Halfway through writing Randi's Prize I started to feel a nagging sense that many of the people I hoped to reach weren't really open to persuasion. The brilliance or otherwise of my arguments wouldn't make much difference; they would be acclaimed by people who already on some level accepted them, and denounced by those who never could.
The fact is, surely, that when it comes to our personal worldview, studies and experiments play a secondary role. We accept findings that best fit our preferred narrative, and reject those that don't. Mostly, I think, we gravitate towards writers who reinforce what we already intuitively feel to be true. Paranormalia readers aren't likely to frequent JREF or Pharyngula, which they probably find alien and uncomfortable, and vice versa.
So these days I'm thinking less about psi evidence itself and more about the social and psychological context. As a psi-advocate, I believe I know why my group believes what it does: we're convinced by the evidence, which happens to validate our ideals. But what about sceptics? Why is it so extremely important to them that psychic claims be shown to be false? Why does it irritate them so much, and why do they go to such extraordinary lengths to explain it away? (I'm thinking of the tenacity of people like Gerald Woerlee, for instance.)
This would seem to be a question for psychologists in their quest to identify the drivers of human thought and behaviour. Our brains stopped evolving when we were still hunter-gathering, they say, and aren't terribly well equipped to deal with the challenges of modern living. Among other things, that's why some of us tend to go on believing in fantasies like gods and ghosts and life after death.
Interestingly, sceptical thinkers implicitly exclude themselves from this tendency towards irrationality, at least in this context. They don't have hallucinations, so it doesn't apply to them. But having close-up experience of the way they argue, it seems to me that it very much does; they are as profoundly affected by emotive thinking as any of us, and with the added complication that their complacency blinds them to the fact.
Two books I've been reading recently seem relevant to the psi controversy, at least indirectly, driving home the emotive basis of so much human behaviour. One is Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril, by Margaret Heffernan, a British writer and businesswoman. The other is a widely-covered new book by American psychologist Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Wilful Blindness describes how people manage to close their eyes to obvious wrongs, often out of solidarity with the group they belong to. That results in catastrophes that could easily have been avoided. Doctors close ranks in support of a paediatric surgeon accused of incompetence, with the result that dozens of babies die who might otherwise have been saved. An oil company orders severe cost-cutting at a distant refinery, which local employees obediently carry through, all the while knowing that it is compromising safety: the resulting explosion kills 15 people. Citizens of a small town fiercely resist emerging health concerns about a local asbestos mine, to protect jobs, even while all around them their friends and family members are dropping like flies.
In big corporate scandals like Enron, plenty of people in positions of authority knew that its success was built on a giant scam, but looked the other way. When it's a choice between exposing wrongdoing or showing loyalty to peers and superiors, the latter usually wins. That's why whistleblowers are so rare, and why they have to struggle so hard to be heard.
The sheer number of Heffernan's stories builds a deeply depressing picture of the limits of human thinking. Especially when one realises how much of the present economic troubles are due to the wilful blindness shown by bankers, regulators and politicians who for years fell into a kind of moral slumber. Yesterday I read a news item about the Bernie Madoff scandal, that what seemed to hit the world like a bolt from the blue was really no such thing. Most of Wall Street suspected he was fraudulent - as indeed it should have, considering his abnormally high returns to investors and his refusal to tell anyone how he managed it - but no one publicly said or did anything about it. Earlier I might have been shocked, but now I understand this is absolutely normal.
This is relevant if we agree that science itself is subject to the negative effects of groupishness. Even some scientists themselves are at pains to deny the idealised picture that the public has of science, as a process of disinterested truth-seeking that is absolutely rational, fair and objective. On the contrary, they say, it's a hugely emotive business driven by cliques and factions who identify with pet theories and beat up their opponents (intellectually if not actually). They close ranks to freeze out intruders like parapsychologists, who are not loyal to the central tenets of materialism.
Unsurprisingly, there are persistent reports from scientists and medical professionals sympathetic to psi-research that some of their colleagues privately agree with them, but publicly wouldn't dream of exposing themselves to ridicule by speaking out. It's quite literally more than their job's worth. For most, the group-think is the truth, and what they personally think doesn't come into it.
I've often felt, grappling with sceptics' arguments, that they literally can't see why paranormalists argue as they do. They are literally blind to the paranormal element, so they can't see what the fuss is about - they think people are just making it up.
Heffernan references a 2005 experiment in which subjects were placed in an fMFRI brain scanner, shown some objects, and asked to decide which of them were similar to others. In one version they made the decision on their own, and in another decided only after knowing what their fellow participants had decided. The subjects tended to be swayed by the group, which was expected; the purpose was to determine which area of their brain was active as they made the decision. Activity in the prefrontal cortex would indicate that it was a conscious choice ('I'm going to follow the others on this one'.) But in fact, there was no activity there. Instead the activity was centred in the occipital and perietal regions of the brain, suggesting that conformity was an act of perception.
This is a shocking finding. Social influence had altered what the volunteer actually saw.
Jonathan Haidt too is sceptical about the primacy of reason, arguing that its role in human judgements has been vastly exaggerated. He follows David Hume in believing that intuition, not reason, is what drives people in their decision-making (interestingly, given Hume's status as the patron saint of sceptics, who glorify the primacy of reason). His image is of the rider (reason) perched on top of the elephant (intuition), and trying, for the most part ineffectually, to guide it.
Haidt is a moral psychologist who has studied the basis of leftwing and rightwing political thinking. No space, alas, to go into detail of his wonderful book. (It's a bit complicated, and confusingly structured, but if you stick with it all makes sense in the end.) He's a liberal, but found himself becoming critical of the relatively shallow basis of liberal or progressive morality compared with conservatives, and coming to appreciate the true value of conservative morality (of the Burkean rather than the Tea Party kind). The liberal emphasis on fairness and equality, he thinks, can have negative effects if it tries to override the moral foundations that conservatives are big on, such as respect for authority, loyalty and sanctity.
That sounds like common sense, but this is the most detailed and nuanced explanation of human morality that I've found coming from a scientist, and a lot more satisfying than the rather crude speculations of evolutionary psychologists.
Haidt's thinking about politics chimes with my own about psi. What one believes - and how one responds to claims and evidence - has a lot to do with one's genetic predisposition, and how that predisposition is shaped by life experience into a worldview.
I don't know what the equivalent foundations would be of advocacy and scepticism. As a moderate leftie myself, I've been tempted in the past to think of scepticism as a rightwing thing. It's perhaps partly because I associate the crude and noisy intolerance of people like Martin Gardner and James Randi with the blow-hard, Rush Limbaugh-Fox News tendency in American politics; also the way the Right espouses extreme climate scepticism, arguably another form of denial. In general, there seems to be something inherently reactionary in the deference to established scientific authority and tradition, and the knee-jerk rejection of radical new thinking. At its worst, the rhetoric looks like an angry white (mainly) male defence of the establishment against dippy idealistic liberal New Agers.
OK, this is far too simplistic and I wouldn't seriously argue it. Psi-sceptics just as easily fit the secular liberal model, and progressives can be every bit as snarky as their opponents.
But what interests me about Haidt's analysis is that it provides a in-depth view of both sides' motivations, particularly that of the group he has always opposed. I think we should be doing something similar. If sceptics take what seem to us to be extraordinary, egregious and indefensible positions to defend themselves from the implications, of, for instance, veridical out-of-body perception in the near-death experience, it's worth exploring why. Is it personal fear, or does it threaten an idea of the world that they value and want to defend?
Off the top of my head, I can think of all sorts of things that bother them. The corruption of personal privacy implied by telepathy; the threat to the integrity and authority of science; the invitation to witchcraft implied by psychokinesis; the notion of a supernatural interference in human affairs; the terror of living on after death (and having nothing to do) and so on. These are things which may not bother psi-advocates, or even appear on our radar. But quite possibly they are legitimate worries. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, what kind of world this would be if science did an about-face, and endorsed the reality of psi. Is it something we're ready for?
All questions for another post, and things I'll be exploring in my next book.