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November 02, 2008


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I enjoyed this essay. I do believe that Martin Gardner and some other skeptics seem to wish always to be correct, and will go to unusual lengths to make it appear that they are. A case in point is the old chestnut regarding Thomas Edison's machine to communicate with the dead. Edison himself admits that the whole story was a joke. When I read an article written by Gardner repeating the joke as fact, I wrote to him and included a copy of a letter to me regarding this story from an archivist at the Rutgers Edison Papers Project/ National Park sevice, and copies of information generated by the project in which the story is addressed, and which included the fact that no one has come across any plans for such a machine, or any records, notes or letters pertaining to such a machine. Edison, convinced of his own genius, kept virtually every scrap of paper he'd written on, including grocery lists, etc. They are all now stacked in piles at Menlo Park and archivists are systematically going through these piles to conserve the papers and publish them. Not one of these fine people has ever found plans or records of such a device. However, in Gardner's retelling in his "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels" (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), he indicates on pg. 219 that I wrote to him and "enclosed material containing a passage from a New York Times interview...." Notice that Gardner levels the playing field here by selectively failing to mention that this "material" originated from the folks who ought to know--the very people who spend every day knee deep in Edison's papers! He then goes on to dismiss me and my "material" by citing an entry in a 1948 redaction of Edison's diary published by Dagobart Rune, which--to him--has more evidential weight than Edison himself in the New York Times interview in which he claimed his story was a joke, and the Edison Papers archivists! How's that for keen skeptical intelligence? I'm a long-time fan of Martin Gardner's; however, in this case I think the point is pretty clear: Gardner and the other "skeptics" sometimes walk on feet of clay, but never want that fact to be known. I do have to admit that I myself am a skeptic, and have to caution you that citing old records of hauntings is a tricky business if you know your way around the ins and outs of historical research. Most of these stirring and spectacular anecdotes fall apart pretty quickly when you take a close look at them. Anyway, thanks for the fun! Jesse Glass

Interestingly, it would be easy to write this same piece from a diametrically opposed viewpoint - that the nasty and corrosive responses of some psychic believers to criticism are due to fear that parapsychological effects are not real, confounded with a massive dose of cognitive dissonance. Anecdotes abound, for example, of psi researchers who were taken in by an admitted hoax but dogmatically refused to believe it. If the skeptics were to paint with a brush as broad as you have used, and portray all psi advocates as terrified of facing reality, I'm sure that you would (rightly) object to such a simple-minded generalization.

As for the ridicule, it seems to be par for the course. Perhaps you are more polite with your language, but the idea that parapsychologists and their supporters are less insulting to their critics is clearly implied in the above piece, and is also clearly shown to be wrong by the same text. Leiter is obviously intending to be insulting, for just one example.

What might be most insulting is your suggestion that cynics, climate-change denialists and creationists are the same sort of "skeptics" as Randi, Shermer, Gardener and the like. Creationists are not "evolution skeptics," they are evolution denialists with nothing but religious ideology to support their position. Such a comparison is at least as personal, divisive and rude as calling Randi a nitwit. But in only avoiding schoolyard-style name-calling (while still being a clear insult), it certainly is not a claiming of the moral high ground.

So, obviously this post is at best a double-edged sword. A much more interesting thesis might have been about why the voices (on both sides) are often seen as being nothing more than reactionary cynics, resorting to insult over substance. Undoubtedly, some are, but why? If it's better to communicate without taunts, why doesn't everyone do so? You couldn't, so what drove you to step over the boundary of rational, insult-free discourse?

"I'm going to wrap this up by suggesting that parapsychology could usefully devote a bit more time and resources to understanding how sceptics think, and making it part of its case."

I wholeheartedly concur. Please do make a concerted effort to understand how skeptics think. You might discover that, when you do, you will be disabused of much of your confusion... but not necessarily in the way you may intend.

For example, it might help if you could present a clear idea of what a skeptic is, rather than just hodgepodging groupings of various naysayers (hand-selected of course, to be depicted as universally mistaken) together and equating them all as one demonized group of opponents. From your discussion above, I cannot extricate what it is you mean by the word "skeptic," except that you seem to conclude that being one is a bad thing. Especially if one disagrees with you.

It seems you have a rather wordy, and frankly abusive, way of trying to posit some kind of conspiracy of mental and/or emotional illness on the part of people who disagree with you. A singularly uninventive way of vilifying and deriding the person, rather than dealing with the failings of your subject matter. What you seem to be calling for is for this method to be adopted as a means of battling critics on a rhetorical level. How precisely does one make "understanding how skeptics think....part of [your]cause[?]" Again, I wholeheartedly endorse understanding how skeptics think. It likely will have quite a different effect than you are anticipating though...

Just this style of rhetoric is precisely why we need an objective means for evaluation of claims. Hence methods of verification. Words are words. Evidence is evidence. What you have presented are a host of insulting, derogatory words attacking something you don't even have a clear idea of yourself. As such, your words are pretty much devoid of content.

Thanks for these interesting responses. I don't often hear from skeptics, so I'm glad of the chance to interact. I'll make it a separate post, and if you want we can take it from there.

Jesse - 'citing old records of hauntings is a tricky business if you know your way around the ins and outs of historical research. Most of these stirring and spectacular anecdotes fall apart pretty quickly when you take a close look at them.' I'd be interested to know what you're referring to here. The Borley case is the best one I can think of, and I know there are others. Hauntings I agree are difficult to substantiate.

But poltergeist cases are another matter, if they include a lot of eyewitness testimony, as they often do. The argument that such cases don't stand up to scrutiny when you look at them closely is itself suspect - the counter-claims about fraud and gullibility themselves often lacking substance, but taken at face value by debunkers.

I read this unsigned essay with great interest. Therein, I found a few canards of which I’d not previously heard. For example, I can assure the author that I, as a devoted skeptic but not a cynic, personally have no fear nor worry whatsoever that claimed psi phenomena might turn out to be real, as he thought might be the case with some. In fact,upon being presented with firm evidence establishing this wonderful circumstance, I would delight in trying to solve the modi operandi that might bring about telepathy, precognition, or other such phenomena.

The author writes: “Sceptics – identified as such from prior personality profiling – have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance.” Using that same standard, substitute “believers” for “sceptics,” and “higher” for “lower.” I believe this is properly described by an old saying involving interchangeable sauce for geese and ganders…?

The "It's the kind of thing I would not believe in even if it were true" statement is, to me, unforgiveable, and I cannot embrace that thought. I am a rationalist, and proper evidence will establish, for me, any claim. For the last decade, through the James Randi Educational Foundation, I have offered a one-million-dollar prize to any person who can establish that any paranormal, supernatural, or occult claim is true. The fact that no one has won this prize, nor even passed the preliminary stage of testing, either indicates that no one can do so, or that a suitable applicant has yet to apply. I prefer the latter possibility, though I admittedly have no belief in these wonders, because all that I’ve seen in my 80-plus years, have been the results of trickery or self-delusion.

The author also writes: “A great deal of what debunkers write in their books is not really researched at all closely, but simply lifted from earlier books.” In respect to this comment, I refer you to the geese-and-ganders sauce application mentioned above… I note, too, that the author quotes extensively from staunch believers, and expresses little – if any – doubt that they speak sooth.

True skeptics are always willing to be shown, as I am. And it may happen, though I note that none of the prominent figures of today such as Uri Geller have expressed any interest in accepting my challenge. That, in itself, speaks loudly to the skeptic. But then, Geller appears to be making a bid to tell all, since he now only accepts the designation “entertainer” or “showman,” not wanting to be described as “psychic.” What will the next phase of his newly-adopted stance involve, I wonder?

James Randi.

"Sceptics - identified as such from prior personality profiling - have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance. This, Harvey Irwin says, 'confirms an effect of attitudes on the occurrence of ESP, but also reminds of the adage that there are none so blind as those who will not see'. (An Introduction to Parapsychology, 1999, 99)"

Interesting. So all that money the CIA spent on remote viewing was truly wasted (even if the experiments had worked) because all Russia, Iraq, Iran, Korea, et al would need to do is spread a few sceptics around to seriously doubt the US could remote-view on them and, therefore, the US would not be able to remote-view.

I do agree though. I've always found my ability to fly is quickly curtailed as soon as anyone tries to watch :)

You cite the example of a woman calling 'the best dowser in the business' (how would anyone know?) to locate a missing harp. What is supernatural, paranormal or even unusual about indirectly being prompted to post flyers? Had it been James Randi she contacted (or any other rational person) he would have suggested this eminently sensible course of action in the first place. Immediately and for nothing. Do you read what you write, or is it just dictated by a dead Red Indian?

'You cite the example of a woman calling 'the best dowser in the business' (how would anyone know?)' - I suppose they'd look for the one that gets the best results, as with anything.

'What is supernatural, paranormal or even unusual about indirectly being prompted to post flyers?' Nothing at all, obviously. The paranormal bit is in knowing exactly which house in a large city to post them outside.

'Do you read what you write, or is it just dictated by a dead Red Indian?' A couple of guys from a skeptics site who commented at the top of this thread stayed to kick the ball around in a subsequent one, and after a somewhat ill-tempered start they had a productive discussion with other less skeptical visitors. Their original complaint was that despite my moderate language in this essay I was being no less insulting than the skeptics I criticise. I pointed out that there really is an important difference between engaging in debate and exchanging arguments than posting gratuitous abuse. Do check out Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's book Extraordinary Knowing. You may not agree with any or all of it, but you will at least see why this area of human experience is worth studying and debating.

Robert, I believe James (above) made a few interesting points that might interest you.

Thanks Nillin - I read it with interest.

James, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. I'd like to make one or two points, but perhaps best in a separate post.

I'll be interested in your reply. :P

Robert, even the poltergeists...in fact some of the best known cases. Jesse--Oh, and hello to Mr. Randi from Jess!

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  • ‘A brisk, bracing look at this continuing controversy, exhaustively researched .. a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in parapsychology and its critics.’
  • ‘‘Packed with accurate information while at the same time surprisingly engaging and fun to read.’
  • ‘‘This is one book that gives a completely objective review of skeptical debunking, and spells out in detail a clear pattern of chicanery which pervades a well-funded and organized campaign against all psi research.’

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  • ‘These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in.’ Alan Turing, computer scientist.

  • ‘I have noticed that if a small group of intelligent people, not supposed to be impressed by psychic research, get together and such matters are mentioned, and all feel that they are in safe and sane company, usually from a third to a half of them begin to relate exceptions. That is to say, each opens a little residual closet and takes out some incident which happened to them or to some member of their family, or to some friend whom they trust and which they think odd and extremely puzzling.’ Walter Prince, psychic researcher.

  • When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. Arthur C. Clarke

  • ‘Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’ Thomas Henry Huxley

  • We can always immunize a theory against refutation. There are many such immunizing tactics; and if nothing better occurs to us, we can always deny the objectivity – or even the existence – of the refuting observation. Those intellectuals who are more interested in being right than in learning something interesting but unexpected are by no means rare exceptions. Karl Popper, on the defenders of materialism.

  • If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run - and often in the short one - the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative. Arthur C. Clarke.

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