• Paranormalia is written by Robert McLuhan, a journalist and author based in London. Please contact me at robertmcluhan@gmail.com

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November 04, 2013

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Wasn't Randi being sued over his so called $1 million prize?

Essentially, the conflict comes down to ego.
Ego has various definitions by different people in certain contexts, but in this case, I'm using the word ego to mean the I That Must Survive. It has to be right, otherwise, the sceptic or fundamentalist believer's whole worldview (entrenched in the ego) will collapse.

Objective spiritual and paranormal investigation requires a certain submission of the ego. Many sceptics have lost their scepticism when their ego was forcibly broken by a near-death experience, crisis apparition or some other involuntary spritual encounter.
In fact, "brokenness" is a common theme with profound spiritual experiences, often following a a critical low point in the experient's life.

Evidence of this ego-driven thinking can be found by casually comparing almost any sceptic website to a typical spiritual/paranormal website. JREF's website vs. IANDS website for instance.
This blog, Michael Prescott's blog, or The Daily Grail are frequently self critical, but you never see humbleness from Richard Dawkins.
P.Z. Meyers pursuit of the embedded misogynist problem among sceptics might count, but that was so obviously out of control it couldn't be denied for long. And even then, Meyers received so much blowback, he ended up having to throttle down.

Another problem is that deeply spiritual people often sound dreamy, or like they're talking in circles because they're trying to articulate the ineffable, something that can't be described using a linear logic driven medium like the spoken word.
Hence, reasonable appeals of openness to the dogmatic believer will always fall on deaf ears.

The so-called "Monty Hall Problem" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem) is relevant here. When Marilyn vos Savant presented the problem, and its solution, in 1990 (in Parade magazine) vos Savant was inundated with mail by people claiming her solution was wrong. From the Wikipedia entry: "Many readers of vos Savant's column refused to believe switching is beneficial despite her explanation. After the problem appeared in Parade, approximately 10,000 readers, including nearly 1,000 with PhDs, wrote to the magazine, most of them claiming vos Savant was wrong (Tierney 1991). Even when given explanations, simulations, and formal mathematical proofs, many people still do not accept that switching is the best strategy (vos Savant 1991a). Paul Erdős, one of the most prolific mathematicians in history, remained unconvinced until he was shown a computer simulation confirming the predicted result (Vazsonyi 1999)."

It is simply difficult to accept evidence that contradicts what one already believes especially after one has publicly defended that belief. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. The pro-psi side is just as vulnerable to this, of course. We all are. Unfortunately, the only antidote is to do the very hard work of drilling down into specific cases and research, as you've done in Randi's Prize. Sometimes, the results aren't "clean," i.e., they don't all point in the same direction. Sometimes experiments fail.

To some skeptics, at least, the hard work needed to come to grips with the actual research just isn't worth it, because they are convinced they already know what the outcome must be. If a study gets positive results, there must be some flaw that accounts for them, so the skeptical goal is simply to find the flaw, or any flaw, and be done with it. To this kind of skeptic, it's simply not reasonable to be expected to show that the specific flaw can actually account for the positive results. Since no research design is perfect, it's a foregone conclusion that some flaw will be found, and even if it isn't, the skeptic can take refuge in the mere possibility of undiscovered methodological flaws.

Science works best when studying phenomena that can be subsumed under laws, i.e., with uniform lawlike regularity. Notoriously, the phenomena of human thought and behavior fail to conform to laws in this way, except statistically, in the aggregate. This isn't peculiar to psi. There are other human abilities and responses that cannot be elicited on demand in a cleanly repeatable way. Musical virtuosity is like this, but no one argues it doesn't exist.

It would be interesting to see a biographical study of psi "conversions" and "anti-conversions." Susan Blackmore would be a paradigm case of an anti-conversion; I'm not sure who would be the best examples of conversions. But I'd like to know more about what was the "tipping point" in such cases (either direction), and what the psychological resistance to conversion was like.

Since skeptics so often and so readily resort to mockery and ridicule, I'd have to suspect that a fear of appearing foolish plays a strong role. This fear, I believe, is comparable to the paralyzing fear of public speaking that afflicts many people. Psi researchers have to learn to cope with this fear early on, since it's an occupational hazard. In my view, it must take an incredible amount of sheer nerve to do psi research, given that these researchers clearly have the talent to build careers and reputations in safer areas.

Robert we've reached a stage in our civilization's development where the majority of people insist on tolerance in matters of sexual preference.

Darwinian Evolution's no longer deployed to explain if a trait like homosexuality'd ever emerged in the first place it'd've been long ago selected back out of existence.

And women're no longer incarcerated in lunatic asylums for liking lots of sex or using dildos.

So wouldn't it be wonderful if we could now attain the stage where people who have weird anomalous experiences're allowed to freely communicate with those curious to hear about such experiences without being hounded down by others wishing to impose their own quite different experiences and perspectives on everyone else as some kind of universal norm?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if those who believe in God or gods'd allow those gods to get on with the jobs they suppose them to have without insisting on doing their jobs for them?

And wouldn't it be wonderful if those who've made a religion of science were rational enough to acknowledge concepts like operator error statistical tendencies mathematical modelling etc etc etc're routinely deployed to avoid admitting the central tenet of their beliefs of perfect perpetual scientific replicability in the real world's at best a general tendency?

In short wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all become as genuinely open minded about everything else as we're collectively becoming about sex?


Robert, congratulations on the 3-year anniversary of your wonderful book!

"Could it even be that there is a point to this, that scientific materialism needs to be nurtured and protected in this way?"

Don't you think that materialism, which is really a denial or forgetting of our own divinity, is an essential aspect of the cosmic scheme? My own understanding is that we begin in Source, then leave it to experience the challenges and adventures that result from separation, and then gradually return back to Source.

And if that's true, then temporarily forgetting our spiritual nature is what keeps the game going. What do you think?

"In short wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all become as genuinely open minded about everything else as we're collectively becoming about sex?"

Interesting point, Alan. I enjoyed the movie "Kinsey" and found it inspiring, because he did a simple thing, he did it first, and he did it well: he asked people about their sexuality.

No moralizing or interpreting. All he did was report back to the rest of us on what our fellow humans are experiencing.

Oh--he did something else, too that I wish more scientists would take note of: he trusted his informants.

Of course, that sort of work has been going on in parapsychology for a long time--the work of Myers, Gurney et al, comes to mind.

And then a renaissance in the late 20th century spearheaded by Raymond Moody.

Anyway, you got me thinking about the parallels here between psi and sexuality. And, in terms of acceptance, it does seem as though you can point to progress for each.

More so for sexuality? Maybe. But, for example, there are probably as many TV shows on paranormal subjects as there are on minority sexual lifestyles. (I'm thinking of shows about gays.) And that's a lot.

I read your book just last year and it introduced me to new, interesting cases in psi I'd never heard of before. Really it was an enjoyable book with coherent points. Now whenever I read skeptic arguments they seem to simply be avoiding the evidence in favor of their ideology. As I said before, Randi's Prize is nothing more than a hoax to get publicity and push ideology, not science.

I think that we're sometimes in danger of slipping into the trap of thinking that skeptics are 100% wrong about everything.

They're not, and nobody ever is.

Rob's book is, indeed, an excellent exposition on how one particular social group has fallen prey to the beast of blind ideological prejudice. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into believing that there are no frauds or deluded types in the 'believer' camp whose Psi related fantasies wouldn't be incredibly socially destructive if they were allowed to spread unchecked.

Ideological skepticism is the same - a dangerous Psi-based fantasy that has spread almost unchecked, IN PLAIN SIGHT. The importance of Rob's book is that it has raised visibility of the issue to an extent.

The trouble with Psi is that so little is known about it that it allows anyone to morph any world-view around it in a way that might not be illogical per se (to them), and then persuade anyone else from the massed ranks of the morally and emotionally challenged to follow suite.

In effect, that's all skeptics have done. But I've observed exactly the same habit in 'pro' Psi groups.

As far as Psi is concerned it's people and the way that we behave in relation to it that is the problem, not Psi itself. And we need to be very careful that we do not allow bad behaviour by one particular group in relation to Psi to blind us to that fact.

Steve,when it comes to Psi, a sure sign that someone has probably got it all wrong is that they have shoved a wide range of experiences together into one convenient lump. Skeptics might suggest that Psi experiences all fit nicely into the realm of "dishonesty, stupidity and delusional thinking"... and they would be wrong. Likewise there are people who think Psi is somehow evil or demonically inspired. I don't even put much faith into those who dismiss the scary experiences, but who can't get enough of those blissful insights from mystics that just have to be true!

My own Psi experiences are pretty diverse. There have been pleasant experiences, while others have been very upsetting. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to them. I've even seen researchers disregard the stuff they don't want to consider, the stuff that doesn't fit a pet theory very well.

Everyone needs to be more open-minded about Psi, not just the skeptics!

I agree with all that Sandy, absolutely!

The point I was trying to make is summed up nicely by your final sentence!

"The trouble with Psi is that so little is known about it that it allows anyone to morph any world-view around it in a way that might not be illogical per se (to them), and then persuade anyone else from the massed ranks of the morally and emotionally challenged to follow suite.

In effect, that's all skeptics have done. But I've observed exactly the same habit in 'pro' Psi groups."

&

"Everyone needs to be more open-minded about Psi, not just the skeptics!"

Well said both! In my experience it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find any truly comfortable ground amid the believer/skeptic dichotomy. S/He who walks in the middle of the road risks getting hit by traffic from both directions.

When dogma takes a firm hold then there is a natural inclination to edge towards the opposite view. When the opposite view is equally dogmatic one is forced into noman's land.

I think this is a path we tread alone. Perhaps we are supposed/designed todo just that?

Julie, I'm not so sure it's supposed to be a lonely path. I think maybe it's more about overcoming the perception of being alone and seeing/finding that we are all very much connected.

It's not a lonely trek, it's more of a potluck dinner! And you're invited! :)

Yes, of course we are all connected, Sandy, I've never doubted that. It's just that the tentacles can lead to strangulation, if you get my drift. In matters of the deepest nature, i.e. Psi related phenomena, we are alone as we sift the wheat from the chaff.

Part of the problem folks, as I see it, is that everyone comes at the subject from a different angle. It's just the way it is and, on its own, that's fine We all have many different things that we think we 'need' from Psi that, really, could be better translated as 'want'. But many people are very un-laidback about the whole business. That is when the 'strangulation' manifests.

One of the main things that people want/need in general, of course, is personal validation - that tingle of pleasurable arousal that puts an extra bright band of definition around the idea of self and helps us 'feel' valid to ourselves. Unfortunately, often, in practice, that ends up being translated as 'better than everyone else' - although, of course, you would have a devil of a time getting some people to admit it.

That is why I feel that the Psi skeptic/believer dichotomy is a false one - in many important respects. But, most importantly, we see the same basic drive manifesting. Therefore many skeptics and believers can be viewed as one logical social group that use Psi (or their beliefs about it - in the absence of any objective evidence, in most cases) as a football to be hoofed around from one end of the pitch to the other purely as a means of self-validation. And the thing that I find quite amusing is that that metaphor remains equally valid whether Psi actually exists or not.

And yes Julie, your observation re the hazards of attempting to occupy the middle ground are very astute. Both 'sides' can be terribly anal and defensive when their cherished beliefs about Psi are challenged - no matter how politely. You get very used to the sound of bullets zinging over your head from all directions. It is also a bit like running into the middle of the pitch, grabbing the ball and booting it over the trees - wobbly bottom lips and angry shouts everywhere!

Happily, over the years, I've become comfortable with deluding myself with the notion that, as long as I'm causing roughly equal offence to people at either extreme - then I'm probably getting my own personal balance about right - a bit like the BBC at election time ;)

PS (more properly related to Rob's previous post, I admit)

I've just come across this rant from that doyen of world-view bed wetting Jerry Coyne: -

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115533/rupert-sheldrake-fools-bbc-deepak-chopra

Bless!

Wow. Just wow. People like Coyne really seem to personally *hate* Sheldrake, or so it seems to me. You can feel the anger emanating from his words.

I don't understand it. Sheldrake is quite mild-mannered, in general and he doesn't tend to make malicious attacks upon people. So Coyne and Myers and everybody else think Sheldrake is totally wrong and that his ideas are ridiculous. But why do they have to be so angry and hateful about it? Why do they have to be so disrespectful to Sheldrake, who has never done anything to them?

I notice Coyne takes exception to Sheldrake being granted the privilege of airing his views in a BBC interview. He says "I wonder why the BBC gives Sheldrake a voice at all?" Rupert had better look out - maybe Coyne will stage a campaign to have him banned from any further BBC interviews!

But Coyne's apparent displeasure that the BB giving Sheldrake a "voice" gives us an insight into the desire for Stalinist suppression and censorship that appears to be a mainstay of *some* prominent sceptics. They want Sheldrake, and others like him, to be stigmatised and silenced. Does Coyne not realise that in a liberal, tolerant and open society, everyone should be allowed to have their voice? Why should people like Sheldrake be excluded from places like the BBC simply because their worldview is in conflict with the philosophy dominating mainstream science today? All Coyne is essentially doing is advocating bias and bigotry against people who are different.

Coyne and others like him may *say* they want a liberal and tolerant society, and perhaps even think they do, but they don't. These people are not tolerant, far from it. They want a society in which people with fringe views (like Sheldrake) are suppressed.

The way people like Coyne go on about Sheldrake, you'd think he'd eaten their babies or something.

Instead of dumping his spite on a harmless individual like Rupert Sheldrake, Coyne would be better served by criticising James Randi for being a board member of the FMSF (it's funny how these pseudosceptics shriek about people like Sheldrake practicising "pseudoscience" but have not a word of criticism for Randi's ties to the FMSF, which itself is a pseudoscientific organisation) and raise questions as to why CSICOP installed Vern Bullough (a board member of a paedophile magazine) as its human sexuality editor. Sexual abuse of children is a very real and harmful problem. Sheldrake giving talks is not.

Michelle, it's interesting to note re Coyne that he's doled out the same treatment to scientists much more distinguished in the mainstream than himself, who've dared to question aspects of neo-Darwinism e.g. the late Lynne Margulis (former wife of moderate CSICOPER Carl Sagan) and Denis Noble (who Coyne seems to be hilariously ignorant of the fact, was Richard Dawkins' PHD examiner).

Margulis had, and Noble has, no connection whatever to the Psi debate, and (probably) no interest in it. Coyne made a prize chump of himself in the case of his recent attack on the latter that caused a mixture of anger, bafflement, hilarity and bemusement in the world of conventional biology.

Unfortunately, though, with PSI it's a different matter. Noble can shake of an attack from Coyne in the same way that a dog absent mindedly shakes off a bit of water from its tail. Sheldrake, because the knives came out for him years ago, has more of a problem. But you can tell that what has rattled Coyne is that the BBC have actually given Sheldrake a fair hearing. As did Will Storr in his recent book.

The thing I find delightful about skeptics sometimes, is their self-destructive lack of social self-awareness.

@Steve: "Happily, over the years, I've become comfortable with deluding myself with the notion that, as long as I'm causing roughly equal offence to people at either extreme - then I'm probably getting my own personal balance about right - a bit like the BBC at election time ;)"

Lovely turn of phrase! A man after my own heart. 8)

@Michelle: The hatred and anger meted out at Rupert Sheldrake by the likes of Coyne and Myers is an expression of their fear that he just might well be right in much of what he says. There are very few people that I admire as much as Rupert. His intellectual courage and integrity are second to none. 8)


Ps. What I liked most about your blog posting, Robert, is the fact that you sounded almost angry at times. 'Tis a good sign, methinks.

Michelle Gibson
"Coyne and others like him may *say* they want a liberal and tolerant society, and perhaps even think they do"

Only if you're a Born Again Materialist

"Why do they have to be so disrespectful to Sheldrake, who has never done anything to them?"

it may have something to do with sheldrakes involvement in running (owning ? it being registered in his mane ?) the skeptical investigations website which is quite vocal about organized skeptics and their failings.


lovely hair rupert has but i meant in his name

Nice one Billy! :)

Rupert Sheldrake has 'form' with skeptics going back as far as 1981, the major event being the editor of 'Nature' (CSICOP 'Fellow') Sir John Maddox labelling Sheldrake's book 'A New Science of Life' as being 'A Book for Burning?'. A rhetorical question, if ever there was one. Maddox, incidentally, also served on CSICOP's 'Council for Media Integrity' (don't titter folks - that's what it's really called)

Sheldrake's crime was his theory of 'Morphic Resonance' which amounted to an extremely strong Psi-like challenge to neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism, of course, is one of the fundamental tenets of skepticism. Not content with that, Sheldrake ignored the red-faced tub thumping and went on to (shock, horror, probe) conduct experiments into telepathy in animals. What a sneak! I think we all know the rest.

I should have added though, in my earlier comments, that what Rupert Sheldrake does not lack is social awareness and he appears, to me, to be a lot smarter (with a more impressive track record in 'conventional' science) than most of his detractors. He engages with, and will give a fair hearing to virtually anyone - even the likes of Coyne.

Frankly I'm not qualified to make much comment on morphic resonance itself. Although I do not remember feeling that it was particularly weird. But I do remember that Maddox's comments about Sheldrake's book caused a lot of outrage amongst the scientific community at the time, rather in the same way that the recent TEDx episode did.

As someone once remarked about Randi - Coyne appears to have been unselfconsciously blasting away at his own foot for quite a while, and has managed (after a great deal of practice) to have actually hit it quite a few times recently. I wish him well in his future efforts in that regard!

BTW: Sheldrake came over very well in Storr's book. Much better that Randi who, with his ill-advised comments about social Darwinism, together with his admission of having told the odd porkie pie at times (ho, ho) faired better than the loathsome David Irving - but not that much. Not in my eyes anyway.

Concerning the BBC interview with Sheldrake, I'm surprised that PZ Myers hasn't said anything!

According to this, James, Myers has been involved in internal controversy within the skeptic movement. To his credit, he appears to have outed a sexual predator who is a well known skeptic: -

http://www.dailygrail.com/Skepticism/2013/8/Is-the-Week-Organized-Skepticism-Imploded

This link is available on the Skeptical investigations site. I would follow the further link from the text of the article if you want to know the identity of the alleged predator. The Grail are obviously aware of the danger of exposing themselves to legal action.

There appears to be a lot of this activity associated with the movement. Prometheus did, after all, publish a lot of sexual stuff, and at least one of the titles was banned in the UK. There is the FMSF connection, mentioned earlier as well of course.

It could be that Myers has more to worry about than Sheldrake right now. Then, again, maybe not.

Just realised - RabbitDawg mentioned the above in passing earlier.

Nice blog!

I had an off topic question (which I can't post on the other posts because they are closed). Did Houdini put much effort into debunking other forms of psi like mental mediumship, apparitions, psychic healing, etc., or did he just focus mostly on physical mediumship? I don't see Houdini's name associated a lot with other topics.

This is off topic Mr. McLuhan but I just wanted to share a poem I wrote with you and your readers. It's about the new respect that the paranormal and religion are now enjoying in academic circles. It's not very good but I hope you like it :)

http://voices.yahoo.com/at-last-honest-scholar-12095790.html?cat=2

Nice verse!

Houdini: was only concerned with physical mediums, as far as I know.

I had planned to post something this week, but alas it didn't happen, and I'm off now to Portugal for a few days. Até logo!

Hello Robert: I'm going to draw a very rough analogy here, but the "skeptical" response to your book reminds me of those in the United States who don't believe that there was a conspiracy to kill president Kennedy 50 years ago. You see many seemingly intelligent people (1) lump the most ridiculous speculation in the same box as highly credible alternative views; (2) you see commenters who present themselves as independent or free thinkers lapse into walking down the safe path illuminated by the official story; (3) you see the fear (maybe it's only fear with a small F) of going against the Church of the Official Version; and (4) a dismissal of solid research that, in my opinion, shows the error of the official version.

I often say that if the facts of the JFK death had occurred in another country, many Americans would scream that absolutely it was a conspiracy. But I guess it's hard to look critically at one's self.

Of course, I'm in no way suggesting that those who accept the paranormal must accept, in this instance, the conspiracy version of the president's death. I'm just saying that I see a lot of the same behavior in operation.

Good points Carl

"I often say that if the facts of the JFK death had occurred in another country, many Americans would scream that absolutely it was a conspiracy. But I guess it's hard to look critically at one's self."

It's been said before that if skeptics were presented with evidence as weak as they often use to deny Psi, but in favour of it, then they'd complain as loudly as, well - as loudly as they do, I suppose!

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  • ‘These disturbing phenomena seem to deny all our usual scientific ideas. How we should like to discredit them! Unfortunately the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming. It is very difficult to rearrange one’s ideas so as to fit these new facts in.’ Alan Turing, computer scientist.

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