I wrote a while ago about Debating Psychic Experience, a compilation of pro and anti essays, mainly in terms of Chris Carter engaging with sceptics Ray Hyman and James Alcock. I'm writing a review of the book for a journal now, and thought I'd have a look at couple of the other essays here (in separate posts).
One that struck me especially is by remote viewing expert Stephan A. Schwartz. Schwartz writes about something that I've been thinking a lot about recently, the way that psi relates to other controversial topics such as evolution and climate change (I touched on it here). His piece is titled The Antique Roadshow: How Denier Movements Critique Evolution, Climate Change, and Nonlocal Consciousness.
Schwartz complains about the lamentable effects of denier movements. Although creationism seems 'medieval and absurd', thanks to the efforts of well-funded religious organisations it's widely believed in the US (as, alas, it is increasingly in Britain). A 2008 Pew poll reports that no fewer than 55% of Americans believe the world was created in the last 10,000 years, with all species pretty much as they are today, and that the numbers have been steadily increasing over the past decade. Similarly, climate change deniers have been obstructing the development of rational policies to deal with what the best scientific research says is happening with our climate, with possibly fatal consequences.
The impact of consciousness-deniers, as Schwartz calls them, is less understood. But he argues this too has 'a very direct social consequence'. For the nonlocal aspect of consciousness 'may very well account for the insight of genius, for religious epiphany, as well as for psychic experiences'.
In an age when the acquisition and analysis of information as well as the fostering of innovation that produces breakthroughs will be critical determinants of societal success, learning how individuals make intuitive leaps that change the game is no small matter. More profoundly these studies, the collective product of multiple disciplines, are beginning to describe how consciousness and matter interact. Collectively they are defining a new paradigms.
Schwartz suggests that these three denier movements all share certain things in common. For instance, they make a point of defining themselves a sceptics but aren't really: it's an absence of doubt that defines their positions. Then, too, they are essentially there to defend a cherished paradigms slowly moving into crisis, just as described by Thomas Kuhn.
He gives examples of how all three movements are able to distort the science in order to influence policy-makers. The frauds are biggest and most complex in climate change denial, Schwartz says, carefully filtered through a network of denier institutes and think tanks. (Why is it oil companies that pour so much money into debunking global warming science? Does one even have to ask?) He describes the example of a climate denier Sceptics Handbook, that was created and funded by oil interests, including $676,000 from Exxon Mobil, and 150,000 copies distributed to opinion-makers across the US, largely neutralising the US government's parallel attempt to educate the public about climate change science.
The creationist lobby used its political influence over the Bush administration to stop the Grand Canyon National Park providing an official estimate of the geologic age of the canyon - to avoid offending religious interests. Far more serious is the effect it is having in classrooms, where children are increasingly being told that evolution science is no more than a theory and on a par with Old Testament twaddle.
On 'consciousness-denial', Schwartz describes with some relish the scandal surrounding the CSICOP's attempt to manipulate astrology data at the time of its founding, 'a comedy of incompetence, bombast, and a commitment to denial so powerful it overturned good sense and ethics, until the deniers were thoroughly tarred for their unscientific disdain of experimental evidence and integrity.' He also fingers Ray Hyman, who by the time he and Jessica Utts had examined the sample of remote viewing data provided by the US military's Star Gate program in the mid 1990s, was conceding that the experimental flaws that he had argued nullified previous research had disappeared. The effect sizes, he accepted, 'are too large and consistent to be dismissed as statistical flukes'. Yet seven years later he was still dissing remote viewing as if nothing at all had been agreed ('I didn't see any science at all, any evidence they got anything right other than pure guesswork').
Schwartz's essay is a bracing and passionate denunciation of the distortion of science and its consequences. But how close are the parallels between the three, and is it appropriate to conflate them?
In my book Randi's Prize I've briefly touched on creationism in the context of psi-denial. Obviously religious fundamentalists and secularist scientists are unlikely bedfellows, unless one wants to characterise the latter as 'fundamentalist' in their adherence to scientism. Personally I wouldn't want to go that far, but I think the comparison is fair, if only to demonstrate that the opposite pairing, of creationism and parapsychology, which tends to be held by sceptical scientists, is false. The data-bank that supports creationism is virtually non-existent compared to evolution science. The data that supports psi, on the other hand, if not conclusive to sceptics, is at least voluminous and well-established.
On climate change, as I understand it, the controversy mainly centres on disagreement about the use of computer modelling for predictions of future weather patterns. I accept that there may be uncertainty about the extent and nature of the likely problems. But given the enormous intrusion of human activity on the planet's ecosystems I fail to see the justification for ignoring scientific warnings and carrying on as if there was nothing at all to be concerned about. Watching über-sceptic Lord Monkton on Rupert Murray's BBC film last week scratch around for rocks that would somehow wreck the case for man-made global warming seemed laughably trivial, and so exactly how creationists behave.
I have no data to back this up, but I suspect that the people who think the world was created a few thousand years ago in all its diverse glory tend often to be the same sort of folk who think that climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by liberals and 'eco-fascists' to impose a global tyranny. Murray filmed the same spluttering media blowhards who back the Tea Party movement getting apoplectic about claims of man-made global warming: it's the threat of extra taxes and constraints to individual freedoms they're bothered about. That's their religion. The idea that science might have something important to say about the planet we all call home, or that some kind of adaptation might be necessary and sensible, just doesn't come into it.
When it comes to consciousness I have a few qualifications. To begin with, I'm not sure about the term 'consciousness-denier'. Sceptics no longer deny that humans are conscious, as they did in the last century, they just say they can explain consciousness within the materialist paradigm. It's claims of psychic functioning which threaten this paradigm that they deny, so strictly speaking they are psi-deniers. I can see that for rhetorical purposes 'consciousness-denier' is a more emotive term than 'psi-denier', as many people are probably unfamiliar with the term 'psi', but perhaps for that reason alone we should be wary of it.
For there's the question of who psi-deniers are. Creationists deny established science on an epic scale, and it's hard to believe that many thinking people subscribe to it. (I'm sure there are notable exceptions, but that's surely what they are). Psi-denial, by contrast, is led by the scientific establishment, which has sound scientific and philosophical arguments for doubting the reality of psi, whether or not we agree with them. Those of us who act as advocates just have to get better at confronting their objections, which ideally should relate to the data. I'm not convinced that bracketing them with Creationists and climate change sceptics is the way to get their attention and overcome their doubts.
I also have a comment about the way Schwartz identifies the negative consequences of consciousness-denial, to use his term. It's clear that creationism in classrooms could have a profoundly negative effect on education, while the antics of the climate change lobby could quite literally be the cause of humanity eventually frying to cinders. These are clear and present dangers and need to be combated. Is psi-denial in quite the same category? The way sceptics obstruct the emergence of a new paradigm can be frustrating to those who already in a certain sense accept it. But this discomfort is surely just part of the process, the birthpangs so to speak; they're surely not going to stop it happening
Ideally it might happen now, of course. Schwartz argues that humanity urgently needs to understand new ways of accessing information. But as he himself demonstrates, the use of intuition as a means to gain knowledge is already available to us: scientists, doubtless including those who ardently deny the existence of psi, often benefit from it in achieving conceptual breakthroughs; it's also evident in the arts. Psi deniers aren't preventing anything. Anyone is free to believe in the reality of psi and investigate it, and to hold ideas of consciousness that are profoundly at odds with the materialist paradigm for their personal growth and benefit.
I'm glad to see someone raising this issue and Schwartz has admirably made the point. The business of denial is becoming more and more a feature of our world, and it's natural that psi advocates should see the behaviour of sceptics in those terms. But I also think we have to be careful about going too far down this road. Calling it 'denial' is one thing, likening it too closely to other more egregious forms of the same thing could be going too far. In the long run, raising the temperature of the debate about psi is unlikely to help.