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Touch Wood

Yesterday's Sunday Times magazine carried an interview of David Petraeus, the American's top commander in Iraq. It appears the general is a bit superstitious, at least in the way that a lot of us are. Things are going OK for the moment, he says, touch wood. He says this three times during the interview, and his staff say he is always looking around for wood to knock on.

I was a bit surprised by this in a military commander. Isn't superstition for wimps, as the guys at CSICOP might say? I can imagine Richard Dawkins wanting to sit him down and say, now David, you do know that there's nothing really out there, don't you. Touching wood isn't really going to protect you from anything, now is it. How could it? Where is the mechanism?

As a rational man Petraeus might agree. After all, it's his choices and actions which are credited with having turned round the situation in Iraq. There's a clear cause-and-effect trail. But it just feels so natural to suppose that some entity called Fortune or Providence also plays a part, especially in war. Misheard orders, failed communications and little accidents can make the difference between safety and tragedy. It's easier to deal with if we imagine there is some agency that governs these things, and that can be appealed to, shifting events in our favour. It's common for a soldier to carry lucky charms  - a cross, a flattened bullet, family letters. Do they work? A survey would surely find that as many dead and injured soldiers carried lucky charms as those that escaped. That's not the point: at least they give a sense of divine protection.

One vaguely supposes that touching wood goes back to days of yore.  Wikipedia says it has do with invoking the protection of the wood sprites. The article sniffily comments that historians can find no mention of it in English before the early nineteenth century, and speculate it comes from a children's game of tag called 'tiggy-touch-wood'. It then rather contradicts itself by listing all the countries round the world who have almost identical expressions: 'toucher du bois', 'auf Holz klopfen', 'koputtaa puuta' (Finnish), 'chtipa xilo' (Greek), 'tahtaya vur' (Turkey), etc. A few prefer iron to wood, and in Sri Lanka they say, 'touch gold'. So it seems to be pretty well ingrained in the human psyche.

I'm a confirmed wood-toucher myself, but not very proud of it. I try to avoid superstitious actions, walking determinedly under ladders, laughing off the black cat, the magpie, the broken mirrors, etc (although I'm a bit wary about Friday the 13th). But if I accidentally say something which, on reflection, I feel may annoy Providence, who I imagine is somewhere out there listening to my conversation, then I move swiftly to placate him/her/it with this little act of obeisance. I try to be discreet, finding wood to tap on surreptitiously, and if there isn't any I scratch my head instead.

Why do I do it? From the earliest age I have often had the sense of being punished for complacency. It has something to do with respect: I have to stay alert for things that can go wrong. If I'm concerned about not being able to find a parking space near my workplace then I'll be gratified to find one within a few minutes. But the day I think, hey relax, it's never been a problem, stop worrying, is the day I'll have to park a mile away and catch a bus.

Here's another example. If I get a new boss - as a freelance writer it would be the editor of one of my main publications - I might think to myself at our first meeting, I like this person, he/she seems really friendly and easy-going. But I should always qualify that by adding that I won't make any pre-judgements, but just wait and see how things pan out. That is always the correct, safe way. The mistake - and I've made it once or twice - is to say, this person's great, I have a really good feeling about it, it's going to be a good relationship. Then, karrang, he/she turns out to be seriously hard work.

The funny thing is, this is absolutely dependable in my life, to the point that I don't really think about it. I have tested it a few times, catching myself in complacency, being aware of the thought, and how it feels, and how I really ought to recall it, but then thinking, no, to hell with it, I'm going to give myself a break from the absurd superstition - and then getting into trouble.

I'd guess this has a lot to do with the way I view the world, and is perhaps one of the reasons why I don't have problems with psi phenomena. A sceptic would doubtless want to argue that I've got it the wrong way round: one is not the cause of the other, but both are symptoms of a congenitally superstitious nature. That's something we can argue about. All I can say is, it's my experience, I've had it repeatedly and analysed it from every angle, and however much I'd like to, I just can't explain it away.

Triplet Telepathy

Watched last night's ITV programme on identical triplets to see what it had to say about telepathic connections. The four sets of triplets featured were startlingly alike, and closely bonded, but turned out to have quite different tastes and personalities. Interestingly, considering the amount of anecdotal evidence, none of them seemed to have any experience of psychic connections. Two of the trios flatly denied any possibility of such a thing.

However one of the sets, three 21-year-old males, were more open-minded after a test in which one received an electric shock and the others in different rooms were wired up to EDR machines to see if they showed any arousal. They were spooked to be told that the read-outs were closely synchronised, with small spikes occurring at the same time.

A Guardian preview critic found these interactions only 'mildly interesting'. I wondered whether she took this sort of thing so completely for granted that it makes no impact, or whether she just hadn't grasped the significance of it. Having seen the programme I think what she may have meant was that it was only mildly convincing. This was tabloid telly, slick, entertaining and shallow. When the presenter started talking about ESP he got all breathy and earnest: JB Rhine's studies attracted controversy because he experimented on real people. As for the test itself, all we got was the researcher's assurance that there had been a concordance, and a pretty little line graph that looked more like an illustration graphic than scientific data. (But of course this is television - what should we expect?)

In the end it was the triplets' apparent lack of experience of telepathic connections that stayed with me.  It runs counter to the anecdotal reports of uncanny synchronicities, described for instance in Guy Lyon Playfair's Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection. One is the case of the Manchester man who woke up suddenly with an impression feeling as though he had been hit on the head, and the next day learnt that at exactly the same time his twin had fallen and banged his head. Then there were the two brothers who went skiing on different slopes in the Alps, and fell and broke their legs in the same place and at the same time. There are any number of reports by twins who say they feel sympathetic pains when the other is ill or has suffered an accident, or has become pregnant.

One of the few documented cases is the 1976 study of Silvia and Marta Landa, four-year olds from a village near Logroño.  Marta had burned her hand on a clothes iron and a large red blister had formed on her hand. At the same time, an identical blister appeared on Silvia's too, while she was on a visit to her grandparents in Logroño. The parents noticed this kind of thing a lot: if one of the tots developed symptoms, so would the other, and if one had an accident the other seemed aware of it wherever she happened to be.

These reports seemed to be confirmed by experiment, with Marta subjected to various indignities while Silvia was monitored in a different part of the building. When a doctor shone a bright light in Marta's eye, her sister upstairs blinked rapidly as if trying to avoid a bright light. When the doctor gave Marta the knee-jerk reflex test, Silvia began to twitch her left leg so insistently that her father, who did not know what was happening downstairs, had to hold it still.

This sort of thing is very suggestive, but there isn't much of it. As Guy points out, there has been very little research on telepathy in twins. What little has been done has tended to be poorly conceived, inconclusive and misleading, which discourages parapsychologists from getting involved. 

Sceptics think it's a dead letter, after a large-scale study at the University of Minnesota written up by Peter Watson failed to find any evidence of telepathy ('not the slightest scintilla of a suggestion,' etc...). But then this was a genetic study whose purpose was to understand the relative importance of nature and nurture, and focused mainly on twins separated at birth and reunited as adults. As Guy says, this would have meant a lack of that deep emotional bond which telepathy seems to depend on.  Since that's precisely what one so often finds in twins, and since there are plenty of them, this ought to be a productive area for parapsychologists to work in.

Psi Rage

Interesting post by Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail about comments by PZ Myers, a biologist and fabulously prolific blogger (four to five posts a day, and allegedly with a university teaching job - how does he do it?). Myers was taking a pop at Rupert Sheldrake, clearly the kind of person who would pull all his levers. 'The man is nuts ... His 'experiments' are exercises in gullibility, anecdote, and sloppy statistics ...embarrassingly gullible nonsense ... grossly in error in the way he pursues science... " Etcetera and so on.

Greg got Sheldrake's response to this, which as one would expect from a researcher of his long experience was dignified, resigned and a bit puzzled. He wondered whether it was worth engaging with people who aren't interested in the facts and are just venting their rage. Both pointed out that Myers had not read any of the research, so his opinion couldn't be worth much. But of course he expresses himself in such a combative and authoritative way, he serves to reinforce prejudice and dogmas. 

I've sometimes been tempted to say that sceptics are calming down a bit, but that's clearly not right. It might apply to critics like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, who understand some aspects of the subject quite well and can talk about it without becoming apoplectic. But the rest don't seem to have moved on much from the Gardner-Randi template: a rabble of sarky-sneery gremlins.

Yet I sometimes think we need to take a more detached view of this sort of thing. It's a natural response to what is perceived as awesome and dangerous - if only a human tendency to believe in such things as telepathy, and not the thing itself - and which makes a person feel utterly impotent. Hence the rage.  But it's like a toddler having a tantrum - one just has to be firm and patient, and wait for it to blow over. It's something we need to understand and address, more than get upset about. Sceptics like Myers are angry and opinionated, and of course their tirades attract readers. But they are not stupid, and they can't be immune to reason. A few hours with some appropriate reading materials might help a person to see that this isn't about silly people 'swallowing crazy stuff', or mere Fortean anecdotes.

Is it naïve to think that sceptics can change? Perhaps, but at least we could try to find out. People who pride themselves on their reason can't go on indefinitely refusing to engage with the research - we have to find ways of confronting them with it. To be sure, the die-hards will still prefer to pick apart the weakest experiments as a justification for rejecting it. But my guess is that a lot of people who currently side with the sneerers will have their curiosity roused, and will start to take a more nuanced view.

So one could at least suggest they have a look at the literature. Damien Broderick's excellent Outside the Gates of Science might be a good place to start. Another could be Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's Extraordinary Knowing, which I'm reading just now and plan to discuss shortly. This is the story of a sceptic who was forced to change her own view by a powerful anomalous experience, and then gradually discovered that other people with whom she was in daily contact - colleagues, patients and friends - were having exactly the same kinds of experiences, but seldom discussed them for fear of ridicule. 

I'm due to talk at an SPR seminar in the autumn on the subject of sceptics and scepticism, and hopefully Sheldrake will be contributing as well. Doubtless Myers's outburst is one of the things we will be chewing over. My own idea is to focus on the psychological foundation of knee-jerk scepticism - a large and complex subject, as I'm starting to discover, and one I doubt I can do justice to. I'll also push my view that parapsychology needs to be taking more account of it, drawing attention not just to the anomalies themselves, but also to the very natural difficulties that humans have in processing this information. There's a lot of work to be done here.

Just Coincidence

To the SPR yesterday for a talk by Dr Penny Sartori, a nurse who carried out a five-year study of NDEs at the intensive care unit at Swansea hospital between 1998 and 2003. Seven of 39 patients who suffered a cardiac arrest during this period reported an NDE. She described how, before the study began, she placed symbols on the top of monitors above the beds, where they could not be seen from the ground. The idea was that if any patient saw one during an out-of-body episode it would help to verify that it was real, and not imagined.

Sadly, none of the patients saw the images, and in most cases their reports were hard to verify. On the other hand, when compared with a control group, their reports showed much greater accuracy, suggesting the presence of an unknown process. 

Some of the best evidence of this is still that provided in the 1980s study by cardiologist Michael Sabom, which may have had an advantage over the Swansea study in that it involved surgical operations rather than intensive care situations. Sabom's patients made quite detailed comments on the operations, for instance remarking on the curious shape of the heart, as the surgeon pulled it out and worked on it, or the depth of the spine from which a damaged disc was removed. Members of a control group who were asked to describe the operation were much less specific and made major errors.

Sabom's control was criticised for using patients who merely had similar medical backgrounds. Sartori improved on it by recruiting individuals who had experienced resuscitation. But as it turned out, these people were no better able than Sabom's group to say what might have happened during their period of unconsciousness - some did not know, and others simply extemporised from TV hospital dramas.

This area has always interested me, because out of body vision carries such a powerful impact. It convinces individuals, almost uniformly I think - and certainly those who experience it during an NDE - that their mind is not their body, and that their consciousness will survive death. It's not an unreasonable inference, and one that's obviously important for sceptics to try to counter. Handily, Chris French was at the talk, and ready to provide his take.

Sartori pointed to a clear distinction between individuals who suffered hallucinations, which were random and confused, and the NDErs, whose experiences were lucid and involved the same imagery.  French disputed this by analogously referring to abduction experiences, where there is evidence that even people who think they are real are clearly hallucinating.  There may be a point there, although I didn't follow it completely, and I wasn't sure how useful it is to compare the two quite different situations.

Sartori then countered that the information some patients came up with, apparently while they were unconscious, did seem to have been acquired paranormally. One reported that he had met his deceased grand-daughter and that she told him to tell her mother not to believe everything that mediums told her. This meant nothing to him, but his daughter later confessed she had been regularly consulting mediums without his knowledge. In another case, staff in the unit watched a dying man sitting up and gesturing at the wall for half an hour - he later said his sister and come to visit, although she had died the previous week, a fact which his family had decided not to reveal to him.

Wanting the last word, French retorted that 'a sceptic would probably still say it could all have been a coincidence'. Interesting that he slipped into the third person there. I wondered whether he did this because he would personally be embarrassed to identify with such a strategy, in which case, one would have to ask why he continues to think the way he does. I suppose he has too much invested. When things get tough, just fudge and prevaricate. It must be difficult being a committed sceptic sometimes.

I've mentioned once or twice Blackmore's heroic resistance in Dying to Live on the same subject. Briefly, her approach is that when people say they saw what family and hospital staff were doing around their unconscious body they are just exaggerating or making stuff up. In her brisk, no-nonsense way, she deals with a seemingly unanswerable bit of evidence by blaming the percipient for making such a big thing out of it. Surely, she argues, that can only mean one thing: that the percipient is not really confident it happened the way she said it did. As I say, it must feel demeaning for a serious scientist to have to talk in this way.

This is taken to extremes by psychiatrists Glen Gabbard and Stuart Twemlow in their 1984 book With the Eyes of the Mind. They are particularly bothered by Sabom's claims about out-of-body perception in his heart patients. They manage to postpone the subject until the last few pages, at which point they seem to realise they are going somehow to have to tackle it. The results are comical: they haven't got a clue. They enlist the help of Terence Hines, whose debunking textbook they happen to have handy, and who doesn't really know either, but has a lot to say about Uri Geller and fraudulent psychics. Having perused this stuff for a while they conclude that claims of out of body perception can be put down to fraud, but without really making clear whether they think it's the doctor or his patients who are lying.

You can't blame sceptics for behaving like this - their entire worldview rests on it. But it would be interesting if more people who essentially share that worldview understood the dubious shifts that can be required to keep it in business.

(Incidentally, Sartori has just published a book based on the study, and other research carried out for her doctoral thesis. At a cool £85 I can't imagine that we are all going to rush out and buy it, but I'll try to get hold of a copy and review it at some point). 


James Randi has been talking about doing a show for Channel 4. Not sure when it is planned for, or indeed if anything has been decided yet, but I hope it goes ahead. As far as I know he hasn't been on TV in the UK for some time. There was a series of programmes he did for Granada back in 1991 and an appearance on the Discovery Channel's Ultimate Psychic Challenge five years ago, both of which stirred up a lot of interest. Randi will be 80 in August, so I guess this will be a last chance for the British audiences to see the great man in action. 

Since the million-dollar challenge is due to be withdrawn in a couple of years it might also be an opportunity for brave or foolhardy souls to go for a last minute victory. At the time the challenge was only $10,000 dollars, which would not have broken the bank, but this time there will be more at stake.

The Granada show pre-dated my interest in parapsychology and I didn't see it. But it was interesting to hear him reminisce about it in a podcast interview recently. Randi couldn't remember much, but he recalled doing better than an astrologer at predicting the stock market, basing decisions on some random method like chucking darts at a board. He was temporarily stumped by the success of a map-dowser in locating an object, until a stage-hand told him afterwards that a model giving away the location had been on prominent display in the hall outside the studio. 

Randi gently aired a gripe: the programme makers had 'unwisely' ignored his advice to get an audience of uncommitted individuals, and instead filled it with believers. As a result they were all sitting there willing him to fail. I can see that would have been tough for a performer. But he added there had been some neutral people on the show, and he felt on the whole he had got his message across. It wasn't confrontational, he stressed, he really just wanted to discuss the issues. This rather startled me, especially when he went on to insist that he was not a debunker. Honestly, he said, his attitude is always 'I don't know, we'll investigate it.' He didn't completely believe in the Tooth Fairy, and Santa was way off the scale, but hey, in principle he is willing to be proved wrong about other stuff.

As if !  I think some people really are taken in by this affable old geezer act. So modest, so open minded! (Funny how he manages to work the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus into just about everything.) It's pure humbuggery, utterly at odds with the mad invective in many of his books and on his website. On my way to the podcast I'd involuntarily refreshed my memory about his views on Stargate: 'what's known in woo-woo circles as "remote viewing programme" ... by the early 1990s, investigations showed divisiveness within the group, poor performance, and few accurate results', etc. In my own mind Randi occupies a rather pivotal position, a key figure whose views influence high profile scientists like Richard Dawkins, and who as a result needs to be taken seriously. It's a shock to be reminded what a crude propagandist he is, and how extraordinary it is that such a man can be treated as an expert on a such a profoundly important topic. It's most comedy knock-about stuff, but reeks of the kind of ignorance and prejudice which in other circumstances would speak for itself.

So bring him on! A new UK TV show would be a wonderful opportunity to debate some of the issues. Alas, I have little confidence in the ability of TV folk in this respect. It's worth having a look at the late Monty Keen's spirited attack on the 2003 Discovery Channel programme in which Randi took part (and which I also missed). Keen lays into the producers for their reliance on gimmicks, their bias - for instance editing out the most impressive mediumistic evidence - and for allowing little time to critics like himself to make the case for the genuineness of some psychic phenomena, or to point out the problems with Randi's challenge. He also reveals that The Amazing One's attempt at cold reading was so futile that the embarrassed floor manager had to stop it, under the pretence of a 'technical fault'.

It's not often that someone stands up to Randi so convincingly. Interestingly, Keen seems to have got under his skin: he posted some 7000 words of angry rebuttal, assuring his readers that Keen would not escape from censure for his 'unfair and virulent' assault. I've noticed this rather curious characteristic before in militant sceptics, that they are very free with their own criticisms - which are often uninformed, uninsightful, and couched in derisive terms - yet deeply hurt to find themselves coming under counter-attack. It's as though they think their own point of view is so unanswerable it's not open to serious debate.

Yet I'm keen to see the old fraud take to the public hustings one last time. Whatever one thinks about him, it's courageous to keep doing what he does at his age, and with his recent history of ill-health. Considering which, I have to say, I'm not altogether convinced this programme is actually going to happen. But if it does it's bound to stir up some real and productive debate, if not in the show itself, then hopefully in the reaction to it.


Sharon Stone is the latest celebrity to put foot in mouth with ill-considered comments about karma. Musing on the unkindness of the Chinese to the Tibetans, and especially to the Dalai Lama, 'a friend of mine', she said: 'And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought, 'is that karma, when you're not nice that bad things happen to you?''.  Understandably the Chinese didn't like this much - the official reaction, posted by the Xinhua News Agency, is that Stone is now 'the public enemy of all mankind'. She's also getting a drubbing in the Western media, and has lost her job with Dior.

Hard not to recall the similar furore that followed comments nine years ago by the England football manager Glen Hoddle, who mentioned in an interview that he thought disabled people were paying for some wickedness in a previous life. He'd got this simplistic new agery off his friend Eileen Drewery, a psychic healer who he hired to handle the team's physical injuries, rather to the bemusement of the sporting press. There was a terrible stink; Tony Blair joined in the jeering, making his position untenable, and he got the sack.

As before, most commentators are treating Stone's remarks as a common case of celebrity stupidity. Reincarnation and karma are taken for granted by about a sixth of the planet's population. But the West has no tradition of this kind, and even secularists' notions are coloured by Christianity, so what she said made no sense on any level. Had she stopped to think about what she was saying, says Dan Gardner in the Ottawa Citizen, many objections would have sprung to mind.

Here's a simple one: The victims of the earthquake included schoolchildren who, presumably, had never in their short lives clubbed a Tibetan or said awful things about the Dalai Lama to the international press. And so we are left with an image of cosmic justice in which innocent schoolchildren are slaughtered by the thousands as punishment for the deeds of the wizened old men who control China.

Actually, the whole point about karma is that it involves actions in previous lives, although Stone's comments were so garbled you can understand the confusion.  For all we know, all of those innocent children had done ghastly things to other people in other existences, and getting buried under slabs of concrete was their come-uppance. But this tit-for-tat notion is just as objectionable in its way, and possibly - if we take the doctrine seriously - just as misconceived. In fact it might require a major philosophical shift to grasp just what karma is all about.

This is something that I've been grappling with for some time. Gardner finishes his piece by insisting that one should always think: 'Why do I believe what I do? Do I have evidence? What objections can be raised against my belief? Can it stand up to rational scrutiny? These are the questions that have to be asked, constantly.' Quite so, and speaking for myself I do ask these questions - constantly. This existence is a major big deal - keeping the boat afloat, so to speak, through all its challenges, possibilities and misfortunes is a huge and daily commitment. The notion that when it's done we might find ourselves having to turn round and do it all over again, in a different set of circumstances, just leaves one thinking - why?

I sometimes hear of people who, in funeral elegies and obituaries, are said to have been 'in love with life', even in advanced old age, and to be desperate at losing it. But could anyone really love life so much that they wanted to keep coming back again and again? And not just as privileged Westerners, mind, but also as Romanian orphans, or child-workers in Indian sweat-shops, or in warzones?

So what is the evidence for such an appalling idea? Presumably it emerged from religious experience, in the ability of individuals to recall previous lives after imbibing soma or other psychedelics, or perhaps through meditation. But in recent years we in the West have started to understand that children in Asia, and also other parts of the world, are occasionally born with a strong sense of having lived before, and that the statements they make accurately correspond with recently deceased individuals. The phenomenon that Ian Stevenson and others have brought to our attention is so marked, it's very difficult to explain away.

That's less the case with the other main strand of evidence, from hypnotic regression. There's a lot of suspicion about the implantation of false memories, and plenty of evidence about the extraordinarily creative abilities of the unconscious mind in trance states. I, for one, would be glad to think that the vision of repeated rebirths as presented by Michael Newton in Journey of Souls, based on statements by people undergoing regression therapy, is a confabulation of some kind. It's unremittingly bleak: always having to return to the world to experience some aspect as yet unexplored, learn some lesson. It's spoken of too in an utterly neutral, matter-of-fact way, like brushing up one's maths before an exam, yet for wretched humans can translate into appalling sufferings - a life in a body twisted by cerebral palsy, or one spent picking over a toxic rubbish heap for food to survive. 

But then there is Helen Wambach's book Reliving Past Lives, also based on hypnotic regression.  She claimed that obscure details of domestic life during remote historical periods, and which were described by more than 2000 clients  - relating to clothes, food, eating utensils and so on - showed an exact correspondence with known facts, even when these were against expectation. As with some of the best mediumistic statements, it's difficult to conceive of a confabulation of such artful and cunning intricacy, and on such a scale.

However distasteful, the evidence for rebirth is hard to dismiss, however much we would like to, without mobilising the kind of dubious sceptical strategies that many of us recognise don't really work.  The empirical facts - and the deep discomfort they can give rise to - represent an intolerable burden for parapsychologists involved in past life research.  It's difficult enough to be active as a scientist in a discipline that implies the reality of life after death, and much of the religious baggage that goes with it, against a secularist trend. But an area of investigation that implies we live again and again has even less to recommend it to sceptics.

Re-reading some of Stevenson's work for an earlier post I was struck by how many of these children, as he says, seem to have returned quite quickly, having lost their lives through violence, including actual murder. This gives rise to desperately poignant situations. For instance a little boy becomes pathetically attached to people in a neighbouring village, who are much older than him - and strangers to his present family - but who he believes were once his wife and children. What kind of relationship could that be? Others live a life as a person of consequence, with material success and reputation, and then find themselves alive in a nearby village, but dirt poor and uncomprehending.

The sense is of some utterly impersonal process at work, and one which the human mind is only dimly able to perceive. It suggests that it's pointless getting too het up about anything during our lives, or identifying too closely with any idea or activity that does not lead to moksha, the one all-important goal - to get off the train and stop the endless cycle of rebirths, to truly die. I look forward to hearing a footballer or an actress make this statement in clear, uncompromising terms, backed up by key research, and then hearing what the media has to say about it.