Good Skeptics / Bad Skeptics

Part 3: Bad Skeptics Theodore Dalrymple and Damian Thompson
by Guy Lyon Playfair

The skeptical spectrum is a broad one.

There are those who, in the spirit of Pyrrho and his fellow skeptikoi of third century BC Greece, are dedicated to questioning, examining and doubting. Then there are those whom the late Marcello Truzzi described as pseudoskeptics, deniers who reject ‘the paranormal’ (i.e. anything they can’t explain) without any attempt at proper examination.

Then we have those who deliberately set out to suppress psi research altogether, sabotaging research programmes and flinging mud at anybody, however eminent, who shows an interest in exploring border areas of knowledge. Finally, we have those who simply don’t know what they are talking about and remind us of Shakespeare’s ‘man, proud man’ who is ‘most ignorant about what he’s most assured’. A couple of recent examples from authors who have justly earned public confidence and respect for their expertise in their specialist fields but deserve to lose it when they venture beyond them:

Theodore Dalrymple is a well known medical journalist with long experience of the seamy side of life during his time as a prison doctor, which he has described with perspicacity worthy of Dickens. He is also a splendid polemicist and iconoclast with a wide range of interests. His new book Not with a Bang but a Whimper includes a study of the life and work of Arthur Koestler, whom he treats well until he gets to the matter of his interest in parapsychology, when he manages to pack an impressive amount of misinformation into a single paragraph:

‘Many regarded Koestler’s subsequent obsessions [including parapsychology] as symptoms of a mind that had lost its way. In his will he endowed a chair in parapsychology at Edinburgh University. He regarded telepathy and clairvoyance as established facts largely because of the now discredited experiments of J.B.Rhine at Duke University. He began to collect examples of startling coincidences as if they could tell us something about noncausal relations between events. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, he seemed to the public to have travelled from serious authorship to spiritualist crankdom.’

Let’s deal with the factual errors first:

1. Koestler did not leave anything to Edinburgh University. He left his entire estate to, in his words, ‘parapsychology alone’, and his executors had much difficulty in finding a university who would accept the money and the conditions.

2. He was interested in psi long before he met Rhine, and had a very thorough knowledge of the subject, as can be seen in the forty-page chapter An ABC of ESP in his book The Roots of Coincidence. He had also experienced it himself (see below).

3. The only experiments in Rhine’s department at Duke that have been reliably discredited were those of W.J.Levy, which were discredited very publicly and promptly by Rhine himself after Levy had been caught cheating by his colleagues.

Now for the spin-doctoring. Koestler became interested in coincidences (as were Jung and Nobel laureate physicist Wolfgang Pauli) because of personal experience of it in an incident involving the author Thomas Mann. (For the details, see the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, October 1984). Such ‘synchronicities’ could indeed tell us something about what Jung and Pauli called ‘an acausal connecting principle’, something 21st century quantum theorists seem quite willing to admit as a possibility. Even if there should turn out to be no such thing, is that a good reason not to record evidence suggesting that there may be?

As for those ‘many’ who thought Koestler’s mind had lost his way, who were they? Could we have some names? Within days of the author’s death I interviewed several of his closest friends including Brian Inglis, Renée Haynes and Ruth West, none of whom thought anything of the kind. Indeed the latter, who saw him a few days before he died, found his mind as sound as ever. Finally, to suggest that the resolutely agnostic Koestler, with his lifelong interest in science and extensive knowledge of it, was any kind of ‘spiritualist crank’ (again, who of ‘the public’ until now ever suggested anything of the kind?) is a wholly unjustified insult to one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century.

More bad skepticism from an author who should know better, Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, in his lively crank-bashing book Counterknowledge. He defines this as ‘misinformation packaged to look like fact’, its essence being ‘that its factual claims can be shown to be wrong’. They can indeed. So can his. On page 12 he reels off a list of ‘strange ideas unrestricted by conventional rules of evidence’ which include everything from Holocaust denial, creationism, miracle diets, Bible prophecies and astrology to near death experiences (NDEs) and ESP. (Interesting to find an editor of a Catholic weekly rubbishing biblical prophecies, some of which, if the words of Moses et al. are anything to go by were said to have been pretty accurate).

Granted that Thompson may be right about most if not all of the first five ‘strange ideas’, to lump the last two in with that company is absurd. There is a vast amount of evidence for the NDE, including articles in peer-reviewed journals and several popular and academic books, an early example of the latter being A Collection of Near Death Research Readings (C.R.Lundahl, ed.) published in 1982. Its contributors include nine professors, who all seem familiar with ‘conventional rules of evidence’, of which they cite several pages of references. As for ESP, the meta-analyses of more than a century of research reveal massive odds, of the order to billions or more to one, in favour of the reality of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, the four main components of psi, or what used to be called ESP. Thompson has simply not done his homework.

We are used to getting sloppy research from the usual debunkers, but it is sad to find it coming from excellent writers like Dalrymple and Thompson, both of whose books I highly recommend subject to the above reservations.


Psychic detective Noreen Renier has been subjected to what sounds like some of the worst skepticism ever. It is a long and complex story, which I will not attempt to summarise here, but recommend to those interested in exploring the lower depths of bad skepticism to check it out for themselves at Noreen’s website.

See Part 4 Below: