There have been a lot of false dawns about legalising cannabis, but a rational outcome seems possible at last. The recent landmark votes in Colorado and Washington have coincided with surveys that show large majorities in both the US and the UK in favour of scrapping the ban. Even the politicians are starting to catch up, with bills being presented in Congress. Here it's striking that, although David Cameron is still being a gung-ho drugs warrior, conservative voters are just as keen on change as Labour.
The ban always seemed incomprehensible to me. In my student days I gravitated naturally to the 'head' community. We passed much of our leisure time in clouds of hash smoke and psychedelic rock music, and enjoyed scandalising the buttoned-up types. We weren't noticeably less successful, then or since; drug taking was not a differentiator, except for a few people who seriously overdid it.
It's the same with the growing acceptance of gay marriage. These social issues interest me because I see the scientific proscription of psi in quite similar terms. Psi threatens the integrity of the scientific worldview in the minds of many scientists, just as, to conservatives, gays and drug fiends threaten the harmonious function of society. The analogy isn't exact, obviously: psychics and mediums are free to ply their trade in the way that drug dealers aren't (or at least aren't supposed to be). But the underlying fear is the same: of potential chaos and disintegration. From the outside, the sceptic movement looks like people coming together to affirm their sanity in a world threatened by growing mental deviancy.
I've remarked before on striking parallels between social conservatism and psi-scepticism, even if there is no obvious overlap between these communities in other respects. Arguably, it's just as irrational to insist that certain experiences that have been widely experienced and verified are in fact imaginary, as it is to impose bans on what people indulge in the privacy of their homes, and with zero risk to others.
There's also the element of austerity. We must take the hard road, and forbid ourselves the luxury of indulgence. Cannabis may make us feel good, but it's a dangerous high, a removal from reality. Homosexuality is decadence to the point of depravity. Psi offers the feel-good factor of wonders and miracles, instant healings, life in a paradisial world to come, and so on - but we must sternly resist its siren call.
But why? Sceptics are articulate about why they think psi isn't real - much less so about why it's a bad thing.
However when we start to focus on this more, there's a genuine debate to be had. Perhaps, from a social perspective, it's reasonable to be cautious about opening up to new ideas and practices. In the nineteen sixties drugs did seem to encourage a lot of whacky behaviour, and it must sometimes have seemed to the war generation that society was on the verge of breakdown. In a sense, the social effects that would follow from science validating the reality of psi are comparable to the social effects of legalising cannabis. With cannabis it's clear that there are dangers, particularly with regard to the mental health of young people, and I've mentioned a few times my own view that a social shift to acknowledging psi might have similarly distorting effects.
Telepathy: Are my thoughts my own? Or are they being beamed to me? Is someone trying to manipulate my behaviour by making me do irrational things?
Remote viewing: Can I be observed from afar when I'm undressing, having sex, pilfering from the petty cash box in the office? Is someone right now, in some dark room somewhere in another city, eyes closed, focused hard, images flickering under his/her eyelids, spying on me?
Precognition: Are unscrupulous dealers using psi to clean up on the stock market, at my expense? How can I get some of that action? Is it legal?
Psychokinesis: Did my hateful ex-husband/wife use focused power of thought to make me crash my car / lose my job / get cancer? Can I go to the police and get him/her arrested?
Life after death: Are spirits of the dead here in the room with me? Do they mean me harm?
There's a word for all of this, one that we believe we have emancipated ourselves from: witchcraft. Psychics and researchers may deny that these powers can be used to invade privacy or to do harm to others. But they would have to be extremely persuasive to counteract popular prejudice. It's what people believe that counts. If science says these things are real, then how can I protect myself from people trying to harm me from a distance?
We can see the beginnings of the problem in neuroscience, which has been making us think differently about the stuff in our heads. If our brains make us think and act in particular ways, if we don't have free will, then perhaps we aren't responsible for everything we do. In practice - at least as far as I'm aware - this new scientific 'reality' hasn't impinged too much on the real world: criminals and wrongdoers are still made accountable. But psi is potentially a whole other problem.
We talk about sceptics being 'closed minds' and identify the psychological barriers to belief. In a purely intellectual sense - from the point of view of empirical experiment and philosophical analysis - their arguments really are shallow. But might we be prepared to admit that science, being sceptical, acts as a barrier to something that humans have to accommodate themselves to carefully and gently? Perhaps it provides a kind of shelter, a sanctuary of reason, where we can exist without having to worry about these things, only about the people who believe in them.
My point is that psi-scepticism is a much more complex business than we might think. It's not just about ideas and arguments. As with cannabis and all the rest, it's about acclimatising ourselves to a potentially threatening new reality. Before we accept it we need to go in with our eyes open, and understand exactly what we're doing.