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Christmas Giveaway!

Santa will be delivering shed-loads of iPads and Kindles this Christmas, and it could be the moment when the whole e-book thing really takes off.  Getting into the spirit of the thing, I'm offering readers a free e-book of Randi's Prize.

(Randi's Prize is my recently published book looking at a variety of psychic phenomena, with particular focus on explanations put forward by sceptics like James Randi, Richard Wiseman, Ray Hyman and others.  More at www.randisprize.net and www.amazon.com.)

Just send me an email with 'e-book' in the subject heading, then your name, your country, and whether it's for reading on a Kindle or iPad or whatever, and I'll attach the appropriate file (robertmcluhan@gmail.com).

If you don't have a physical e-reader, you can read it on a PC or Mac via Adobe Digital Editions. This is free to download and takes about a minute. ADE reads the epub format. Just click on the file and it should open automatically.

Why am I giving away books? That's something I've been asking myself recently. If people who would have bought it anyway get it for free, then surely I'm robbing myself.

Not necessarily. Authors and publishers have been doing it for a while. The consensus is that distributing digital content for free boosts sales of the print version.  E-readers are great - they are convenient, and e-books are lightning quick to get hold of - but a lot of people still prefer to read paper books, including me.

Intuitively I feel this is the way to go. I'm pleased with the book, and I think it says something important. Psychic functioning is an aspect of consciousness, part of the human condition. We need to face up to that and move on. But instead, we are persuaded to ignore it. Sometimes through reasoned arguments, sure enough, but more often  by means of heated denunciation, sly evasion and pseudo-explanations.

Nothing new here for Paranormalia readers, although I hope they will find something of interest in the way my arguments are put together.  My real ambition is to reach those people - agnostics, for the most part - who haven't thought much about these things at all.  I'd like to start a conversation, and I hope that getting the material out there will help get it going.

The offer will be open until demand picks up, which I expect will take a while. If you like the book, then please talk it up, mention it on Facebook, etc.  If you feel moved to write a short review for Amazon, then even better!

If you think you might write a review for your blog or other publication, let me know, and I'll send a print copy.

If you decide to purchase a print copy, then great! It's easily available through Amazon in the UK and through UK bookshops. See here for options for buying from the US and elsewhere.

Enjoy!


A Godless Good Book

Grayling A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher, has written a Secular Bible. It's coming out in the Spring. According to today's Sunday Times it's loosely based on the Old and New Testaments, replacing the familiar bits with modern secular variants. (I'd give the link, but Mr Murdoch wants us to pay for it).

So Grayling's Genesis starts with an apple falling in Newton's garden. His Ten Commandments offers a new set of priorities, eg 'Think for Yourself', 'Do Your Utmost' and 'Love Well'. There's a Book of Songs instead of a Book of Psalms.

Grayling says he's imitated the Bible in weaving together a series of different text, in this case going to the great works of philosophy, history and literature in both west and east. 'There is absolutely not one occurrence of the word God, soul, afterlife or religion,' he says proudly.

I first came across Grayling through a little weekly column he ran in the Guardian years back, a potted discursion on abstract themes (nationalism, death, sorrow, history, etc). I thought they were really good, and always looked forward to them.  His books don't appeal so much - find them rather dry, and there's something rather joyless about his strident atheism.

Is a Secular Bible a good idea? Intuitively I doubt whether much can come from a book born from a negative impulse.

I'm sure many atheists and secularists read inspirational literature without worrying about references to 'God' and 'soul', etc. But this sounds as though it's been put together to spare their delicate sensibilities, for fear that their skins will come out in a rash if they come across religious words.

Still, I could be wrong. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.


Astroturfing

Randi's Prize has just picked up a one-star review on Amazon UK under the heading, 'Not Worth a Cent'. It's quite short, so here it is verbatim: 

About the most paranormal thing about this book is that anyone would wish to write it or buy it. But science has an explanation for that.

Obviously the Million Dollar challenge irritates belivers in the paranormal - but that doesn't make it bad.
The prize is open, honest and easily winnable by anyone with genuinely para-normal powers.

No one would be more delighted than Randi if the prize was won - think about it - he'd getb the Nobel prize for proving telepathy, teleporting or whatever really existed.

As a response this book attacks the man (James Randi)misrepresents the nature of the challenge and 'knocks down' arguments that haven't been made. For example - skeptics do not dispute that out of body experiences are real phenomena - it's just they have a sensible explanation that doesn't rely on goobledy-gook.

So if you want to understand the world - read a book by James Randi - if you want to waste your time - read this one.

I'm sure anyone who's genuinely interested in the subject will recognise this for what it is.  It would be a concern, though, if there was a lot of it and it started to influence potential readers.  

And it's easy to do. This guy hasn't read the book - he's just clocked the title and the blurb, and perhaps browsed a few pages.  Anyone can do it. That's what we're up against.

George Monbiot, an environmentalist, writes in the Guardian today about astroturfing - the practice of organisations faking 'spontaneous grassroots' campaigns.  He writes:

I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it's a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible - which appears to be the point.

Know what he means. Not that I have that problem here; those of us who write about psi are fine as long as we stick to our quiet backwaters. But as soon as we stick our necks out in a widely accessible public forum the trolls turn up in force. (There was a classic example of this in a Guardian piece by Caroline Watt.)

Alex Tskaris laments the huge amount of attention he has been getting for Skeptico podcasts on the customer review pages in the App Store, a lot more than even some popular mainstream products - most of them relentlessly negative.

Some of these attack threads do seem to be organised, Monbiot suggests. He quotes from a covertly-recorded session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority, with the trainer instructing Tea Partiers how to "manipulate the medium":

Here's what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in 'Liberal books'. I go through and I say 'one star, one star, one star'. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars ... This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in 'Movies on healthcare', I don't want Michael Moore's to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click ... If there's a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That's how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.

I don't think psi-sceptics are organised in this way, but they can easily mob their perceived enemies. They don't have to debate, or even read the book or article - just click and blather.

I know that Amazon have been getting flak about customer reviews with an axe to grind, and I think it may be possible to apply to get obviously biased ones removed. It's something I need to check out. 

But hey, it's not a perfect world.  Defending themselves from digital attack is something that authors are more and more going to have to get used to - the price of trying to reach a wide audience. A bit like travelling to some exotic location, marvelling at the scenery, and at the same time having to beat off the mosquitoes.


Small World

This news item caught my eye yesterday. It concerns a British motorist in New Zealand who was stopped by a policeman and given a ticket for speeding. The man had only ever been booked once before, two years earlier in London, and as it turned out... by the same policeman. (How they laughed).

I'm never sure how much attention to pay to these odd coincidences. A few days ago I met a friend to give her a copy of my book and, as often happens, she then described various stories of her own. One involved a friend who left her purse on the bus and phoned the local police station to see if it had been handed in. Apparently she dialled the wrong number, as the phone was answered by a small girl who immediately went to fetch her mother. Out of politeness, she then found herself explaining that she had been trying to ring the police station about a lost purse. How curious, the mother said; she was just about to go down there herself to hand in a purse she had found on a bus. And yes, it was the same purse. Another detail: the two phone numbers were not at all similar, so it could not have been a simple misdial. 

This sounded so like an urban myth that I pressed my friend about its veracity. No question, she said - both women were totally shocked and have been talking about it ever since. And I suppose that's the whole point about amazing coincidences: they sound so made up. Perhaps some urban myths are founded in fact.

Sceptics think that most people pay far too much attention to coincidences. Richard Dawkins has a rather sniffy section on it in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, which I mention in passing in my book.  Before we start proclaiming some mystical meaning, he argues, we ought to quietly sit down and work out the odds, which we would probably find weren't that high, and then we wouldn't be so amazed. 

The standard example is the birthday paradox. Sceptics believe - whether rightly or wrongly I have no idea - that people in a class are completely bowled over to find they share a birthday with someone else; in fact, they point out, the odds against this are merely two to one in a class of 23. But they don't often talk about cases that really are amazing. I don't know exactly how you would work out the odds in the purse example, but I assume it would be calculated on the basis of telephone numbers and women with purses on buses, and would necessarily be quite high, even in a small community.

It would be a dull world if synchronicities like this didn't happen, and intuitively one somehow feels that they should - whether or not they have any significance.  Some of the best ones are described here - I especially like the coincidence of a comic strip character called Dennis the Menace, featuring a young scallywag in a red and black striped shirt, who debuted at exactly the same time in newspapers in the US and the UK, but in each country was created by different people who denied any connection with each other.

I'm sure a sceptic would argue that actually there was some causal connection in a case like this, which we would uncover if we could go back in time and carry out a thorough investigation. That can't be discounted.  On the other hand, in the absence of definitive disproof, we can't really be blamed for finding such things curious and meaningful.


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

My father died recently, aged 93. An old soldier, veteran of Dunkirk.  He had very little mobility in his last year, and I moved down to Bath to look after him.

I was curious to experience the dying process.  Would there be any death bed visions or the like?

Well, he did hear music. He often called out to me during the night to make him more comfortable and once, quite near the end, it was to get me to turn off the gramophone. 'There is no gramophone,' I told him. He wasn't convinced: it was keeping him awake.  It was playing pop tunes from his childhood, American crooners of the 1920s (one was Paul Robeson, I forget the others). The same snatches of lyrics over and over: 'Home, home home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play.' Another was: 'The world is golden because you're in it.'

A couple of nights later it was a choir singing church music. He was puzzled about it, and decided it must be the girls boarding school over the road holding choir practice. I said, 'Dad, it's four in the morning.' He said, 'I know! So inconsiderate.' He was going to ring to complain, but by the next morning had no recollection.

One evening shortly after this he stated in quite a matter of fact way that he was feeling worried because he knew he was going to die the next day. Nonsense, I told him - as one does. I actually didn't believe it: there were no particular indications that he was going. But he died just as it was getting light. No visions, just restlessness and then quiet.

With hindsight I could have taken his certainty more seriously.  I might have been able to reassure him in a more useful way. I certainly couldn't have talked about death in the way that I do here, talking about survival of consciousness. If I ever mentioned such things he smiled indulgently and waited for me to stop. But on this occasion we might have had a conversation.

I recalled all this while listening to a talk by Peter Fenwick last week. Fenwick, a consultant neuro-psychiatrist has written one of the best books on NDEs, The Truth in the Light, co-authored by his wife Elizabeth, and the more recent Art of Dying, ditto.  Here he was talking about death bed visions, or end of life experiences as we apparently call them now, as observed by hospice carers (see examples here).

One thing that particularly struck me was how often people who experience visions at the moment of dying are said to 'suddenly sit up'. In the past I took this as a figure of speech, another way of saying that they 'brightened' or 'became alert'. But according to Fenwick they actually do suddenly sit up in bed, bolt upright, with a physical dexterity that they seemed long since to have lost.

Another main speaker was Michael Nahm, a biologist who as a sideline has done a study of 'terminal lucidity' or 'lightnings', where people emerge from coma just before dying. Some of these cases are quite dramatic. One recorded in 1934 concerned a young woman who had been severely retarded and disabled from birth, never learned to speak, moved only in uncontrolled spasms, and appeared to take no notice of her surroundings.  As she lay dying of TB we're told she suddenly started singing, 'Where does the soul finds its home, its peace? Peace, peace, heavenly peace,' repeating it over and over for half an hour before dying.

For some reason I find this harder to credit than the deathbed visions. If brain functions are severely impaired, where does the speech capability suddenly come from? And the memory? There are also some quite recent cases, including cases of patients with advanced Alzheimers in the hours and minutes before death suddenly recognising their relatives and chatting with them quite normally. Another similar occurrence involved a patient whose brain had been destroyed by a malignant tumor and had lost all ability to speak, spending the five minutes before dying chatting normally to family members.

Explanations? Fenwick and Nahm seemed to agree that physicalist accounts can't completely be ruled out. So we can't rush to call these 'lightnings' another nail in the coffin of physicalism, to use the sceptic's language. Also, it seems to me, the literature seems quite small and anecdotal, and it's hard to see how the phenomenon can be investigated (I'll track down the main references and post them here another day). If the vast amount of research data on near-death experiences hasn't changed perceptions then these certainly won't. But if they happen at all, that needs to be better documented and understood.