Mouni Sadhu
The South Shields Poltergeist

Book Review: Chris Carter, Parapsychology and the Skeptics

I've always thought that if the existence of psi becomes generally recognised, the sceptics would indirectly have a lot to do with it. As the scientific case for it gradually builds, the angry agit-prop of old guard types like Martin Gardner and James Randi seems ever more irrelevant. Generalisations that parapsychology is a pseudo-science, there is no evidence, Hume's argument against miracles, etc, still have some force. But critics like Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman are also having to come up with specific objections to psi experiments, and  in a few cases doing experiments themselves.

So the time is ripe for giving these counter-arguments some close scrutiny. In fact I'm surprised it is not done more often, as many of them are so obviously specious. Of course researchers such as Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake have focused on this to some extent - Radin has a useful chapter on it in The Conscious Universe - but it's far from being their main focus. I think this has been a weakness for parapsychology as a whole, that the sceptics have managed to get away with too much for too long.

Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP is arguably the first major attempt to place the sceptics' arguments in their proper context.  It's an important book, and should be on everyone's reading list who is serious about understanding the issues.

A brief look at some nineteenth century work with mediums sets the scene, with the examples of investigations of Henry Slade leading into more modern controversies. A description of CSICOP follows, and the disagreements over its early activities.  Carter goes on to discuss J B Rhine's work at Duke, PK experimentation, the Ganzfeld debate, and Sheldrake's research of a telepathic dog. Many notorious episodes are here, for instance the attempt by sceptical members of a National Research Council committee to stop a fellow member presenting evidence supporting the ganzfeld claims, and the failed attempt to get parapsychologists chucked out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also other dishonest shenanigans, like Randi pretending he had debunked doggy telepathy, when by his later admission he had nothing of the sort.

The book is chock full of quotes both from the sceptics and sympathetic scientists, which brings us closer to the debate, and often leaves one gasping with disbelief (the statement that there is nothing to argue about as there is 'no evidence of anything paranormal', here voiced by psychologist Nicolas Humphrey, is a particular head-scratcher).

I was expecting rather more space to be given to analysis of individual experiments: there is only a brief mention of the Stargate remote viewing programme, ditto on Sheldrake's highly suggestive work on the sense of being stared at and other of his research, the PK work by Jahn and Dunne at Yale, and so on. But I think Carter is right not to try to be comprehensive, and to leave plenty of space for dealing with the more general aspects of the critics' arguments.

For me this is actually where Carter is best, demolishing the scientific and philosophical objections to psi. As he points out, sceptics such as Blackmore like to say that it is incompatible with 'our scientific worldview', but this begs the question, which scientific worldview, the old one based on Newtonian mechanics and behaviourist psychology, or the emerging one based on quantum mechanics and cognitive psychology. Quantum non-locality and the view that consciousness, not measurement, is implicated in the collapse of the state vector both support the existence of psi and might even lead to predictions of it.  The conclusion, Carter argues, is that the term 'paranormal' is an anachronism and should be dropped, as psi does not operate outside nature.

I was particularly interested in his nuanced discussion of Benjamin Libet's finding that brain activity precedes a conscious decision, which is routinely presented by sceptics, in their dull way, as 'another nail in the coffin for dualism' (Blackmore, Dying to Live, p. 237), and which of course is open to contrary interpretations, as Libet himself pointed out. Wilder Penfield's experimental findings on the neurological basis of memory is also used by sceptics in an anti-dualist sense which Penfield himself did not endorse.

No book is perfect, and I did have a slight quibble with the way it was structured - it seemed to jump around a lot between historical periods, types of experiments, supporters and critics, and so on. Having said this, I know from my own experience of trying to write about parapsychology how  challenging it is to organise so much material. Nor does it detract from the book's value.  Carter explains that he originally tackled the subject in its entirety, but the result was so massive it had to be broken down into three parts: the next instalment will be on survival evidence and the sceptical objections. 

I suspect that in taking the debate directly to the sceptics Carter is first onto what may soon be a well-populated field. The enthusiasm for psi research in the 1960s and 70s led to a backlash over the next two decades with the founding of CSICOP, but there are signs that the sceptics may be running out of steam - the imminent suspension of Randi's prize being just one example. We may soon start to see the pendulum shifting the other way, and this time it is the nay-sayers who will be on the defensive.


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The argument that "the term 'paranormal' is an anachronism and should be dropped, as psi does not operate outside nature" seems to be simply conceding a point to the skeptics, though perhaps it is a point that they have won and it should be conceded.

The term paranormal was coined specifically to not say that what is described operates outside of nature. It is "supernatural" which states that something is outside of nature.

Paranormal means literally that the phenomena so described operates outside of what is considered to be "normal". The intent was to have a term that meant that something operated outside of what current Science understands or understands as possible.

The militant Skeptics have worked very, very hard to redefine the term to be a pure synonym for "supernatural". Perhaps they have been so successful that we must abandon the term.

Or perhaps the truth is that it is only in their scientismist worldview that science so perfectly understands Nature that anything that purports to be distinctly outside of current scientific understanding (i.e., paranormal) must be outside of nature (i.e., supernatural). That is, though, a bit more honest than the Skeptics are, even to themselves.

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