Science and the Séance
Subversive Interview

Sceptical Journeys

Sceptics are naturally interested in why people believe in things that don't exist. That's what Richard Wiseman writes about in his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which I'm half way through and hope to review here soon. But if psi phenomena is real then one might also ask why some of us can't believe things that do exist, why we don't see what is there. To me that's equally fascinating, yet entirely overlooked by sceptical psychologists, for obvious reasons.

The source for yesterday's post Science and the Séance was a 1985 book by Anita Gregory called The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. It's as lucid and informative book on a séance medium as you can find anywhere, and I can recommend it.

Gregory recalls first hearing about Rudi Schneider in a psychology lecture at Oxford in the late 1940s. The lecturer described to his startled students how he had once attended a séance with this young man, and had witnessed objects flying around in the air and a hand materializing out of nothing. They could disbelieve it all they wanted, he said, with extreme lack of tact, but he was a lot more qualified than they were and they should take his word for it. She remembers how she responded with "impatient contempt, a little tinged with pity".

How could a learned man believe such nonsense? And how could he bring himself to admit such absurd notions in public? Why didn't someone stop him from making such a fool of himself? I never entertained even for a moment the possibility that there could have been some real experience underlying his assertions.

So Gregory utterly dismissed Schneider and all his doings. She came up with no counter hypothesis. She didn't imagine the lecturer was insane or even that Schneider was an accomplished fraud or an exceptional hypnotists. She just rejected the whole thing as being "too utterly absurd to be worthy of further consideration".

A few years later she attended a conference where she met her future husband. She told him about the lecture and asked how it was possible that any serious person could believe such "balderdash"? What had gone wrong with this man? To her consternation he said he too had been to sittings with Rudi Schneider and seen the same things - objects flying around in the air without any ordinary cause. His companion also said he had seen it. They were both manifestly sane, and so she stayed and argued.

From reading the data on Schneider she subsequently became convinced that it was as they said. Over time, Gregory says, she came to regard her original position as a "rather childlike nineteenth-century type of faith in "science-as-I-imagine-it-to-be".

Also I have lost some of my passionate determination to believe in a universe that necessarily excludes even the possibility of any of the claims of religion. To put it crudely, when I was a student I thought that there could be no ghosts because a belief in ghosts was incompatible with science and suggestive of some of the most objectionable tenets of religion. Stated thus baldly, it looks naïve, but I did not then formulate my attitude explicitly.

We all go on different journeys, from different starting points. These sorts of conversions also happen in the opposite direction, with people who are avidly interested in paranormal phenomena turning against it when they discover the power of trickery and misperception.

But the mental process Gregory has described here must be quite widely experienced too. Paranormal believers aren't all the credulous types that populate the sceptical imagination: many have had their scepticism ground down by exposure to responsible scientific investigation that left no room for doubt. And when they encounter hostility because of their new beliefs they understand only too well what lies behind it.

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Robert – I have to take you up on a very important point. You say that sceptical psychologists overlook the possibility that people can also fail to see what actually is there. But here you are very wrong. The phenomenon you are referring to is known to psychologists (including Richard Wiseman), and is called “inattentional blindness.” It is not “overlooked for obvious reasons.”

It refers to the fact that people can easily fail to see things that are right in front of them. There might be research going on that relates to alleged paranormal phenomena, but at present there is certainly research going on into the practical aspects, for example in road safety, where drivers fail to see a pedestrian walk in front of them, or miss important road signs. There are important implications in many walks of life.

If you Google “inattentional blindness,” you will find nearly 39,000 results. There are also video tests that anyone can take, that demonstrate that people’s perceptions are nowhere near as good as they think they are.

The fact (for a fact it is) that people can miss things that are right in front of them is, I think, just the other side of the coin to “sensing” things that are simply not there. Both, I think, are relevant to psi research, but it certainly has not been overlooked or ignored by psychologists. One could argue that psi supporters themselves are ignoring such research for equally “obvious reasons.”

That explains why Wiseman concedes at least one form of the "paranormal" is proven if we use normal standards of scientific evidence.

Harley, of course. I have to write at speed so I sometimes fail to make important qualifications.

My point is that debunkers can't observe this process operating in their own perceptions of psychic claims - "for obvious reasons". If you can come up with examples of this then I really will be impressed.

btw, why is the importance of a fact or idea so often equated with the number of Google results that it produces? I just googled my name and found 268,000 results, but the vast majority have nothing to do with me.

Robert – the point of mentioning the Google search numbers was because of the way you phrased your comment about failure to see things that are there: “…entirely overlooked by sceptical psychologists.” I was pointing out that the phenomenon is known about, researched and not at all overlooked by sceptical psychologists. Some people may have gotten the impression that you were saying no one had thought of it before.

When you mention debunkers, I take that to mean denialists, not sceptics. You won’t change the mind of a denialist any more than you will change the mind of a gullible believer.

Sceptics have no special dispensation when it comes to misperception of various phenomena, although it is probably true that they are more aware of the problem than others, which is why they are sceptical of extraordinary claims to start with. Believers in paranormal phenomena have a tendency to see, maybe, an unfamiliar light in the sky and claim it is a UFO and exclaim, “I KNOW what I saw.” But sceptics like me can see a similar light in the sky and say, “What the hell’s that?” but without jumping to any conclusions that are not justified by limited – or no - information.

Whether a phenomenon is perceived but not really there, or an explanation is missed even though it is in plain sight, we are all subject to the possibility of being fooled – whether by someone else, or by our own senses. Some are fooled more easily than others, and some are unwilling to let go of cherished beliefs even when the evidence is against them.

Harley, you are confusing the issue.

Inattentional blindness is not what Robert is referring to in his post. Inattentional blindness is a term that refers to research showing that we can fail to consciously process perceputal inputs caused by lack of attention to those inputs. So it refers to processing of our immediate sensory environment.

What Robert is referring to is a cognitive blindness to information that conflicts with belief systems. That is quite different to inattentional blindness, but there will be some degree of overlap for sure.

So, Robert is correct when he says that research into "why we choose not to believe" is scarce to say the least. It is commonplace to find papers describing how believers in the paranormal behave in such and such a way. But it is very rare to find a paper describing how disbelievers/sceptics in the paranormal behave in similar circumstances. It's a very interesting research question, and would no doubt shed some light on the actions of so-called 'sceptical movements'.

Scepticofall – Robert was clear in what he said: “...why we don't see what is there.” Not seeing what is there is the other side of the coin to seeing what is not there. That phenomenon is, indeed, called inattentional blindness. I get the impression that Robert was using those words to argue that, maybe, some paranormal happening is somehow being missed by some observers. If a psychic performs a paranormal demonstration, I am sure I will see the same outcome as anyone else (a bent spoon, say) but I will not see something that needs a paranormal explanation.

You are right, of course, that there is “a cognitive blindness that conflicts with belief systems.” Some people believe – without confirmable, repeatable, testable evidence – that some psychics can communicate with the dead. As it happens, I am an experienced cold reader who sometimes gives demonstrations of cold reading, but with an ethical component – I make no bones about the fact that what I demonstrate has no psychic component whatsoever. And when I have completed such a reading I always explain to the person involved, in detail, how I managed to “tell them things I couldn’t possibly have known.” But the last time I did that, just a few months ago, the person involved looked at me and said, in all seriousness, “No. You ARE psychic; you’re in denial because you don’t WANT to believe.”

What was that you were saying about a cognitive blindness that conflicts with belief systems?

If you and Robert believe that people “choose” their beliefs, you are quite wrong. The research is, in fact, there. Try it for yourself. If you believe that the paranormal is real, then try to make a conscious effort to believe that it is bunk. Just “choose” the other option. The same goes for your political, moral, social, religious and other beliefs.

Let me know how you get on.

Harley said,

Scepticofall – Robert was clear in what he said: “...why we don't see what is there.” Not seeing what is there is the other side of the coin to seeing what is not there. That phenomenon is, indeed, called inattentional blindness. I get the impression that Robert was using those words to argue that, maybe, some paranormal happening is somehow being missed by some observers.

That’s not the impression that I got, but of course, we should let Robert clarify this particular point if he wishes to do so. Like I said before, inattentional blindness is about a failure to consciously process perceptual inputs due to lack of attention to those inputs. What I believe Robert was referring to was cognitive bias in interpreting the meaning of particular observations and experiences. After all, he did write “one might also ask why some of us can't believe things that do exist, why we don't see what is there”. So he is using the word “see” in a different context to the one you are implying. Also, read the context of the rest of his post. It is all about cognitive bias, not about failures of sensory perception due to lack of attention. Inattentional blindness really is a red herring.


If a psychic performs a paranormal demonstration, I am sure I will see the same outcome as anyone else (a bent spoon, say) but I will not see something that needs a paranormal explanation.

Yes, this might be an example of the kind of cognitive bias that Robert was talking about.


You are right, of course, that there is “a cognitive blindness that conflicts with belief systems.” Some people believe – without confirmable, repeatable, testable evidence – that some psychics can communicate with the dead. As it happens, I am an experienced cold reader who sometimes gives demonstrations of cold reading, but with an ethical component – I make no bones about the fact that what I demonstrate has no psychic component whatsoever. And when I have completed such a reading I always explain to the person involved, in detail, how I managed to “tell them things I couldn’t possibly have known.” But the last time I did that, just a few months ago, the person involved looked at me and said, in all seriousness, “No. You ARE psychic; you’re in denial because you don’t WANT to believe.”

This is a nice example of how people can adopt various strategies to cope with internal conflict, in this case denial (on their part not yours!). What is lacking is study of the behaviour and biases of people who identify themselves as ‘sceptics’ or ‘disbelievers’ in the paranormal and how they interpret certain experiences and observations. There has been some research on this though. Within academic psychology, some have argued that a ‘sceptical’ position on the paranormal actually amounts to a belief position (see here, http://dis.sagepub.com/content/11/5/543.abstract). As another example, we sometimes hear of research describing how believers in psi are more likely to ascribe meaningful connections to unrelated events, measured in some experimental context or whatever. But we rarely hear about the flipside; whether disbelievers in psi fail to meaningfully connect events where a connection really exists.


If you and Robert believe that people “choose” their beliefs, you are quite wrong. The research is, in fact, there. Try it for yourself. If you believe that the paranormal is real, then try to make a conscious effort to believe that it is bunk. Just “choose” the other option. The same goes for your political, moral, social, religious and other beliefs.
Let me know how you get on.

I’m not sure what you are trying to say or asking me to do here.

> When you mention debunkers, I take that to mean denialists, not sceptics.

This is an important point. Dogmatists insulate their beliefs from scrutiny by dishonestly conflating the honourable act of "taking out of the bunk" with the discreditable practice of denialism.

Scepticfall – you are probably right about this coming down to meanings. And perhaps Robert might want to be more specific. I’ve noticed that sometimes if I don’t pick my words with laser-like precision, some of the people here pounce on me at once. But “...why we don't see what is there” still seems pretty exact in meaning to me.

You say, “What is lacking is study of the behaviour and biases of people who identify themselves as ‘sceptics’ or ‘disbelievers’ in the paranormal and how they interpret certain experiences and observations.”

I would say, however, that sceptics and disbelievers are not the same people. I regard myself as a sceptic (non believer) rather than a disbeliever (denialist). And I think that distinction is important. Those who believe the paranormal hypothesis tend to think that sceptics are merely nay-sayer curmudgeons, but my mind can be changed if unambiguous evidence for psi ever surfaces. I was, after all, brought up with spiritualism and just about every other form of superstition.

As you might guess, I don’t go along with the idea that scepticism is any kind of belief system. I just require objective, testable evidence, which is something no psychic is going to provide. If Uri Geller, for instance, were to recreate his famous spanner-bending feat for me, but with a spanner that I provide, then I would have no choice but to accept that he can do something that is truly paranormal. But you don’t need psychic powers to predict that neither Geller, nor any other self-proclaimed psychic is going to allow themselves to be tested by anyone other than one of the big names in parapsychology, all of whom are, themselves, committed believers. I regard myself as a neutral seeker after the truth, not someone with a belief system I need to defend. If someone will demonstrate a testable and confirmable psychic ability, unambiguously, then it will become a scientific fact, no belief system necessary.

I followed the link you provided, but I am not prepared to pay money to get the full article. If you have it yourself, then you could perhaps give us an outline of what it says. But I would say that scepticism is still not a belief system that needs examination by psychologists.

I thought my point about “choosing” beliefs was straightforward. I did not “choose to be a sceptic.” I was brought up with religious and paranormal beliefs, as well as being brought up being taught to be a racist, a homophobe and with many other bigoted views (I didn’t choose that, either). It was when I left school and got into the big wide world that I started to notice that what I had been taught by my family did not match what I observed for myself. Black people I met did just not fit the stereotypes I had been told about. Gays turned out to be ordinary people who just happen to have a different sexuality. My viewpoints about many things gradually changed in the light of new evidence. But my point stands: if anyone thinks that I just made a conscious decision to be sceptical, then I would challenge the believers to just make a conscious decision to become sceptics – you simply do not choose your beliefs. It was the evidence that changed my points of view. If anyone can provide testable, confirmable evidence that psi is real, then they will get my undivided attention.

When I said, “If a psychic performs a paranormal demonstration, I am sure I will see the same outcome as anyone else (a bent spoon, say) but I will not see something that needs a paranormal explanation,” you replied, “Yes, this might be an example of the kind of cognitive bias that Robert was talking about.”
Were you referring to me being cognitively biased? If so, you are wrong. Psychic power is not a necessary condition for spoon bending; spoon benders are ten a penny – in fact I sometimes do it as a party piece myself. If anyone who sees me bending a spoon (or doing any other of my admittedly amateur conjuring tricks) assumes that I must be using psychic energy, then they are the ones who have a cognitive bias. Psychic power is a sufficient condition for spoon bending, but it is not a necessary condition. And psychic powers have yet to be proven to be true.

I would say, however, that sceptics and disbelievers are not the same people.

I agree, but I think it is unwise to strictly demarcate two distinct types of people as we seem to be doing here. It’s probably a graded thing with people possessing differing degrees of disbelief. Coming back to my main point, it would be interesting to see some studies on how people who label themselves as neutral sceptics (in much the same way as you have described yourself) respond under circumstances where belief bias may, or may not, influence their behaviour.

On the issue of scientific scepticism in general, it’s important to keep in mind that science is practiced by people. I take note of your appreciation for the neutrality of the scientific method and I have no reason to doubt your sincerity on that issue. But in the world of academia, there are many sociological reasons why beliefs and prejudice interfere with objective evaluation of evidence. There are plenty of historical cases to back that up, and probably countless more personal experiences within and outside of parapsychology. I guess the point of Robert’s post was to emphasise that belief bias can work both ways, cf., historical reaction to tectonic plate theory, evidence for meteorites, or reports of extraordinary experiences that were once dismissed but now taken seriously in mainstream psychology such as OBE’s (i.e., why were they initially dismissed for serious study – too strange?). You could even argue that the rise of behaviourism and the concurrent suppression of consciousness studies in the 50’s was largely driven by ideological beliefs about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, a set of beliefs that permeate today’s psychology and neuroscience but without any compelling theoretical justification other than an appeal to the presence of psycho-physical correlations, which incidentally are compatible with both dualism and mental monism. Thankfully, academic philosophy is more sympathetic to alternative solutions to the mind/body problem than the neurosciences.


But you don’t need psychic powers to predict that neither Geller, nor any other self-proclaimed psychic is going to allow themselves to be tested by anyone other than one of the big names in parapsychology, all of whom are, themselves, committed believers.

I dare say that many big names in parapsychology (I’m interested, who are you referring to?) came to their conclusions by trying to objectively evaluate the scientific evidence for psi. Is it the case that when two parties evaluate the evidence for psi, and one concludes it does not exist while the other concludes it does, the former are being objective but the latter are “committed believers”?


If someone will demonstrate a testable and confirmable psychic ability, unambiguously, then it will become a scientific fact, no belief system necessary.

What would be a clear cut unambiguous demonstration for you? For example, it’s been claimed that Joe McMoneagle (remote viewer for the Stargate program) achieved an overall hit rate of about 50% in formal scientific tests when 20% is expected by chance. Assuming you agree with the methodology of these experiments, would that satisfy your requirements? If not, why not? This isn’t a demand that you believe the results of such studies, I’m just interested in your views.


But my point stands: if anyone thinks that I just made a conscious decision to be sceptical, then I would challenge the believers to just make a conscious decision to become sceptics – you simply do not choose your beliefs

So, you are saying our beliefs about how the world works are shaped by our experiences, particular as we are growing up? I would probably go along with that. This kind of emphasises what Robert was saying. Some people develop a keen disbelief in psi, as well as belief in psi, for various reasons that have very little to do with evaluation of evidence.


Were you referring to me being cognitively biased?

Well yes, but we’re speaking past each other a little. I was assuming a hypothetical scenario where a genuine paranormal event was being demonstrated. For example, if someone were to actually bend a spoon paranormally as a demonstration, then there may be certain personality types who would be biased to interpret it as trickery. But this vastly over-simplifies the issue.

Scepticofall – there is much you say that I agree with. There are some points you raise that I should address:

I get the feeling that you are not exactly unfamiliar with science. So you will probably go along with this point: bias is a problem in all research areas – not because most researchers are dishonest, but because even the best-intentioned scientist can introduce personal bias without knowing it. The scientific method has been honed over a long time to try to eliminate such bias. No single scientist can expect to have his or her work accepted as true without it going through a rigorous process of examination, from peer review to replication, to predictive ability for a new theory. It is, alas, just so common in mainstream science that many scientists see their pet hypothesis crash and burn through that process. But if it can survive every criticism that comes its way, it just might make it eventually to the status of a theory (in the scientific sense of the word).

Clearly, however, parapsychology does not produce research findings that can survive that process; instead, we hear accusations of conspiracies to suppress so-called “pioneering science,” but also without evidence that any such conspiracies exist.

I don’t think you are right that mainstream psychology takes OBEs seriously – at least with the idea that anyone has an internal, independent “soul” that can leave one’s body. There is, however, research (outlined in Richard Wiseman’s new book Paranormality) that looks at how people’s sense of personal location (within the body) can be fooled into believing that “they” can be in another location altogether. But that has nothing to do with consciousness existing as an entity in its own right.

The big names in parapsychology are well known – Gary Schwartz, Dean Radin and a host of others that I won’t trouble myself to list. I agree that they are TRYING to objectively evaluate the evidence for psi. But it is not the case that it is a situation where two parties are opposing each other. Each of the well known parapsychologists I allude to have failed to convince the rest of science that there is anything paranormal happening. Admittedly it is a big task they have set themselves: is there really a psychic energy or substance out there that exists outside of space and time, which has no mass, is immaterial in its nature, cannot be detected by any objective measurement and at the same time interacts with and affects the material universe that we can, in fact, be pretty sure actually exists?

So what would be a clear and unambiguous demonstration for me? Well, it would have to be more than a CLAIM that Joe McMoneagle has scored 50% in a formal scientific test. I don’t have access to the CIA’s data, but that doesn’t really matter. Stargate was closed down on the basis that the whole thing turned out to be a waste of money. But I have no doubt that someone is ready to claim that it is still ongoing but that the CIA want to keep it secret; and we are unlikely to get any evidence that that is true, either.

But what about this – there has recently been a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In such a situation, rescue workers use the best methods available to find trapped victims, such as thermal imaging cameras, microphones, sniffer dogs, etc., even though those methods can be awkward and time-consuming. Where are the remote viewers directing rescuers to (at least 50% of) those who are trapped under the rubble? Nowhere to be seen, as it happens. If they were there, doing what they claim to be able to do, they would have the world’s media following their every move, and the scientific community would be on it like a shot. No-one would be able to deny that something special is happening. (And what is going to happen with those nuclear reactors that are in danger of meltdown?)

A one-off demonstration does not, on its own, prove very much. Every new discovery in science is tested exhaustively and continually tested as new technology and so on emerges as a result of research. Even Einstein’s theories are retested routinely during every solar eclipse.

It’s not a case of any single demonstration proving to me or anyone else that psi is real – what is important is scientific consensus, which can take a long time to achieve (but keep in mind the fact that “scientific consensus” is not a matter decided by a vote, it is a matter of convincing the scientific world that something new is actually real). Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift is a good example.

We seem to agree that our beliefs about the world are shaped by our experiences. I would say, though, that some people become entrenched in their beliefs. It is a psychological defence mechanism, and it has been demonstrated many times (probably now a very paradigm of the subject) that even when a person is confronted with absolute proof that they are wrong about a particular belief they hold (not even necessarily psi related), they tend to become even more entrenched in that particular belief. Around here I am routinely accused of being closed-minded, a pseudosceptic, denialist, yadda yadda yadda. But I used to be a firm believer; my opinions changed in the light of new evidence (or lack of objective evidence).

Sceptics like me, of course, are accused by the believers of having a cognitive bias that prevent us from accepting the reality of psi at any cost. We are accused of “inventing absurd scenarios to explain away paranormal events.”

But hang on a minute. When I see an alleged paranormal demonstration, I can imagine several possible ways the demonstration was done, including the possibility that something paranormal actually occurred. For me, psi is the least likely explanation, given the fact that the same effect can be reproduced with a bit of trickery, or a lot of ingenuity. I know that if I bend a spoon using a conjuring trick, it does not prove the non-existence of psi, or disprove the psychic claims of the demonstrator. It just shows that the demonstrator has not eliminated trickery as a possible explanation. Claiming the POSSIBILITY of one or another form of trickery is hardly an absurd scenario.

On the other hand, ask a psychic to do what they claim, but without them being in total control of the situation, and their psychic powers evaporate. I am told “it doesn’t work like that,” but I am not told how it does work: It’s a rare and elusive phenomenon; it can’t just be called up at will; maybe the psychic energy is weak; or the vibrations are being upset by the presence of a non-believer; there is a mischievous spirit at work preventing the effect; and so the list of excuses goes on, without evidence that those excuses have any validity either. Who, exactly, has the cognitive bias here?

I’m not claiming as a fact that psi is not real, I am just asking for proof of the psychic claims made. No psychic gave a useful prediction of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan; do you suppose the remote viewers are faring any better in their efforts to save trapped survivors? The claims are going to be made. Let’s see if they can back them up.

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