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.