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”.