Matt Colborn

SPR’s Study Day on Skeptics

London, October 25, 2008

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).


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