Guy Lyon Playfair

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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