Fuck-off Atheism
Psi and Cannabis

Will Storr's 'The Heretics'

I've been enjoying Will Storr's extraordinary new book The Heretics: Adventures With the Enemies of Science. Storr has previously written sceptically but entertainingly about ghosts. We spoke a while ago when he was researching James Randi, and the book does indeed contain a revealing interview with the Amazing One himself.

Like his previous book this is a journey of discovery: to find out what motivates people to hold 'unbelievable' ideas such as creationism, UFOs, homeopathy, etc. And yes, ESP, although with qualifications: the sceptics are more of a target here than the advocates. Besides Randi, he talked to a Bible-thumping creationist, Holocaust denier David Irving, climate-change sceptic Lord Monckton and various therapists, quacks, charlatans and complete idiots, as well as a few sensible people to get an objective view. It might have been called Conversations with the Crazies, as it has the same dynamic as TV films by Richard Dawkins. Writing about these people, he says

is like being a tourist in another universe. There is something noble about their bald defiance of the ordinary, something heroic about the deep outsider-territories that they wilfully inhabit, something comforting - in a fundamental, primeval way - about their powers of cognitive transport.

This sounds a bit patronising, but Storr is genuinely interested in these people, and in getting at what motivates their worldviews. He obviously has the reporter's knack of getting people to open up to him. Nor is he convinced that his scepticism is always justified. He confesses to a feeling of kinship, and thinks this may have to do with his own troubled early life, marred by emotional instability and delinquency, about which he is quite candid.

This blog's readers will be interested in the bit about psi sceptics, so let's come to that first. It's at the end of the book, by which time - especially having just been exposed to the clinical lunacy of David Irving - I was in a state of slack-jawed amazement. So I was dismayed to see Rupert Sheldrake being wheeled in as if he was the next to be given the treatment. In the sceptic scheme of things he'd be an ideal fit. Is the reader supposed to think that believing in ESP is as certifiably crazy as denying the Holocaust or believing in the literal truth of the Old Testament?

It's a bit unclear: Storr does admit at one point that he is deeply sceptical - his unconscious mind is broadcasting a 'great, dark lump of no' - but recognises this to be a prejudice and hopes that talking to people on both sides he will get a sense of who is telling the truth. He first buttonholes Sheldrake, who accuses both Richard Wiseman and James Randi of dishonesty. So Storr talks to both of them as well. Wiseman is very plausible - as Sheldrake wearily warned Storr he would be - but Storr is alert enough to recognise the inconsistencies in Wiseman's position, and notes how easily Sheldrake defended himself against Wiseman's attacks. He concludes: 'It was the opposite experience from which I had been led to expect.'

When we come to Randi, it's clear that Storr is sceptical about his status as 'truth's war dog', and that it's he, not scientists like Sheldrake, who are in the dock. Like the other extremists, Randi seems completely unaware of glaring inconsistencies in his position: one the one hand he abuses psi believers in the most offensive terms imaginable, yet he wants to be taken seriously as an investigator and rejects the term 'debunker'.

Storr also exposes the way that Randi ducks and dives to get out of actually having to test people for the Million Dollar Challenge. One case he describes in some detail is that of the Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas, who seems to have been deadly earnest about applying for the Challenge, and spent a lot of time and money arranging for a suitable hospital clinic to arrange the trial. To Vithoulkas's consternation he was blocked at the last minute by Randi, who went back on the arrangement he had previously agreed to, and demanded that Vithoulkas go back and start the whole process again. By this time Vithoulkas had had enough and threw in the towel. (One of Randi's team told Storr that this showed clearly that Vithoulkas was 'trying to find an excuse and quit the test'.)

Storr also manages to confirm the unreliability of notorious claims made by Randi with regard to Uri Geller, and also to Professor Gary Schwartz's investigation of mediums, when he pretended that psi researcher Stanley Krippner had agreed to be involved in judging Schwartz's data for the Challenge. Krippner told Storr he had not agreed to anything such thing.

The interview itself is a rather sad affair, but if you're interested in Randi it's probably worth the price of the book. This is a man at the end of his life, still sharp and malicious, but surprisingly frank about a troubled upbringing (although Storr does not comment explicitly, there's a Walter Mitty sheen about claims of extraordinary brilliance Randi is supposed to have displayed as a child.) Storr is mainly interested in his debunking career: he confronts him about various contradictions and makes him defend his various lies, overstatements and exaggerations, including the notorious claim, which he admitted to Sheldrake was untrue, that he had tested the 'psychic dogs' claims and 'they fail'.

By now Storr is starting to feel he is giving the old man a bit too much of a hard time, so to take some of the pressure off he gives him an opportunity to backtrack on previous hints that he supports social Darwinism. To his consternation, Randi does nothing of the kind; instead he makes explicit his view that society should take a hand in purifying the gene pool of stupid people.

As long as it doesn't interfere with me and other sensible, rational people who could be affected by it. Innocent people, in other words. These are not innocent people. These are stupid people. And if they can't survive, they don't have the IQ, don't have the thinking power to be able to survive, it's unfortunate . . . We would be free of a lot of the plagues that we presently suffer from. I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating.

The interview ends with Randi amiably agreeing with Storr that, yes, he does overstate, and sometimes lie and get carried away.

'No question of that. I don't know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time,' he says. 'But there can be untruths.'

All this confirms the central idea that Storr has been coming to, which is that we humans tell ourselves stories that help us make sense of the world.

All of it begins in the unconscious, where we experience hunches about moral rights and wrongs . . . When we come across an explanation of the world that fits perfectly over the shape of our feelings - a tale that magically explains our hunches and tells us that it is all okay - it can seem of divine origin, as if we have experienced revealed truth.

There is quite a lot on this. Inevitably Storr gets onto the illusion-making of the brain; his impassioned discussion of what, in the hands of academic psychologists, is a rather dry topic, is one of the best I've seen. In fact this is an excellent book by a very talented writer. I don't have space to mention some of the other interviews, but I was full of admiration at the effortless way he gets advocates of extreme positions to damn themselves from their own mouths. The encounter with David Irving on a trip with a bunch of racists to a concentration camp is riveting.

However where psychic research is concerned, as I've mentioned before, I'm not generally a fan of journalistic approaches like this. I thought Steve Volk's Fringe-Ology was rather good, perhaps because it views paranormal topics sympathetically. But in general I don't think that going round talking to 'experts' is a good way to try to resolve controversies like 'is ESP true or not'. It didn't surprise me that Storr was ricocheting all over the place after talking to various people, struggling to decide who was telling the truth. It makes for dramatic reading, but if you want to understand what's going it's surely better to focus on the scientific arguments and research rather than try to make subjective judgements about which advocates are the most or least reliable.

I also think there's a growing temptation to look for answers in controversies such as these to the power of the brain to create illusions, narratives, patterns, etc. In fact I'd argue that it's getting out of hand. The problem is that it can be used as a sort of blanket explanation for everything that we struggle to understand, or suspect may not be real, while at the same time it reinforces a very definite metaphysical view of human existence, that we are bugs crawling over a rock in space, and that the effusion of thoughts in our heads is just biological stuff, of no more account than vapours or smells. Implicitly it validates a particular scientistic view, that we actually aren't capable of believing what is true, that existence is meaningless.

I don't doubt the importance of myths and narratives in the formation and maintenance of our worldviews. For myself, I remain passionately convinced of the ability of empirical study and experiment, of philosophical discussion and analysis, to cut through this miasma - less dramatic and colourful, perhaps, but a more sure way to true understanding.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Randi's Social Darwinism views are quite disturbing, as is the fact that it seems he supports eugenics. Greg Taylor wrote a good article:

http://dailygrail.com/Skepticism/2013/2/James-Randi-Let-Survival-the-Fittest-Act-Itself-Out-Those-Low-IQ-and-Mental-Aberra

Part of what makes Randi's position so ridiculous, is how can Randi (or anyone, for that matter) arbitrarily decide who are the "fittest" amongst the species, anyway?

He says he thinks Social Darwinism should be allowed to act itself out as long as it doesn't affect smart people like himself.

Not only are there numerous ways of defining intelligence – so people he believes are “stupid” may be more intelligent than he thinks – who’s to say that survival of the fittest and natural selection will work according to levels of one’s intellect? In the animal kingdom, it’s often the physically strong which survive. What of people who are lesser in intelligence but physically very strong and robust? Suppose the laws of nature deem those to be the “fittest”. That would mean that Randi, and others like him, who are intelligent but probably not all that physically strong, would be dying out.

Furthermore, if one is a compassionate human being, then they would seek to assist those weaker than themselves in living full and happy lives. That is what I think is the appropriate course of action to take, rather than scorning them and allowing the “survival of the fittest” aspect of nature to weed them out.

Also, in regards to the book itself, it sounds interesting and I applaud Storr for being objective enough to criticise sceptics in some of their attitudes and behaviour.

However, I find the title a little discomfiting - implying that UFO believers, those who practice homeopathy, etc are "enemies" of science. I firmly believe they're no such thing. It hints at a prejudicial attitude to those who have those kind of beliefs and implies that the people are irrational and illogical. For the majority, that's simply not the case (in my experience.)

"I also think there's a growing temptation to look for answers in controversies such as these to the power of the brain to create illusions, narratives, patterns, etc. In fact I'd argue that it's getting out of hand."

IMO, sane people have an ever-changing worldview. Of course, that's part of my worldview. With billions of people with billions of varying, even starkly different ways of looking at the world, it doesn't take much effort to realize that all of them can't be right, but all of them can't be wrong. Some folks have some things 'right', other folks have other things 'right'. The question is, which folks are right about what?

All we can trust is our experience, and our interpretation based on our previous experiences and the experiences of others. For instance:
A scientist does an experiment with bacteria in a petri dish, using a scientific method that he/she accepts. Based upon this scientist's experience with her/his chosen scientific method, a Truth is discovered.
A physicist does a double slit experiment with light, using an experience-trusted scientific method. The physicist sees that light is both a particle and a wave. This conclusion is illogical, but experience wins out, and another Truth is discovered.
A person dies and encounters deceased relatives, an expansive multidimensional life review, and an awe-inspiring Light as bright as a million Sun's. Again, experience wins out, and another Truth is discovered.

I can think any way that I want to, but at the end of the day, all I know what I absolutely know, based on my life's experiences. Experience is woefully underrated.

Should offer Jacques Benveniste some consolation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ILSyt_Hhbjg

"All this confirms the central idea that Storr has been coming to, which is that we humans tell ourselves stories that help us make sense of the world...
I was full of admiration at the effortless way he gets advocates of extreme positions to damn themselves from their own mouths...
I don't doubt the importance of myths and narratives in the formation and maintenance of our worldviews."

Yes, a very important perspective. This applies to everyone, though, not just hardliners. We are all full of self-deceptions. We tell ourselves porkies and forgive ourselves our many failings, either by overlooking them, pretending they don't happen or rationalising them away. It comes from being composite individuals: different aspects of our natures have different agendas.

Yet though we so rarely admit our own faults, we so easily see those same faults in others.

And we sometimes judge ourselves very harshly, forgiving ourselves nothing, in circumstances where we would be far kinder towards others. 'Tis all a matter of character.

Another great piece on the prejudice that James Randi exemplifies is "the Persecution and Assassination of the Parapsychologists as Performed by the Inmates of the American Association for the Advancement of Science under the Direction of the Amazing Randi" which can be found in his "Right Where You Are Sitting Now." He really is just as much as a close-minded bigot as Jerry Falwell only at the other end of the ideological spectrum.

The sceptic/psi debate is really getting on my nerves. As you say, efforts like Storr's will not get anywhere. What I think needs to happen is for the "para" to be removed from "parapsychology". Psi needs to be seen as a normal, mundane process used routinely in everyday life. People were very sceptical about the existence of heavier-than-air flying machines even for years after the Wright brothers' first flight(!) and also quantum mechanics but now technology from those ideas has become an absolutely routine part of everyday life. Psi needs to be brought to a level such that disbelief would be akin to doubting airplanes can fly. On that note, there is a new Silicon Valley startup working on a practical psi technology but whether it can break out and be successful remains to be seen.

From the entry above:"Psi needs to be seen as a normal, mundane process used routinely in everyday life. People were very sceptical about the existence of heavier-than-air flying machines even for years after the Wright brothers' first flight and also quantum mechanics but now technology from those ideas has become an absolutely routine part of everyday life. Psi needs to be brought to a level such that disbelief would be akin to doubting airplanes can fly." Okay, but airplanes really DO fly, regularly, so we believe in that fact. Principles of quantum mechanics are in use, too. So, both beliefs are established as facts. Where, then, is the proof of psi...? In the imaginations and misconceptions of the naive, nowhere else...

@James Randi

My point is that if someone can use parapsychology to make a reliable technology work, repeated thousands, even millions of times, everyone would have to admit the existence of psi phenomena. On a scientific level the results of parapsychology are at a quality and level of statistical significance comparable to other scientific fields. The next step is to create technology from the science. This should be the proof which is needed.

Some of us who are actually scientists have seen the latest electrophysiological presentiment results form researchers like Dean Radin and see that his experiments are very solid and convincing. Why don't you try replicating Radin's work himself? This is your chance to expose Radin as a fraud... or learn something new about the Universe. Some of us are doing just that.

Since I learned about Randi's pro-eugenics beliefs I'm not so concerned about him anymore.

"... including the notorious claim, which he admitted to Sheldrake was untrue, that he had tested the 'psychic dogs' claims and 'they fail'."

Minor correction: Randi has never admitted that his claim was untrue. His story (delivered to both Sheldrake and Storr) is that he performed the tests informally, and that the data were subsequently lost in a flood. Details of this account have varied, including the year in which the flood (or hurricane?) occurred. I think the whole story is poppycock, but Randi himself has not acknowledged it as such.

I agree that Storr goes overboard on the "mind creates illusions" idea, which seems to play into some kind of postmodern, deconstructionist worldview in which nothing is ever true or false. (And is this not itself just another narrative?) Still, I really admire Storr's tenacity in getting to the bottom of several Randi-related controversies and then aggressively challenging Randi in the interview. It may be the first time Randi has ever been confronted by a well-informed, persistent, and truly "skeptical" interrogator. I found it, well, "amazing."

@ Dear Mr. James Randi:

I noticed you made ​​a comment. I wonder what is the reason that you have committed scientific fraud, the prosecution is not free:

1) In 1988 you released a report which said the findings of four laboratories on high dilutions are poorly controlled. You can not answer the reply of Dr. Benveniste, that you never analyzed data from three laboratories.
In 1991 Benveniste replied his experiments with the statesman Alfred Spira. In 1994 Benveniste hirst critical study that supported their results, contrary to the conclusion that Hirst says. Later Dr. Italo Venchi reanalyzed the data showing that the study confirms the findings of Hirst Benveniste.

2) In 2001 you with Professor Martin Bland, President of the Royal Society, and others, conveyed the Horizon program where they say they were going to replicate an experiment (not say which). In 2005, Professor Bland published a report detailing the study was to replicate the Ennis-Brown on dilutions of histamine. However, fraud is served: 1) that Dr. M. Ennis never approved the experimental protocol Waynte T., 2) You say that they would replicate an experiment, when even the report of Dr. Bland shows that there was a replica, even Bland says the Horizon program was to replicate the study Ennis-Brown.

Professor Martin Bland has refused to answer whether or not your conscious participation was one of the biggest frauds in the history of skepticism.

I wonder why no one has told the James Randi Educational Foundation as a fraud. The Horizon program is clearly junk science, an act of fraud and defamation.

I trust his honesty, if you have one, so you can respond and clarify the facts soon.

Is there any reason to believe that the comment signed "James Randi" is actually from James Randi? Has the real Randi participated in Paranormalia discussions on previous occasions? If not, I'm guessing this is an impersonator.

Michael, it's possible. Randi made quite a lengthy comment to a post here some years ago, and another to my reply in a separate post (links below). Haven't heard from him since until this.

http://monkeywah.typepad.com/paranormalia/2008/11/spr-study-day---the-psychology-of-the-sceptic.html

http://monkeywah.typepad.com/paranormalia/2008/12/reply-to-james-randi.html

Okay. FYI, you could check the IP address to see if it matches. Or do a traceroute search and see if it points to Ft. Lauderdale. Or not.

"Not" is probably the simplest option.

The comments to this entry are closed.