Charles Darwin is going to be everywhere in 2009, it being the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th of the publication of The Origin of Species. So I thought I'd get my contribution in early.
The reason is, I've been thinking about that extraordinary poll published just before Christmas about state school science teachers' views on creationism. Apparently no fewer than 29% would like to see it taught in science lessons, alongside the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution. That's taught, not discussed, as if it had equal scientific standing. The milder view, that is should at least be discussed - and for merely suggesting which Professor Michael Reiss lost his job last summer as director of education at the Royal Society - was supported by a whopping 73%.
Even Richard Dawkins thinks it's defensible to mention it in a historical context, as a discredited theory. But teaching creationism as a rival theory to evolution, Dawkins adds, would be like teaching the stork theory alongside sexual procreation as an explanation of where babies come from.
That seems to me exactly right, if we're talking about the Genesis myth. My belief in psi puts me at odds with most scientists, but I've never had any argument with them about that: the idea that the Genesis myth might be factually true, in the face of all the evidence from geology and biology - and for that matter in preference to all the other equally colourful creation myths that human cultures have produced at different times - always seemed to me to be utterly bizarre.
But there are two big problems with this survey. One is that it doesn't distinguish the old-school kind of creationism with the more recent Intelligent Design, which at least talks in biological terms, however little seriously they are taken by most biologists. I guess most of the teachers who responded must have assumed that the latter was what was meant. That would make the poll result a bit less alarming: most people would see a difference between an idea which is scientifically dubious and one which is flat out nonsense.
But the poll also mentions creationism in the context of the origins of matter, which is something else again. The anthropic principle, the idea that the incredible fine tuning required to create a stable universe, with the conditions for sentient life, implies the existence of a Designer, may not be what most scientists think, but it's hardly controversial in the way that biblical creationism is. For teachers to want to discuss that in classes seems absolutely natural - in fact it would be surprising if they didn't.
So the poll is deeply misleading. With three different ideas bundled as one, we don't really know how many teachers think what, or the kind of danger they pose to impressionable young minds. All we have are a lot of scary headlines that reinforce the impression of creeping irrationalism and an imminent return to the dark ages. To me, that's what happens when scientists and science journalists, with all their natural prejudices, are allowed to determine the basis of the debate. It's a very obvious mistake, but in the original reports no one seemed to pick it up, because there's never any discussion about it - the distinctions aren't understood.
All this is relevant to psi, because parapsychology is viewed by scientists in exactly the same terms as creationism - as a dangerous and irrational pseudo-science, pursued by mavericks who scratch around for evidence to vindicate their religious preferences. Intelligent Design is the bigger target, benefiting as it does from the funding and evangelism that parapsychology conspicuously lacks. It's true, parapsychology might start getting unwelcome attention if moves to spread the teaching of it in British universities accelerate, but I think that's still some way off. In any case I can't see anyone going to court over it, as has happened with Intelligent Design.
There's a credibility issue here for psi advocates. Can they afford to let themselves be linked in the mind of the academic community with a knowledge movement which is transparently not scientific but religious? Or should they be actively striving to disassociate themselves from it?
I suppose that depends partly on what we actually think about Intelligent Design. Does it have any merit at all?
I was taken to task by psi skeptics recently for calling creationists skeptics of evolution - I suppose the Randi crowd were provoked by the idea that they could have the smallest thing in common with religious fanatics. But if you think about it, even if they are at opposite ends of the belief spectrum, they have similar tactics. My impression of Intelligent Design is that it tries to identify organisms that are too complex to have formed by natural selection. The classic one is the eye, but I've always found the Darwinist comeback convincing, as for instance in Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker. Evolution skeptics do just what psi skeptics do: search for weaknesses in the evidence that stop them from having to take the central claim seriously.
Following this line of thought, I actually think that parapsychologists have more in common with Darwinists than with creationists. Parapsychologists and Darwinists have each gathered a vast body of data, have classified and analysed its characteristics, and are more or less unanimous about its significance. Both are opposed by a small group of critics - debunking conjurors and psychologists in one case, scientists with fundamentalist convictions in the other - who think they have a better idea, and are applauded by a large community of believers - scientists and atheists in one case, traditional Christians in the other - who don't bother with the detailed arguments, but assume that the battle is being won on their behalf.
In scientific terms, of course, psi is utterly toxic to Darwinism: a brain that can somehow communicate with a particular brain some distance away - or in some cases the other side of the world - is not something that could have come about purely by natural selection. Something else is involved: Rupert Sheldrake's ideas about morphic resonance are a fascinating alternative, even if they leave a lot unexplained. But I don't sense that parapsychologists are keen to pick a fight with Darwinists about this, in fact rather the opposite: they tend to talk about a sixth sense having 'evolved' - as a warning mechanism, for instance.
But still, psi is a scientific claim, and has nothing to do with religion. Whatever their critics like to say, parapsychologists don't share the religious basis of creationism. They aren't 'mystagogues in search of a soul', in James Alcock's striking and fatuous phrase. Charles Tart has an interest in spirituality, but I don't think that's typical. I'm not aware of any obvious religious yearnings in psi experimenters like Charles Honorton, John Beloff, Dean Radin, Adrian Parker; or in field investigators like Ian Stevenson, Alan Gauld, Guy Lyon Playfair, William Roll, etc. It's just not something they talk about or seem particularly interested in. It's trying to get to grips with a natural phenomenon that motivates them.
Of course it complicates matters that psi is connected with spirituality and religious experience, and especially with the idea of survival of death. But it's difficult for hostile scientists to make the necessary distinctions here. I believe that most of them barely understand that psi is seen by many parapsychologists not to point to survival, but to provide an alternative explanation of psi phenomena.
Against that, it's hard to deny that however little parapsychologists are motivated by religion, psi does have potentially powerful religious implications. If it were ever acknowledged to be genuine by the scientific establishment we would be in an utterly changed intellectual environment. I don't mean that lots of thinking people would stop being agnostic or atheists, but it would hard for them to base these convictions on scientific certainties about the universe having a purely mechanist basis.
So, coming full circle, scientists are right to see parapsychology as a threat to the mechanist worldview that informs their thinking, and atheists are right to see it undermining secularity. But there is one more thing. The kind of religion that psi seems to encourage, for want of a better word, is not the creationist religion. Creationist beliefs and psi-type beliefs are the focus of two quite different strands of religious thinking. It's the difference between Bible thumping Christianity and New Age spirituality. Telepathy, spirit survival, and near-death experiences are all anathema to the evangelicals who tend to be gung-ho creationists, and their intolerance doesn't win them any friends in the opposite camp either.
There's a lot of stuff going on here, and I admit that much of it is just thinking out loud. So let's try to nail it down a bit.
First, it's becoming clear that the term 'creationism', as used by scientists and journalists, covers a spectrum of different ideas and beliefs. Until this is better understood there's going to be confusion about who thinks what, and how much it matters.
Second, parapsychology can suffer by association with creationism, and those of us who believe that psi is real need to decide where we stand. Does psi mesh with the idea that the universe was designed by an Intelligence? Should we be sympathetic to rival attempts to undermine the mechanist worldview? Or should we reject them as poorly evidenced and unconvincing?
Following on from this, are these two types of alternative 'knowledge' compatible with each other? If one is convinced by the intellectual arguments for ID, can one also accept the arguments for psi? Or would its very different religious implications rule that out? If psi ever becomes intellectually respectable, it's likely that ID will be too. In that case the knowledge community, presently united round a core idea, will be divided into hostile religious camps, each claiming to be backed by scientific evidence, and each promoting very different worldviews. An interesting, but rather disturbing thought.