Category Archives: The Skeptics

Richard Dawkins Cops Out

Guy Lyon Playfair
Guy Lyon Playfair

“The paranormal is bunk” according to an article that appeared under the name of Richard Dawkins in the Sunday Mirror (8 February 1998). “Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans.” And worse: “And some of them have grown rich and fat by taking us for a ride.”

Dawkins did not explain what he meant by paranormal, which my dictionary defines as “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation”. Nor did he justify the suggestion that everything not yet explained or not encountered every day must be “bunk”.

Later in his diatribe Dawkins did concede that there are one or two problems left for scientists to solve (rather as Lord Kelvin was claiming a century earlier). The proper approach, he said, is “OK, we don’t understand it yet. But we’re working on it.”

Are we, though? A few of us are seeking explanations for the unusual experiences such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and precognition that millions of people experience. We are doing it with minimal or no funding in the face of indifference or outright hostility from that last remaining bastion of medieval closed-shop cabalism – the Scientific Establishment, of which Dawkins is a prominent pillar.

Curiously, it was the same Dawkins who took a rather different line in his 1996 Richard Dimbleby Lecture. “The popularity of the paranormal, oddly enough, might even be grounds for encouragement. I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we don’t understand, are healthy and to be fostered. It’s the same appetite which drives the best of true science, and it’s an appetite which true science is best qualified to satisfy.”

Fine words, although he failed to explain why true science is doing so little, if anything, to satisfy that appetite, the same appetite which drove the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 and the Parapsychological Association in 1957, and continues to drive their underfunded members today.

Later in his Dimbleby oration, Dawkins was back in psi-bashing mode, with a patronising rant against “disturbed people” who “recount their fantasies of ghosts and poltergeists”. I guess that includes me, since I have described my own first-hand experiences with poltergeists in at least five books.

What, one might ask, has true science ever done for us? Dawkins heads something called COPUS – the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, or should that be Committee for the Proclamation of Unassailable Truth (COPOUT)?

And compared to his fellow copper-out Professor Peter Atkins, Dawkins sounds like an extreme moderate. Here is what Atkins had to say about research in parapsychology to interviewer Robert Matthews in Counterblast (BBC2, 23 April 1998):

“Yes, I admit that I am prejudiced, if you like I’m a bigot and I have my mind closed to this kind of research. It’s just a waste of time. Serious scientists have got real things to think about – we don’t have time to waste on claims which we know both in our hearts and heads must be nonsense.”

As actor Jack Klaff once memorably remarked, “Public understanding of science would be much enhanced by scientists’ understanding of the public”.

Richard Wiseman’s “Distinguished Contributions to Science and Skepticism”

 

Richard Wiseman’s
“Distinguished Contributions to Science and Skepticism”

 

Skeptics Have Us Covered

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.


 
Fellows of the so-called Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP; now CSI) are chosen, according to senior psi-cop Kendrick Frazier, “for distinguished contributions to science and skepticism”. The latest to receive such an honour is Dr. Richard Wiseman, whose job description is “reader in public understanding of psychology” at the University of Hertfordshire. His services to skepticism are indeed considerable.

One day in 1998, for example, he popped into his local public library and was “horrified to find endless volumes promoting the existence of paranormal phenomena, and almost nothing promoting a more skeptical perspective”. So he appealed to the readers of The Skeptic to sponsor subscriptions for their local libraries so that “a huge number of people would have access to less credulous articles on the paranormal”.

He reports with pride that “we received sponsorship for almost 200 libraries… From Aberdeen to Brighton, Cardiff to Norwich, Belfast to London, we had the country covered.” He seems to have overlooked the fact that, as Russell Targ puts it, “people are interested in psychic experiences not because they are reading about them but because they are having them”.

Wiseman’s crusade to save us all from cultural ruin even reached London’s Science Museum. Venturing into the gloom of its new extension one day in 2001, I came across a large panel with no less than four photos of him, the text explaining that he was the holder of the “Guinness World Record for the most systematic study of ghosts ever, based on his real-life study of Edinburgh’s vaults”.

Another panel confused things somewhat by telling us that “psychologist Richard Wiseman doesn’t believe in ghosts”. A glass case nearby contained various relics of his “systematic” Edinburgh study, (actually just another of his self-promoting publicity stunts) including a pile of tattered Polaroid prints and a few other bits and pieces.

I wish I understood Japanese so that I could follow what the couple next to me were saying. Perhaps it was the same as I was thinking – “What is all this rubbish doing in what is supposed to be a science museum?”

So much for Wiseman’s services to skepticism. How about his services to science? He has indeed made at least one major contribution, and it seems to be the only thing he has kept very quiet about in his regular appearances on radio and television and at conferences all over the place. So let me give it some free publicity.

In 1997 the Journal of Parapsychology (Vol. 61, p. 197-207) published the results of a test jointly carried out by Wiseman and Marilyn Schlitz, whose positive attitude to psi research is the exact opposite of his. She came up with a chance-probability score of 0.04 whereas his was no less than sixteen times higher, at 0.64. They repeated their joint experiment, as reported in the 1999 Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association and again made the point that if you want positive results you get them, if you don’t want them you don’t.

 
 
 
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Lewis Wolpert Returns to the Fray

 

Lewis Wolpert Returns to the Fray

 

Casually Evaluating Apparent Evidence

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.


 
Back on his feet and apparently fully recovered from the knockout he suffered at the Royal Society of Arts debate on telepathy in January 2004, Professor Lewis Wolpert, F.R.S., returns to his crusade against ‘paranormal beliefs’ in chapter 9 of new book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Faber and Faber, 2006), portentously subtitled The Evolutionary Origins of Belief.

Does this mean that we are in for a cogently argued and evidence-based inquiry into why people believe in things considered impossible by those who have not studied them?

Sadly, no. Wolpert’s prose is indeed, as claimed by a critic quoted on the back cover, ‘clear, direct and euphonious’. Yet other adjectives insistently come to mind: disingenuous, tendentious and even downright mendacious, as on the second page of the Introduction:

“I do not believe in paranormal phenomena, such as communication with the dead, telepathy, mind reading, ghosts, spirits, psi, psychokinesis, levitation – the evidence is just not there.”

The evidence is of course there as Wolpert knows very well though he tries to get off this hook by patronisingly labelling it ‘apparent evidence’ (p.155). He even mentions some of the best of it of recent times – the 1994 paper in the Psychological Bulletin – though without bothering to give us the title or author’s name. (For the serious student, these are Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer by Darryl J. Bem and Charles Honorton). However, ‘those who have examined the report closely have conceded that the necessary evidence is flawed’.

We are not told who these experts are, but Wolpert was presumably not referring to his fellow sceptic Ray Hyman, who has made a commendably thorough study of Honorton’s Ganzfeld work (which Wolpert clearly hasn’t), concluding that the methodology was sound and the results could not be explained away easily, at least not by him. The only psi researchers mentioned in this 21-page chapter are Richard Wiseman and James Randi. The list of references includes no less than four papers by Wiseman, none by a member of the Parapsychological Association, and none from any of the six leading peer-reviewed parapsychology journals.

Instead, much space is devoted to everything from witchcraft, the Cottingley fairies, the fantasies of Erich von Däniken and the Rev. Jim Jones of Guyana mass suicide fame to the Indian rope trick and whatever it was that fell to earth near Roswell in 1947. No space at all is given to any of the eminent scientists, including several Fellows of the Royal Society and Nobel laureates, who have been piling up the evidence for psi since the 1860s and are still doing so.

By way of compensation, at least one of the more enduring mysteries of life is solved at last – how does Uri Geller make disabled watches start? It seems (p.158) that he has ‘cured’ many stopped watches simply by putting ‘energy’ into them by holding them in his hand. The reason is that in many cases a watch has stopped because it is jammed with dust and oil; holding it in his hand warms it up and frees it to work again.

Gosh! Can it be that simple? Never mind the other cases. ‘Many of our beliefs,’ Wolpert confesses in a refreshing outburst of candour, ‘are not based on evidence that we have examined.’ (p.140). And he concludes this chapter of disinformation by admitting what we had already noticed, that ‘we are quite casual about evaluating evidence that goes against beliefs we hold strongly.’ He speaks, euphoniously indeed, for himself.

 
 
 
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Lewis Wolpert Does Not Practise What He Preaches

 

Lewis Wolpert versus Confucius

 

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


To say you know when you know,
and to say you do not when you do not,
that is knowledge.

– Confucius


 
This was one of the sayings of Confucius discussed in a series of 5-minute BBC Radio 4 programmes, the speaker on this occasion (28 February 2006) being Professor Lewis Wolpert, famous for his little joke about brains falling out of open minds.

He didn’t agree with the great Chinese philosopher whose Analects are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. “How the hell do you know when you know?”, Wolpert wanted to know. He pointed out that “people have very strong beliefs about all sorts of things, and they say that they know there is telepathy, they know that they can make contact with the dead, they know that all sorts of alternative medicine treatments work, but how do they really know?” He added that “it’s quite common to have totally false knowledge”, implying that any knowledge of the subjects mentioned above must be false.

Evidently he had forgotten the ringing endorsement he gave some years ago to St. John’s Wort, which seems to have helped him overcome a much publicised bout of depression and is now recognised as an effective treatment for minor attacks of that affliction, as conceded recently by Exeter University Professor Edzard Ernst, who tests these things properly.

The only way to acquire genuine knowledge, Wolpert revealed, is “by doing science, by doing experiments, by looking at the evidence”, as scores of researchers have been doing with telepathy for at least 120 years. (For a concise summary, see Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe). As for contacting the dead, readers of Linda Williamson’s excellent new book Ghosts and Earthbound Spirits may conclude that this can not only be done but is being done all the time, not only by rescue-circle mediums but also by pioneer psychiatrists like Dr. Alan Sanderson. (See Spirit Release Foundation for details).

Wolpert does not always practise what he preaches. Those who attended the sold-out debate on telepathy at the Royal Society of Arts in January 2004 were given an impressive display of not looking at the evidence. As his fellow debater Rupert Sheldrake was showing his video clip of N’kisi, the African Grey parrot from New York giving as convincing a display of telepathy as we are ever likely to get, Wolpert, seated at the table with his back to the screen, did not even turn round as the videotape of the event clearly shows. Having opened the debate by declaring that there wasn’t any evidence for telepathy, he apparently could not bear to be confronted with some. How the hell does he know what he claims to know if he doesn’t study the evidence? By his own definition, not very good science. Will we still be paying homage to the wisdom of Wolpert in the year 4500?

 
 
 
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Richard Wiseman’s Remote Viewing “Breakthrough”

 

Richard Wiseman’s Remote Viewing “Breakthrough”

 

Breakthrough to Nowhere

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


British author Guy Lyon Playfair (This House is Haunted,
Twin Telepathy, and 10 other books) is a longtime skeptic watcher.


 
Hot on the heels of Messrs. Moulton and Kosslyn (see MediaWatch: Neuroimaging Used in Attempts to Resolve the Psi Debate), along comes Richard Wiseman, describing in New Scientist (10 June 2009) his latest publicity stunt under the modest title “Tweeting my way to a scientific breakthrough”. Results, according to an editorial, ‘fail to show any support for the paranormal’. They do indeed, as one does not have to be psychic to have predicted, for this was clearly another of those experiments that are designed to come up with negative results and reassure the general public that psi is a load of rubbish. They also fail to show any sign of what is usually understood to be a breakthrough.

It purported to be a mass experiment in remote viewing (RV), or clairvoyance (seeing at a distance), with the participation of some 1,000-plus ‘twitterers’. For the first informal test, Wiseman went to a location and asked people to tweet their impressions of what he was looking at. He then sent out details of where to find a photo of where he was, so that twitterers received feedback within twenty minutes or so. He reports, somewhat vaguely, that what he calls, without defining them, ‘paranormal believers’ claimed ‘high levels of correspondence between their thoughts and the actual locations’, but gives no examples and no statistics.

Oh well, this was only an informal test. The subsequent formal one ran for four days, and was designed to test ‘whether the group as a whole was psychic’ and whether believers did better than disbelievers. As before, Wiseman went somewhere and asked participants to send in their thoughts and impressions. They were then shown five photos, one of which was of the target location, and asked to choose which one it was. Their choices were pooled and the photo receiving the most votes was designated as their collective choice. As you will have guessed, the group got it wrong four times out of four, enabling Wiseman to conclude that ‘the study didn’t support the existence of remote viewing’, adding patronisingly that ‘it suggests that those who believe in the paranormal are simply good at finding illusory correspondences between their thoughts and a target – which is maybe why they believe in the first place.’

By now, even first-year parapsychology students will have spotted several basic experimenter errors and significant omissions in Wiseman’s brief report. Among those spotted by New Scientist readers, who are probably fairly familiar with correct scientific procedures:

1. We are not told exactly how many people took part and what percentage of the individual impressions was correct. If, as Wiseman seems to imply, nobody made a single statement that could apply to the target location, this would be a result of some significance.

2. We are not told how many individuals, if any, guessed all four targets correctly.

3. The implication that if the group as a whole failed to demonstrate collective clairvoyance, therefore clairvoyance does not exist, is as absurd as asking randomly chosen people to play a scale on a tuba regardless of whether they had any previous experience of tuba playing, or indeed any musical ability at all, and concluding that the evidence for tuba-playing ability is so weak as to be insignificant.

One reader whose views deserve respect, Professor Brian Josephson, made a similar point – any accurate remote viewing in the group would have been lost in ‘a combination of noise from those not having those skills, and systematic error’. It would have been better, he added politely, ‘if the experimenter had discussed methodological issues with experts in the field before starting the experiment’.

Had he done so, he would have been told that (a) judging of RV tests should be done by impartial outsiders, not by the subjects themselves and certainly not by sceptical investigators, and (b) that to do good RV subjects need training. Expecting an unselected sample of the general public to demonstrate it on demand is totally unrealistic. As one sceptical reader put it, ‘I find the notion of remote viewing ridiculous, but find conclusions overreaching their results equally so’.

Wiseman prefaces his report with a brief reference to the U.S.Army’s Stargate project, which trained military remote viewers and used them for nearly twenty years. ‘Some have claimed that results supported [RV’s] existence’, he conceded. They have indeed – the U.S.Army for example, which awarded one of its longest serving viewers, Joe McMoneagle, the Legion of Merit. This is given for ‘exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements’, and Joe’s citation credited him with ‘producing crucial and vital intelligence unavailable from any other source’. Quite an impressive claim, you might think.

Wiseman, as it happens, has met McMoneagle and witnessed an experiment he carried out some years ago at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, NC., so he knows perfectly well how RV is done properly having seen for himself. After Joe had made a drawing of a target location, the thirty attendees were shown the usual five photos of possible sites and 29 of them picked the right one. Wiseman then complained that the controls were not tight enough, so McMoneagle invited him to take over the protocol and run it any way he liked the following day, which he duly did. Joe still got 29 first-place matches out of thirty. Not surprisingly, as Joe notes in his book The Stargate Chronicles (p.251), ‘Richard has refused to discuss it since.’

In the 11 July 2009 New Scientist (Letters, p.26), reader David Smith would also like to know how many people guessed correctly where Wiseman was, and whether the number was what chance would predict? ‘It would be interesting and necessary before dismissing the whole concept of remote viewing,’ he adds, ‘to select out such people and test them more thoroughly than Wiseman did. If this was done, we need to see the results.’ Smith also makes the important point that the US Star Gate programme ‘involved intense training of carefully selected participants’. Wiseman’s participants were not trained at all.

Wiseman replied that ‘it was impossible to analyse the statistics for each individual because of the way the experiment was run. Valid statistics could only be derived for the group as a whole.’ He did concede, however, that ‘re-testing of individuals that scored highly would be interesting.’

This seems to imply that some individuals did score highly, and re-testing of them might indeed produce some valid statistics, perhaps indicating positive evidence for remote viewing ability. It remains to be seen whether Wiseman intends to pursue this further, or if the possibility of obtaining positive evidence is a risk he would prefer not to take.

He may be equally unwilling in the future to discuss this demonstration of tendentious and utterly pointless twittering.

 
 
 
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Lewis Wolpert Evaluates the Evidence

 

Lewis Wolpert Evaluates the Evidence

 

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


 
Back on his feet and apparently fully recovered from the knockout he suffered at the Royal Society of Arts debate on telepathy in January 2004, Professor Lewis Wolpert returns to his crusade against ‘paranormal beliefs’ in his new book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (Faber & Faber 2006), portentously subtitled The Evolutionary Origins of Belief.

Wolpert’s prose is indeed, as claimed by a critic quoted on the back cover, ‘clear, direct and euphonious’, yet other adjectives come to mind such as disingenuous, tendentious, or downright mendacious, as for example on the second page of the Introduction:

“I do not believe in paranormal phenomena, such as communication with the dead, telepathy, mind reading, ghosts, spirits, psi, psychokinesis, levitation – the evidence is just not there.”

It is of course there, as Wolpert knows perfectly well since he actually mentions some of the best of it – the 1994 paper in the Psychological Bulletin – though without bothering to give either the title or the authors. (For the serious critic, these are Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer by Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton). Wolpert then alleges that ‘those who have examined the report closely have conceded that the necessary evidence is flawed’. This is one of the standard copouts, guaranteed to get the skeptic off any hook. However good any evidence is, an anonymous skeptic will be found who claims it to be ‘flawed’.

Here, Wolpert collides head-on with his fellow skeptic Ray Hyman, who did what Wolpert has never done when he made a very thorough examination of the work of Honorton and others, concluding that the methodology was sound and the results could not be easily explained away, at least not by him.

The only psi researchers Wolpert mentions by name are James Randi and Richard Wiseman. The list of references includes four papers by Wiseman but not a single one by a member of the Parapsychological Association or from any of the five leading peer-reviewed parapsychology journals. Much space, however, is devoted to the Cottingley fairies, the whatever-it-was that crashed near Roswell in 1947, the fantasies of Erich von Däniken and Rev. Jim Jones, and the Indian Rope Trick. No space at all is devoted to the many eminent scientists, including several Fellows of the Royal Society and a handful of Nobel laureates who have been piling up the evidence for at least some of the things Wolpert alleges not to exist for well over a century.

‘Many of our beliefs,’ Wolpert concedes in a refreshing outburst of candour, ‘are not based on evidence that we have examined’ and ‘we are quite casual about evaluating evidence that goes against beliefs we hold strongly.’

Indeed!

 
 
 
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Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense

 

Michael Shermer’s Sense and Nonsense

 

Review of Michael Shermer’s
“The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”

by Guy Lyon Playfair

 


Confirmation Bias and Exquisite Balance


 
Michael Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense (Oxford University Press, 2001) contains a good deal of sense. The author is founder-editor of The Skeptic, director of the Skeptics Society, writer of a column on skeptical matters for Scientific American and organiser of skeptical lectures at California Institute of Technology. He also co-produces and presents his own skeptical TV programme. In short, he could be described as a professional skeptic. He is also an excellent writer who understands the true meaning of skepticism – examination and questioning rather than the debased form of blanket rejection of anything considered politically incorrect favoured by CSICOP, of which, incidentally, there is no mention in this book.

Subjects he examines and questions after thorough study of primary sources range from evolution, ecology, cloning, genius, sport and music to Holocaust denial and the Piltdown Man hoax. He is particularly good on the joint discovery by Wallace and Darwin of natural selection, giving Wallace long overdue credit as an equal partner in the historic breakthrough.

The book does however contain a chapter that comes closer to nonsense than to sense. When skeptics turn their attention to areas of parapsychology they tend to throw all their objectivity, balance and meticulous research out of the window and revert to blanket rejection mode. Shermer, as his chapter on Remote Viewing (RV) shows, is no exception.

He makes elementary mistakes, describing physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ on page 2 as among “some of the world’s leading ‘psychics’ ” On the same page he dismisses Jim Schnabel’s well researched and documented Remote Viewers (Dell, 1997) as follows: “Schnabel’s tome recounts endless anecdotes, usually confirmed with additional anecdotes by believing eyewitnesses who were themselves in remote viewing” – as if obtaining first-hand testimony from primary sources were somehow unscientific.

One ‘anecdote’ of Schnabel’s describes how CSICOP member Ray Hyman was “effectively shut out of the remote viewing program” and “given no access to classified data” when attempting to gather material for the Army Research Institute’s highly negative report on RV. Shermer spins this into describing Hyman as “the only outside observer allowed to review the raw data” (p.3). In fact, Hyman reached his conclusions after seeing none of the classified material, which we can assume to be the best, and interviewing none of the military viewers.

Shermer then decides to have a go at RV himself, yet instead of seeking one of the recognised Stargate experts such as Ingo Swann (with whom Schnabel did a very successful test), Shermer chats for an hour or so with Courtney Brown, a civilian amateur RVer specialising in extraterrestrials, remote galaxies, and encounters with the likes of Jesus and Buddha, then attends a weekend seminar given by another civilian amateur whose name does not appear in any of the basic RV books. That seems to have been the total extent of his research. It is as if he wrote about natural selection without quoting anything from Wallace or Darwin or even mentioning them except perhaps as ‘famous psychics’.

Even so, for a first time viewer he does rather well, describing impressions of “people at a monument of some kind” in an English park. The target photo was of Stonehenge, where there are usually people to be found looking at the monumental stones. Not bad, you might think. However, Shermer then commits one of the basic errors of RV procedure and starts guessing instead of simply recording his impressions for others to interpret and evaluate. Since his guess (Rodin’s The Kiss) was wrong, Shermer concludes on the basis of minimal research and two brief encounters with amateur ‘experts’ that RV is ‘pseudoscience’.

“The confirmation bias,” Shermer writes (p.89), “holds that we have a tendency to seek confirmatory data to support our already-held beliefs, and ignore disconfirmatory evidence that might counter those beliefs.” Among the disconfirmatory evidence ignored by Shermer is the award to Joe McMoneagle of the Legion of Merit for his role as “one of the original planners and movers of a unique intelligence project” and for ”producing critical intelligence unavailable from any other source”. Also ignored were the authoritative writings of those most closely associated with the Stargate programme, from Puthoff, Targ , Ingo Swann and Edwin May to Joe McMoneagle, Paul Smith, Dale Graff, Jessica Utts and Skip Atwater, to name but nine.

Shermer quotes approvingly Carl Sagan’s appeal for “an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you” (p.235). And Shermer admits with typical disarming candour that “all of us are biased” (p.22), adding that “all scientists… hold social, political and ideological beliefs that could potentially slant their interpretation of the data”. This is not a problem in science, he explains, where the peer review system ensures that such biases and beliefs are weeded out. It is a problem, however, with skeptical literature which is peer reviewed, if at all, by other skeptics. Again and again one reads references in books and articles by skeptics to books and articles by other skeptics, with no questioning of the writers’ skeptical biases and beliefs. All too often we also read, as here, accounts of a paranormal phenomenon that are strong on skeptical scrutiny but wholly lacking in openness to any nonskeptical view.

How come this sharp contrast between Shermer the critical historian of science and Shermer the paranormal-basher? The former obeys all the rules of academic scholarship – thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, careful selection of material for discussion, and full disclosure of sources, whenever possible, primary sources. The latter has no time for the niceties of academic debate. He has a demolition job to do and will let nothing get in the way of his ball and chain.

Shermer himself provides the answer. In a word, it is television. His brief encounter with remote viewing was filmed for an episode in his ‘Exploring the Unknown’ programme on the very down-market Fox channel, as were a couple of other brief and unmemorable forays into paranormal areas. The show, he admits, could well be called ‘Debunking the Unknown’ were it not for possible difficulties in persuading people to take part in a programme with such an uncompromising title. You really have to give the man full marks for honesty.

Television at this level does not do scientific investigation, critical analysis, or anything like that. It does dumb-down entertainment with minimal factual information, zero peer-reviewing, but plenty of spooky background music and wobbly camerawork the sole purpose of which is to keep viewers awake between the commercials. Shermer justifies his descent to this level by the simple and undeniable fact that thousands more watch this kind of nonsense than read books. Like any sensible evangelist, he goes for the mass market.

To be fair, the nonsense in The Borderlands of Science is outweighed by far by the sense, which serves to give the nonsense more prominence than it deserves. Shermer at his best is very good indeed. It is unfortunate that he is unwilling to treat subjects like remote viewing that are not yet contained within the borders of science with the same objective thoroughness that he applies to more conventional matters.

 
 
 
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James Randi’s Skeptical “Challenge”

 

James Randi’s Skeptical “Challenge”

 

Beware Pseudoskepticism

by Sean (aka “Peebrain”)

 


Reproduced from PsiPog.net


 
On January 29th, 2005, we were talking about the James Randi $1 Million Paranormal Challenge in the chat room. If you don’t know what the Challenge is, the short version is that this ex-magician, James Randi, is willing to give a million dollars to anyone who can prove something paranormal. It’s common for people to ask us why we don’t take the Challenge with all the stuff we talk about on PsiPog. Clearly we qualify for the paranormal, and it would seem like easy money. While talking in the chat room, annie made the observation that the prize was in the form of bonds, and not cash. She tried to explain to me how bonds can be “worth” a million dollars legally, but in reality could be completely worthless.

So I decided to do some research on what might be going on. I had thought about taking the Challenge, and I know some of my friends have thought about it too… million bucks seems pretty sweet. But I’ve heard of stories about how Randi is dishonest, and it’s all a scam. Either way, I figured researching would be the best way to figure out what the deal was.

I started by e-mailing Randi, and everything just went downhill from there. For me to type out everything that happened, it would take me forever, and it would be really boring to read. So this is what I’m going to do; I’m going to summarize what happened. Now obviously I am biased because I played a key role in this situation. I will try to summarize without being biased. But, you don’t have to trust me… I will post the logs of what actually happened at the end, and if you want to take the time to read through it all and confirm my summary, then go right ahead. Also, because I am aware that I am biased, I am open for any discussion and questions on what happened. The best way to get in contact with me would be the chat room, the Q&A, or as a last resort, you can e-mail me at peebrain [at] psipog [dot] net.

What is a bond, and why is it different than cash?

First, you have to understand how bonds work. I was really confused at first – I mean, if Randi is offering a million dollars, how can it be “worthless”? It seems very clear cut.

Bonds are certificates of debt. That means that a bond is basically an IOU. Corporations or governments need money to fund projects, so they go to rich people and say, “hey, give us some money, and we’ll pay you some interest, and then after a while, we’ll give you all your money back”.
Bonds have four key elements: who issued them, what the interest rate is, when they’ll give the money back, and how much money was borrowed to begin with. The best way to show how it works is just to give you an example.

Let’s say Bob’s Bakery needs some money to buy baking equipment. Now, once they have the equipment, they can bake and make money – but they don’t have any startup money to get the gears in motion. So they go to a rich guy and say, “Hey, if you give us $10,000, we’ll pay you $100 every month for 24 months, then we’ll give you your $10,000 back to you”. This is appealing to Bob’s Bakery because they can get their company started, and once it gets going, they’ll start making money. From their profits, they’ll take $100 each month and give it to the rich guy. Then after 24 months, they have a successful business, and pay the entire debt back to the rich guy. Bob’s Baker keeps growing and making more money, and Bob is happy. The rich guy is also happy, because he just gives $10,000 to Bob, and doesn’t have to do anything. The rich guy doesn’t have to bake, or buy equipment, or hire employees, or any of that garbage. He just invests a small amount of his money, and in return gets $100 more a month, and all his money back after 24 months.

So, that’s why and how bonds exist. Rich people want more money, and poor entrepreneurs want a successful business. (Of course, I’m simplifying this entire situation just to get the point across; in reality it’s a little more complicated).

How can bonds be legally worth money, but be worthless?

Where is the problem? Well, what if Bob’s Baker doesn’t succeed, and goes bankrupt? What happens to the $10,000? Basically: it’s lost. Rich guy doesn’t get his $100 a month, and rich guy loses out on $10,000.

How does this all translate to the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge?

The prize isn’t cash. The prize is bonds that are WORTH a million dollars. So, there are a lot of Bob’s Baker people running around with the money, and they all gave Randi an IOU. And all these IOU’s total to a million dollars.

Since the prize money is in the form of bonds, then it is possible that the bonds are worthless. For example, maybe a lot of the bonds are from corporations that are on the verge of going bankrupt? Or maybe the corporations don’t have to pay off the bonds for another 40 years? In our example, Bob had to pay everything back in 24 months… this is called the “maturity” of the bond. Some bonds don’t mature for a few years, others don’t mature for a few decades. If Randi awards the prize of a bond that doesn’t mature for 40 years, then legally I do have a million dollars… but I can’t USE the million dollars until the bonds mature! As you can see, there are a lot of different scenarios where the bonds could be LEGALLY worth a million dollars, but in reality they could be worthless.

Does the Challenge have worthless bonds?

The next logical step is to find out what the bonds are really worth. To do that, I e-mailed Randi at the address he provided on his website. I politely pointed out where it said the prize was in bonds in the Challenge rules, and then I asked what corporations issued the bonds, what the interest rates were, and when the maturity dates are. These are the main factors at determining if the bonds are worthless or not.

Randi replied with, “Apply, or go away.”

I explained to him that I wanted clarification on what he was offering. That this had nothing to do with my claim, but they were questions aimed at getting more information about the Challenge.
Randi replied with, “Immediately convertible into money. That’s all I’m going to get involved in. Apply, or disappear.”

Obviously that doesn’t answer my question at all. Immediately convertible into how much money? Convertible through who?

Enter Kramer.

I e-mailed Randi again, asking for clarification. I didn’t mean to be annoying, but they weren’t answering the question. Why would I apply if the bonds were worthless? The Challenge rules state that I am responsible for all costs incurred in the pursuit of the prize money… so it’s quite possible that I could jump through all the hoops, spend my own money, and only have a pile of worthless bonds to show for it.

Randi passed me off to Kramer. Kramer’s job is to handle all paranormal claims. Kramer introduced himself in an e-mail, “Randi has directed me to correspond with you directly regarding your inquiries into the JREF Challenge. […] I handle all Challenge-related activities, so write to me here if you have more questions.”

Ok, fair enough. So, I politely explained my situation to Kramer, and asked the same questions again. Kramer replied with, “So far, you’re just full of shit. That’s OUR perspective. Apply or go away. We don’t have to prove anything to you. If you really have a claim, you’ll apply.”

Wow.

Enter JREF Forums.

I’m not dumb… before e-mailing them, I had suspicion that things would get ugly. That’s why I painfully tried to stay as polite, logical, and consistent from the start. Before emailing them, I noticed that Kramer would post e-mail conversations in the forums on their website, and comment about how the person e-mailing them is a moron. Now that I was the moron e-mailing them, I searched the forums for Kramer’s new thread on the idiot asking about the bonds.

And I found it.

I expected to find a bunch of pseudo-skeptics making fun of me. And I did. What I didn’t expect to find is that Kramer EDITED the e-mails before posting. All of the sudden, his “full of shit” comment was translated to “full of baloney.” And Randi’s “Apply, or disappear” was translated to “Apply, or don’t apply.” Similar minor translations were made to convert rude text, into stern but polite text.

Now, is that a big deal? Not really. Obviously it was a big deal to Kramer though, or he wouldn’t have taken the time to edit it.

Luckily, my message was still getting across on the public log in the forum. Perhaps he edited the logs to make Randi and himself look better, but my questions were still there. To my surprise, some of the forum members sided with me. They thought my questions were legitimate.

Misinformation and misdirection.

Since the other members agreed with my questions, Kramer decided to post an answer to them. This answer never made it back to my e-mail, and the only reason I found it was because I knew Kramer would try to make me look like an idiot on the forum (like he did with everyone else who e-mailed him privately). Kramer’s answer was that the prize was CASH, and not bonds.

Whoa, ok, that’s a surprise. The rules state: “…JREF will pay to the claimant the remainder of the reward, for a total of US$1,000,000. One million dollars in negotiable bonds is held by an investment firm in New York…” This can be read either way. Personally, I read it to say the prize is bonds. Kramer decided to interpret it that the prize is CASH (based on the “US$1,000,000” quote).

So I’m the idiot, right? Luckily, there were others who saw it my way. Maybe they didn’t believe in the paranormal, but they were logical enough to see that I brought up a legitimate issue. If Kramer says the prize is cash, then the rules page should be changed.

During this time period, I began posting on the forums to clarify my position (and to point out that Kramer had edited the e-mails). The arguments were pretty interesting, but the meat of the matter still was: the rules aren’t clear that the prize is cash, and if the prize is bonds, then what are the details about the bonds.

The next thing that happened absolutely blew me away. Kramer posted on the forums that he received an e-mail from me. In this e-mail, I complimented Kramer’s hard work, and told him the issue was resolved. The only problem is: I never wrote or sent that e-mail.

A false e-mail?

I was in shock when I read what Kramer had posted. This wasn’t minor edits to sway people one way or the other – this was blatant fabrication. To be fair, Kramer could have been a victim of someone posing as me. But let’s look at the evidence.

I e-mailed both Randi and Kramer from a private account. I had not used that account for anything else. Nobody on the forums, nobody on PsiPog, and not even my close friends know what the account is. Only myself, Randi, and Kramer. For a third party to fake the e-mail, they would have to either e-mail Kramer from another account (which should make Kramer suspicious), or they would have had to fake an e-mail from my private account (which only myself, Randi, and Kramer know about).

On top of that, Kramer had already shown that he’s willing to edit e-mails. I attempted to ask for a way to look into this fake e-mail situation more, but it quickly got brushed away under all the other arguments. Kramer certainly didn’t care.

A noble idea.

All the fraud aside, most members agreed that something should be done because things weren’t clear from the start. A poster offered to write up an FAQ about the Challenge that could be posted on the website. The idea is that Kramer could direct people to the FAQ when they ask common questions, and this could save Kramer time.

In the drafting of the FAQ, the poster put a question about the form of the money. We had concluded on the forum that it was in cash, and not bonds. Remember? In the FAQ, the poster added the question:

“If someone wins, how will they be paid?”

Although the prize money is held in bonds as a way to publicly show that the money really does exist, the bonds will be converted to US dollars before being paid. The first $10,000 of the prize money will be paid by check, as stated in the Challenge rules. The usual method for paying an amount as large as the remaining $990,000 is via electronic transfer, and it is reasonable to assume that that is how this prize money will be paid as well.”

This is what Kramer had been telling us all along, and this was identified early as the source of “my confusion”. Kramer loved the FAQ, and decided to officially post it on the website so he could refer people to it. Of course, he made a few edits to the draft. The final version of the FAQ is below:

“If I pass the formal test and win the Challenge, how will I be paid?”

The first $10,000 of the prize money will be paid by check, as stated in the Challenge rules, immediately upon the successful demonstration of their claim. The prize money is held in the form of bonds as a way to publicly show that the money really does exist. These immediately convertible bonds will be awarded to the Challenge winner within 10 days of passing the formal test. The manner of transfer of these bonds will be at the discretion of the JREF and the Challenge winner, in accordance with acceptable legal standards.”

It turns out the prize IS THE BONDS.

Wow.

So my original assumption was right after all. The prize is the bonds. And my questions have still gone unanswered. What is there to say? Well, the most obvious thing I’ve learned from this is that Kramer certainly isn’t trustworthy. He edited the e-mails, and told everyone the prize was in cash. And no one knows where the false e-mail came from (and Kramer hasn’t provided anyone with information that could help us figure it out). At the time of writing this, he hasn’t addressed the original issues which sparked this entire fiasco (who issued the bonds, what are the interest rates, and when are the maturity dates?). And he hasn’t addressed the issue of misleading EVERYONE on the forums, by stating that the prize is cash.

While the members of the forums show different levels of skepticism, Kramer certainly does not show anything relating to real skepticism. His mentality is that of a fundamentalist – he is right, everyone else is wrong, and it’s ok to “bend” the truth to convince others. This is the exact opposite of healthy skepticism. If you are seriously considering taking the James Randi $1 Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, it would be very naive to think it’s as clear cut and simple as they portray it. When you put your signature on that application, you are signing a contract with them. If they have a hard time playing fair when it’s just a few e-mails, imagine how they’ll act when a million dollars is on the line (assuming that the bonds are actually worth anything to begin with, of course).

 
 
 
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James Randi’s Problem

 

James Randi’s Problem

 

The problem with James Randi
and his foundation on the paranormal,
pseudoscientific and supernatural.

by Skylaire Alfvegren

 


Dogmatists of any stripe are fundamentally wounded,
whether they’re Islamic terrorists, Christian abortion-clinic bombers
or magicians with an axe to grind.


 
Picture this: A little boy with an imagination and a sense of wonder begins futzing with a deck of cards, sleight of hand … as that boy delves deeper into magic, it’s revealed to be nothing more than a world of smoke and mirrors, of “cons” and “marks.” Stage magicians, like lawyers and secret agents, make a living from deception, so perhaps they assume everyone else does, as well. From that perspective, the connection between stage magic and skepticism makes sense.

What’s more important, what science knows or what it doesn’t (yet)? What’s more beneficial to scientific inquiry, an open mind or a sense of self-importance? These are questions that beg to be asked of the skeptical movement, which convenes in Las Vegas this weekend for The Amazing Meeting, a benefit for the James Randi Educational Foundation. (The conference takes place at the Stardust and features Murray Gell-Mann, Nadine Strossen, the Mythbusters, Penn & Teller, Mac King, Jamy Ian Swiss, Phil Plait, Julia Sweeney, and Michael Shermer.) After all, while it’s true that opportunists profit from the murky worlds of the paranormal and the unknown, and that some people will believe anything, it’s also true that scientists have falsified data to get grants or overlooked inconvenient phenomenon to maintain the status quo in their field.

Well, as iconoclastic writer Charles Fort once noted, “Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name.”

But let’s not generalize. Let’s examine the contributions made by Randi, the skeptical movement’s leading figure, to science and objective thought.

Randi can be eloquent and is quite the showman; he is also wildly intelligent—he got a MacArthur genius grant in 1986. But according to his detractors, Randi’s main qualities are his malice and hypocrisy. He’s hell-bent on tearing apart anyone he deems a kook, including distinguished scientists and Nobel Prize-winners. This is amusing, as Randi has no scientific credentials whatsoever (although he did once write an astrology column for a Canadian tabloid and host a paranormal-themed radio show).

In 1997, Randi threatened to fly to Sri Lanka to persuade Arthur C. Clarke to stop advocating cold fusion. (Clarke, a genuine scientific visionary, inventor of the communication satellite and award-winning author, received degrees, with honors, in physics and mathematics.) In 2001, on a BBC Radio program, Randi attacked Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize-winner and professor of physics at Cambridge University.

Why? Josephson was interested in the possible connections between quantum physics and consciousness. Randi also has a penchant for lawsuits—he once tried to sue a writer known for covering the UFO beat, simply because he printed some unflattering but verifiable information about the magician. Randi left the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) because of all the litigation against him.

Charismatic psychic Uri Geller, whose abilities have been tested by a number of prestigious laboratories, has probably been Randi’s biggest target. In the process of attempting to discredit the psychic, Randi has also attacked institutions, like Stanford, intrigued by Geller’s alleged abilities. He defamed two eminent scientists, Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, calling them “incompetent.” At the time, author Robert Anton Wilson wryly observed, “Randi was not there, yet he claims to know what was going on [during the experiment] better than the two scientists who were supervising it. The only way he could know better … is if he had 100 percent accurate telepathy.”

Randi is probably best known for his infamous million-dollar challenge to “any person or persons who can demonstrate any psychic, supernatural or paranormal ability of any kind” under what Randi refers to as “satisfactory observing conditions.”

Ray Hyman, a leading Fellow of CSICOP, has pointed out that Randi’s challenge is illegitimate from a scientific standpoint. “Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test … Proof in science happens through replication.” If Randi’s challenge was legitimate, he would set up a double-blind experiment which he himself wouldn’t judge. But considering his hostility toward scientists receptive to paranormal phenomena, this doesn’t seem likely. His “challenge” is rigged, yet he can crow that his prize goes unclaimed because paranormal phenomena simply does not exist.

Compare this outlook to the philosophy adopted by followers of Charles Fort. Forteans (a term coined by screenwriter Ben Hecht, who, along with Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken and Oliver Wendell Holmes, was a member of the original Fortean Society, formed upon Fort’s death in 1932) entertain the notion that anything is possible until proven otherwise.

Some are scientists, some are street musicians. They are neither gullible nor pompous, neither “true believers” in — nor coldly dismissive of—anything. And they have a sense of humor largely missing from Randi’s crowd.

“In and of itself,” says a man once denigrated by the skeptical movement, “skepticism has made no actual contribution to science, just as music reviews in the newspaper make no contribution to the art of composition.”

The universe is full of mystery, as well as charlatans. It is up to the individual to weigh evidence objectively. Just don’t use your intuition to do so, or you could be the skeptics’ next target.

 
This article appeared at Lasvegasweekly.com on January 26, 2006

 
 
 
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James Randi, A Skeptical Look

 

A Skeptical Look at James Randi

 

by Michael Prescott

 


Michael Prescott is a New York Times bestselling novelist.


 
Years ago, when I was a full-fledged skeptic, atheist, and rationalist, I read James Randi’s 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions. Randi is an accomplished magician and a professional skeptic, dedicating to disproving any and all claims of what he considers pseudoscience. In line with this agenda, and as its title suggests, Flim-Flam is a concerted attack on miscellaneous purported irrationalities – everything from the pop-culture writings of Erich von Daniken to the more serious investigations of professional parapsychologists. I enjoyed the book, which reinforced my belief system at the time.

Recently I picked up Flim-Flam again. Having changed my mind about many things over the past twenty years, I responded to it much differently this time. I was particularly struck by the book’s hectoring, sarcastic tone. Randi pictures psychic researchers as medieval fools clad in “caps and bells” and likens the delivery of an announcement at a parapsychology conference to the birth of “Rosemary’s Baby.” After debunking all manner of alleged frauds, he opens the book’s epilogue with the words, “The tumbrels now stand empty but ready for another trip to the square” – a reference to the French Revolution, in which carts (“tumbrels”) of victims were driven daily to the guillotine. Randi evidently pictures himself as the executioner who lowers the blade. In passing, two points might be made about this metaphor: the French Revolution was a product of “scientific rationalism” run amok … and most of its victims were innocent.

Still, the tedious nastiness of Flim-Flam does not tell us anything about its accuracy. Intrigued, I decided to check out a few of Randi’s claims in detail.

I chose to focus on Chapter Eight, Randi’s dissection of the experiments of Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, two well-known parapsychologists. Randi calls them “the Laurel and Hardy of psi” and proceeds to argue that their experiments were a tissue of ineptitude, gullibility, and dishonesty.

The first thing I noticed was that Randi never gives any indication that Targ and Puthoff have any scientific credentials or accomplishments. The casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that they are not “real” scientists at all. For the record, Targ is a physicist credited with inventing the FM laser, the high-power gas-tranport laser, and the tunable plasma oscillator. Puthoff, also a physicist, invented the tunable infra-red laser and is widely known for his theoretical work on quantum vacuum states and the zero point field. (see The Field, by Lynne McTaggart, for an overview of Puthoff’s work in quantum phyics.) If these two are “Laurel and Hardy,” at least they come with good résumés. Randi, by contrast, has no scientific training.

Randi starts off by telling us how Targ and Puthoff took a professed psychic, Ingo Swann, to Stanford University, where, they said, Swann used his psychic abilities to affect the operation of a magnetometer. According to Randi, “the report was all wet.” He knows this because he contacted Dr. Arthur Hebard, “the builder of the device, who was present and has excellent recollections of what took place.” Hebard, Randi says disputes the Targ-Puthoff account. He is quoted as saying, “It’s a lie. You can say it any way you want, but that’s what I call a lie.”

This is pretty compelling stuff. But is Randi’s version of events accurate? Let’s take a look.

First, he seems to make a rather basic error when he says that both Targ and Puthoff were present for this experiment. As best I can determine, Puthoff conducted the experiment, which took place in June, 1972, without Targ’s assistance. Targ had met Puthoff prior to this time, but their work together apparently did not begin until a few months later.

That’s a small point. Far more important is the matter of Dr. Hebard’s testimony. There’s another side to the story, which I found in Chapter 17 of Psychic Breakthroughs Today (Quoted by Uri Geller) by D. Scott Rogo. Rogo, who died in 1990 at the age of forty, was a prolific journalist and researcher of psychic phenomena. He wrote numerous popular books, some of which have been used as college texts. He also published research papers in peer-reviewed parapsychology journals. Although Rogo was sometimes criticized for tackling overly esoteric subjects, he had a reputation for honesty and was respected for his willingness to do hands-on investigation and field work, rather than relying on armchair appraisals. A Scott Rogo tribute and bibliography can be found here.

Rogo writes, “There obviously exist several discrepancies between Dr. Puthoff’s views on what happened during this experiment, and what Randi claims Dr. Hebard told him. So to clarify the matter, I decided to get in touch with Dr. Hebard myself. I finally tracked him down at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. He was very willing to discuss the Swann magnetometer demonstration with me, and professed to be very interested in parapsychology.” Hebard’s interest in the paranormal contradicts Randi’s statement that Hebard, “not being a reader of far-out literature,” was unaware of Targ and Puthoff’s claims.

Rogo acknowledges that Hebard’s account differs in some respects from Puthoff’s. “Dr. Hebard denied in no uncertain terms, however, Randi’s claim that Swann was never asked to ‘stop the field charge’ being recorded from the magnetometer. He easily recalled that he had suggested that it would be a fascinating effect if Swann could produce it . . . which, of course, he actually did soon after the suggestion was made. Randi also directly quotes Dr. Hebard as calling some of Targ and Puthoff’s claims ‘lies’. Dr. Hebard was very annoyed by this claim since, as he explained to me, Randi had tried to get him to make this charge and he had refused. Dr. Hebard later signed a statement to this effect for me.” [Ellipsis in original.]

As for the discrepancies between Hebard’s and Puthoff’s accounts, Rogo reports that in a subsequent meeting with Puthoff, he was shown “the actual graphed print-outs given by the magnetometer during the Swann demonstrations. The records supported Dr. Puthoff’s contention more than they did Dr. Hebard’s.”

So far, then, the best we can say is that Randi’s criticism of Puthoff (and Targ, who apparently wasn’t even involved in the magnetometer experiment) is far from the last word on the subject.

Randi proceeds to launch a comprehensive critique of Targ and Puthoff’s article “Information Transmission under Conditions of Sensory Shielding,” which appeared in the October 18, 1974, issue of the respected journal Nature. The article details experiments involving, among other participants, the professed psychic Uri Geller.

Randi’s take on this series of experiments is withering. He skewers Targ and Puthoff as “bunglers.” He reports that their experiments were conducted in a chaotic atmosphere conducive to cheating. He says that a hole in the wall of Geller’s isolation room enabled him to spy on the scientists during their ESP experiments. He says that Targ and Puthoff falsified the results of the tests by omitting failed experiments that would have lowered Geller’s averages to the level of chance. Further, he says that the scoring of Geller’s performances was mishandled, generating higher scores than Geller deserved.

The question naturally arises: How does Randi know all this, since, as he admits, “I’ve never even set foot on the sacred grounds of SRI [Stanford Research Institute, where the experiments were conducted”? He explains that he was given inside information by “an individual” who claimed to represent dozens of SRI scientists. This group, which worked in secret and even adopted a code name (Broomhilda), passed the information to Randi.

Unfortunately, Randi never names this individual or any other members of the Broomhilda group. He says that “Broomhilda verified for me much of the information that I had been holding on to for years,” but where did he get this earlier information in the first place? “That data,” he says, “now moved from the status of hearsay to documented fact.” But documented is hardly a term applicable to either the initial information, which is never specified, or the Broomhilda information, which came from an anonymous source. He adds, “Additional facts were elicited during conversations and correspondence with individuals. Many of these persons were not aware of Broomhilda and were acting on their own. Their completely independent input supported Broomhilda’s charges. Taken together,” he concludes, “the information from all sources amounted to quite an indictment.”

Maybe so, but it’s an indictment that would never hold up in court. The reader is expected to take Randi’s word that his unidentified sources are trustworthy – and that the sources themselves are well-informed about experimental procedures they may or may not have witnessed.

Thus when Randi alleges that “hundreds of [failed] experiments that were done by SRI … were never reported,” we must take the statement on faith, as it is unsupported by any documentation. Similarly, when Randi says definitively, “All the other tests [i.e., the successful ones] lacked proper controls and were useless,” we search in vain for any footnote to back up this assertion.

A posting I found on a message board sums up the situation nicely: “Claims of poor scientific method leveled at the experimenters have been shown to be mainly unsubstantiated personal opinion and second-hand ‘Chinese Whispers.'” (Chinese Whispers is the British equivalent of the American game, ‘Telephone’.) It might be worth adding that critics of paranormal phenomena, like Randi, are forever decrying any reliance on “anecdotal evidence,” which is precisely what the bulk of Randi’s argument consists of.

Randi does produce two individuals willing to go on the record – Charles Rebert and Leon Otis, both of whom were SRI psychologists. Rebert and Otis apparently disagreed with the Targ-Puthoff conclusions; indeed, Randi tells us that “a horrified Rebert also heard that Targ and Puthoff were going to proclaim these erroneous findings before Stanford University’s psychology department, and he forbade such a blunder. The talk was canceled.” But this only tells us that there was a dispute among the scientists at SRI. Rebert and Otis ran some unsuccessful tests with Geller and decided that he was a fraud. Targ and Puthoff ran what they regarded as successful tests and decided that, in some areas at least, Geller had legitimate psychic powers. Nothing in Randi’s text establishes which conclusion was correct.

Randi goes on to report that after he had criticized Geller in an earlier book, Targ and Puthoff “issued a ‘fact sheet’ in rebuttal to twenty-four” of his points. According to Randi, “This attempt was a failure, and in response to one claim that the SRI tests were done under tight controls, a scientist who was there declared flatly, ‘This is b.s. As far as my colleagues and I are concerned, none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol. “I will not burden you,” Randi concludes, “with the other twenty-three points; they are as easily demolished.”

Well, hold on. A quotation from yet another anonymous source (“a scientist who was there”) hardly constitutes a demolition job, especially when the scientist’s argument consists of an unsupported assertion (“none of the experiments met accepted scientific protocol”). Personally, I would have welcomed the “burden” of the other twenty-three points and of Randi’s detailed and carefully documented rebuttals.

Some idea of the counter-arguments to Randi’s claims can be obtained by taking another look at D. Scott Rogo, who earlier showed the initiative to track down Dr. Hebard. Unlike Randi, who, as we have seen, had “never even set foot” inside the research facility, Rogo visited SRI on June 12, 1981. He found that Randi had misrepresented the hole in the wall of the isolation room through which Geller was supposedly able to spy on the researchers. The hole, a conduit for cables, is depicted in Flim-Flam as being three and a half inches wide and therefore offering a good view of the experimental area where the researchers were working. Rogo found, however, that the hole “is three-and-a-quarter inches [wide] and extends through a twelve-and-a-half inch wall. This scopes your vision and severely limits what you can see through it. The hole is not left open either, since it is covered by a plate through which cables are routinely run. Dr. Puthoff and his colleague were, however, concerned that their subject might be ingenious enough to insert an optical probe through this hole, so they monitored the opening throughout their telepathy experiments.”

Randi also indicates that the hole is stationed 34 inches above the floor. Not so, says Rogo. “It isn’t three feet above the floor, but is located only a little above floor level. The only thing you can see through it – even under optimal conditions – is a small bit of exterior floor and opposing wall. (The viewing radius is only about 20°, and the targets for the Geller experiments were hung on a different wall completely.) I also discovered during my trip to SRI that an equipment rack was situated in front of the hole throughout the Geller work, which obstructed any view through it even further. I ended my little investigation by talking with two people who were present during these critical experiments. They both agreed that wires were running through the hole – therefore totally blocking it – during the time of the Geller experiments.”

It would appear that the hole in the isolation booth’s wall poses considerably less of a problem than the holes in Randi’s arguments.

By now, I felt that Randi’s credibility was in doubt. He had committed careless errors of fact, had quite possibly misrepresented and misquoted Hebard, and had made unsupported assertions based on rumors. I wondered what Targ and Puthoff have to say about all this. The only responses from either of them that I could find online were part of a long essay by Winston Wu, Debunking Common Skeptical Arguments Against Paranormal and Psychic Phenomena; the relevant part is Argument 18. Puthoff is quoted as follows:

“In Flim-Flam, [Randi] gives something like 28 debunking points, if my memory serves me correctly. I had the opportunity to confront Randi at a Parapsychology Association conference with proof in hand, and in tape-recorded interaction he admitted he was wrong on all the points. He even said he would correct them for the upcoming paperback being published by the CSICOP group. [He did not.] …

“The truth of the matter is that none of Randi’s claimed suspected inadequate controls actually had anything to do with the experiments, which of course Randi was not there to know of. This has been independently reported by Scott Rogo somewhere in the literature, who came out specifically to check each of Randi’s guesses about inadequate controls and found them inapplicable under the conditions in which the tests were conducted. In fact, all of Randi’s suggestions were amateurish compared to the sophisticated steps we took, suspecting as we did everything from magician’s tricks to an Israeli intelligence scam…

“In case one thinks that it was just a case of our opinions vs. his opinions,” Puthoff continues, “we chose for the list of incorrect points only those that could be independently verified. Examples: [Randi] said that in our Nature paper we verified Geller’s metal-bending. Go to the paper, and you see that we said we were not able to obtain evidence for this. He said that a film of the Geller experiment made at SRI by famed photographer Zev Pressman was not made by him, but by us and we just put his name on it. We showed up with an affidavit by Pressman saying that indeed he did make the film.”

There is no way for me to verify Puthoff’s statement that he tape-recorded Randi’s concession of defeat “on all the points.” This has to stand as an unsupported assertion, just like Randi’s own arguments. But it is possible to take a closer look at Puthoff’s last two claims.

First, Puthoff insists that his and Targ’s Nature article does not endorse Geller’s alleged metal-bending. This is accurate, as you can see for yourself by reading the article. Puthoff and Targ write, “It has been widely reported that Geller has demonstrated the ability to bend metal by paranormal means. Although metal bending by Geller has been observed in our laboratory, we have not been able to combine such observations with adequately controlled experiments to obtain data sufficient to support the paranormal hypothesis.”

On the other hand, I have not found any statement by Randi in Flim-Flam to the effect that Targ and Puthoff “had verified Geller’s metal-bending.” He attacks the Targ-Puthoff experiments on other grounds. Of course, he may have made this statement elsewhere, but as far as I can tell, Puthoff is rebutting a point Randi never made.

How about Puthoff’s second claim, regarding the SRI film? Randi certainly does make this an issue in Flim-Flam. Targ and Puthoff, he writes, “appended to [the film] – without his knowledge or permission – the name of Zev Pressman, the SRI photographer who had shot the film … Pressman, said Targ and Puthoff, was present during [a particular series of] experiments. Not so, according to Pressman… Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI that he had been told the successful [tests] were done after he (Pressman) had gone home for the day. So it appears the film was a reenactment … Pressman did not even know that Targ and Puthoff were issuing a statement, he did not sign it, and he did not give them permission to use his name. He knew nothing about most of what appeared under his name, and he disagreed with the part that he did know about.” [Italics in original.]

Here we have Randi saying that this photographer, Pressman, was duped and used by the experimenters, while Puthoff says that Pressman signed an affidavit swearing that “indeed he did make the film.” Is there any way to resolve this?

A further Web search turned up Chapter 14 of The Geller Effect. Part One of this book is written by Uri Geller. Part Two, which includes Chapter 14, was written by Guy Lyon Playfair. Living up to his name, Playfair offers an even-handed presentation of the various controversies surrounding the flamboyant and eccentric Geller.

Playfair writes, “[Randi] turned, in a later book, Flim-Flam, to the professional photographer who had made the film, a Stanford employee named Zev Pressman, with an extraordinary series of unfounded allegations…

“Pressman flatly denied all of Randi’s allegations in two public statements, neither of which was even mentioned in the 1982 re-issue of the book. ‘I made the film,’ said Pressman, ‘and my name appeared with my full knowledge and permission . . . Nothing was restaged or specially created … I have never met nor spoken to nor corresponded with Randi. The ‘revelations’ he attributes to me are pure fiction.'”

It is true that no mention is made of these “two public statements” in Flim-Flam’s 1982 edition – the edition I own.

For corroborating testimony, I turned once again to the indefatigable Scott Rogo, who investigated this claim just as he had looked into Dr. Hebard’s testimony and the infamous hole in the wall.

Rogo writes, “I spoke directly with Mr Pressman on 5 January 1981 and he was quite interested when I told him about Randi’s book. He denied that he had spoken to the magician. When I read him the section of Randi’s book dealing with his alleged ‘expose’ of the Targ-Puthoff film, he became very vexed. He firmly backed up the authenticity of the film, told me how he had taken it on the spot, and labeled Randi’s allegation as a total fabrication. [His own descriptive language was a little more colourful!]” Rogo also reports that Puthoff showed him Pressman’s signed affidavit.

How could Randi’s conversation with Pressman be so different from Rogo’s? The truth is, Randi does not appear to have had a conversation with Pressman at all. Take another look at the quote from Flim-Flam. The key words are: “Most damning of all, Pressman said to others at SRI …”

Evidently, then, Randi’s source is not Pressman himself, but unnamed “others at SRI” who passed on this information to Randi. Another round of Chinese Whispers, it seems.

At this point Randi ends his discussion of the Geller experiments and proceeds to criticize Targ and Puthoff’s later work, as well as the work of another researcher, Charles Tart. Dealing with these criticisms would require another essay of equal length to this one, so I will stop here. The reader who wants to go further is invited to read Randi’s Flim-Flam and then click on any of the links inserted throughout this essay and listed below. Or just search the Web for the keywords Randi, Targ, Puthoff, etc., and see what comes up.

Before I began this modest online research project for a rainy afternoon, I had mixed feelings about Randi. I saw him as closed-minded and supercilious, but I also assumed he was sincere and, by his own lights, honest. Now, having explored his contribution to the Targ-Puthoff controversy in some detail, I am thoroughly unimpressed. Randi comes across as a bullying figure, eager to attack and ridicule, willing to distort and even invent evidence – in short, the sort of person who will do anything to prevail in a debate, whether by fair means or foul.

The title of his book thus takes on a new and unintended meaning. From what I can tell, James Randi really is the Flim-Flam man.

 

Michael Prescott’s Website.

 
 
 
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