experimental verification is beyond amateur science.
Similarly, the complete inability of ordinary humans to influence macroscopic systems with their minds alone, even in the slightest, strongly suggests that mind-matter interaction, if it exists, will be hard to demonstrate experimentally. A skeptic who rejects the conclusion of statistically sound meta-analysis of decades of mind-matter experiments because she feels that the phenomenon should be proven directly, by producing a person who can consistently, say, levitate objects, should similarly reject the discovery of the top quark until such time as a demonstration kit be made available that allows any physics high school teacher to produce said particle on the kitchen top. Either demand is unreasonable and denies the difficult nature of the subject matter.
Pseudoskeptics try to invalidate unconventional claims by pointing out that the claimants derive financial support from their research (through books, newsletters or speaking engagements), blithely ignoring that conventional scientists derive their livelihood from their work as well. If a cold fusion researcher who is trying to commercialize his discoveries is a priori suspect, should not by the same token the hot fusion physicist’s 1989 dismissal of the cold fusion discovery be viewed with extreme suspicion, since their very livelihood depends on the continued flow of billions of federal research dollars into their field, a field that has produced no tangible results, despite 50 years of research?
To mention an anecdotal example, I have personally observed skeptics of the claim of adverse biological effects from microwave radiation produced by cellular devices having the gall to argue that critics of cellular technology cannot possibly be taken seriously because they make money from publishing their criticisms, while the same skeptics do not find fault with studies funded and written by the multi-billion-dollar cellular industry!
“Statistics can prove anything!”
Such is essentially the argument that the spokesman of the American Physical Society, Robert L. Park, makes against psychokinetic research in his book Voodoo Science (p. 199). In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV shows were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!), Park writes:
“Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn has studied random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries to urge drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear that any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind can influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the mind can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of much less than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic powers to deflect a microbalance? It’s sensitive, simple, even quantitative, with no need for any dubious statistical analysis.”
There are many things wrong with this statement, and I refer the reader to my review of Park’s book for details. For the purpose of this argument, I am interested in Park’s assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected, by statistical analysis, are suspect. Where does that leave conventional science? Deprived of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE discovery of minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation would have to be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in nature, and therefore by Park’s argument, ‘dubious’. The most celebrated discoveries of particle physics, such as the 1995 discovery of the top quark, or the results of neutrino detection experiments, or the synthesis of superheavy, extremely short-lived elements, would have to be thrown out, since they, too, are indirect and statistical in nature. Modern medicine would have to be invalidated as well because it relies on statistical analysis (of double-blind trials) to prove the efficacy of drugs.
For comparison: the American Institute of Physics’s Bulletin of Physics News (216; March 3, 1995) gives the odds against chance for the top quark discovery as a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959 and 1987 , on the other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation from chance with odds against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see Radin, The Conscious Universe, p. 140).
Park’s argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don’t fit his ideological predilections.
“Fraud cannot be ruled out!”
The pseudoskeptical argument of last resort. If a body of research supporting an unconventional claim is airtight, the pseudoskeptic will argue that since the conclusion contradicts established theories of nature (she will call them “facts”), and all other alternative explanations have been exhausted, the results must therefore be due to fraud. Of course, such an argument from theory turns the scientific method on its head (unless the skeptic can prove that fraud has actually been committed) , but what is more important, the same argument can be made for any research. Indeed, when funding or scientific prestige are at stake, results are frequently faked in the conventional sciences, probably much more frequently than in, say, parapsychology where skeptical scrutiny is intense.
“It’s Unsafe!” (In Medicine)
A favorite argument of the professional “quackbusters” like Stephen Barret is that an alternative procedure is unsafe. On the Acupuncture page of his site, Barret states that:
“Improperly performed acupuncture can cause fainting, local hematoma (due to bleeding from a punctured blood vessel), pneumothorax (punctured lung), convulsions, local infections, hepatitis B (from unsterile needles), bacterial endocarditis, contact dermatitis, and nerve damage.”
…missing the mark of controlled criticism by a wide margin. Why not similarly list the dangers of improperly performed surgery and then denounce the whole field as quackery?
Accusations of Selective Reporting
(File Drawer Effect)
One of the standard criticisms levered by pseudoskeptics against unconventional research that relies on statistics (primarily parapsychology) is that only successful experiments were reported and the unsuccessful ones were suppressed (by burying them in the “file drawer”). Unlike the previous criticisms, the file drawer criticism is valid in principle, but I mention it in this list anyway because pseudoskeptics obsess only about the (largely imaginary) file drawers of the parapsychologists while ignoring the large file drawers of suppressed conventional science.
To cite just a few examples of what has been buried in those file drawers: fundamental criticisms of relativity are a priori ineligible for publication in the mainstream scientific journals. That’s why most physicists are not aware of experimental evidence that apparently refutes special relativity. Positive results on cold fusion are similarly banned from publication, as are papers that radically question the accepted time line of human evolution. Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology contains several hundred pages of archeological discoveries that have been left to be forgotten in that particular file drawer. Veteran astronomer Halton Arp, who has been made a persona non grata in astronomy due to his discovery that modern cosmology is catastrophically wrong, describes how most of his own papers ended up in the astronomical “file drawer” instead of the astronomical journals as follows (Arp, Seeing Red, 1998):
“In the beginning there was an unspoken covenant that observations were so important that they should be published and archived with only a minimum of interpretation at the end of the paper. Gradually this practice eroded as authors began making and reporting only observations which agreed with their starting premises. The next step was that these same authors, as referees, tried to force the conclusions to support their own and then finally, rejected the papers when they did not. As a result more and more important observational results are simply not being published at the journals in which one would habitually look for such results. The referees themselves, with the aid of compliant editors, have turned what was originally a helpful system into a chaotic and mostly unprincipled form of censorship.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the file-drawer of medical and other profit-oriented research that has been suppressed due to economic conflicts of interest is at least as thick as the body of published research. The tobacco industry had suppressed evidence that smoking causes cancer for decades, and the chemical industry has likewise suppressed evidence of public-health risks caused by its products. Examples of manipulated drug trials in medicine are legion. On July 25, 2002 The Nation published a special report titled Big Pharma, Bad Science that gives the following devastating assessment of the quality of modern medical research:
“In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement. The editors declared that they were dropping their policy stipulating that authors of review articles of medical studies could not have financial ties to drug companies whose medicines were being analyzed. The reason? The journal could no longer find enough independent experts. Drug company gifts and “consulting fees” are so pervasive that in any given field, you cannot find an expert who has not been paid off in some way by the industry. So the journal settled for a new standard: Their reviewers can have received no more than $10,000 from companies whose work they judge. Isn’t that comforting? This announcement by the New England Journal of Medicine is just the tip of the iceberg of a scientific establishment that has been pervasively corrupted by conflicts of interest and bias, throwing doubt on almost all scientific claims made in the biomedical field.
“Unknown to many readers is the fact that the data being discussed was often collected and analyzed by the maker of the drug involved in the test. An independent 1996 study found that 98 percent of scientific papers based on research sponsored by corporations promoted the effectiveness of a company’s drug. By comparison, 79 percent of independent studies found that a new drug was effective. This corruption reaches from the doctors prescribing a drug to government review boards to university research centers.
“Increasingly, the industry has converted academic research centers into subsidiaries of the companies. The billions of dollars of academic government funding essentially pays to flush out negative results, while private industry gets to profit from any successful result.
And the results are expensive and sometimes tragic for the public. Experimental clinical drug trials are hazardous to participants and, more broadly, critical to those with life threatening conditions who need to know which treatments are fruitless to pursue. Yet researchers on industry payrolls end up pressured to suppress negative results. At the most basic level, researchers who defy their corporate sponsors know they may lose their funding.”
Writer John Anthony West and geologist Robert M. Schoch have uncovered commanding geological evidence that the Egyptian Sphinx is thousands of years older than conventionally assumed, but their data has been, and is still being ignored by conventional Egyptology. When confronted with this research, Egyptologists have no explanation for it, but they insist that it cannot possibly be correct, because it contradicts their theories.
This site contains many more examples of suppressed and ignored discoveries spanning virtually the entire spectrum of human sciences. By the standards set by the pseudoskeptics themselves, therefore, almost all of science would have to be invalid. Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer writes in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):
“Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data.”
But “consistently ignoring and distorting data” is pervasive in physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, psychology, archeology and paleoanthropology. The “file drawer effect”, while not uncontrolled per se is therefore in practice an uncontrolled criticism. Due to the broken peer review system and massive conflicts of interest in commercial science, it applies to and invalidates much of accepted science.
Trying to End the Race when Their Side is Ahead
In any scientific controversy, there will be confirming evidence from some scientists and disconfirming evidence from others. Otherwise, there would not be a controversy. Resolving such controversies takes many iterations of new and better experiments, publication and criticism. In a head-to-head race, the lead will change often. Sometimes, the confirming evidence will gain the upper hand, and then the disconfirming evidence is ahead again. Pseudoskeptics are always trying to end the race prematurely, when they’re ahead, and declare victory. As an example, consider Randi’s never-ending tirades against homeopathy. If you study his website, you will see that all he ever quotes is disconfirming medical studies, while the ones that confirm homeopathy are conveniently ignored.
Try it yourself. Use Google to search Randi’s website for Madeleine Ennis homeopathy and see how many hits you get. One. And that one just mentions Ennis’ name in the context of discussing a disconfirming study, and calls her a “pharmacist from Belfast.” Relying solely on Randi’s site, a reader would never know that the woman is a professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and that she and others have produced a ground-breaking replication of Benveniste’s seminal work on ultradilutions.
This kind of biased, selective reporting of evidence cannot be excused by ignorance. It is indicative of malice and constitutes intellectual fraud.
Theory Overrides Evidence
The pseudoskeptic holds a firm belief that certain phenomena are a priori impossible, regardless of the evidence. This belief is contrary to the scientific method were theory always yields to the primacy of observation. A theory that is contradicted by evidence must be modified or discarded, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or prestigious it is. If an observation is made that cannot be accounted for by any existing theory, then the observation must be carefully checked and double-checked for errors. If no errors are found, then the observation must enter into the canon of scientific fact, regardless of whether it is explained by theory.
Most pseudoskeptics operate on assumptions about science that are precisely contrary to this principle. Carroll makes a typical argument when he writes about homeopathy:
“The known laws of physics and chemistry would have to be completely revamped if a tonic from which every molecule of the “active” ingredient were removed could be shown to nevertheless to be effective.”
Indeed they would. This process is known as science, as opposed to the pseudoscientific dogmatizing of the fact-resistant pseudoskeptics.
In his August 6, 2004 What’s New column, Robert L. Park delivers the following example of theory-over-evidence reasoning:
“COINCIDENCE: IS YOUR RANDOM NUMBER GENERATOR SPEAKING ARABIC? If it is, you may want to take cover, or seek professional help. In the August issue of Psychology Today, parapsychologist Dean Radin is quoted as claiming random number generators (RNGs) were uncharacteristically coherent in the hours just before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and again before Madrid. Coincidences like that don’t just happen; ‘events with worldwide impact focus consciousness and that influences the functioning of machines’. Radin heads the Global Consciousness Project, with 75 totally deluded researchers around the world monitoring RNGs to see if they predict terrorist attacks. Are RNGs the only machines that act up? What about elevators and missile launchers? This is scary. No, not the machines, the fact that there are that many researchers that haven’t got a clue about how things are, and people with money willing to fund them.”
The argument is simple. Theologist Park just knows “how things are”, and no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary can sway him. His argument consists solely of the application of ridicule and the ad-hominem, and is entirely devoid of scientific reasoning.
The pseudoskeptical principle of theory overrides evidence was spelled out explicitly in an article titled “Natural Laws” in the September/October 2000 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. It concedes that “some [natural] laws are still ‘under construction’-being debated by the scientific community”. But then it confidently asserts:
“Fortunately, in the macroscopic (‘real’) world, the subject of this article, physics has revealed to us definite rules by which nature always operates-rules for establishing what is physically possible and for eliminating the impossible. We have confidence in these laws because with all the observations and experiments that have been (and continue to be) performed, no exception to them has yet come to light; that is, they constitute the best explanation of the natural world available to us today.”
This argument is breathtaking in its sheer ignorance and circularity. Mountains of anomalous evidence produced by 100 years of parapsychological and other kinds of heterodox research are ignored or rejected by the skeptic because these results “contradict the laws of nature”, and because the laws of nature are assumed to be complete, and the completeness of the known laws of nature is in turn justified by the absence of evidence to the contrary! This thinking is so manifestly irrational, it can only be explained as the psychological condition of denial.
Misapplying Occam’s Razor
In science, the simplest explanation tends to be the best. Pseudoskeptics usually insist that this heuristic rule of thumb is an immutable law of nature! In addition, they usually confuse simplicity with familiarity, and explanation with rationalization. For example, given that for over 50 years, observers from all walks of life including university professors, airline pilots, military personnel, policemen, Senators and US presidents have witnessed unidentified flying objects with operational characteristics that far surpass current aircraft designs (such as ability to make right-angle turns at high velocities), that many of these unexplained sightings are backed up by radar observations, photographic, video or physical evidence, and given that UFO pseudoskeptics have to resort to far-fetched logical contortions, highly improbable coincidences and laughable ad-hoc hypotheses to explain away these observations (such as the idea that swamp gas can create the appearance of flying objects in the sky), one must conclude that the hypothesis that some UFOs represent real flying objects is the simplest explanation. The complicated ad-hoc “explanations” (really rationalizations) of the UFO pseudoskeptics cannot compete with the unified explanatory power of that simple hypothesis.
Dislike of the Consequences
Sometimes, pseudoskeptics will make the argument that a certain phenomenon cannot be actually occurring because the consequences would be too unsettling. For example, on CNN’s Larry King Live, UFO Skeptic Philip Klass once responded to an argument that the alien abduction phenomenon is real by stating that “if these things were true, the social consequences would be intolerable!”
Park’s argument quoted above is another example. He finds the research generated by the Global Consciousness Project wholly unpalatable because it scares him. The claim that the correct functioning of sensitive equipment that we entrust our lives to is subject to subtle mental effects is indeed frightening. But that does not refute the claim.
Refusal to see the totality of the evidence: any single case of an anomalous phenomenon, no matter how strong, can always be disposed of by claiming that the observer involved is a fraud, or was suffering from hallucination. But when there are hundreds, or thousands of similar cases, this explanation clearly becomes inadequate. There is a low, but nonzero probability that any single UFO sighting is fraudulent, but the combined probability that thousands and thousands of UFO sightings by credible, highly educated observers over five decades are all bogus is next to zero. There is a low, but nonzero probability that a single paranormal researcher might be a fraud, and reporting the results of fictional experiments, but the probability that there is a global conspiracy of scientists who spend whole lives counterfeiting research, which has been going on for over a century, is clearly next to zero.
The pseudoskeptic strictly refuses to appreciate the evidence as a whole. Every time she dismisses a case on the grounds that the evidence is not strong enough (because the probability of chance or fraud is technically nonzero), the pseudoskeptic forgets all about it and approaches the next, similar case as if there was no precedent. Or worse yet, the skeptic dismisses a new case solely on the ground that she has dismissed similar cases in the past! The pseudoskeptical case against cold fusion seems to rest almost entirely on this kind of attitude these days.
Allen Hynek wrote about this pseudoskeptical fallacy:
“Probabilities, of course, can never prove a thing. When, however, in the course of UFO investigations one encounters many cases, each having a fairly high probability that “a genuinely new empirical observation” was involved, the probability that a new phenomenon was not observed becomes very small, and it gets smaller still as the number of cases increases. The chances, then, that something really new is involved are very great, and any gambler given such odds would not hesitate for a moment to place a large bet… Any one UFO case, if taken by itself without regard to the accumulated worldwide data … can almost always be dismissed by assuming that in that particular case a very unusual set of circumstances occurred, of low probability … But when cases of this sort accumulate in noticeable numbers, it no longer is scientifically correct to apply the reasoning one applies to a single isolated case.”
F.C.S. Schiller remarked on the same subject:
“A mind unwilling to believe or even undesirous to be instructed, our weightiest evidence must ever fail to impress. It will insist on taking that evidence in bits and rejecting item by item. As all the facts come singly, anyone who dismisses them one by one is destroying the condition under which the conviction of a new truth could ever arise in the mind.”
Setting Arbitrary Standards of Proof and Moving the Goalposts
That is to say, changing previously agreed upon standards of evidence when those standards have been met.
This is how pseudoskeptics have been able to say with a straight face that there is not a shred of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation for almost six decades. When there were only eyewitness reports, they wanted credible eyewitnesses, such as university professors, doctors or law enforcement officers. When they got that, they wanted photos. When they got photos, they wanted videos and physical evidence. When they got both, they reverted to the safe demand of the landing on the White House lawn.
What is wrong with that demand? Every hypothesis must be tested on its own predictions. If a hypothesis requires a certain event to happen, and that event is not observed, then the hypothesis is falsified. But there is no logical basis for the conclusion that if extraterrestrials exist, they would want to make their presence generally known. Extrapolating from the way that human zoologists use stealth to observe wild animals, we would tend to expect extraterrestrials to behave in the same fashion towards us. The “White House Test” for ETs is therefore illogical, because the ET hypothesis does not predict this event to happen. That the ET hypothesis has so far failed this arbitrary and unreasonable test means nothing.
Park’s demand for a psychokinetic who can deflect a microbalance (in Voodoo Science) is of a similarly arbitrary nature. Even if it were met, ample historical precedent teaches us that the skeptics would dismiss this ability as a stage magician’s trick, or as anecdotal evidence that proves nothing. The pseudoskeptics would, in other words, move the goalposts.
Former Nature editor John Maddox “moved the goalposts” in an attempt to get rid of Benveniste’s paper. Even though Benveniste’s research was solid, he would not publish it until it had been replicated by three independent laboratories. But when that condition had unexpectedly been satisfied, and Maddox had been forced to publish it, he remained convinced of the invalidity of the research and abused his position of power to discredit it.
Debunkery by Association
If paranormal phenomena are real, then we might just as well believe in werewolves, fairies and unicorns! To rhetorically imply, by means of direct suggestion or innuendo, that attempts at serious research into anomalous phenomena are no more credible than psychic hot lines, tabloid reports of miracles and newspaper horoscopes. James Randi is very fond of this rhetorical technique, as he uses it ad nauseam and beyond:
“… cold fusion is a dead duck, the earth is not flat, and the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Effectively, Randi is suggesting that there is some kind of connection between research into anomalous energy production associated with hydrogen and astrology and the belief that the earth is flat. A variation of this technique is to associate serious unconventional research with mass media outlets that report on it – Park’s grotesque discussion of parapsychological phenomena as reported by a sensationalist, unscientific ABC program in his book Voodoo Science (p. 195-200) was already mentioned above.
Another variation on this theme is to associate an unconventional claimant with convicted frauds who are associated with the field. Of course, there is incompetence and fraud in every profession. There are surgeons who cut off a wrong leg and scientists who falsify data, but that does not lead skeptics to conclude that every surgeon is a quack and all of science is bogus. But exactly that kind of wild, slanderous generalization is commonly employed by pseudoskeptics to discredit unconventional fields of inquiry. When it comes to free energy, they discuss free energy con-man Dennis Lee. To discredit parapsychology, they devote much time and effort to Uri Geller, Miss Cleo and John Edward. To ridicule UFO research, they keep going back to Adamski and his claims of arian dream women from Venus. To discredit crop circles, they emphasize stories of crop circle researchers who were fooled by hoaxers, as if that somehow forbade the existence of the real thing. The possibility of health benefits from magnetic fields is repudiated by emphasizing obviously worthless charms and bracelets advertised in the yellow press. Acupuncture is dismissed as unsafe because it has lead to serious injury in the hands of unqualified practitioners.
To illustrate, here comes an excerpt from Robert L. Park’s What’s New column of Friday, April 5, 2002. Under the title “Free Energy: Perpetual Motion Scams Are At An All-Time High”, Park attempts to discredit the Motionless Electromagnetic Generator by associating it with Dennis Lee:
“In 1999, I went to Columbus, Ohio for ABC News to witness Dennis Lee demonstrate a permanent-magnet motor that was ‘more than 200% efficient.’ Actually, he didn’t really demonstrate it. He stuck a magnet on the side of a steel file cabinet; turning to the audience he asked, ‘How long do you think that magnet will stay there?’ He answered his own question, ‘Forever. That’s infinite energy.’ Don’t laugh, this week, Patent 6,362,718 was issued for a ‘Motionless Electromagnetic Generator’ that ‘extracts energy from a permanent magnet with energy-replenishing from the active vacuum’.”
The truly skeptical reader might wonder why Lee’s 1999 “demonstration” is “new” on April 5, 2002. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. It just needed to be exhumed because the MEG is too difficult to ridicule, given that (unlike Lee) its team of creators are physicists, its function is described in the peer-reviewed literature (Foundation of Physics Letters, 2001), that it has apparently been independently replicated by French inventor Jean-Louis Naudin and that no attempts are being made to solicit investments from individuals. To still effectively discredit the MEG (which Park, of course, has never examined in person), he talks about a known free-energy scam-artist in order to get the reader into a suitably dismissive mood, and then switches the target of his criticism at the last second, coupled with an appeal to emotional consensus implied in the phrase “don’t laugh”. (For clarification: I do not claim to possess any knowledge or evidence that the MEG actually works as claimed, or that the theory behind it has any merit whatsoever. My point is to illustrate the nature of Park’s merely rhetorical dismissal of the MEG.
Yet another outfit of scientific arrogance that practices debunkery by association to ridicule unconventional research is IG Nobel, an organization that awards its “IG Nobel Prize” annually for “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced”. Browsing through the list of past winners, we find a long list of recipients who were more than deserving of this dubious honor. In 1991, Dan Quayle, “consumer of time and occupier of space”, is being recommended for demonstrating “the need for science education”, and Edward Teller “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it”. But the same year also sees Jacques Benveniste attacked and ridiculed for what future historians of science will come to recognize as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, the experimental proof that water can carry information. The precise phrasing of the award also uses other pseudoskeptical techniques such as the ad-hominem (“prolific proseletizer”) and misinterpretation of the actual claim (Benveniste never claimed that water is “intelligent”).
Dismissing Claims Because of Their Philosophical Pedigree
Where debunkery by association seeks to discredit claims by linking them with similar, but unrelated, claims, this technique seeks to discredit ideas by discounting their empirical merits in favor of their philosophical origins. The Skeptic’s Dictionary gives us once again a prime example. Under the heading “alternative health practices”, we find the following definition:
“Health or medical practices are called ‘alternative’ if they are based on untested, untraditional or unscientific principles, methods, treatments or knowledge. ‘Alternative’ medicine is often based upon metaphysical beliefs and is frequently anti-scientific.”
But doctors of alternative medicine are frequently more scientific than their conventional colleagues. While the former employ modalities whose safety and efficacy has been demonstrated by decades (nutrition), centuries (homeopathy) or millennia (acupuncture) of clinical practice, the latter frequently derive their “scientific” knowledge from biased information and rigged drug studies communicated by pharma lobbyists. Death from alternative medicine is practically unheard of, but side-effects of conventional treatments are estimated to kill 100,000 people in the United States every year. It is therefore hard to dismiss alternative medicine on empirical grounds.
Yet for the pseudoskeptics, alternative medicine remains “unscientific”, even “anti-scientific”, because much of it is inspired by ancient beliefs and metaphysical ideas, such as the notion of a vital energy that animates the body, or the idea that thoughts create physical reality, not the other way. Pseudoskeptics find the notion that ancient civilizations could have known things that are still beyond the understanding of our current civilization deeply offensive. As rationalists, they believe that our ancestors were without exception superstitious, ignorant savages, and that our current understanding of nature represents the highest level of scientific knowledge that has ever existed on this planet. They are therefore categorically unwilling to entertain the notion that there could be any truth or validity to medical practices that were not developed by mechanistic, reductionist Western medicine. Whether or not alternative medicine has any merit is not at all a scientific question for them – it’s personal.
Truly scientific thinking, of course, accepts truth based on evidence alone, regardless of the philosophies and beliefs of the messenger. To a scientific mind, the question of why Samuel Hahnemann came up with the idea of curing people with medicines that are so highly diluted that little or no trace remains of the original substance, has no bearing on the question of whether homeopathy has therapeutic value.
Another example of “dismissing claims because of their philosophical pedigree” is how academic paleoanthropology reacted to the challenge posed by Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology. Critics like to point out that the authors are “Hindu creationists” as if that somehow implied that their scholarly achievement was without merit. But from a logical point of view, the value of the arguments made and evidence presented by Cremo and Thompson is completely independent of the religious beliefs that motivated the research in the first place, just like the big bang theory is not automatically false because it is compatible with the Christian religious belief that our universe was created.
Slurs and Ridicule
The true skeptic refrains from ad hominem attacks and name calling while the pseudoskeptic elevates them to an art form. Examples abound in pseudoskeptical books and periodicals.
I conclude this little phenomenology of pseudoskepticism with an extensive quotation that reads like a compendium of invalid criticisms. It is taken from The Memory of Water, an account of the scientific witch hunt against Jacques Benveniste. Its author, French biologist Michel Schiff gives a list of phrases directed by scientists at Benveniste and his research, which I quote in its entirety:
“A ‘bizarre new theory’, a ‘unicorn in a back yard’, a ‘Catch-22-situation’, ‘some form of energy hitherto unknown in physics’, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’, ‘unbelievable research results’, ‘sticking to old paradigms’, ‘defying the rules of physics’, a ‘hypothesis as unnecessary as it is fanciful’, ‘data that did not seem to make sense’, ‘ discouraging fantasy’, ‘unbelievable circumstances’, ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘unbelievable results’, the ‘product of careless enthusiasm’, a ‘200-year-old brand of medicine that most Western physicians consider to be harmless quackery at best’,’dilutions of grandeur’, the ‘egotism and folly of this man who rushes into print with a claim so staggering that if true would revolutionize physics and medicine’, ‘mystical powers’, ‘magic’, ‘quackery’, ‘charlatanism’, a ‘therapy without scientific rationale’,’unicorns revisited’, an ‘explanation beloved of modern homeopaths’, a ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘belief in the magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘what seems to be an aberration’, ‘results that could not be explained by current theory’, ‘respectful disbelief of Nobel prizewinner Jean-Marie Lehn’, the ‘cavalier interpretation of results made by Benveniste’, ‘interpretations out of proportion with the facts’, ‘magic results’, ‘high-dilution experiments and much of homeopathy with their notions of alchemy’, ‘revolutionary nature of this finding’, ‘generally efficient physicochemical laws being broken’, ‘ throwing away our intellectual heritage’, ‘how James Bond could distinguish Martinis that have been shaken or stirred’, a ‘delusion about the interpretation of the data’, the ‘extraordinary claims made in the interpretation’, ‘Cheshire cat phenomenon’, ‘no basis for concluding that the chemical data accumulated over two centuries are in error’, the ‘circus atmosphere engendered by the publication of the original paper’, the ‘fact that it still takes a full teaspoon of sugar to sweeten our tea’,’existing scientific paradigms’, ‘throwing away the Law of Mass Action or Avogadro’s number’, ‘original research requiring a general science background sufficient to recognize nonsense’, ‘reports of unicorns needing to be checked with particular care’, ‘not believing that no-more existent molecules can leave an imprint in water’, ‘the first issue of New Approaches to Truly Unbelievable and Ridiculous Enigmas’, ‘speculating why water can remember something on some occasions and forget it on others’, ‘outlandish claims’, ‘not publishing papers dealing with nonsense theories’, ‘data grossly conflicting with vast amounts of earlier well-documented and easily replicated data’, ‘extraordinary claims’, ‘shattering the laws of chemistry’,’ divine intervention being probably about as likely’,’findings that contravene the physicochemical laws known to science’,’data that purport to contravene a couple of centuries of chemical data’, a ‘whole load of crap’,’1074 oceans like those of the Earth needed to contain only one molecule of the original substance’, the ‘usual rules of interactions in biology or in physical chemistry where the molecule is the basic vector of information’, the ‘failure of fundamental principles’, ‘defying all laws of physical chemistry and of biology’, ‘unbelievable results’, ‘observations without any objective basis’, one prominent scientist pointedly not reading Benveniste’s paper ‘because it would be a waste of his time’, ‘standard theory offering no explanation for such a result’ and ‘a priest stating during mass that water keeps the memory of God’.”
The anger and outrage these scientists are feeling as they are trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance generated by the Benveniste results is palatable. Gone are sweet logic and reason, and gone is the scientific method that says that evidence can never be dismissed on theoretical grounds. The gut feeling that such results are simply ‘unbelievable’, no matter what, dominates the response. The existing physical models are confused with eternal laws of nature, and their apparent inability to account for the results is taken as a personal insult. The church fathers who refused to look through Galilei’s telescope could hardly have been any more irrational than the highly educated scientists who produced these outbursts of scientific bigotry.
Other online references that might be of interest are:
Recently, the doyens of scientism have been having a media-field day, damning and blasting the “Enemies of Reason” in a manner somewhat reminiscent of McCarthyism. So perhaps it was inevitable that the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) would turn its attentions to the skeptics.
The SPR was founded by a group of learned Victorian Gentlemen in 1882, to “examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis.” This is quoted in the front cover of their Journal, whose editors go on to say that “In keeping with most scientific bodies, the Society holds no corporate views….”
Bearing this in mind, I must admit to being a little disturbed to see a study day where there would be three talks criticizing skepticism, and that Dr. Chris French, a leading Skeptic in the UK, would only be “invited to comment” on talks and “join with the speakers in leading the general discussion.” This seemed a little unbalanced.
The study day was held at St. Philip’s church on Earl’s Court Road, in a special conference room on the first floor. The room had some rather nice stained glass, including a circular one of a crucified Jesus overlooking the proceedings. The day was reasonably well attended; there was the usual SPR crowd, a contingent from the College of Psychic Studies, and at least one student from the Parapsychology unit at Northampton. There seemed, however, to be rather few skeptics.
The Chair, Mary Rose Barrington, introduced the day, commenting that the focus would be on the more extreme skeptics and their unreasonable comments. (The day was subtitled ‘perspectives on Psi-denial.’) This seemed to be a little more discriminating than I’d feared, but still rather one sided.
Guy Lyon Playfair kicked off with a history of the US leading Skeptical organization CSICOP. CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has a reasonably high public profile and publishes a magazine called the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s recently rebranded itself as the CSI, presumably after the TV show. CSI stands for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
Even ‘Skeptics’ sometimes acknowledge that CSICOP has a rather notorious past. The group was founded in reaction to an upsurge in interest in the ‘occult’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The philosopher, Paul Kurtz, initiated a campaign against astrology and obtained signatures from 186 scientists for a manifesto titled “Objections to Astrology,” which was published in the Humanist in 1975. The Humanist was the magazine of the American Humanist Association (AHA), and was edited by Kurtz. CSICOP was formed at a meeting of the AHA in 1976, in the wake of this campaign and was initially sponsored by the AHA. Its journal was to be the Zetetic, a magazine already in existence and edited by the sociologist Marcello Truzzi. After this meeting, Paul Kurtz became co-editor of the Zetetic with Truzzi.
It didn’t take long for ideological chasms to form, because Truzzi wanted a publication devoted to dialogue and debate where both sides of the argument were presented, whereas the rest of the committee wanted a more adversarial approach. Truzzi resigned in 1977, and Kendrick Frasier took over editorship of the publication, which was renamed the Skeptical Inquirer. This publication had a far more aggressive, debunking tone which often mocked those who took paranormal claims seriously.
Playfair then came to the infamous debate over the ‘Mars Effect.’ The French psychologist and statistician Michel Gauquelin claimed that sports champions tend to be born when the planet Mars is either rising or culminating in the sky more often than it does for ordinary people. This effect seemed highly significant, and Kurtz et al. could hardly ignore it, having spearheaded a campaign against Astrology.
However, the committee member Dennis Rawlins conducted the data analysis and found that his research supported Gauquelin’s work; the link between Mars and sports ability appeared to be confirmed!
This result was of course unacceptable to those who’d suggested that newspaper astrology columns should include health warnings. After some rather acrimonious debate, Rawlins resigned from CSICOP and wrote a long “Star Baby” article for the paranormal magazine Fate accusing CSICOP of covering up results that appeared to support an astrological influence. The same month CSICOP instituted a policy of not conducting research itself. The irony of all this was no doubt lost on the committee….
This, however, wasn’t the only piece of irony operating in my vicinity. A prime, somewhat justified, complaint of the speaker was that CSI was an advocacy group that was more interested in propagating propaganda about ‘Science’ and ‘Reason’ than any genuine investigation of the facts. However, an outsider might say the same thing about a study day where only one side of a controversy was presented.
This was picked up by Chris French, the token skeptic, who was invited to comment on the talk. He agreed that no-one came out of the “Star Baby” incident very well, but pointed out that many of the criticisms of extreme skepticism (inflexibility, selective presentation of facts, lack of interest in alternative points of view, etc.) could also be leveled at extreme ‘Believers’ in the paranormal. He compared this ‘mirroring’ effect with cold-war psychology, where American students saw Russian students as underhand, rotten, dishonest liars without the guts to see the truth and Russian students saw American students as underhand, rotten, dishonest liars without the guts to see the truth.
This situation is probably best illustrated by Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy cartoon, drawn by Antonio Prohias, which has a black and a white spy constantly trying to maim each other by a variety of cunning schemes. After a significant period of reading these cartoons, one comes to realise that (1) There’s NO difference between the two spies except that one’s black and the other’s white and that (2) The tactics they use are also identical.
French went on to say that the ‘Skeptical’ movement was actually very diverse, and that he personally had more in common with moderate ‘advocates’ than he did with either extreme believers or skeptics. After he said this, I wanted to know more about this diversity, and realized that here was a missed opportunity to get a more realistic picture of the skeptical movement as a whole. After all, many very intelligent people define themselves as ‘skeptics,’ and it cannot just be because they’re cowards and weaklings without the guts to see the truth….
The second speaker of the day was Robert McLuhan on The psychology of the skeptic: what militant skeptics feel and how they think. McLuhan also has a blog titled Paranormalia.
McLuhan began with a rundown of the labels that Skeptics have used to describe ‘believers.’ James Randi called parapsychologists ‘Woo-woo peddlers’ and ‘Psi-Nuts,’ Alcock called them ‘Mystagogues in search of a soul,’ David Marks’ labelled advocates ‘shamans.’ (Although somewhat bizarrely, Michael Shermer, a leading Skeptic, once wrote a column for the Scientific American entitled ‘the Shamans of Scientism’ not only praising ‘the scientific equivalent of a deity’ (Steven Hawking), but labeling [respectable] scientists Shamans! (Shermer, 2002))
This name-calling was justified by Martin Gardner in light of a phrase of H.L. Mencken’s, that “a horse-laugh is worth more than a thousand syllogisms.” In Gardner’s view, the ideas of parapsychologists are so far-out and ridiculous that it’s not worth arguing or engaging with them, and better to use ridicule.
This stance is justified because some skeptics see themselves as part of a bastion against a rising tide of superstition and darkness that threaten to overwhelm ‘science’ and ‘reason.’ Carl Sagan feared that we’d end up ‘clutching at crystals’ as civilization fell back into ‘superstition and darkness’. (Sagan, 1997.)
McLuhan said that many books about superstitions treat skepticism as normal and believers as a bit special; he listed some book titles to make his point; The Psychology of the Psychic, the Psychology of Anomalous Experience and Why people believe weird things.
He then acknowledged that there were different types of skepticism, and that ‘skeptic’ comes from the Greek Skepsis, which means examination and doubt, and not denial. More moderate skeptics, like Ray Hyman and Carl Sagan, have acknowledged that it’s better for critics to respond with constructive criticism and in a spirit of fair play than with ridicule.
McLuhan suggested that extreme skepticism, or denial, was actually a natural human reaction to unpalatable new facts. He called it a psychological ‘gag reaction.’
This sort of reaction can be seen beyond parapsychology. For example, in the 1990s, UK ‘Euroskeptics’ emerged who rejected European integration. There still exist a significant numbers of scientists who deny climate change. A third example would be creationists, who are skeptical of evolution. And even more extreme are those who deny the holocaust.
He suggested that such denial comes about through anxiety, and that this can be witnessed in many skeptical works; for instance the psychologist D.H. Rawcliffe wrote of the ‘insidious effects of Superstition’ in 1952. One of the best surveys of this sort of reaction to the paranormal is Walter Franklin Prince’s The Enchanted Boundary. This book’s a catalogue of many of the extreme and rather loopy things some critical scientists said about the field in its early years (1820 – 1930). Prince demonstrated repeatedly that when otherwise sane critics crossed over into the ‘enchanted’ realm of the paranormal, they lost their common sense and good judgment. Like most of McLuhan’s arguments, this could be said to go both ways, of course; many advocates have also lost their good sense in favour of uncritical belief.
Past examples of this sort of skepticism can be hilarious. McLuhan cited the example of the local newspaper editor who couldn’t be bothered to send out a reporter to investigate the Wright Brother’s flying machine because it was impossible. This was despite the fact that train passengers had regularly sighted the brothers flying their aeroplane. In 1879, Edison staged a public demonstration of his electric light, which didn’t stop a ‘skeptic’ (who wasn’t there) commenting that the light was “a complete failure.”
McLuhan claimed that such comments could be compared to those of psi-deniers. Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer (2008) chronicled how a remote dowser had located a lost harp for her. Mayer was a psychologist, and the incident severely challenged what she’d learned in her scientific education. She was far from alone in this; McLuhan quoted a comment from an engineering magazine that “it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t believe in even if it were true.”
Early Researchers like Charles Richet and Everard Fielding (who co-authored a report on the medium Eusapia Palladino) also noted that, given time after the event, one tends to minimize or deny personal, apparently paranormal experiences. This is something I’ve experienced myself; the rational mind tends to reject evidence of the apparently irrational. Part of this might be due to ‘cognitive dissonance,’ that is the “uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously (Wikipedia.)” In this case, the clash comes from observing something your education tells you is impossible.
At the talk’s conclusion, Chris French was once more invited to comment, and the first thing he did was to acknowledge that not enough work had been done on the psychology of skepticism. In fact, his accompanying Ph.D. student was about to embark on a series of studies on this very topic.
Secondly, he said that skeptics were often placed in a double bind that wasn’t appreciated by advocates. Skeptics are often accused of ignoring or suppressing evidence of psi, but quite often when they try and test claims of psychic ability, they get nothing but negative results. French himself had done a number of experiments, and these had pretty much invariably turned out negative. This is often explained by psi advocates as the experimenter effect, which from French’s point of view is understandably fishy. As he said; open ‘skeptics’ are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
In addition, the charge of cognitive dissonance could also be levelled at psi-advocates; James Alcock noted that the lack of acceptance by mainstream science “no doubt creates cognitive dissonance on the part of the parapsychologists who are convinced they do have real phenomena. This dissonance can be resolved either by assuming that the exclusion from the halls of mainstream science is unfair and unjustified, or that there is some reason other than lack of persuasive data that justifies the rejection” (Alcock, 2003, p. 48.) An uncharitable observer might interpret a day focusing on ‘psi-deniers’ as an example of parapsychologists looking for these ‘other reasons.’
That said, there was much in McLuhan’s talk that I agreed with. That wasn’t hard, because I find many of the less informed outpourings of uninformed skeptics just as annoying as he does. But the feeling of unease with which I’d begun the day remained.
Way back in 1980, Robert Anton Wilson wrote a satirical essay on a ‘Science and Pseudoscience’ meeting entitled “The Persecution and Assassination of the Parapsychologists by the Inmates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the direction of the Amazing Randi.” This meeting, as the title suggests, featured a situation that was the reverse of the Study day. A panel of five ‘skeptics’ spent a considerable period of time denouncing parapsychology and other forms of ‘pseudoscience,’ and then the ‘heretics’ were allowed a few minutes at the end to defend themselves. Even though this meeting wasn’t quite that bad, it was getting on that way; French was one of notably few skeptics at the meeting.
One issue Wilson raised was that the advocates of a particular position tend to use the ‘sociology of knowledge’ to analyze their opponents ideas; “The sociology of knowledge, objectively pursued, seeks to determine why people believe what they believe. It is seldom pursued in that objective way; it is more often used to invalidate an opponent by showing that he or she has ulterior motives.” (Wilson, 1982, p. 79.)
As McLuhan showed, skeptics have long done this to ‘advocates,’ and this study day was evidence that ‘advocates’ also do this to skeptics. I’m unsure about how constructive this development actually is.
Rupert Sheldrake’s talk was entitled “How Skeptics Work: Some Case Studies”, but it might as well have been called “All the s**t I’ve had to put up since I came out as a scientific heretic”. The talk was a summary of some of the ill-informed, ignorant and even libelous statements that Sheldrake’s work has prompted from skeptics and pillars of the scientific community.
In 1981, Sheldrake published his first book on his highly heretical theory of Morphic Resonance. A New Science of Life prompted a furious editorial from the then editor of Nature, John Maddox in which he commented that it was “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” (Nature, 24 September 1981.) He reiterated this condemnation in 1994 on the BBC TV show Heretics.
Sheldrake began his talk by suggesting that the data of parapsychology induced taboo reactions in a number of scientists, who adhered to a materialist, reductionist view of nature. Taboos were defined as “strong social prohibition (or ban) against words, objects, actions, or discussions that are considered undesirable or offensive by a group, culture, society, or community. Breaking a taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent”. (Wikipedia)
The second point, about the abhorrence of breaking a taboo, was especially germane to Sheldrake, as the example of Maddox shows. Paul Feyerabend (1975) made a similar point when he said that amongst scientists; “scepticism [about established science] is at a minimum; it is directed against the view of opposition and against minor ramifications of one’s own basic ideas, never against the basic ideas themselves. Attacking the basic ideas evokes taboo reactions which are no weaker than are taboo reactions in so-called primitive societies (p. 298).” In other words, despite priding ourselves that we’re more ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ than ignorant superstitious savages, we’re really very similar and tend to be critical mainly of the ideas of other people.
Sheldrake suggested that parapsychological ideas were taboo because they were closely associated with the ‘supernatural’ and with religion. He suggested that Skepticism was part of an ‘Enlightenment agenda’ where the power of reason battled the darkness of superstition. This meant that educated, ‘rational’ people were not supposed to give any credence to ostensibly paranormal phenomena because only uneducated and ignorant people believed that sort of thing. This class divide can be seen in the UK newspapers, where ‘low-brow’ rags like the Sun publish uncritical material on the paranormal, whereas papers like the Times, Guardian or Independent tend to take a skeptical line.
Next, Sheldrake provided some personal examples of his clashes with the skeptics, many of which are fully detailed on his website.
In 1994, the then leading media skeptic Richard Wiseman was called to comment on Sheldrake’s experiments with the dog Jaytee. Sheldrake had conducted experiments with Jaytee that suggested he knew when his owner was coming home even if the owner was several miles away. With the dog owner’s permission, Wiseman conducted four experiments with Jaytee. Sheldrake claimed that these experiments essentially replicated the pattern of his own initial experiments, and he showed graphs to demonstrate this. He was therefore astonished when Wiseman began claiming at lectures and on TV that he’d debunked the ‘psychic dog.’ His reason was that the dog’s behaviour had failed to meet a criterion set by Wiseman.
Later, these conclusions were published in the British Journal of Psychology. Sheldrake wrote a reply in the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research in 1999, and Wiseman et al. (2000) later replied to his reply.
The ins and outs of this controversy are rather difficult to follow, in part because both parties give significantly different accounts of what happened and use different criteria with which to judge events. Wiseman et al. said that they became interested in Jaytee after December 1994, when the Science Unit of Austrian Television conducted “one of the first formal experiments with Jaytee.” (Wiseman et al., 2000.) This resulted in considerable media attention in the UK. They also claim that their experiments “set out to test the claim that Jaytee clearly signalled [his owner’s] journey home by going to her parents’ porch for no apparent reason (op. cit.),” and so looking for patterns in the data was unnecessary. They also say that Sheldrake’s description of their experiments in his book is misleading. In their own eyes, Wiseman et al. see themselves as reacting to favourable but misleading claims of a psychic dog that gained to them unwarranted media coverage. People should plough through the controversy themselves before making a judgment.
Wiseman’s work resulted in some very negative publicity for Sheldrake. For example, The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘Psychic Pets were clearly exposed as a myth’ (Irwin, 1998). Wiseman himself gained a lot of publicity from this debunking, and it’s very hard to interpret Wiseman’s behaviour in an entirely favourable way. If the primary intent was constructive, scientific criticism, why was so much publicity made of a small number of experiments that could not really compare with the larger body of Sheldrake’s work?
An especially bad example of ill-informed debunking happened when the National Geographic channel essentially made a TV programme on false pretenses. The show attempted to debunk Sheldrake’s work on the psychic parrot, N’kisi and featured the (largely unqualified) skeptic Tony Youens. As a result, Sheldrake filed a complaint with the British Government Office of Communications, Ofcom, which upheld two out of three of Rupert’s complaints. This dispute later went to court, at which a Judge ruled in favour of Sheldrake, but the channel still showed the programme in the US, stating that rulings in the UK didn’t count.
One of the more interesting dialogues Sheldrake has had was in January 2004, with Lewis Wolpert, a professor of anatomy at the University College London and a vigorous opponent of paranormal claims. This was conducted at the Royal Society of Arts, and a recording and full transcript is available. The transcript shows that Wolpert’s arguments were very general, and that a belief in telepathy is compared to angels and fairies. He called the evidence for psychic phenomena ‘poor,’ but in his initial talk never gives any specific examples, or much evidence that he’s read any of the experimental studies. He also contradicts himself; at one point he acknowledges there’s weak evidence for psychic phenomena, and then says there’s ‘zero evidence!’
Later, when Sheldrake was showing a video of his experiments, Wolpert couldn’t even be bothered to look at the screen. Afterwards, he mentioned two papers co-written by Wiseman, one of which is the Jaytee work and the second of which did raise a significant challenge. This was Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman’s (1999); “meta-analysis of mass media tests of extrasensory perception, a meta-analysis of the sort of thing that Rupert’s been talking about, looking at all the studies, and representing one point … we like using big numbers, showing, or 1.5 million trials. The analysis shows there’s nothing there (Quote by Wolpert in the transcript.)”
Replicability of apparently psychic effects is indeed a significant problem for advocates, and although the Milton & Wiseman study was by no means definitive, this issue remains important and tends to be not to be studied enough by parapsychologists. A big problem is that, given that a psychic effect exists, we remain very ignorant of its nature. That means that we can’t reliably predict the conditions in which it might occur. If we did understand how to produce a psychic ability on tap, a million negative results wouldn’t matter, so long as parapsychologists could predict and produce positive results in the right conditions. Unless and until parapsychologists can do this, some scepticism of their results remains justified. A big problem with the rather authoritarian nature of many skeptical pronouncements, including Wolpert’s, is that they tend to draw attention away from valid criticisms of the parapsychology field.
One of Sheldrake’s central points was that it was very easy for a skeptic to make an ill-informed comment that would be repeated ad nauseam in the media and thus discredit years of careful work. For example, Michael Shermer wrote a very negative review of a book of Sheldrake’s, but finally admitted that he’d never read it!
Other negative publicity has been orchestrated by skeptically inclined journalists. A recent example was the media fuss over Sheldrake’s appearance at the BA Festival of Science at Norwich in September 2006. Prof Peter Atkins, a chemist at Oxford University, was quoted in the Times as saying, “There is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy”. (Quoted in Henderson, 2006.) Atkins later admitted that he had not studied any of the evidence, and felt no need to do so!
Other statements were more reasonable, but not really well informed. Lord Winston, fertility specialist and former president of the BA, was reported as saying; “I know of no serious, properly done studies which make me feel that this is 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”. (op.cit) The problem is that if a topic is excluded from the mainstream, then it’s hard to see where ‘serious’ (i.e. mainstream approved) studies could be done. This issue also cropped up in the Wolpert debate, where he stated that he’d take the research more seriously if it were published in ‘respectable’ journals. The logic behind this seems rather circular; it suggests that research on a topic won’t be taken seriously until it’s in the ‘respectable’ journals, who at the same time refuse to publish papers on topics not considered respectable!
It transpired that many of these statements were prompted by Mark Henderson and other journalists, who had heard that parapsychological subjects were to be discussed at the conference, and were not happy at reporting this. Interestingly, the Times editorial seemed to disagree with their science writer, stating that “It goes without saying that telepathy works!”
One can’t help admiring Sheldrake’s bravery in the light of this continuing skeptical onslaught. He regularly has a ‘skeptic’ complaining about him when he lectures at Universities in the UK and US. He made the important point that one needs no real qualifications to be a ‘skeptic;’ he even quoted from a piece of CSI literature that advised its members to have a high media profile, and said that they would be accepted as an expert if they claimed they were.
The abiding theme of the lecture was that mud sticks, and that skeptics have helped make it extremely hard to carry out research in controversial areas of science. I would agree with this, and also that ‘skeptics’ need to be made more accountable for their statements. Finally, I do think it’s appalling that anyone, no matter how ignorant, can call themselves a ‘skeptic’ on TV, but should point out that anyone can also call themselves a ‘parapsychologist’ or ‘paranormal expert’ on the same programmes. This situation is symptomatic of the topic’s exclusion from mainstream science.
After Sheldrake’s talk, Chris French joined the speakers at the table for the general discussion. One questioner had read Sheldrake’s books, and found the evidence presented convincing. He asked French why, in the light of this, he remained doubtful of the existence of telepathy. French referred him to the debate he’d had with Sheldrake in November 2006, which can be also be heard on Sheldrake’s website. Briefly, French was still worried about replication issues, and also thought that there were one or two modifications that were still to be done to the experiments to ensure they were error-free.
A member of the College of Psychic Studies stood up and mentioned the importance of motivation in the production of psychic phenomena. She was a medium, and apparently only received communications from the other side when there was a pressing need.
Then Donald West made some very important points that I thought had been previously neglected. The reasonably consistent results that early pioneers like J.B. Rhine had reported were not found to be replicable elsewhere, especially in the UK. If you look in the Journals of the SPR of the 1940s and 1950s, you’ll find that most of the experimental results were negative. This remains a significant problem; whilst some workers persistently get results, they are often surrounded by ‘dead zones’ of those who only get negative results.
In 2000, the late great parapsychologist Bob Morris suggested six strategies for parapsychology in the 21st century. One was that we need to learn more from our negative results (Morris, 2000);
“Much of what we now appear to know is how not to conduct research. We should examine those procedures that have very small effect sizes and identify their common characteristics so that we can learn what we can from them and stop attempting to use them as measures of psi.” (op.cit., p.133)
Mary Rose Barrington said that even if one got negative results, then it was possible to become convinced in the reality of psi phenomena by reading the literature. This, I think, represents a genuine point of difference between committed advocates and skeptics. Advocates, after all, have looked at the data and been convinced; why can’t a skeptic do the same thing? And if a skeptic claims to have looked at the data and been unconvinced, well they must just be bloody-minded. It’s the polar opposite of a skeptic looking at data they find unconvincing and deciding that the only reason anyone could accept it is ‘faith.’ Both views reveal a lack of understanding of the other’s point of view.
One way of resolving these dilemmas is to appreciate the perhaps obvious point that in some respects the world-views of the advocate and counter-advocate are incompatible. Second, it should be understood that ‘conversions’ from one world-view to another only partly hinge on the evidence. The reason for this is that each group has wildly differing preconceptions of what is possible (and impossible), and often wildly differing views on what good evidence for psychic abilities is and should be. This means that an ‘obvious’ truth in one camp will not wash in another.
Back in the 1980s, sociologists of science Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch (1982) made a study of the paranormal metal bending craze, initiated by Uri Geller. They spent time with scientists studying the metal benders, and also with skeptics’ groups. They noted that quite often, there was sufficient ambiguity in the experimental results that both sides could continue to interpret the experimental results in their own way.
Another factor they noticed was the social effect of spending significant amounts of time with ‘skeptics’ and then ‘believers;’
“Our beliefs tended to change as a function of the nature of the latest period of prolonged exposure to scientists. Long exposure to critics made their point of view seem to be the only sensible one, and seemed to make the believers appear hopeless cranks and even charlatans. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to believers… made paranormal phenomena seem the obvious fact of everyday experience.” (op. cit., p. 23.)
This tendency, in my view, shows how important a level playing field is in the discussion of controversial science. Too often, the tactic has been to shout down the opposition, gain dominance and effectively smother the minority view. In Western culture, the skeptical point of view is orthodoxy amongst the social and scientific elites, and it’s far easier for skeptics to launch an attack that effectively silences the minority view than vice versa. (Of course, this only holds in elite culture; in popular culture, the situation is reversed, and the ‘skeptic’ is the minority as far as paranormal claims are concerned. But the elite view counts as far as science is concerned, simply because that’s where the power and the money lie to enable or disable certain kinds of research.)
However, two wrongs do not make a right. As the day closed, I heard someone complain that Chris French had been given the last word. I must admit to being puzzled at this; French was one of the only skeptics there, surrounded by people who were basically mostly advocates. This, again, is hardly a level playing field. I remain troubled by any tendency to want to silence the opposition, simply because this is undemocratic. And if parapsychologists demand a level playing field, then they should do everything they can to maintain it.
On the whole, an interesting, and sometimes shocking, day. Given how vociferous the opposition has become, it’s understandable that a need was felt to restore the balance. However, I still think that it’s a mistake to pathologise the opposition. Let’s not sink to the level of some of the more extreme examples on display today.
Find Rupert Sheldrake’s talk “How Skeptics Work” on streaming audio here (MP3 file, about 1 hour).
Alcock, J. (2003). Give the null hypothesis a chance: reasons to remain doubtful about the existence of psi. [In Alcock, J.; Burns, J.; Freeman, A. (2003) Psi Wars: getting to grips with the paranormal. Mark Henderson (Science Editor), Imprint Academic: Charlottesville, VA.]
Irwin, A. (1998). Psychic pets are exposed as a myth. The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 1998.
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