A thoughtful discussion by two of the most controversial figures of our day. Pleased to see Randi's Prize makes an appearance :)
I read a great story in a private forum recently about Marcello Truzzi, the sceptic who co-founded CSICOP with Paul Kurtz and others, but fell out with them over their militancy. I don’t suppose anyone will mind if I retell it, but I won’t reveal the source.
Truzzi was seated next to a parapsychologist at a conference dinner, and the two were arguing about whether or not remote viewing had been proved. The parapsychologist challenged Truzzi to try it then and there. Truzzi grudgingly agreed.
It was decided that the viewing would be precognitive, with the target selected after Truzzi’s experience. Truzzi was taken through the protocol, then asked to describe what imagery he saw.
He said he saw a circle. It was hard and smooth and probably metallic, possibly yellow, but at one point in the circle there was something with texture. I asked him to make a drawing. He drew a rectangle with a bird on a branch in it.
A waitress was called over and asked to write down objects in her field of vision. She chose a salt shaker, a pearl necklace that one of the women was wearing, a fork, a wine glass, flowers in a vase, and the parapsychologist’s signet ring. A second waitress was handed the list and asked to select a single object. She chose the ring.
This was an exact hit. I can’t publish the images here, but it’s a rectangular bloodstone, dark green with flecks of red, set on a gold ring. The stone is engraved with two heraldic images, one of which looks like a bird on a perch (described as a ‘kingfisher atop a bar of bunting’).
The incident was witnessed by several other people at the dinner. Truzzi found it embarrassing and insisted on being given the session data, including the order tickets on which the waitresses had created the target set and target selection.
Later the parapsychologist reminded Truzzi about the episode and challenged him about his scepticism.
There was a moment of silence as we both sat there remembering this experience. Then Marcello said, "I am much more effective and influential as a reasonable skeptic than as a convert." We never discussed it again.
Truzzi was surely right. He filled a rather important role, that of the moderate sceptic who was prepared to confront the militants. Psi advocates see him almost as an ally in that respect. But how useful would it have been for him to express conviction about the reality of psi? In that case he would have been one of many, his influence diminished, a necessary task neglected.
People who straddle the boundary are rather rare – and intriguing. Another example is William James. In his recent biography Michael Tymn is critical of James’s ‘fence-sitting’ with regard to survival. Considering the strength of Piper’s phenomena, which was sufficient to convince Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop, why did James continue to be so ambivalent? Tymn considers this a lack of courage on James’s part.
A reviewer – Alan Gauld in a recent issue of the SPR Journal – disagrees. He points to the ‘brilliant’ attack that James made on materialist view of consciousness and his ‘forthright’ declaration of acceptance of psychic phenomena, almost alone among professional psychologists of the day. Far from being a fence-sitter, Gauld argues, James had fundamental doubts about survival, based on genuine dismay at the state of the departed as ‘a vacancy, triviality and incoherence painful to think of.’
In a later issue Tymn pushes back. He points out that reference to his experiences with Piper are glaringly absent from The Varieties of Religious Experience. Hodgson, having seen the proofs, was perplexed that James never once addressed the survival issue, the very crux of religion. So in a hastily added postscript, apparently added to justify the omission, James concedes that although religion means immortality for most people, facts are lacking for ‘spirit return’, despite his admiration for the efforts of psychical researchers, and being ‘somewhat impressed by their favourable conclusions’.
Yet James often in his writings referred obliquely, and sympathetically, to the idea of survival. At the end of Varieties he states:
I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W.K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bears the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.
For all this, James ‘continually beat around the bush’ on the survival issue, disguising it in such terms as ‘the eternal’. Tymn writes:
He said that a person should be content in his or her faith that there is a higher power, even if that higher power does not promise life after death... In effect, he was saying that the blind faith of religion is enough, whereas the goal of psychical research was to move from disbelief or blind faith to conviction through scientifically-developed evidence.
In short, James deliberately took the point of view of the ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, on the grounds that tactically it is better to believe too little than too much. Tymn takes this to mean that he preferred the ‘safe’ approach, one in which he didn’t have to put his reputation on the line.’
Is this criticism of James justified? Tymn’s assessment did confirm my sense that James was deliberately ambivalent about survival. And it’s natural to feel that this was a lost opportunity. If James, a pioneering psychologist with enormous influence, had swung behind the survivalist convictions of other credible people who investigated Piper – notably Hodgson, Myers, Lodge and Hyslop - then perhaps the academic world would now be taking mediumship and the concept of survival more seriously.
To be fair, Tymn doesn’t go this far. But I’m sure some people think this, and it’s almost certainly false. The only effect of James’s espousing a belief in survival would have been to weaken his intellectual standing – he would have been a sadly diminished figure, both in his own lifetime and in posterity. But as a pioneering scientist, James’s dedicated interest in religious experience has helped generations of people to think about it in ways that might not otherwise be possible.
It’s certainly possible to imagine both Truzzi and James going further down a path towards conviction. Psi-advocates might wish it for their sake, believing that it’s better for anyone to understand the truth, or in order to have influential people in their camp (not understanding that such influence would vanish they moment they crossed the border). Conversely, it greatly irritates sceptics that someone of James’s stature should have dabbled in woo, and they make excuses for him, for instance that he was ‘bamboozled’ by evil charlatans.
So of course they get attacked from both sides. But I don’t believe they, and others like them, are insincere. They just happen to grow into a particular view of things - by an unusual combination of temperament, experience and circumstances – and the debates about science, psi and religion are all the richer for it.
Everyone is used to hearing stories about a country called France, and although no serious person gives them credence, I confess I have often found myself wondering about them. To be clear, I’m an open minded person, with advanced degrees in geography and modern languages, and if there truly were convincing evidence of such a country I would be the first to acknowledge it.
So it was with interest that I came across a new book by someone named John Isthisgy Forreal that discusses the existence of France, and supports his thesis with all kinds of testimony. At a superficial glance it looks serious and one might very easily be taken in. The author gives descriptions by people who claim to have visited France, and by people who claim to live there and actually speak a language called French. Alas, all fail the test. The tired tropes and tricks that go into creating the illusion of this fabled place have been exposed over and over again.
Indeed, it is a great pity that the author, who is not without intelligence, wasted so much time on such an obviously futile endeavor. Sadly, Forreal seems unable to distinguish truth from fiction. He has signally failed to provide any idea of the scientific protocols that would be needed for such a claim as the existence of France to stand. Nor does he grasp that the burden of proof for such an extraordinary claim rests on the person making it.
In fact I should have put the book down then and there, but curiosity persuaded me to persevere. I then came across a totally ridiculous discussion of alleged chateaux in somewhere called the Loire Valley, which I have to say dismayed me by its obtuse naivety. Is the author not aware that the existence of chateaux has been repeatedly unmasked as a sham, as one can confirm for oneself at any time by consulting Wikipedia?
If just one person could provide convincing proof of being French, for instance by speaking a language that made sense instead of being a lot of gutteral nonsense, then of course the existence of France would be validated as real. But no one has. Not a single one. Instead we are treated to stories of obvious imposters with names like Napoleon and Voltaire and a laughably fake panoply of kings called Louis. What the author seems unable to grasp is that these were never more than unvalidated anecdotes, and the plural of anecdotes is not data. Also, we should never forget that fraud is rife. As we know, many gullible people were taken in by the recent visit to our shores of a man claiming to be the president of France, particularly in the media, which is notorious for its lack of discernment in such matters.
There is a much better book on the subject, one which I can heartily recommend, Nonsensical Tales of Imaginary Countries and the Charlatans Who Promote Them, by James Bunkerdash, a world authority who has gained remarkable insight into such matters while never stirring more than five miles from his home in Albuquerque.
I could go on, but you get the point. This is me venting at the discovery of a new one-star review of Randi’s Prize on the US Amazon site, so splendid in its stately stupidity as to deserve singling out in a competitive field. In fact I’m not entirely sure it’s not a spoof (in which case, well done, you got me!) Please no one leave any comments – it deserves to be left complete and untarnished.
I often catch myself thinking that I understand the sceptic mentality, and could engage with it if only I had the right tools and arguments. But then something like this comes along that reminds me how I utterly out of my depth I am. It’s completely baffling, as though some demon had cast a spell on certain people that, on this matter, stops them recognising a logical chain of reasoning. I know that’s exactly what they think about people like me, because they keep telling me so, but that just compounds the mystery. They're convinced they have some special access to this thing called Critical Thinking denied to us lesser mortals. As I may have said before, I wish the critics would address my actual arguments, instead of trampling over them in their rush their preferred destination.
Anyway, this diverted me from more serious matters. Specifically the post I was actually planning to write today, and which will now have to wait until later in the week. Grrr. My fault for checking up on my Amazon page – I really should just leave it to look after itself.
I’ve just finished Craig Weiler’s new book Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet, and what a shocking read it is. Craig is a blogger on psi topics who has closely followed two related controversies of 2014, the censoring by TED of video talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, and the adulteration of psi pages on Wikipedia.
These episodes have brought to a head the tensions that have been building up for years over pseudosceptic behaviour, and Craig has been involved both as an observer and a protagonist. We know the story, sort of, but it hasn't been told with so much force and in such relentless detail.
As is by now fairly well known, the TED administrators succumbed to sceptics’ complaints against Sheldrake and Hancock with an entire lack of critical sense, removed their talks, and then, faced with a storm of indignation, tried to compromise by giving space to hostile comments, while lamely clinging to the verdict of their science ‘advisors’ that both men were guilty of ‘pseudoscience’. As is so often the case with knee-jerk sceptics (in pretty much any area), they attributed positions to Sheldrake and Hancock which neither held, and made assertions that were frankly slanderous.
Craig includes a lot of context for this, including a blow-by-blow account of the subsequent cancellation of a planned TedxWestHollywood event called ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm’ that left the organiser seriously out of pocket. There’s a lot else besides. The narrative is interspersed with chapters that deal with such things as the scientific background on consciousness, facts about parapsychology and scientistic scepticism, also the most complete and up-to-date debunking I’ve yet seen of James Randi and the famous Challenge. There are also sections on the CSI /CSICOP and Robert Todd Carroll’s so-called ‘dictionary’, a collection of uninformed sceptical musings which, alas, is treated on Wikipedia as a key reliable source.
Later chapters turn to the Wikipedia drama that unfolded during the summer, when hostile editors first degraded Rupert Sheldrake’s page in an attempt to destroy his reputation, then fiercely rebutted attempts to revert the changes, and finally tried to get sympathetic editors banned as trolls and sock-puppets - with some success. The book catalogues some of the most egregious problems, for instance the way credentialled experts on a given subject, including university professors and Nobel prize-winners, find themselves at war with dimwits who think they know better, and who use wiki-lawyering skills to get their way (this covers examples besides parapsychology). As far as Wikipedia is concerned the majority view is always the right one – which historically is indefensible.
There are some interesting demographic stats:
According to a thesis paper by Spanish researcher Filipe Ortega143, Wikipedia lost almost 50,000 editors in 2009. The core group of editors has picked up the slack. Who is this core? It is 87% male with an average age of 26.8 years. This hardly is the demographic to entrust with the world’s knowledge. In the real world we would never tolerate people that young being entrusted with the accuracy of an important encyclopaedia.
One of the best sections of the book is an analysis of pseudosceptic thinking. An odd characteristic is that their statements about what parapsychologists believe don’t match statements by the parapsychologists themselves in their books and articles, as with the TED administrators. They seem unable to read straight – it’s as though the material they are reading transmogrifies in the passage from book to brain, so that it conforms to their own prejudices.
Unkind readers (read militant sceptics) will call the book a rant. If so it’s several orders of magnitude better than the excitable, uninformed slander that characterises sceptic articles like this one by Coyne, and which truly deserves the term. Craig’s arguments are not just clear and orderly, they’re powerfully backed up by detailed research.
Really this is about politics. As Craig remarks, and I completely agree, ‘The skeptics are to science, what the Tea party is to Republicans. They’re on the same side, but their radicalized attitude, just as with the Tea Party, presents both a solid base of support and sends moderates running in the other direction.’ As with the Tea Party, one gets the sense of a sceptic movement that is becoming ever more extreme, which is bringing the controversies out into the open.
I know some of Paranormalia’s readers follow up my recommendations about new books, at least some of the time. From the comments that many of you have made over the years I think this is one that you will certainly appreciate.
It’s three years since I published Randi’s Prize, and I thought it would be a good time for a catch-up.
Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. I was thrilled with the generous responses from readers on Amazon, also the many who took the trouble to write to me. I still sometimes hear from new readers, and get special satisfaction from those who say that after reading the book they are taking the subject seriously for the first time.
Naturally I wondered what sort of critical reactions the book would get. I guessed that readers would either like it or hate it, and that seems to have been the case. The Amazon reviews, both UK and US, tend to be 5-stars (the great majority) or 1-star and not much in between.
An exception was a quite interesting three-star review which complained I was preaching to the converted.
It's nice when you're cheering your supporters up but that's not who this book needs to impress, in my view. I happen to think the points he makes are excellent but he perhaps doesn't realise that if non-believers had the same reality analysis values he does, they wouldn't be sceptics. . . I think he really needs to get more in sympathy with the highly intolerant and almost impossible conditions that hardened naysayers lay down and get in some quick hooks, quickly.
In fact I had thought a great deal about how to talk to non-believers. But a writer has to be honest; anything else won’t do. So I said what I felt, which is that sceptical responses to psychic claims are often defensive, incoherent and nonsensical. I knew that wasn’t going to win over sceptics, but they were never my target audience.
Instead I hoped the book would appeal to agnostics, people who had vaguely thought about the subject after having perhaps experienced a psychic incident themselves, or been told of one by a family member. I think I was right about that.
We all come to a book, or any creative work, from a different place, which is why there are so many different critical responses. I certainly didn’t think that coming on hard and strong from the beginning would work. On the contrary, it would be tiresomely dogmatic, and would turn readers off. If one expresses a strong view on the subject the reader is always asking, how did the author get to this position? What truly motivates him? That’s why I took so much trouble to explain my reasoning at every step.
Anyway how does one argue with the naysayers? Some hostile reviewers objected to the idea of a mere journalist, a purveyor of tittle-tattle, correcting credentialled scientists. One damned me as a parapsychologist (ouch!). Understandably there were complaints about my shabby treatment of James Randi, the heroic defender of science, and of his transparent and easily winnable prize:
Randi's challenge is the embodiment of hypothesis-driven science. If you think you can do something "paranormal", says Randi, say exactly what it is, under exactly what conditions, and with exactly what expectation of success. That's an entirely rational requirement for anyone who says they can do things that defy rational explanation.
Yes indeed. Useless to explain that people have been doing this for more than a century, not just scientific investigators but stage magicians like Randi – and getting convincing results. Why is Randi so special? My idea of hypothesis-driven science is that, if you think the claimed phenomenon might be real, you set up an investigation or an experiment. To set a trap and wait for people to fall into it is something quite different – and certainly not science.
What I mainly noticed from the complainers was a mule-like resistance to any kind of reasoning whatever. They seemed hardly to have read the book; instead they just skimmed the surface for points they could rebut. One reviewer lifted a comment out of context and attributed to it the opposite meaning from the one I intended. Another complained of my ‘touching belief that peoples' stories and recollections - many if not most of them recorded decades ago - are faithful and unerring accounts of fact.’ Gaaah!
Then there was this one:
I was fooled by the blurb into thinking this might be an evidence-based account employing standard best-practice methodologies. In fact, it is simply a collection of completely biased accounts involving data drilling and anecdote; a re-hash of the centuries-old superstition dressed up (incompetently or dishonestly) as objective research. It should really be called "Why Skeptics are Only Right if you Take Evidence into Account" . . . But until McLuhan can get *properly designed trials* to support him instead of the skeptics, his battle is not with the skeptics but with the real world.
Since the whole point of the book was to argue the opposite – that many accounts of psychic incidents are fully investigated and well corroborated, that many successful experiments are indeed ‘properly designed’, and that therefore we should revisit materialist preconceptions about the ‘real world’ – I wondered where I had gone wrong. What could I have done better? What can anyone do, apart from using the tools of persuasion: collect abundant facts and apply rigorous reasoning?
I couldn’t come up with a solution, except to stand over the critic with a big stick and make him read each paragraph of my book over and over until I was sure he’d grasped the point - and then force him to make an appropriate answer.
It’s not that I especially minded this sort of thing, and I certainly shouldn’t have been surprised about it. (Some of the more obtuse critiques were capably answered by other reviewers, which was gratifying – my thanks to them.) But what did disappoint me slightly was that no sceptic, as far as I can recall, has ever engaged with a single one of my arguments. They appear not even to notice that I have made any.
An exception might have been French blogger Jean-Michel Abrassart, who read the book attentively and said he liked it because it did at least air sceptical arguments quite fully. He wasn’t impressed with my counter-arguments, insisting that I minimised the problem of replication in experimental parapsychology, and underestimated the weakness of testimony in spontaneous cases. But he didn’t respond to my reasoning in either case, only to my conclusion, which he rebutted simply by reiterating the sceptic position. If sceptics have outed Eusapia Palladino as a fraud, for instance, why then, there is nothing more to be said. There can be no retrial.
Abrassart and a few others took exception to my idea that a person who confesses to fraud in this context might not be telling the truth. Some seemed scandalised by the suggestion that Margaret Fox was lying when she publicly claimed that she and her sister had fooled their parents with childish tricks all those years before.
But there are points about this episode that cry out for exposure. Margaret was clearly lying about her and her sister’s ages, seeming to believe it would make the confession more plausible. Her statement does not remotely explain the events described in great detail by eyewitnesses forty years earlier. Scores of precisely similar incidents have been reported by other people. And all of this is indisputable to anyone who takes the trouble to check, and if the positions were reversed no sceptic would take her statement seriously for one second. Yet a position I saw repeated in reviews and comments is that Margaret Fox’s confession is indubitably true.
This really astonished me. Do we believe that criminal confessions are always true? No we do not. On the contrary, it’s shaming and disturbing to learn, again and again, how innocent, vulnerable people have been banged up for decades on the basis of nothing more than an invented confession, often put into their mouths and assented to in a moment of weakness. Why is this different?
What all this told me is that sceptical responses aren’t based on argument, they’re about defending the integrity of scientific materialism. I know that’s obvious, but I needed to confirm it for myself. Sceptics bang on endlessly about following the evidence, but in this context they could hardly care less about it – as their responses to my book abundantly show.
Still, the phenomenon of denial is so gross, and so extraordinary, that instead of simply expressing frustration and puzzlement, a writer like myself might profitably investigate the reasons for it. In Randi’s Prize I explored what I thought were promising leads about the psychology underlying militant disbelief, and whose importance I hope will one day be more generally recognised.
But in the last chapter I started to think about what it is that is so hugely valuable to humans, so necessary and important, that it needs to be protected by evasions, distortions and even outright lies. Could it even be that there is a point to this, that scientific materialism needs to be nurtured and protected in this way? There’s something be said on both sides, and in my next book I hope at least to take the matter a bit further.
I posted briefly earlier this week about Rupert Sheldrake’s travails with Wikipedia. He’s now published an article about it on his own blog:
Wikipedia is a wonderful invention. But precisely because it’s so trusted and convenient, people with their own agendas keep trying to take it over. Editing wars are common. According to researchers at Oxford University,the most controversial subjects worldwide include Israel and God.
This is not surprising. Everyone knows that there are opposing views on politics and religion, and many people recognise a biased account when they see it. But in the realm of science, things are different. Most people have no scientific expertise and believe that science is objective. Their trust is now being abused systematically by a highly motivated group of activists called Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.
Read the rest here.
Some readers will recall a couple of posts I wrote a few months back about so-called ‘guerrilla skeptics’, the folk who aim to stamp out any favourable reference to what they stigmatise as ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘occultism’ on Wikipedia (here and here).
Most, although not all, of the comment that followed was along the lines that Wikipedia is a lost cause, so why bother trying to do anything about it? These ideologues are much more committed than we are, so it would do no good, the argument goes. My personal feeling was that actually some kind of fight-back is unavoidable in the long term.
A few weeks later I met Rupert Sheldrake at an event, and found he was of the same mind. In fact he was dead keen to get on and do something, and wrote about it in his regular newsletter. That triggered an attack on his own Wikipedia biog page, changing the profile from one of a well-credentialled biochemist into that of a despised pseudo-scientist. Attempts were made to resist, but these guys are well organised, and very practised at interpreting Wikipedia’s large array of policy guidelines as a means to impose their intolerant viewpoint. Like clever, unprincipled courtroom lawyers, you might say. (Anyone who has a serious amount of time to waste can follow the ins and outs on the talk page.)
The wiki-sceptics may have won that battle but it doesn't mean they won the war. I was away at the time, so had to watch from the sidelines. I’ve since been busy with other things. But Craig Weiler has been following the events, and has just written this excellent analysis of the affair so far. It will be interesting to see how things unfold from here.
The Newsweek article about the sceptics movement that I mentioned last week has appeared, nicely titled The Bullshit Police. I was interviewed by the writer, Michael Moynihan, but wasn’t quoted. No matter - it’s fine for journalists to get a broad range of opinions without having to describe them all.
The article is about the opposing currents within the movement itself, and it’s a fascinating read. Moynihan agrees with its worldview, but as the subtitle makes it clear is not an uncritical supporter (‘Inside a brilliant, nerdy, arrogant, sort of admirable, sort of insufferable movement that questions everything – and wants to upend the way you live and think’.) It’s interesting to learn about the confusions they have when it comes to climate change, and also about religion. The sceptic and the atheist aren’t the same beast necessarily.
The debate is not over the existence of God—almost all the skeptics I met . . . were nonbelievers. Rather, the argument is over whether skepticism should be synonymous with atheism, or whether the two movements should stay separate.
Jamy Ian Swiss, a close-up magician by trade, is one of the chief advocates for the latter view. Swiss lives in Southern California but is New York through and through. He’s voluble and opinionated, delivering withering judgments with the kind of lilting Brooklyn accent that one rarely hears in today’s Brooklyn. He’s a left-wing Jew who disdains religion (“The rabbi and the cantor were such assholes that they turned me into an atheist by the day of my bar mitzvah”) and is obsessed with science. He isn’t an academic, but his references to radical journalist I.F. Stone and knowledge of scientific history might persuade you that he should have been.
Addressing a group of California atheists in 2010, Swiss delivered a barbed speech on the relationship between skepticism and atheism. “Read my lips: there is no fucking God,” he roared. “But that is my personal belief, it’s not my public cause. My cause is scientific skepticism.” After the speech, PZ Myers, a widely read—and notoriously prickly—academic and science blogger, denounced “asshole” Swiss’s “incredibly repellent talk” and announced that he would “no longer consider myself a ‘skeptic.’?” The skeptic world, as it so frequently does, convulsed with charges, countercharges, ad hominem, and endless debates over whether God is a “testable scientific claim” or whether guys like Swiss were selling out atheism in an effort to expand the movement’s popularity.
This was a side of Myers that I wasn’t familiar with, so I took myself off to his blog to check it out. But before I could find it I came across posts taking shots at other people who I would also have thought were batting for his team. Fellow biologist Jerry Coyne, for instance, who with Myers started the TED row over Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock a few months ago. Coyne’s offence was to put in a good word for evolutionary psychology, a discipline that Myers is deeply suspicious of. Coyne notes that he started out as an opponent of sociobiology, as it was first known, but thinks that it has matured and is now a ‘valuable’ way of studying human behaviour. He decries the sceptics who debase it.
Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. . . It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.
‘Pure ad hominem, unsupported by evidence,’ Myers snorts.
I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.
Another post that caught my eye attacks Steven Pinker on the subject of scientism. The target was an essay that Pinker wrote recently for New Republic titled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’, which has attracted quite a bit of attention. The article is actually an impassioned defence of humanism, and in that regard – considering, as I do, that humanism is the only ‘ism’ seriously worth defending, at least in its true sense – I found it rather admirable. I filtered out the patronising comments that people like Pinker always make about science in such contexts. Not so Myers. As an academic he rubs shoulders with people in the humanities, and was angered by Pinker talking down to them. He was especially incensed by Pinker recasting great Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant as early pioneers of scientific thinking. Pinker writes:
Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.”
Pinker finds them all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.
The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?
To which Myers retorts:
Look, there’s some reasonable stuff deeper in, but that opening . . . could he possibly have been more arrogant, patronizing, and ahistorical? Not only is he appropriating philosophers into the fold of science, but worse, he’s placing them in his favored disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology. Does the man ever step outside of his office building on the Harvard campus?
Pinker commits the fallacy of progress and scientism, Myers thinks.
There is no denying that we have better knowledge of science and engineering now, but that does not mean that we’re universally better, smarter, wiser, and more informed about everything. What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society. I think Pinker’s fantasy is not one of informing a knowledgeable person, but of imposing the imagined authority of a modern science on someone from a less technologically advanced culture.
It strikes me that these sorts of disagreements are becoming more common. Sceptical scientists are taking public exception to each others’ positions, not just to the opposition’s. And it's interesting that some are starting to discover problems with ideological dogmatism. But it makes sense. As the sceptics movement grows (everyone Moynihan talked to used the word ‘movement’, he notes) it is bound to fracture and factionalise to some extent, as all movements do. Of course sceptics will always unify around core disbeliefs - God, supernaturalism and quack medicine, etc. But as they find some of their own, less central beliefs and interests coming under attack they might increasingly turn their attention to each other.
Could there one day be a major schism? And if so, what would it look like? Would it be ideologists and dogmatists on one side, moderates on the other? Or would it be the fuzzier, more open-minded speculative types ranged against the hardcore materialists?
It’s hard to say how the sceptics movement will develop in the future, but we can be reasonably sure it won’t always look the way it does now. In that changed environment, it’s possible that some people who call themselves sceptics might hold more nuanced views about psi-research than seems now to be the case.
I mentioned mediums in passing recently, and it threw up a debate about seance phenomena (levitations, movements of objects, etc). Someone asked me about my position, so I thought I’d respond briefly.
Bottom line: I think physical mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, but one that can easily be faked. That makes it desperately hard to evaluate. It’s natural to feel that the field is mired in fraud. At first glance practically all mediums were caught faking at one time another – or even confessed to having done so.
In that case, why do I take it seriously? Partly because some of the most comprehensive research (eg. the Feilding Report) points in that direction. But also because it fits with types of spontaneous phenomena such as so-called poltergeists, where the issues are not so complex. If there is truly a psychic element to consciousness, then surely it supports the abundant testimony as to the reality of séance phenomena.
If asked, I’d advise anyone serious about understanding the truth about psi to steer clear of nineteenth and early twentieth century physical mediums – the likes of Kate Fox, Eglinton, Home, Palladino, Duncan, etc. It’s a big, roiling sea of suspicion, and if you’re not experienced you’ll drown in it. Other areas such as ESP research and spontaneous experiences are controversial, but are still easier to get to grips with.
Some interesting points were raised in the comments thread. One commenter suggested that believers filter out stuff that doesn’t suit their arguments. For instance certain confessions of fraud are only found in sceptics’ writings. He likes the idea of neutral books, those that look at it from both sides, and perhaps even present the arguments with equal weight, allowing readers to make up their own minds.
There was quite a lot of discussion about Brian Inglis, including a complaint that he defended obviously dodgy mediums like the Foxes, Eusapia Palladino and Eva C. There were also references to the Wikipedia page on mediums, which list a lot of the exposes and confessions.
It’s very easy to get bogged down; easy to get pulled this way and that. This happened to me, and I wrote about it at some length in Randi’s Prize, where I described the development of my thinking. It took me more than two years to come to a settled view. I grappled with Inglis, and also his nemesis Ruth Brandon: I had absolutely no idea which of these two completely opposite versions was more trustworthy. There are abundant sources that will back up whichever view you take.
I then realised that I needed to get to the primary sources – the research literature – and start making my own judgements. Then I started making progress. It seemed to me, for instance, that the Feilding-Carrington-Baggally investigation of Palladino was far more serious and conclusive than a rival one by Joseph Jastrow – more complete, more focused, better documented, and carried out by more experienced investigators (see extracts here).
I was impressed by the findings of the Dialectical Society, an atheists group, who investigated séance claims in a highly committed way, and had some dramatic experiences with table turning – which could not be accounted for by Faraday’s much quoted conjectures. There are many others of this kind. Having established that dedicated, intelligent investigators had witnessed the phenomena in controlled conditions, and been impressed by their reasoning, the fakery started to seem less relevant.
I also started to understand something about the sceptical literature that I hadn’t grasped before. When it comes to the exposes and confession, the definition between the real and imagined is blurred. Much of it is just conjecture and speculation. But that distinction gets lost, and it’s treated as fact. There’s a reason why ‘believers’ like Inglis don’t mention the incidents that sceptics find so devastating – a lot of them were just made up. (I’m used to being denounced for disputing the veracity of Margaret Fox’s ‘confession’. But there are so many reasons for doubting it that, if the positions were reversed, sceptics would be derisive that anyone took it seriously for a minute.)
The Wikipedia article on mediums reads like a party political broadcast on behalf of the sceptics movement. I suppose because Wikipedia is quite thorough and detailed on non-controversial subjects it is treated as an authoritative source. But if you know the research literature it creates a ludicrous effect. It would be like going to a creationist website to learn about Darwinist evolution.
The Scole circle gets mentioned in these discussions, I guess because it is relatively recent. But I don’t think it helps us to make judgements; it has simply reinforced the doubts and suspicions. I’m convinced that will always be the case with physical phenomena; the same has been true of Uri Geller. That’s why I think this is a bad place to start.
Since I made up my mind some years ago, I spend little time thinking about the subject, and on the whole avoid writing about it. I might try to convince someone – if I thought that person was interested – that telepathy or remote viewing, or mental mediumship perhaps, are genuine phenomena. In fact I do have those discussions sometimes, although I’m averse to the idea of trying to convert people to my way of thinking. I just think it’s good to make them aware of things they might not otherwise know about.
But when it comes to the physical stuff, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just explain why I take it seriously, and leave it at that. I’d have no realistic expectations of carrying my argument. And I can’t argue seriously with people who haven’t read the research (or at least more than the sceptic bits); all I can do is urge them to read it.
That said, the subject does interest for what it says about how humans react to these things. Scepticism is not a neutral business – it’s a natural reaction to something that we find unbelievable. Some investigators who made claims about séance phenomena – and this is one of many curious details that sceptics won’t know – eventually started paying attention to their own mental processes. They observed how the impression of having seen something paranormal was gradually erased in the memory, so that days later they were convinced they had imagined it. Or else they realised their mind had created an elaborate scenario of how the trick was done with concealed machinery.
So the séance literature is a potentially a rich source of understanding about fear of the paranormal. It documents a constant, neurotic manoeuvring to escape the implications. I believe that one day researchers will be mining it for insights in this regard.
Finally, there’s a point to make about the idea of a neutral book, one that makes an objective case for both sides of the argument and lets readers make up their minds. That’s what journalists and broadcasters often do, or claim to do. It’s not the way, though. I did come across a book like this once, long ago – and it was no help at all. It just made the confusion worse.
There really is no short cut, no magic wand. No single book will make everything brilliantly clear. It takes commitment, time and effort; months of reading and searching out of sources; months, perhaps even years of reflection. No one will ever know the truth who relies on other people to tell it to them.
Back from my holiday now – camping in Norfolk in blissful warm weather.
I was just on Skype with a journalist at Newsweek. He’s doing an article on the sceptics movement, and has apparently spent some time with James Randi, et al, soaking up their wisdom. He admits to being sceptical himself, turned off by mediums like Sylvia Browne and John Edward making big bucks from the gullible public. But he seemed interested and open-minded, and it was a good discussion.
He said that Randi insisted on being referred to as an investigator, not a debunker. I came down on that one hard. I told him what happened when CSICOP, shortly after its founding, tried to suppress news of positive results, and how since then it avoided actual investigation for fear of embarrassment. There are real investigators and for the most part they’re parapsychologists.
He commented on the somewhat authoritarian, ‘Stalinist’ flavour to sceptic websites. Yes indeed. A symptom of the ideological war that sceptics are waging. They can’t allow people to believe this stuff, it’s against their religion.
He also asked why I thought the media tends to shut out people like me who take psychic phenomena seriously. That was an intelligent question, and not something that the media asks itself very often. I suggested that the sceptics’ movement has been effective in ridiculing paranormal belief - professionals just can’t afford to expose themselves to it. Science editors particularly must never seem ‘soft’ – even if they’re secretly interested they just don’t have the confidence, or in most cases the seniority, to be open about it. Actually I think that applies to most writers and broadcasters in the serious news media. It’s just not something one admits to.
I pointed out that people like me aren’t impressed by the celebrity psychics – that’s not why we take it seriously. It’s mostly because we’re familiar with the research literature. That’s where the arguments are. If I happen to think John Edward is a genuine medium it’s because I’m convinced by a century of research that mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, not by Edward’s performance. But, I told him, sceptics aren’t interested in that – their knowledge is limited to the exposes and confessions (whether real or alleged) that help them keep the faith.
It turned out that this is going to be Newsweek’s cover story next week. So there could be more than one article. I might be quoted, but probably not at length (knowing how we journalists work). He mentioned the cover story they ran on Eben Alexander’s NDE a while back, and it occurs to me that they must have got a lot of grief from sceptics about that. So this could be a way of redressing the balance.
But thinking about it, there’s so much that journalists don’t know about this subject, and trying to get handle on it while researching a single article is hardly the way to get a balanced view. Hell, some journalists write an entire book and still seem confused.
Still, it will be interesting to see the mainstream media’s take on sceptics. Something to watch out for.