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Unbamboozling

There's a nice article on Leonora Piper by The Daily Grail's Greg Taylor this week.  It's a critique of Martin Gardner's essay "How Mrs Piper bamboozled William James", and is part of the latest Darklore compilation.

All three players in Gardner's piece - critic, bamboozler and bamboozlee - are highly significant in the context of psychic research. Gardner of course was a prolific and vocal sceptic, and for many people set the bar in denouncing quackery and pseudoscience. Piper was arguably the single most successful subject of investigation produced by early psychic research: the material certainly helped to convince me about the genuineness of mediumship. And it was William James who first discovered Piper and quietly supported the endeavors of psychic researchers - considering his enormous stature as an early pioneer of academic psychology, his interest in her, and in psychic research generally, is a matter of deep concern to sceptics.

So Gardner had quite particular reasons for needing to demolish the claims made for Piper. As an admirer of William James - and who isn't? - it was important to him to explain why James was not really to blame for this odd aberration. There's a hint of ancient prejudices here: the essentially blameless man beguiled by a wicked woman. Although one would not suspect it from his writings - and I only found out some time later - Gardner was a religious believer motivated as much by Western theism as by scientific 'rationality', arguing that 'only the faithless look for signs'. 

Gardner's essay has been influential, and I think covers the main weak points of the Piper material, including the doubts about 'controls' like Phinuit and the hostile investigation carried out by Hall and Tanner.  But to anyone who knows about the research it's pretty tendentious stuff. As Taylor documents, he really doesn't seem that familiar with it. He's only interested in William James, and seems not have understood that James was only peripherally involved; the real work was done by Richard Hodgson, who had previously shown deep scepticism about mediums, and by other researchers.

Personally, I don't buy the idea that James did not understand mediums' methods of 'cold reading' and the like. As for Gardner's claim that the information she provided can be explained in those terms, that doesn't stand up to a thorough reading of the text. (I argued this point in Randi's Prize, providing some actual examples, if you're interested you can check them out in the Look Inside facility on the book's Amazon page -  it's in Chapter Three, pp, 111-128)

Read Greg's piece too - it's detailed and well argued. But there's no substitute for reading the actual research, some of which is available here. If you do, I'd be interested to know what you think.

[This post also appears on my new website Randi's Prize]


Randi's Prize: the blog of the book

Randi's Prize is available to buy now in the UK (£8.99). For readers in the US and elsewhere I've been working on digital versions for iPad and Kindle, which will be ready quite soon.

You might like to check out the companion website -  www.randisprize.net. It's a work in progress, but there's enough of it to be viable. There's excerpts of the book, which should give an idea of how I'm tackling the subject (you can also browse on the Amazon page).

The main idea is to provide a facility for readers to check out the research I mention. There are links to relevant sources, and some of the primary sources as well (the papers on Leonora Piper are particularly interesting). I'll blog about the book's progress, and reply to feedback, discuss queries, etc.

The site also showcases the catalogue of the Society for Psychical Research, which is well worth looking at and which I'll discuss in a post on the website shortly.

Feedback welcome. You may spot errors, or have ideas about links and material that could be included.

Clearly, running two separate blogs on the same subject is not ideal, but I'm going to have more time to write now, so I'll see how it goes.

 


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.