Trip Down Memory Lane
Rational Mysticism ?

The Illusionists

Thanks to Greg at The Daily Grail for drawing attention to Richard Wiseman's article on magicians and the paranormal, which I'd missed.  Some magicians - Randi, Penn and Teller, Paul Daniels, etc - are so obnoxiously loud about their disbelief in psychic phenomena, it creates the impression that they all think the same way. Not so, according to Wiseman, himself a former professional magician, who polled professional and semi-professional conjurors around the world. A quarter of his sample of more than 400, he says, believe in the reality of telepathy, precognition or psychokinesis

In fact there have been, and continue to be, conjurors who have experienced psychical incidents they can't explain, and are quite happy to go on record about it. The famous nineteenth-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was famously gobsmacked by the psychic Alexis Didier - a fact that Harry Houdini apparently didn't know when he named himself after him, and he was disgusted when he later found out. There's also a rather little known fact about JN Maskelyne, the Randi of the nineteenth century séance era as he is portrayed in debunking books. The sceptics describe, as historical fact, that the phenomenon of table-turning was explained away by the scientist Michael Faraday, although it plainly wasn't, as even a glance at the documented reports would confirm. Another fact, but one I think you will never learn from the sceptics' books, is that Maskelyne himself tried it out, got a result, and publicly avowed it to be a genuine psychic phenomenon, and not at all accounted for by Faraday's suggested mechanism.

Wiseman himself draws attention to the fact that magicians earn their bread by making things disappear. His point is simply that they will be far less likely to believe paranormal claims, because they understand how tricks can be done. Of course, but what's less well understood is that one of the things they make disappear is any evidence of paranormal phenomena. That's the illusion they create.  It's comical to see scientists like Richard Dawkins elevating practitioners like Randi to the status of experts, when all they are doing is selectively reviewing data to make their audience think what it suits them to believe - a classic case of distraction and misdirection.

The literature is simply stuffed with examples of this process in action - sceptics lapping up pretty much anything these self-appointed experts feed them, without any real attempt at critical thinking, all the while imagining that they are being heroically clever. It's an absolute mirror image of the 'devious charlatan duping gullible believer' scenario.

It's true of almost any episode that conjuror-sceptics have been involved in, but one that comes instantly to mind is Randi's debunking article of the Columbus, Ohio poltergeist, the case of Tina Resch. When this started getting international publicity Randi was asked to check it out by Paul Kurtz who had just founded the CSICOP. He hastened to the scene, only to find that the family would not let him in. No matter - he got some negative gossip from jaded reporters, who hadn't managed to see the spook in action, and cobbled together a debunking article. This is printed in Kendrick Frazier's anthology Science Confronts the Paranormal, and is one of very few sources that sceptics cite. The piece centres on a forensic dissection of a news photograph supposedly showing the spook in action. What sceptics don't really understand it that that's pretty much all it does - Randi didn't see anything at first hand, or interview anyone who had. Yet they typically consider his article utterly damning, not just of this case but of the whole category.

Wiseman has none of Randi's aggressiveness thankfully, but he's not above this sort of misdirection himself. He used to be involved with the Society for Psychical Research, and years ago sparked a furious controversy about the Italian séance medium Eusapia Palladino. His argument, laid out in the SPR journal with a good deal of brio, was that the report of the SPR's Naples investigation in 1908 - as complete an endorsement of séance phenomena as can be imagined - was actually riddled with holes. He proposed that Palladino had an accomplice, probably her husband, who had previously contrived to create a movable panel in the wall, through which he clambered at an opportune moment, and then managed to create much of the 'phenomena' behind a curtain. Wiseman's point is that the report does not provide the explicit detail to rule this out. You'd have to know a bit about the circumstances to grasp how utterly implausible this is - it would not have worked for five minutes. But if you don't, it's easy to be taken in by Wiseman's assurance and self-belief.

Actually I don't think there's any real harm done in this particular case - the claims regarding Palladino are hardly affected. On the other hand Wiseman's intervention in the case of Rupert Sheldrake's psychic dog Jaytee is surely as dubious a piece of chicanery as anything that Randi has carried out. On the basis of four rather poorly thought-out experiments he claimed to have debunked media claims that the dog always knows exactly when its owner is coming home. This wasn't hard to do, but he failed to acknowledge that Sheldrake himself had never claimed this, and was instead pointing to a suggestive statistical correlation established in 117 experiments (they showed the dog spending only an average of 4% of the time waiting by the window during the main period of his owner's absence and 78% while she was returning). Close scrutiny, if sceptics were capable of such a thing, would show that Wiseman has utterly misrepresented this episode - but of course they are happy to take his word for it. (See Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics for a summary).

A few days ago I questioned Susan Blackmore's slightly contradictory attitudes, and in the same way, I'm not always sure where Wiseman really stands. He's a charming fellow, and not obviously fired by hostility to the paranormal - he once told me he finds it good fun, and course he's done quite well out of it. Unlike Randi he is capable of nuanced thinking, and seems impressed by some of the ganzfeld work for instance.

Nor is there really any point in complaining about what sceptics do. They are addressing their audience and meeting its expectations.  As stage magicians always say, some people really like being deceived. It's up to those of who us who think that this is more than just a game to expose the tricks for what they really are.

Comments

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Very interesting post. Very interesting.

Part of the problem is though that it's always the obnoxious people who stand out in a crowd. Sheldrake can be as quietly dignified as he likes, but Randi and Dawkins will always be more noticeable to the press.

What do you do? Fight fire with fire?

Hi Robert,

We seem to getting into a bit of a dialogue lately - I just posted a couple of days ago about your comments on the Blackmore-Hofmann eulogy.

I've written previously about some of Wiseman's research:

* Hampton Haunting Debunked?
http://dailygrail.com/node/5506

* X-Ray Skepticism
http://dailygrail.com/node/1357

* Doing Some Research Helps...
http://dailygrail.com/node/5653

* Wiseman Rebutted on the Fielding Report.
http://dailygrail.com/node/636

Perhaps Randi makes it easy for us - he's obnoxious and so we keep our eye on him. Wiseman is altogether more friendly, but probably needs to be treated with as much skepticism as the paranormal topics he covers...

Keep up the great work!

Kind regards,
Greg

I am german person, who is attending a seance weekly. We are allordinary people, now medium is attending our settings. We are able to induce strong table movements in a historical design. We have a blog (http://felixcircle.blogspot.com/), where some of our experiences are discussed. We witnessed vertical table movements and most interestingly apports (e.g. a rusty hook) and writing messages. Unfortunately we are not able to control the settings for these esoteric experiences. There is a nice report about the famous Philip group, where sceptics like C.C. French and open-minded researchers like Stephen Braude discuss these phenomena. I can say for my own experiences that we can rule out fraud (Iknoe all sitters well, no professional medium is attenting), but at the end it is a kind of belief.
For the Naples report I highly recommend the book of Stephen Braude,where he intensively discussed the view of Wiseman. Here is a video with some English explanations of the experiences of our circle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPheLi2b0ds&feature=related.
BTW beautiful blog.

Have you read Jonathan Margolis's very good book Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic? (Link below) In brief, he began an interest in Geller to prove to his son that Geller had been debunked - and found to his dismay that it was not true. He eventually met Geller and finally came to write a biography of him very different than what he imagined.

In addition to highly recommending it, Margolis talks with several magicians who knew and endorsed Geller. He also points out that in polls, acceptance of Psi was very high among professional magician associations. Acceptance levels in these organizations declined however when membership was opened to non-professionals. I don't have the book in front of me and can't find the exact references, but he speculates that debunking attitudes led to skeptics seeking out magician organizations - and NOT that being familiar with magician's tricks led to members becoming skeptics.

Anyway, it is not surprising that acceptance is higher among magicians than the propagandists pretend. In fact, a very good book can be written about the more balanced history of professional magicians involvement with Psi. (For example, there roles in setting and testing scientific protocols, etc.) Hell, maybe I'll write it...

The link to the Geller book:
http://www.amazon.com/Uri-Geller-Magician-Jonathan-Margolis/dp/1566490251/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1210547855&sr=1-4

Several comments --

*As I remember it someone (John Beloff?) had issued a challenge for a naturalistic explanation that was consistent with the events detailed in the report. Wiseman's resulting paper was delivered at a PA meeting. When he was questioned about it, Wiseman was open about the possibility that the explanation might be unlikely given more general information, but that he was only responding to the challenge as presented. Beloff (if it was he) stood up and conceded that his challenge had been met, though he didn't feel that the solution was terribly realistic.

*Wiseman is a hard one to pin down. In direct discussions he is frequently agreeable about paranormal possibilities but his public persona, while friendly and affable is quite hard line. At times I feel that he does this to an extent that crosses the line of academic ethics (does he ever admit in writing, to the media, or in front of Skeptics groups that the Palladino scenario might not be terribly likely in practice, I wonder?). For example, a number of years ago he investigated the auto-ganzfeld experiment from the viewpoint of asking if the results might be explained by finding a series of explanations that are just barely plausible according to conventional science. He did a quite heroic recovery of detailed data from the experiments and found what he felt was a qualifying series of assumptions not strictly ruled out by the available data.

Before publication in the Journal of Parapsychology I suggested to him that if we give each of his "assumptions" the standard value for the extreme edge of plausible in experiments (1% -- though I thought that he actually had some additional highly unlikely assumptions and several of his existing ones were far less than a 1 in a 100 shot) that the overall likelihood of his explanation was roughly at the same p-value as the statistical outcome of the experiments -- in other words, that it was no more likely than an astronomically unlikely coincidence (I don't remember -- maybe 10^16 to 1). I suggested that if such a thorough investigation as his couldn't come up with a more likely explanation that that, that this was actually a rather strong validation of the experiment. He agreed with my reasoning but pointed out that the conclusion was only that he had had to go to a great deal of trouble to obtain the data he used and that the field should be more careful about recording details (given that the lab had been dismantled, the principle researcher was deceased and the other researchers scattered, I doubt that there would be many experiments in any field that would have faired better, but "nobody does this very well" does not mean we shouldn't try to do better).

It shouldn't surprise anyone, I suppose, that essentially the same paper later appeared with a different -- more Skeptical -- conclusion and no mention of the point he easily conceded to me.

* The survey doesn't seem worth anything at all scientifically. This is an invitation to self-selection by those who feel that they have a "cause" to promote. Experience suggests that among magicians that attitude would be much more likely in the vehement, "Randi is God, and the paranormal is trash" crowd. Depending on the unspecified places he published it, he may have underrepresented "psychic entertainers" who are both the most knowledgeable and have been, in previous surveys, the most pro-psi. If Wiseman (who is widely seen as anti-psi) had his name associated with the survey then this will add a further anti-psi bias to the sample. This survey violates the basic principles of scientific poll-taking that it is completely meaningless.

I'm sure you know all this, but there have been a good few other magicians convinced of the reality of psychical phenomena. Howard Thurston, W.W. Baggally, Hereward Carrington, Harry Price, (probably) Eric Dingwall, Will Goldston etc.

It's a great pity more magicians didn't sit with D. D. Home. Bosco was impressed but only upon being told of the effects produced. I vaguely recall reading something about one of Houdin's students attending a seance with him and being baffled. Harry Price also expresses some doubt in the intro to the very good book "The Heyday of a Wizard" about a certain effect of Home's; the relighting of a gas jet numerous times (apparently an old trick). Well off track I have gone...

As for Wiseman, I think he's basically a very dogmatic doubter, but tones it all down so as not to appear shrill (and that would be additionally bad for his efforts at cultivating his role as a kind of celebrity psychologist). To my mind his proposed explanation for the Naples sittings are profoundly specious and the respondents in the JSPR (Fontana, M.R. Barrington etc.) were right on the money in their responses.

It so insults those great, brilliant men; Feilding, Carrington and Baggally, and I find it impossible that you can read them and yet reach a conclusion that they were so incompetent as to not notice confederates or specially made door panels! And then what of situations where Eusapia was further isolated? Are we supposed to believe that during the Ile Roubaud sittings she hoodwinked Lodge or the island's lighthouse-keeper or somebody to play along?! Must be hard recruiting stooges Europe-wide when you only speak Neapolitan, no? Perhaps she hid a dwarf in her dress or brassiere. (That last sentence is me playing the desperate denier.)

I'm sure you know all this, but there have been a good few other magicians convinced of the reality of psychical phenomena. Howard Thurston, W.W. Baggally, Hereward Carrington, Harry Price, (probably) Eric Dingwall, Will Goldston etc.

It's a great pity more magicians didn't sit with D. D. Home. Bosco was impressed but only upon being told of the effects produced. I vaguely recall reading something about one of Houdin's students attending a seance with him and being baffled. Harry Price also expresses some doubt in the intro to the very good book "The Heyday of a Wizard" about a certain effect of Home's; the relighting of a gas jet numerous times (apparently an old trick). Well off track I have gone...

As for Wiseman, I think he's basically a very dogmatic doubter, but tones it all down so as not to appear shrill (and that would be additionally bad for his efforts at cultivating his role as a kind of celebrity psychologist). To my mind his proposed explanation for the Naples sittings are profoundly specious and the respondents in the JSPR (Fontana, M.R. Barrington etc.) were right on the money in their responses.

It so insults those great men; Feilding, Carrington and Baggally, and I find it impossible that you can read them and yet reach a conclusion that they were so incompetent as to not notice confederates or specially made door panels! And then what of situations where Eusapia was further isolated? Are we supposed to believe that during the Ile Roubaud sittings she hoodwinked Lodge or the island's lighthouse-keeper or somebody to play along?! Must be hard recruiting stooges Europe-wide when you only speak Neapolitan, no? Perhaps she hid a dwarf in her dress or brassiere. (That last sentence is me playing the desperate denier.)

"...a very good book can be written about the more balanced history of professional magicians involvement with Psi"

George Kaplan's 'The Trickster and the Paranormal' has quite a lot on this - as a psi investigator (lab and field) and a conjuror, he has a good perspective.

That would be George Hansen, Cat.

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