Thanks to Greg at The Daily Grail for drawing attention to Richard Wiseman's article on magicians and the paranormal, which I'd missed. Some magicians - Randi, Penn and Teller, Paul Daniels, etc - are so obnoxiously loud about their disbelief in psychic phenomena, it creates the impression that they all think the same way. Not so, according to Wiseman, himself a former professional magician, who polled professional and semi-professional conjurors around the world. A quarter of his sample of more than 400, he says, believe in the reality of telepathy, precognition or psychokinesis
In fact there have been, and continue to be, conjurors who have experienced psychical incidents they can't explain, and are quite happy to go on record about it. The famous nineteenth-century French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was famously gobsmacked by the psychic Alexis Didier - a fact that Harry Houdini apparently didn't know when he named himself after him, and he was disgusted when he later found out. There's also a rather little known fact about JN Maskelyne, the Randi of the nineteenth century séance era as he is portrayed in debunking books. The sceptics describe, as historical fact, that the phenomenon of table-turning was explained away by the scientist Michael Faraday, although it plainly wasn't, as even a glance at the documented reports would confirm. Another fact, but one I think you will never learn from the sceptics' books, is that Maskelyne himself tried it out, got a result, and publicly avowed it to be a genuine psychic phenomenon, and not at all accounted for by Faraday's suggested mechanism.
Wiseman himself draws attention to the fact that magicians earn their bread by making things disappear. His point is simply that they will be far less likely to believe paranormal claims, because they understand how tricks can be done. Of course, but what's less well understood is that one of the things they make disappear is any evidence of paranormal phenomena. That's the illusion they create. It's comical to see scientists like Richard Dawkins elevating practitioners like Randi to the status of experts, when all they are doing is selectively reviewing data to make their audience think what it suits them to believe - a classic case of distraction and misdirection.
The literature is simply stuffed with examples of this process in action - sceptics lapping up pretty much anything these self-appointed experts feed them, without any real attempt at critical thinking, all the while imagining that they are being heroically clever. It's an absolute mirror image of the 'devious charlatan duping gullible believer' scenario.
It's true of almost any episode that conjuror-sceptics have been involved in, but one that comes instantly to mind is Randi's debunking article of the Columbus, Ohio poltergeist, the case of Tina Resch. When this started getting international publicity Randi was asked to check it out by Paul Kurtz who had just founded the CSICOP. He hastened to the scene, only to find that the family would not let him in. No matter - he got some negative gossip from jaded reporters, who hadn't managed to see the spook in action, and cobbled together a debunking article. This is printed in Kendrick Frazier's anthology Science Confronts the Paranormal, and is one of very few sources that sceptics cite. The piece centres on a forensic dissection of a news photograph supposedly showing the spook in action. What sceptics don't really understand it that that's pretty much all it does - Randi didn't see anything at first hand, or interview anyone who had. Yet they typically consider his article utterly damning, not just of this case but of the whole category.
Wiseman has none of Randi's aggressiveness thankfully, but he's not above this sort of misdirection himself. He used to be involved with the Society for Psychical Research, and years ago sparked a furious controversy about the Italian séance medium Eusapia Palladino. His argument, laid out in the SPR journal with a good deal of brio, was that the report of the SPR's Naples investigation in 1908 - as complete an endorsement of séance phenomena as can be imagined - was actually riddled with holes. He proposed that Palladino had an accomplice, probably her husband, who had previously contrived to create a movable panel in the wall, through which he clambered at an opportune moment, and then managed to create much of the 'phenomena' behind a curtain. Wiseman's point is that the report does not provide the explicit detail to rule this out. You'd have to know a bit about the circumstances to grasp how utterly implausible this is - it would not have worked for five minutes. But if you don't, it's easy to be taken in by Wiseman's assurance and self-belief.
Actually I don't think there's any real harm done in this particular case - the claims regarding Palladino are hardly affected. On the other hand Wiseman's intervention in the case of Rupert Sheldrake's psychic dog Jaytee is surely as dubious a piece of chicanery as anything that Randi has carried out. On the basis of four rather poorly thought-out experiments he claimed to have debunked media claims that the dog always knows exactly when its owner is coming home. This wasn't hard to do, but he failed to acknowledge that Sheldrake himself had never claimed this, and was instead pointing to a suggestive statistical correlation established in 117 experiments (they showed the dog spending only an average of 4% of the time waiting by the window during the main period of his owner's absence and 78% while she was returning). Close scrutiny, if sceptics were capable of such a thing, would show that Wiseman has utterly misrepresented this episode - but of course they are happy to take his word for it. (See Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics for a summary).
A few days ago I questioned Susan Blackmore's slightly contradictory attitudes, and in the same way, I'm not always sure where Wiseman really stands. He's a charming fellow, and not obviously fired by hostility to the paranormal - he once told me he finds it good fun, and course he's done quite well out of it. Unlike Randi he is capable of nuanced thinking, and seems impressed by some of the ganzfeld work for instance.
Nor is there really any point in complaining about what sceptics do. They are addressing their audience and meeting its expectations. As stage magicians always say, some people really like being deceived. It's up to those of who us who think that this is more than just a game to expose the tricks for what they really are.