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February 2008

Fear and Loathing in Academia

The postman comes bearing gifts, actually Stephen Braude's latest book, The Gold Leaf Lady, which I could not resist peeking into when I should have been working. Braude is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and one of that tiny band of academics who 'gets' the paranormal and is brave enough to talk about it. He has a particular interest in psychokinesis and has written about séance mediums such as Eusapia Palladino. His last book Immortal Remains was a very bracing workout on the subject of survival phenomena - he thinks parapsychologists are not rigorous enough in their interpretations, although he concludes in favour of survival by a narrow margin.

This book is a look at some paranormal cases that he has personally researched, and I'll mention some of them in later posts. What strikes me straight away - since he talks about it in the preface - is his frustration at the way his university colleagues denigrate his interest. One knows in a general way that sceptics are hostile to claims of the paranormal, and one sees the rudeness with which people like James Randi and David Marks behave towards scientists and intellectuals who take an interest in it. So it's not surprising that someone at the receiving end of this sort of thing should want to get it off his chest. But it's still depressing to hear what goes on in academia spelled out in such graphic detail.

Braude says that in the 30 years since he declared his interest he has been 'marginalised'. He naively thought that other philosophers would be open-minded about his interest in parapsychology. But they behaved with 'surprising rigidity and cowardice', refusing to engage seriously with it and pretending to know the material much better than they actually did. He describes in detail a televised debate in which he was browbeaten by a fellow philosopher, who kept repeating stock objections, refused to listen to Braude's arguments, and showed he had not read any of the primary sources.

Braude also reveals that plenty of people within the academic community are sympathetic to parapsychological phenomena, but dare not be open about it. That also applies to mental health professionals, a community he came into contact with after writing on multiple personality. Many started confiding in him about apparent psychic episodes involving their patients, but insisted that he not talk about it, not because of patient confidentiality - no names were mentioned in any case - but because they feared being ridiculed and ostracised by their colleagues. Similarly, Braude says that many of the students who turn up to his course on philosophy and parapsychology complain of being threatened with reprisals by their psychology teachers.

It sounds overstated, but anyone with a good knowledge of parapsychology will recognise it only too well. As an observer I can get a sense of it through what I read. But for someone like Braude to live his professional life on the wrong side of a taboo must be a strange experience.

Homeopathy On the Run

The Guardian reports today that a fifth of NHS hospital trusts have cancelled or reduced funding in the past two years.  That's apparently the effect of a campaign by debunking scientists. I'm a bit bewildered by the whole homeopathy thing.  I can quite see why scientists should object to a mechanism which makes no sense at all - how could a substance diluted out of existence have any effect on anything?  Nor is the evidence there in the form of positive large-scale controlled studies. Still, I'm sceptical that something so apparently spurious could have such a persistent hold on the public imagination unless it was doing some good.

Here's a little gem: in a Swiss meta-analysis 100 homeopathic trials were compared with conventional medicines for a range of conditions and found - wait for it - homeopathy had 'no more than a placebo effect'. What does this mean? Apparently there was an effect. But how did the study establish it was a placebo and not the homeopathic preparation?

The Lancet has urged doctors to be 'bold and honest with their patients about homeopathy's lack of benefit.' Yet a lot of doctors actually seem to be quite enthusiastic about it, which surely says something. You can read here about a GP dishing out homeopathic remedies and insisting that his patients benefited (and no, it couldn't have been a response to the extra TLC, because there wasn't any - they got the same ten minute consultation as everyone else).

What I do know is that parapsychology throws up some similar issues. Telepathy couldn't possibly happen, scientists say, because there is no conceivable mechanism for it. Yet people experience it in their lives, in circumstances which, when closely investigated, suggest that something is happening for which science has no explanation.

So hospitals are turning their backs on homeopathy, not because there is no demand for it, or GPs give it no support, but because scientists can't account for it, and want it banished from sight and mind.

A New Tack for Sceptics

Wiseman_2 These days Richard Wiseman is your man if you're a journalist looking for an articulate sceptical comment. When reporter Daily Mail reporter Danny Penman contacted him for yesterday's piece on new remote viewing research he duly obliged. He agreed that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven. But he added that psychic claims are so outlandish that we need overwhelming evidence before we draw any conclusions.This is interesting for all sorts of reasons.

It's rather remarkable to hear a critic like Wiseman - by far the best-known media sceptic in the UK right now - agree that a psychic claim has been proved by any scientific standards at all. You couldn't imagine Martin Gardner or James Randi making an off-the-cuff remark like that - it goes against everything they stand for. It also makes a nonsense of claims by scientists like Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins that there is no evidence for paranormal claims.

But Wiseman is surely right. It's not that the evidence isn't there, both anecdotal and experimental - it just isn't strong enough to reverse the enormous scientific inertia against it. If parapsychologists want to gain scientific recognition that's the challenge: to create a database so big, so consistent, and with such large effect sizes that resistance is no longer possible. Whatever you think the long-term chances of that may be, it's not going to happen for a while.

This looks like a sensible strategy for sceptics, as it involves less work, attracts less controversy, and is easier to justify.  As I mentioned yesterday, Ray Hyman, a US sceptic with a somewhat similar profile to Wiseman, failed to find anything seriously wrong with the latest Stanford research (although his reason for not endorsing it is that the flaws will eventually come to light, as has happened many times before). It's an effective ploy. You don't have to really do anything, you don't have to insult psi experimenters, or rubbish them in public, or labour to pick holes in their work, whether justified or spurious. You just stand back and let them get on with it, and then remind them that even if they do get positive results they will never be enough to overturn the supposition that psychism is impossible.

At the same time, I think it really does represent some sort of step forward for parapsychology if sceptics are no longer managing to find fault with their experimental methods. After all, that's one of the main arguments that scientists use against psi research. If the new generation of psi researchers at universities like Northampton and Liverpool Hope can tread carefully, and produce significant results while maintaining experimental rigour, they may start to win more advocates in the scientific community. The really interesting thing then will be to see how sceptics react. Is it something they can afford to be relaxed about? Or will they go back onto the attack? And if so, what methods will they use?

New Research At Northampton

Good to see Chris Roe’s experimental work in remote viewing at the University of Northampton getting a two-page spread in the Daily Mail today. According to author Danny Penman, Roe’s early findings suggest that up to 85% of people may possess some kind of clairvoyance – whew! I wonder if that means Roe is actually getting significant scores with that proportion of his subjects. In which case, stand by for some serious bollicking from sceptics when Roe publishes his results.

Remote viewing as an experimental approach has been around since the nineteenth century, under other names such as ‘travelling clairvoyance’. What put it on the map was the work done in the 1970s by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, physicists at the Stanford Research Institute, written up in their book Mind-Reach (1977). It’s hard not to be impressed by some of the matches between what some of their experimental subjects saw in their heads and the reality some distance away. But their work was torn to shreds by psychologists David Marks and Richard Kamman, who discovered that their methods left a lot to be desired. For instance, although the transcripts were given to independent judges to score, they contained plenty of clues that would help the judges make a correct match. As a result of this, and other work with psychics such as Uri Geller, Targ and Puthoff became the kicking-boys of sceptics like James Randi, who calls them ‘the Laurel and Hardy of Psi’.

But that’s not the whole story – other scientists at Stanford picked up the baton for work for the US military’s Stargate programme, which produced significant scores and detailed individual matches (see Joseph McMoneagle’s The Stargate Chronicles for the full story). And the experimental protocols were considerably tightened: in his assessment of the data sceptic Ray Hyman says for once he has no ready explanation for the results and concedes that they ‘do seem to seem to indicate that something beyond odd statistical hiccups is taking place.’

If Roe can get the same sort of results, and under conditions that leave no opportunity for critics to find experimental flaws, it may help to recapture some of the momentum that parapsychology has lost in the past few years.