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What They Believe

In my last post I quoted from the 2005 Edge book What We Believe But Cannot Prove. I read the stuff on the website at the time, but thought I'd get the book for a holiday read - it's a great way to get a sense of what scientists are thinking in all sorts of fields without having to wade through all the small print.

The book's only about 250 pages long, and I could probably polish it off quite quickly, if I  didn't keep drifting off into a reverie after every three lines. It's all fascinating stuff.  Parapsychology is not mentioned at all, and I suspect that very few of the contributors would admit to the slightest sympathy with its claims. Nevertheless, a lot of them give a sense that the frontiers of science are expanding in ways that it progressively makeless hostile environment.

I thought from time to time over the next few weeks I'd pull out a few statements at random to comment on. It'll be a bit of a hodge-podge, and I won't make any attempt to organise it - it's hot in London and I'm off soon for a beer. 

First some general philosophical comments from familiar figures in the sceptics' camp. Here is psychologist Nicolas Humphrey, author of a somewhat baffling anti-superstition tract called Soul Searching (in the US, Leaps of Faith). Humphrey believes that

human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror, and what can be the point of such deception? The conjuror is the human mind itself, evolved by natural selection, and the point has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.

This may be why we find the 'hard problem' of consciousness just so hard, Humphrey thinks. Natural selection has meant it to be hard. 'Mysterian' philosophers who bow down before the apparent miracle and declare it's impossible ever to get the bottom of consciousness are responding 'exactly as natural selection hoped they would - with shock and awe'.

I love this - it's Darwinism gone mad, and oddly reflective of the way some sceptics think.  Observing ourselves, making sense of why we do things, we start to become paranoid, attributing personhood to a concept, and imagining that deception is deliberate. It's not just that nature is hard to understand, it's that it doesn't want us to understand. We are in a battle of wits with Natural Selection.

Richard Dawkins started this all off, but his idea of the 'selfish gene' was just a metaphor -  he didn't actually mean that the gene has feelings. Perhaps Humphrey is being metaphorical too. One hopes so, but...  He's quite interesting on consciousness, but there's sometimes a rather atheistic tone in his writings, as though he is constantly shaking his fist at the Great Designer.

Susan Blackmore asks, is it possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will ? She says recent developments in neuroscience and theories of consciousness are evidence against free will - we just think we have it. So she set out with her Buddhist practice systematically to change the experience and thinks she has succeeded. Now, she says, she has no feeling of acting with free will - decisions just happen with no sense of anyone making them.

But then the question arises, will the decisions be morally acceptable ?  Making a leap of faith, she says, she has found that they are.

It seems that when people discard the illusion of an inner self who acts, as many mystics and Buddhist practitioners have done, they generally do behave in ways that we think of as moral or good. So perhaps giving up free will is not as dangerous as it sounds - but this too I cannot prove.

Again, the heroic Darwinian struggle against illusion! It's interesting that in making a systematic effort Blackmore, a convinced atheist, feels she has personally experienced a state that religious folk would recognise  -'letting go and letting God', in Christian parlance, or the New Age 'aligning with the Universe' - and can vouch for the effects they too would claim. 

Not quite sure why the novelist Ian McEwan appears in a scientific forum, but perhaps to make the statement that most scientists think too obvious to be worth making.  

What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death... I suspect that many contributors will take this premise as a given: true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life - a better, more important life - elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.

McEwan has taken to saying this sort of thing quite a lot recently. I've rather given up reading him, but one of his earlier novels, I seem to recall, had a paranormal theme, and I remember thinking here's an intellectual with an open mind. But perhaps not.

I'm curious: does he disbelieve in an afterlife because of the weight of scientific opinion? In that case, would he be prepared to consider some of the claims of psychical research and parapsychology ? What does he think about near-death experiences - wishful thinking illusions ?

Or is his approach mainly humanistic, based on the perception that religion is all evil. And if so, is that really tenable ? Is religion really just about sharia law and suicide bombers, or could it not also motivate much of the decency and philanthrophy that exists in the world ?

Enough philosophy, now for the beer.

Great Global Warming !

Brimming with indignation today, after reading the news about the Great Global Warming Swindle, the Channel 4 programme which 'debunks' climate change as a plot by environmentalists. The film understandably brought a deluge of complaints when it was aired 15 months ago. Now the broadcast regulator Ofcom has administered a wrist-slap to Channel 4 for bias in the way it represented some of the contributor comment. But it stopped well short of acknowledging that the programme was a bit of lying anti-science propaganda.

According to the environmentalist George Monbiot, the film's maker Martin Durkin has form in this area. He has made two films for the science programme Equinox, one claiming that breast implants are completely safe and the other about genetic engineering - in both cases authorities who he interviewed were shocked to find themselves being totally misrepresented. One got out in time, before lending her name and reputation to a view diametrically opposite to what she actually believed, while the other said she felt 'completely betrayed and misled... they did not tell me it was going to be an attack on my position'. 

Monbiot also makes some quite detailed charges against the programme itself. Graphs were doctored to alter the facts about temperature rises. The scientific credentials of people who Durkin invited on the programme to pooh-pooh global warming were falsely inflated. Other contributors hid the fact that they were funded by fossil fuel companies or lobby groups, sometimes mendaciously. Durkin invoked non-existent political conspiracy theories and invented claims, such as that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than all man-made sources put together (actually a small fraction), and that the oceans are the biggest source of carbon dioxide (it's a vital carbon sink).

The Ofcom verdict is disastrous, because it appears to vindicate the right of broadcasters to talk absolute rubbish about things that really matter. Monbiot claims the programme has measurably weakened the UK public's appreciation of the dangers of global warming, and I'm afraid he may be right.  The TV channel couldn't care less: if the programme 'creates noise', job done.

Global warming scepticism offers interesting parallels for parapsychology and the understanding of paranormal experience - or the lack of it. They aren't exact parallels, and in some cases 'paradox' would be a better word.  In fact I've sometimes wondered whether the folks at the Skeptical Inquirer feel dissonance about this. On the one hand they are natural bedfellows with the 'sceptics' who boldly go their own way against the herd. Every sceptical instinct is to yell, the emperor has no clothes! - the thing the mob so ardently believes in doesn't exist. At the same time the 'believers' in this case are mainstream scientists - they can hardly go against the consensus that actually it does.

Meanwhile, the climatologists whose work is being misrepresented are in exactly the same position as parapsychologists. Both are specialists in their field, which is immensely complex and not easily second-guessed by other scientists, who ideally ought to trust their judgement, yet instead come up with all sorts of phony arguments backed with flimsy 'evidence', sarcasm and invective.  It's frustrating for climatologists, as it is for parapsychologists, because they know from an abundance of studies that they are right, but they can't provide definitive proof.

For instance Stephen H. Schneider, climatologist professor at Stanford University, 'strongly believes' that there is overwhelming evidence of man-made global warming. Just not in the strict sense of a criminal trial with beyond-a-reasonable-doubt criteria, but in the sense of a civil proceeding, where preponderance of evidence is the standard and a likelihood greater than 50 per cent is enough to win the case. It lacks full proof, but a subjective reading puts it well over the minimum threshold of belief - 'far enough to assert that it is already proved to the point where we need to consider taking it seriously.' [What We Believe But Cannot Prove, pp. 76-7]

It's interesting nevertheless that climatologists are taken at their word by the rest of the scientific community, while parapsychologists, who could say pretty much the same thing, are considered beyond the pale.

A lot of this is packed into some remarks by climatologist Stuart D Jordan, summing up articles for the Skeptical Inquirer last year in which he makes the case for man-made global warming. He too frets that science does not offer certainty, and points out that it is typically presented in the language of statistics and probabilities. This is especially true of scientific studies of complex phenomena, he says, of which climate science is an excellent example, 'even though these phenomena remain rooted in the basic laws of nature'. 

Jordan goes on to point out that the fact of 'uncertainty' is viewed by people unfamiliar with science as evidence for a major scientific controversy, even though there really isn't any. 

Often this false claim is made by those who wish to discourage action to address the problems associated with climate change. There are certainly a few scientists of integrity who remain sceptical of the current near consensus, but the interested reader might consider the language of some of the critics and investigate their sources.

Yes indeed!

The conclusion? The controversy shows how easily science can be subverted by wishful thinking. Psi sceptics desperately want telepathy not to be true, because it mucks up their entire world view. Climate-change sceptics fight the concept of global warming because it's scary to think about and because (I'm guessing here) it imposes an intolerable burden of guilt. So they lie and abuse and misrepresent, and are gratefully referred to people who feel the same as they do.

Of course climate change is a live issue, a matter practically of life or death. That's not exactly the case with parapsychology, yet it too, in its way, has profound implications for humanity, for those who can understand and trust its findings. If the dynamics of misrepresentation can be grasped in the case of the one, then perhaps it will start to influence perceptions of the other.

The Koestler Doctrine

Last year the Guardian published what I thought was a rather inoffensive article by Caroline Watt on the benefits of teaching parapsychology. Dr. Watt, a researcher and lecturer at Edinburgh's Koestler Institute, agreed that most mainstream scientists are not persuaded that there exists replicable evidence of psi phenomena. But she pointed out that polls show around half of the UK population holding paranormal beliefs, and of these half have had a paranormal experience. So it makes sense to study it.

It's also a great way to teach scientific methodology, she added, for instance how to identify possible sources of bias or artefact or contamination in a research study and the use of tools such as meta-analysis for examining controversial claims - ideal for stimulating critical thinking.

This got the gremlins out in force. A few samples:

It is outrageous that they cannot learn this from conventional science such as physics, chemistry or biology. Parapsychology is pretty much wholly a pseudoscience other than the 'debunkers' and has no place in the science classroom.

There is nothing within this topic to teach; no accredited results; no credible theories; no un-debunked researchers. What *exactly* are you "teaching"?

And this:

OK, I won't call you "ghostbusters"...will dimwits do

When I was at school we dissected animals and studied their entrails to learn how the digestive system works. If only we'd realised we could tell the future from them too

It was the usual ignorant caterwauling, but I did connect with this remark by 'cynicalsteve':

She's trying to have her cake and eat it....if she (Watt) thinks there's something in parapsychology, she should say what exactly; if she thinks it's nonsense, then she should say that. But she says both (not neither) on her site; which is naughty. So she's nothing more than a professor of hypocrisy - not parapsychology - "teaching" something in which she doesn't really believe...

Of course it wasn't Watt's pragmatic fence-sitting that enraged most critics so much as the mere notion that paranormal belief and experience are worth studying - a phenomenon in itself deeply worthy of examination (their rage, I mean).  But not knowing anything about her background I was surprised when some friends mentioned to me recently that they actually considered her something of a sceptic, a-la-Wiseman. That seemed rather odd, considering her position at Edinburgh. So when she gave a talk this week I was interested to go along and find out where she stands. 

Watt, a lively and pleasant Scot, started by updating us on the situation at the Koestler Institute, which if some of the rumours going around were to be believed was practically at the point of collapse, having dipped rather freely into the capital of Koestler's bequest. That situation seems to have stabilised, but there isn't enough cash to pay for a professorship. So Bob Morris, who died a few years ago, has not been replaced, and instead there are just two lecturers, of whom Watt is one.

Watt went on to talk about work with Wiseman on paranormal belief, a subject which surely has been done to death. But she also described a couple of experimental approaches. A current one involves healing at a distance, and the results are expected later this year. The other involved an attempt to influence subjects engaged in meditation, by pairing them with a person, who from another room tries to help them reduce the number of distractions they experience.

The aim here was actually to test the 'experimenter effect'. It was found that there was no effect when the experimenter tried to influence the participants, either by expressing enthusiasm and certainty in a positive outcome, or by the opposite. But there was a significant difference between experiments led by believers and disbelievers in psi. (Bizarrely, the effect was not to reduce the number of distractions in the believers' experiments but to increase the number of distractions in those carried out by disbelievers.)

This struck me as a useful addition to the psi database, although as so often with these things it still lacks the replication that would make it stand out. And Watt's own position? Pretty much as stated in the Guardian, as it turns out: people obviously have these beliefs and experiences, which it makes sense to study, but as to psi itself, there is still not enough to totally convince other scientists.

This 'Koestler doctrine', I guess, will be the standard line in British universtities where Koestler graduates are teaching and researching parapsychology (eg. Northampton and Liverpool Hope). And why not? It's true as far as it goes, it's reasonable, and it genuflects enough to 'serious science' to keep the critics off their backs. A genuine interest in researching psi does not necessarily come with a willingness to endure controversy and notoriety.

But if parapsychology as a discipline is content with this I doubt whether it will win many converts. One could equally claim that there is abundant evidence of psi, both in documented surveys and case studies, for which sceptics have advanced little in the way of serious alternatives, and in a body of experimental work which consistently finds evidence of psi, both in individual interactions between subject and agent, and also in statistical anomalies which, again, are unexplained by knowledgable critics. If parapsychologists were not in such a precarious situation they would say this.

It's true that the subject helps students think about scientific methodology, but the critics are right, that's a smokescreen - it's not what this is really about.  If parapsychologists think psi exists, somewhere along the line they need to have the courage of their convictions and say so unambiguously, as indeed some researchers like Sheldrake and Radin do. They then need to explain exactly what the challenges are, and keep hammering the message home until at least some of the less emotional sceptics get the point.

It's on the teaching side that Edinburgh really may make an impact. Watt has just designed an online course in parapsychology, which is apparently attracting a good deal of interest (we were apparently the first to see it). This sort of thing really could make a difference, and I'll come back to it as soon as I've had a chance to check it out. 

Planet Science

Daniel Finkelstein has some pointed things to say about cognitive dissonance in The Times today. His piece has nothing to do with the paranormal - it's about attitudes and outcomes in criminal justice. But I've often thought that there's a strong parallel.

Something stuck in my mind long ago from the case of the Birmingham Six, who were jailed for life in the 1970s for the IRA pub bombings. Lord Denning, a crusty and opinionated old judge with a strong West Country accent, headed the court that rejected their appeal, and he said as follows:

If the six men win, it will mean that the police are guilty of perjury, that they are guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were invented and improperly admitted in evidence and the convictions were erroneous... This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say that it cannot be right that these actions should go any further.

Even then I thought this an extraordinary statement - it seemed odd that a figure with such power over other people's lives could inhabit such an idealised world.  As we know, the Birmingham Six were cleared twelve years later, when the police were shown beyond reasonable doubt to have beaten the men to confess, casually invented evidence, and suppressed exonerating facts - as had been strongly suspected at the time. It's not as though it had never happened before. But Denning found it inconceivable that the police could ever lie. The idea of such a thing would have wrecked the fabric of his existence.

Finkelstein raises the Central Park Jogger case. A man named Kharey Wise was one of the gang of teenagers convicted of beating and raping a young woman in Central Park in 1989. Some ten years later he befriended another New York rapist in jail, and this man eventually fessed up to having done the deed. His DNA was linked to the crime - none of the teenagers' DNA had been. Their confessions were inconsistent, and the District Attorney moved to overturn the convictions. However the original prosecutor and the police would have none of it. They convened a panel that concluded the police had nothing wrong, and argued that the teens must have at least initiated the assault.

The same sort of thing happened with the case of Timothy Evans, whose wife and child were found dead at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, West London. Evans was hanged in 1950 for the crime. Other bodies were then discovered in the house, and it became obvious that Evans's fellow tenant John Christie was responsible. But it was years before the legal establishment could accept that it had got it so grotesquely wrong, and kept insisting that Evans was the murderer.

Finkelstein comments:

It is commonly thought that we have theories and that they are tested by the facts. The opposite is true. We have theories and then we strive mightily to fit the facts into them, ignoring those that don't quite work or reinterpreting them if we have to. The more we have at stake emotionally, the more pressing this task becomes.

This is a pretty good description of the basis of conspiracy theories, like the need some Muslims have to blame Jews for the events of September 11.  It also underlies much of the resistance to paranormal claims.

The point is, cognitive dissonance is a fundamental fact of human nature. But many people think there is a place where we can go where this rule does not apply, a place called Science, which is conceived to be a perfect ordered world governed by replicable experiments and predicted outcomes. Like Denning, its inhabitants can't imagine a world where anomalies, exceptions to the rule, are possible, and no less real for being hard to pin down.

Yet in the end, the law got it right in the case of the Birmingham Six, and Denning's rosy worldview was shattered. (I wonder how he dealt with it). More evidence, and a common sensical view of it, prevailed in the other cases as well. It didn't involve overturning any cherished legal principles, but rather of applying the law in a more focused and nuanced way.

It will be the same with psychic experience. It's not science which is the problem - on the contrary, we understand psi and accept it thanks to the scientific efforts of parapsychologists and psychical researchers, just as we know about cognitive dissonance thanks to the work of psychologists. The problem is the illusion that science is an independent tool, a referee free from bias and prejudice, and not what it manifestly is, the creation of human minds, and vulnerable to emotional needs.  The story of this century will be one of scientists starting to understand and accept the limitations of Planet Science, and doing so precisely through scientific methods - a process that parapsychology will play a large part in.

Circular Evidence

'Tis the season for crop circles, which is something I ought to know about, as I quite often pass through Wiltshire on my way to visit my Dad in Bath. When the thought of the motorway appals, we take the longer scenic route along the A4, through the rolling cornfields, past Silbury Hill and the Cherhill white horse. This is prime circles country, the scene of some of the earliest specimens to come to public notice in the early 1980s, and a main focus of activity ever since. The Waggon and Horses pub, which we also pass, was apparently a Mecca for week-end croppies.

Crop404_679706c I was vaguely aware of the circles when they first came to notice, but they have rather dropped off my radar. They still appear, obviously, but the controversy seems to have died down. As far as the world is concerned, they just happen. And they seem to be getting increasingly intricate, as this one which appeared in Wroughton in Wiltshire recently shows. It took an astrophysicist, Mike Reed, to explain that it shows the first ten digits of Pi -  the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter.

In fact I know almost nothing about crop circles. I remember stopping off one time with the family, and paying £1 each to enter a circle. The kids played tag while the two of us wandered round marvelling at the other-worldly geometry and having vaguely cosmic thoughts. The designs were eye-catching and appealed to our aesthetic sense. But neither of us had a fixed opinion about what caused them, whether whirling vortexes or UFOs or hoaxers, and when Doug and Dave made their famous revelations back in 1991 I don't remember feeling any sense either of letdown or illumination - I just couldn't work up much interest.

I find this relevant now that I have started to think about different responses to psi claims. Not knowing anything about it, and not caring much, I could put myself in a position of someone who knows nothing about psi. What does it feel like?

I'd read Jim Schnabel's book on remote viewing so I thought I'd give his earlier book Round in Circles a go. I enjoy his narrative style - it's entertaining, but also clear and informative. He dispassionately describes the rivalry between the 'weather' and the 'UFO' factions, the media frenzy and the toe-curling new-agery that followed in its wake. Only right at the end does he come out in favour of hoaxing as the explanation, and then rather diffidently, with an uncritical description of Doug and Dave's story and a description of his own apparently successful efforts at fabricating circles. 

I've never been much taken with ufology, except as a sociological phenomenon, and was happy to suppose that the circles are caused by a combination of the weather and human craftsmanship - with whirlwinds causing very basic circles, and hoaxers creating the more complex patterns. At the same time, I didn't really buy the idea of two guys, both in their late fifties and sixties during this period - serious beer drinkers and probably smokers too, to infer from Schnabel's account - doing so much of physical and nocturnal work. Hoaxers they undoubtedly were - reports say a newspaper paid them £10,000 - but I doubt they ever left the pub. And when Schabel says his favourite implement was a garden roller, I wondered, did he really lug the thing down farm-tracks and through cornfields, and if so, how did he manage not to leave any tracks? 

But I don't feel any dissonance about any of this. The explanations nicely balance each other out. My worldview doesn't rest on crop circles - I don't regard them as messages from another dimension, even if, considering my acceptance of psi, I have a feeling that perhaps they might be. I can leave the tiniest crack open for the idea that spirits or extra-terrestials are beaming down these fabulously complex vortexes to delight us, and encourage us believe, but at any time I can quickly scuttle to the safety of more mundane theories. For me, the significance lies not the origin but the thing itself. The design and the beauty and the surprisingness of the phenomenon are enough.

Isn't this pretty much how most people think about psychic claims? There is a sort of equilibrium between potential explanations. There's no real way of deciding where the truth lies, and no real need to. We learn to live with something which, when we really think about it, cries out for resolution. But our response is more aesthetic than philosophic, just as the idea of ghosties give most people a thrill of excitement instead of making them ask questions.

So I can go on admiring the craftsmanship of the circles, and perhaps also, in a moment of reflection, the heroic restraint of their makers in so rarely coming forward to identify themselves.

Book Review: Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer - Extraordinary Knowing

Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's book Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind was published last year, and recently came out in paperback (she herself died of a long-standing intestinal disease shortly after completing it). I'd heard a lot about the incident she describes, in which a psychic helped her recover a lost object. Mayer's natural scepticism was confounded, and she embarked on a journey to try to understand what was going on. Sceptics grappling with psi often makes for interesting reading, and although not quite what I expected I was not disappointed.  

As psychic stories go, hers is in the five-star class. Someone had nicked a harp belonging to her eleven year old daughter. Having failed to get it back by conventional means, a friend suggested she try a psychic. What had she got to lose?

Mayer called up a dowser named Harold, who said: 'Hang on, I'll check to see if it's still in your neighbourhood.' Then: 'yup, it's still there, send me a street plan'. Two days later Harold came up with an exact address. Mayer couldn't simply knock on the door, so instead she posted flyers outside offering a reward. A man then rang to say he'd seen a poster outside his house about a harp, and the description matched one his neighbour had recently shown him - soon it was back in her daughter's room.

I'd imagine it's the sort of thing which, if it happens to you, you couldn't very well shrug off. It's not somebody else's lie or fantasy - it happened to you. A mere coincidence? Not really.

Before I bought the book I had somehow got the impression that Mayer was a militant sceptic who had difficulty accepting the event (rather as if it had happened to Susan Blackmore, say.) The story of that epic existential struggle I think has yet to be written, and I look forward to it - this is something else, although at least as valuable. Mayer was stunned - 'this changes everything' - yet at the same time she seems to have been quite fertile ground for a shift of worldview. It makes sense: as a widely respected psychoanalyst she combined scientific training - and the orthodox views that go with it - with empathy, flexibility and a willingness to listen. These are qualities one does not associate with militant sceptics, but which are ideal for understanding the source of the disquiet that she undoubtedly felt. 

This psychological resistance to psi is surely one of the most important issues that parapsychology faces, yet there has been surprisingly little written about it. I seem to have read loads of boring journal papers over the years that explore the typical psychological profile of  the 'fantasy-prone believer', implying that they are a race apart. But there has been almost nothing about what drives scepticism, which in many ways is far more striking and anomalous - the inability to see any evidence of psychism, the tendency to disregard logical challenges as if they didn't exist, the intense agitation expressed in the aggressive language, and so on. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance is well-known, but there's little public awareness of how it may affect anyone's responses to paranormal claims and experiences.

This is the strong theme running through Mayer's book. She was shocked to discover a whole world of experience and research that corroborated the harp incident - the kind of surprise that I think awaits a great many people.  She discovers the parapsychological journals, and reads about the Maimonides dream research, the ganzfeld controversy, talks to Hal Puthoff about remote viewing and Star Gate, and Robert Jahn about the PEAR research, and so on. She also has an interesting section on prayer experiments. But what especially fascinates her are the disturbed reactions that psi generates, from the notorious muzzling of psi proponents in the NRC report, to the peer reviewer who told a journal editor he could find nothing wrong with an article on telepathy, but still rejected it saying he wouldn't believe it even it were true.

It's not just militants who feel this way. She herself was unsettled by an incident in which, when hunting for a lost watch, she suddenly went onto automatic pilot, as it were, and found herself going directly to the back of a drawer where it had been hidden. She also has an interesting example from her clinical practice of a woman who, as a child, learned to intuit when her father was driving home drunk, giving her just enough time to hide herself and her younger sister in a closet so that they wouldn't get beaten.

During the late afternoons, I'd start listening for him. It was a funny kind of listening. It was like listening with my whole body, not my ears. I don't know how to describe it except to say I was tuned in, vigilant with every part of me. Suddenly I'd know - know he was fifteen minutes away and driving home drunk... My dad didn't drink all the time. So there was no predicting. I had to stay tuned in every day, be ready, and never trust any pattern.

But in later life this 'spooky knowing', as she called it, set off panic whenever it occurred.  Here Mayer refers to Freud, who argued that the human psyche is organized to escape the experience of fear. We use an array of defences to suppress and regulate it - usually unconsciously. We don't even know that we're defending, must less what we're defending against.

It's perhaps to be expected that Freud should feature often in a book by a psychoanalyst, but in this context also slightly surprising. If I hadn't read anything else about it I would be left with the impression that Freud had a real interest in telepathy, whereas I guess few people would consider his views little more than a footnote. Conversely she makes no mention at all of Frederic Myers, who really did have something original to say about it. I speculated this might be because she wanted to stick to contemporary work, or because Myers was motivated by an interest in survival of death, which she says somewhere she wanted no part of.

But in a way, her preference for Freud over Myers is emblematic of a view that regards as psi as a threat and a danger, rather than as an integral feature of consciousness and a window to a wider world. In that sense it describes, not psychical literature itself, or the views of people who immerse themselves in it and understand its implications, but the outside world that regards it with suspicion and hostility. Where Myers saw psi as an element of the whole and healthful mind functioning at various levels, Freud seems to have associated it with that dark world of dreams, a way of gaining access to an unconscious brimming with suppressed anxiety. As Mayer points out, Freud also abhorred the idea of 'oceanic' experiences, which he regarded as an infantile regression - he fled from music apparently fearful of the emotions it would evoke, and which he needed to control. But of course, it was Freud who went on to dominate the world, while Myers remains virtually unknown.

What's interesting about this book is that it exhibits a highly-educated and scientifically literate professional taking psi research seriously.  There isn't much of that about, but I sense we could start to see more of it - I found myself often comparing it in that respect to Damien Broderick's Outside the Gates of Science. These are writers who are not involved in parapsychology, and who are coming to it more or less cold. They can adopt an objective stance, but are nevertheless unafraid to go fully on record as being persuaded both by the experiences and the experiments. More than psychics or parapsychologists - who are seen perhaps as already embedded in that other world - readers will see them as guides, providing the reassurance that one can take this stuff seriously without going mad or turning into a figure of fun.

For others it will not be enough to see someone else making the journey - they will have to make it themselves. I don't just mean those shocking personal events which most of us may in any case never experience, so much as the experience of interacting with the research, of identifying all the potential 'normal' explanations, and deciding on their plausibility. That's rather missing here. Mayer's presentation of the ganzfeld and remote viewing, while generally fair, rather under-states the critical objections. It's right to point out that Ray Hyman couldn't find anything obviously wrong with the remote viewing and autoganzfeld protocols, but Mayer almost co-opts him as an advocate, or at least implies that he has thrown in the towel, both far from the truth.  About the PEAR work, she mentions that she scrutinised all the sceptical objections and was not persuaded by them, but does not give the reader any opportunity to make an independent decision.

Still, one can always do that oneself, and perhaps the virtue of a book like this is that it will spark interest. As I say, it does also make a hugely valuable contribution in underscoring just what it is about this subject that makes it so different, in the way that it messes with people's heads. This is surely what parapsychology has to work on, for its only when the causes of resistance to it start to be understood that its claims can really get a wide and serious hearing.