Randi's Prize
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Book review: Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?

There's a new book of essays out, by prominent names on both sides of the debate. It's called Debating 51A1Jmp1StL._SL500_AA300_
Psychic Experience: Human potential or human illusion, edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman, with contributions by, among others, Dean Radin, James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Chris Carter.

I'm going to review it for a journal but it's been sitting around for a while. Truth is, I wasn't looking forward to it - I've read these sorts of 'debate' books before (eg Psi Wars edited by Alcock) - and I'm not sure how much good they do. The sceptics are better read in their natural habitat, like the Skeptical Inquirer, than being all polite and condescending in the presence of the opposition.

The parapsychologists meanwhile are often like the nerds sucking up to the bullies in the playground.  Bob Morris, late head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh, bent over backwards to see the sceptics' point of view, as did his predecessor John Beloff. Fair enough, but I thought Beloff trying to convince sceptics about Eusapia Palladino was a bit optimistic, and they just seemed bemused (who is this person?).  I especially objected when Beloff wanted the rest of us to be nice to sceptics. He reviewed Nicolas Humphrey's Soul Searching - a travesty even by sceptics' standards - in the SPR Journal, and conceded that many readers might find it a bit ripe, but sternly advised them to "swallow their resentment". Gaah.

This book's good though, and I can recommend it.  I snoozed gently through the essays by Alcock and Hyman, who reprised their positions. Alcock kicked off with that quotation from Alice about ' six impossible things before breakfast' - also used by sceptic Lewis Wolpert as the title for his recent-ish book - which tells us what we already know about where they are coming from: this stuff can't happen, so it probably doesn't. Criticism of lack of repeatability and  methodological weaknesses seemed to Alcock to be 'very reasonable', and if parapsychologists were truly interested in pursuing the truth then they should at least acknowledge this. 'It reflects a triumph of hope over experience', he says, 'that so many have continued to devote themselves to parapsychological research over such long periods of time despite both the absence of theoretical or empirical progress and the continuing rejection by mainstream science'.

Then Hyman ditto: methodological flaws, meta-analyses unreliable, inconsistencies in data, etc, etc... Then Chris French, who actually was quite interesting in defence of his moderate brand of scepticism (I'll come back to that another time).  Then Michael Shermer, describing his experience of pretending to be psychic for a day.

It was when Chris Carter came on that I woke up. Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics is the first book in recent times that I can recall that tackles hardline disbelief head on, and is a bracing read. He has a new book out on near-death experiences, which I'm halfway through, and which is also excellent.  This essay is a forceful statement of the problems with the claims made by Hyman, Alcock and Wiseman - the three most vocal and articulate sceptics of parapsychology. He provided direct evidence that negates their claims, for instance that consistent replicable evidence has been provided, but also pointing out the historical dimension to this (with which I wholeheartedly agree) - the critics can't accept the data because it interferes so seriously with the prevailing materialist paradigm.

Then the rebuttals. Alcock and Hyman seemed affronted by Carter. They hated the idea that anyone might for one moment consider them biased. Sceptics were prepared to consider that psi might exist, but parapsychologists were not so open-minded, Alcock claimed: they were not even prepared to entertain the possibility that it might not exist. But really, why on earth should they? Why would anyone investigate something they weren't really sure existed? It's the sceptics who have a problem with this.

Hyman was peeved at Carter's 'unfounded accusations' (Carter had criticised him for his role in the notorious 1987 National Research Council investigation into techniques of enhancing human performance, in which he gave parapsychology the thumbs down, and for his attempts to nix the ganzfeld data). What's wrong with materialism, or wanting to defend it, he demanded.  When Hyman gets rattled he blathers. Given that his time and space were not unlimited, he said, he would restrict his comments to Carter's provocative opinions, rather than also try to address Dean Radin's, but he didn't restrict himself all that much. He devoted a lot of space to defending his role with the NRC, and in particular to defending Alcock, who he had appointed to help him. Alcock's conscientiousness in checking the data surely made him the ideal man for the job.

There's an odd lack of self-awareness here. Can Hyman really not see that a judgment about parapsychology delivered by two CSICOP stalwarts, personally dedicated to denying psi's existence - Hyman had recently helped get a Pentagon funded parapsychology project at Stanford cancelled - would not be universally recognised as fair and impartial? It astonishes me that he seems surprised about this.

In fact it's difficult to read about the NRC report without gasping at the sheer chicanery of it. A psychologist, Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University, a world-renowned expert in evaluating controversial research claims in the social sciences, should have been a valued member of the investigation. He concluded that of the five areas under discussion, only the ganzfeld ESP studies met the basic requirements of sound experimental design. He concluded that the studies under review had demonstrated a 1 in 3 result where 1 in four would be expected by chance (as has generally been demonstrated ever since). Yet Rosenthal was pressured to withdraw these findings, and although he refused they were left out anyway.

Dean Radin made an elegant reply to Hyman and Alcock, demolishing their claims of lack of repeatability with a summary of the research. (He provided a handy update and clarification of the meta-analysis controversy, which I might come back to in another post). Radin pointed out, as did Carter, that the worldview that the critics seemed intent on trying to protect had long disappeared.  Far from there being something "horribly and fundamentally in error in physics and biology and in neuroscience" (Alcock's phrase), the reality predicated by quantum mechanics seems positively to demand the kind of anomalies that psi throws up.

Michael Shermer. What to say? He bamboozled five women by pretending to be psychic. He finds it "insidiously insulting" to think that charlatans are routinely duping people into thinking their deceased loved ones have survived death. I don't think anyone seriously denies that people can be duped by clever charlatans, but it doesn't prove anything. This sort of stunt reinforces prejudices, but has nothing to do with scientific investigation.

As I say, I haven't finished the book yet, but I'm glad to see that there's a contribution by Damien Broderick, whose Outside the Gates of Science I reviewed here a year or two back, plus essays by other people I haven't come across before. A bit pricey (£31.95), but a readable and engaging update on the debate, and a good resource, so definitely worth trying to get hold of. I'll be sure to mention it again. 

Comments

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> There's an odd lack of self-awareness here.

I'll say. Not one criticism of a parapsychologist here. Hmmm...

"The parapsychologists meanwhile are often like the nerds sucking up to the bullies in the playground."

Sounds like a criticism to me...

I don't really think that someone who doesn't devote a lot of time to a subject ever becomes anything more than a half-informed amateur.

In my own field, at least, the opinions of that type of person are usually completely uninformed and heavily loaded with traditional (and incorrect) lore that bears no resemblance on the current state of the field as it's understood by those who live in it.

This is what I see when materialists debate something they neither care about nor believe in. It's a waste of time to pay much attention to such people if your intent is to really understand a subject, it's a waste of time to try to convert them, and it counterproductive to give them any credibility by discussing what concerns them.

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