Previous month:
August 2008
Next month:
November 2008

Silly Sceptic Tricks

Scepticism of the paranormal seems fair enough to me - after all, a lot of the claims are flat-out incredible. When I talk about it I always try to keep the objections in mind. Whether we like it or not, the burden of proof really is on us, as a matter of practical fact. If we are going to persuade people, our arguments have to be better than the opposition's.

A lot of the time I like to think that sceptics might have a different attitude if they had more facts and knew more about it. But there are times when I recognise that this is unrealistic. Militant sceptics aren't interested in argument. If they are proactive, they'll use dirty tricks to keep people to their way of thinking, and if they aren't, they'll just uncritically believe them.

One of those times was listening to Rupert Sheldrake talking at the SPR Study Day on Saturday, on sceptics.  Rupert took us through a list of the indignities he's suffered at their hands. The one I'm most closely interested in concerned the dog Jaytee, which his statistical investigation showed had an overwhelming tendency to go and sit by the door around the time when its owner Pam Smart made preparations to come home, suggesting some telepathic connection.

Richard Wiseman carried out four 'experiments', in which he claimed to show that the dog was going backwards and forwards to the door all the time, and any correspondence between this and Pam's coming home was purely coincidental - wishful thinking on her part.  When I analysed his paper I found he'd made up all sorts of arbitrary criteria, which of course he said the dog failed to meet, and the set-up was so oddly conceived it really couldn't have proved much one way or the other.

At the time, Rupert pointed out to Wiseman wasn't directly addressing his own research, to which Wiseman responded he wasn't concerned with that, but simply with media claims that the dog always reacted telepathically - which wasn't accurate. But that didn't stop him going round telling sceptics' conferences that he'd debunked Rupert's paranormal dog. There was even a TV film, which ran clips edited to show the dog running backwards and forwards all the time, which was absolutely misleading. What I hadn't seen - and what Rupert showed us on Saturday - was a graph plotting Wiseman's data and revealing it to be exactly the same as Rupert's own.

This is so frustrating. Wiseman made his experiment up as he went along, his analysis was specious, and his presentation of the facts so obviously misleading that it's difficult to see it as anything other than dishonest.  But to scientists and the secular-minded public it's Wiseman who comes across as doing 'real science', putting the uppity paranormalist in his place. This chicanery also has personal consequences. I talked to Pam about it - she works with Rupert as his researcher - and she was still obviously traumatised by the experience of waking up one morning to headlines such as 'Psychic Pets Are Exposed as a Myth', which led to weeks of barracking by her neighbours, who pretty much accused her of lying to them. 

Rupert also talked about his experience with National Geographic TV, 'Psychic Animals' film, in which a sceptic tried to debunk his work with the telepathic parrot N'kisi. The sceptic achieved this by doing work with another talking parrot, and deciding that Rupert had manipulated the data by excluding the parrots' non-responses. If Rupert had been given an opportunity to respond he would have shown a) that he was following best scientific practice and b) that a recalculation to include these non-responses made no difference to the outcome.

But Rupert wasn't given this opportunity, so he complained the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom. National Geographic's lawyers defended its conduct by pointing out that although they had indeed provided Rupert with an assurance that the programme would be free and fair, in order to entice him to take part, this assurance was not legally binding - so they could not be held to account for breaking it.

Interestingly, Ofcom seems to have grasped what was going on and ordered National Geographic to apologise. When it appealed, a judge threw its objections out. But as Rupert wearily points out, none of this stopped it repeating the same programme eight times in the US.

Rupert also described how he was conned into appearing in a programme with Richard Dawkins. The producers promised him it would not be a stitch up, which Dawkins had eventually to admit had been the intention all along. And he had some interesting sidelights on the controversy over his telepathy presentation at a science festival in 2006, which apparently was artificially cooked up by a sceptical Times reporter.

After an hour or so of this, steam was starting to come out of my ears. Even Chris French, invited as the event's token sceptic, seemed shocked. He had rebutted some of the points in my earlier talk, as also in Guy Playfair's, but when Rupert was done he jumped up and said there was nothing there he could possibly disagree with.

French's position intrigues me, because he does genuinely seem willing to interact with the opposition. He seems to get on well with Rupert, and comes to SPR events, undogmatically putting the sceptic answer to the various claims and challenges. Unlike Wiseman, he really does understand the difference between disagreement on the level of ideas, and cynical misrepresentation.

It's just so difficult to know how to respond to it. One can patiently explain the facts, but it seems all the sceptics have to do is throw up a bit of dust and any good piece of work is instantly discredited. The negative perception can't be reversed without getting people to go into a lot of complexities, and that requires an investment of time and effort that most aren't prepared to give.

All this reminds me that paranormal belief really isn't about science at all, but about politics and public relations. Temperament and emotion underlie hostility to paranormal claims, just as they underlie all kinds of political and social controversies. One is a sceptic in the way that one is a liberal or conservative - one looks at the matter through that prism, and shoehorns the facts to fit. If the idea of psychism is ideologically unacceptable and personally repugnant you don't mess about with namby-pamby argument, you fight dirty, to make it go away.

Rupert's talk made me angry, but I soon got over it. We advocates don't have the luxury of indulging in complaint. We have to figure out ways to demonstrate why we think our arguments are better than theirs, and to expose the silly sceptic tricks for what they are.


'Dying Brain Hypothesis' Not Dead

Interested to see The Skeptic magazine taking a pop at Pim van Lommel's hospital study of near-death experiences in its recent issue. This study, originally published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2001 has been hugely influential, so its not surprising the mag wants to cut it down to size.

Van Lommel and his team spent 13 years interviewing patients in ten different Dutch hospitals who had been resuscitated following a cardiac arrest. The aim was to see whether they had experienced an NDE. Eighteen per cent reported some memory from their period of unconsciousness, and 12% - one in eight - experienced several of the classic features: out-of-body perception, the tunnel, the light, blissful feelings, panoramic life review, and so on. Van Lommel concluded that medical factors could not account for the phenomenon. If purely physiological factors resulting from cerebral anoxia were the cause, he reasoned, most of the patients should have had an NDE.

This piece is by Jason J. Braithwaite, a researcher in visual cognitive neuroscience. He argues that survivalists like van Lommel have 'repeatedly misunderstood and misrepresented the dying-brain hypothesis when trying to argue against it'.  According to this theory, as formulated by Susan Blackmore and others, it's not the mere presence of anoxia that causes vivid seeming hallucinations, but the rate of its onset. If it comes on too rapidly, the patient will lose consciousness and black out, so no conscious experience or memory could occur.

However van Lommel made no attempt to measure the level of anoxia, so is in no position to make claims regarding its effects or the lack of them. He also, Braithwaite claims, ignores the way that anoxia impacts on different parts of the brain, and how some areas will be more susceptible than others. In any case, he goes on, it's not anoxia itself that is said to cause the NDE, but neural disinhibition, which can also be caused by drugs, epilepsy and so on.

Braithwaite also takes issue with the idea that a flat cortical EEG is an indication of total brain inactivity. Recent research with epileptics shows that large scale seizure activity can occur in deep sub-cortical regions that does not register at all on scalp-based EEG traces - an indication that an EEG is an unreliable measure of neural activity. In other words, there still lacks any reliable evidence that a person who reports an NDE was literally brain-dead at the time. He cites evidence that inter-ictal discharges in the hippocampus or amygdala alone are more than sufficient to produce complex meaningful hallucinations - no involvement from the cortex is necessary.

In short, he concludes that the dying brain hypothesis lives on - van Lommel's data notwithstanding. That should be pretty cheering to the Skeptic's readers. The article is forcefully argued and will leave them with the impression that all the fuss about van Lommel's study has been overdone, that it provides zero support it provides for the claims of survival, and so there's nothing to worry about.

Will it impact on the wider debate? Braithwaite knows his stuff, and his points about anoxia and EEG read-outs are probably quite relevant. It confirmed my feeling that the whole business of trying to prove that an individual could not possibly have had the experience since nothing was going on in his/her brain at the time - and certainly nothing that could have accounted for it - is fraught with difficulty. To that extent he's done a good job, and he's certainly a forceful advocate for the sceptic position.

But those of us who get our information from other sources besides sceptic magazines will not be left much further on. It's all very well to beat off attacks on the so-called dying brain hypothesis, but I've never been very certain what this ever actually amounted to. It's a rather grand term that implies to the uninitiated that the entire pantheon of effects in the near-death experience - any one of which is pretty surprising on its own, but which in combination many people justly find to be hugely meaningful and impactful - can somehow be explained away on the basis of neurological activity, whose effects we can only describe in very general terms. What the patient saw wasn't there, so it must have been a hallucination, and anoxia is implicated in neural disinhibition which causes hallucinations. There's your explanation. What more do you want?

I often wonder whether sceptics understand the enormity of what they are trying to explain away. (I remember coming across Michael Shermer somewhere referring to the near-death experience as 'obviously a wishful hallucination' - what magisterial certainty!) At one point Braithwaite raises the subject of the 'vivid and meaningful experiences' that are reported by patients undergoing brain stimulation, and which van Lommel argues are quite unlike the near-death experience. Van Lommel says:

These recollections ... consist of fragmented and random memories unlike the panoramic life-review that can occur in NDE. Further, transformational processes with changing life-insight and disappearance of fear of death are rarely reported after induced experiences. ... Thus, induced experiences are not identical to NDE...

That seems the very least one can say, but Braithwaite thinks 'this claim is not entirely accurate'. He suggests that the context of the two events - one when the patient is relaxed and enjoying a constant controlled interaction with the surgeon and receiving constant feedback, the other where the patient is possibly undergoing some form of trauma, confusion, disorientation, etc - may play a part.

It is certainly not unreasonable to assume that the small experiential differences between NDE and brain stimulation studies can be explained, to some degree, by these large differences in context. This is certainly a far more probably conclusion than that of mind-brain dualism.

It's a nice try, but...  small experiential differences? Braithwaite quotes several sources, among which I recognised Wilder Penfield, the neurosurgeon whose book on this subject I read some years ago, and whose work poking around in the brains of conscious epileptics I'm certain produced nothing remotely comparable to the panoramic life review or the ineffable feelings commonly described in the NDE, to name only two.   But that's the nub of all this - for some people, absolutely anything is more probable than mind-brain dualism. Like all paranormal debunkers, the author radiates indignation at the idea, and the irresponsibility of those who dare to suggest it.

The fact is, for those who can recognise the challenge here, the dying brain hypothesis is not really a hypothesis at all - it's a set of defensive stratagems based on inaccurate comparisons and speculative generalisations.   Some of it sort of hangs together if you don't look too closely at what experiencers actually say - Blackmore's idea of the dying cells in the visual cortex causing the tunnel effects has certainly gained traction in this regard. But in other respects it just relies on bluff and misinformation - Blackmore's chapter on out-of-body perception in Dying to Live being a prime example.

What I find so interesting is that in the sceptical analysis the transcendental and transormative element hardly gets any mention at all. OK, there may be something going on at some deep level of the brain, beyond the ability of instruments to detect. But is that really the point? Patients aren't just continuing to have experiences, something happens to them so powerful that when they return to existence they think and behave differently. What possible, meaningful neurological explanation could there be for that?

My feeling is that no materialist account of the NDE will be complete until we address this. We should surely all by now be able to recognise that it's a coherent and relatively common human experience, and one that has relevance to the human condition, on a personal and on a cultural level. So let's stop pretending that it's simply some weird nonsense that happens when the brain winds down, and nothing really to worry about. Let's instead ask ourselves why, if we are the creatures formed by natural selection that believe ourselves to be, something as odd and yet as meaningful as the near-death experience could ever have evolved. What's the purpose of it?

Fallible Memory

A reason I've been a bit quiet recently is I've been working on my talk for the SPR's Study Day in a couple of weeks. If anyone has time free on Saturday 25 why not come by (details below). The other speakers are author Guy Lyon Playfair and biologist Rupert Sheldrake. The second afternoon session will be given over to questions, so there'll be plenty of opportunity for everyone to join in. Oh, and Chris French will be there, so we won't be preaching entirely to the converted.

It should make for an interesting event. Guy is pretty militant about sceptics, and is doubtless relishing the prospect of dishing a bit of dirt about the activities of organisations like CISCOP.  Rupert has been at the sharp end of their activities for years - I'm particularly looking forward to hearing his version of the psychic dog saga.

As for me, I plan to talk about the psychology of the sceptic. My point is that 'believers' are thought to have addled brains - incapable of logical reasoning, blinded by bias and wishful thinking, etc - but actually a lot of militant sceptics can give them a run for their money. There are some quite interesting mental processes going on in their heads as well.

One of sceptics' favourite ways of explaining away psychic experience is faulty memory. You can't believe paranormal anecdotes because memory is very unreliable, as all sorts of studies have proved. I've often wondered about this - it's one of those generalisations which sound superficially quite plausible, but what does it really mean? What is the process involved? How is a near-death vision or the sighting of an apparition caused by the vagaries of memory?

The principle seems to be that some people are naturally inclined to believe in wonders and miracles, or have an urgent need to find mystery and meaning in incidents that people with their feet firmly on the ground would recognise to have mundane causes. Suppose someone reports a strange dream or hallucination of a relative that occurred at the precise time this person was dying in hospital. It's not that these two separate events necessarily did coincide; they might have actually been hours or even days apart. But under 'the insidious pressure of their superstitious longings' the two things become conflated in their imaginations, as if they happened simultaneously.

This has long been the main criticism made of the SPR's early research into 'crisis apparitions', those that coincide with a death or serious trauma. For any single one of these hundreds of anecdotes to be taken seriously, it is said, a description of the apparition would have to be written down before news of the death was received. Since this very rarely happened, critics feel justified in rejecting the whole lot.

One of the big problems with this - entirely unacknowledged, as far as I know - is that Edmund Gurney, Fred Myers and the others took a lot of trouble to get corroboration from other people. It's true, Miss Burns had come down to breakfast that day ashen-faced and shaking, yes, she had described a shockingly vivid dream of her fiancé in Australia falling out of a window, and a telegram bearing news that he had suffered just such a fatal accident had arrived a day later. In many of the cases such corroboration would be provided by two or more people. If the sceptics are to be believed, all these people's memories have corrupted, and to produce exactly the same paranormal-seeming effect. 

A more interesting difficulty is that there's no real evidence of it. The exception - and the major exhibit in the critics' case - is the story about Judge Hornby, which was published by Gurney and Myers in a magazine article. Hornby was a senior judge based in Shanghai in the 1870s, at this time a British protectorate. He said he had been going to bed one night when he came face to face with a journalist asking him for details of a judgment he was to give the next day. This was a normal arrangement, except that on this occasion it was very late and the man had in some strange way got into his bedroom. After a brief and heated exchange the man vanished: the next day he was found to have died in his bed at the time of the incident.

That Judge Hornby had indeed had this apparitional vision was confirmed to the satisfaction of the investigators by his wife, who had been woken up by hearing him talking. It was later pointed out by a Shanghai resident who knew about the journalist's death, that Hornby's vision could not have occurred as he described it because he was not married at the time. Therefore he would have had no wife to discus it with. The judge conceded this was true, and that his memory must have played tricks on him, although he could not imagine how. Gurney and Meyers publicly withdrew the case and apologized for not having been more thorough. Red faces all round.

This is related in detail in all the debunking books and you can see why - it seems resoundingly to confirm the suspicions about the vagaries of memory. As such, it pretty much neutralises all the testimony that the SPR gathered.

I have to say, though, that after encountering the story for the third and fourth times, I started to get twinges of - dare I say - scepticism. It just seemed so unlikely that a judge, of all people, should have got his testimony so dramatically muddled up.  He behaved just as someone would do who attached great importance to factual accuracy: the next day when he discovered what had happened he quizzed his own servants, talked to the man's family to find out the exact circumstances, and so on. The implication made by the critics is that the man had died one day in March, and then in June, or some time afterwards, Hornby had had a dream about it, and subsequently imagined the two things coincided.

You've probably figured this one out already. It took me a little while, probably because I was quite new to the subject and the sceptics are so authoritative about these things one sort of goes along with them.

Of course there's a much simpler explanation for the confusion. Hornby may indeed not have been married, but it doesn't mean that he wasn't sleeping with a woman, probably the woman he married three months later. Telling his story for the benefit of science, as he thought, he never thought that this detail would be so embarrassingly laid bare. In Victorian times ladies who cared about their reputations didn't sleep with men they weren't married to. So to avoid outing her as a whore he had to change his story.

There are in fact heavy hints about this in the SPR journals - there's an innocent explanation, but the researchers aren't at liberty to reveal it. You and I can quickly understand what really happened because we aren't prejudiced about paranormal reports. But debunkers can't because their brains point in only one direction, and they don't read psychical literature, so it's not the sort of thing they'd ever stumble across.

If you take the Hornby story out the equation, the sceptics have nothing to back up their claim that the vagaries of memory can produce experiences like those that so many people report. It's true that John Coover, in a 1928 paper reprinted in Paul Kurtz's A Skeptic's Handbook came up with a couple of other examples besides this one, but they don't really advance the case much either. One is to point out that William Crookes described the details of certain experiments with Douglas Home differently in two different places. But that merely shows that he misremembered them, it doesn't show a normal incident morphing into a paranormal one.

Coover's other example is in some ways the most interesting of the three: it describes the case of a sitter at a Home séance, who immediately afterwards wrote in his diary of all the extraordinary things he had seen, for which he had no explanation whatever, and two months later was going around telling people he had seen Home doing tricks with strings and levers. The discrepancy was only discovered after his death. What this shows is a paranormal incident morphing into a normal one under the vagaries of memory. And it's the point that I'll be making in my talk. It's a common and involuntary psychological response to an uncomfortable anomalous experience, for the memory to quietly erase it with the passage of time, and I'll give a few examples. 

The point here is that abundant evidence in parapsychological literature of this very natural and predictable process - séance researchers often remarked on it. Again, it's something that debunkers will never know about, because they don't read this material. And one has to ask, why does the debunker, to back up his idea of fallible memory generating supposedly paranormal incidents, use an example which demonstrates entirely the opposite process. Can he really not see the difference? My conclusion is that the mental processes that sceptics identify as causing paranormal belief are actually just as likely to generate scepticism - and this is just one example.

Anyway, more on this at the Study Day. If you're based in London and can come, it's at St Philip's Church, Earls Court Road, W8. Saturday 25 October, 10am - 5pm, £35. More details from the SPR, 020 7937 8984.

Psychic fails tests

So I sit down at the PC with a cup of coffee to write for a bit, and when I get up ... omigod, more than a month has gone by.

A pity, as things have been going on in the psychic space that I'd like to have talked about. Still, I can catch up over the next few weeks. One event that caught my eye was Channel 5's Extraordinary People film series, which last week featured psychic Derek Ogilvie going in for Randi's million dollar challenge. I don't recall ever seeing anyone actually doing this on camera, and I tuned in all agog. It was a little piece of theatre - sad, funny, and completely predictable.

Ogilvie's thing is that he can communicate telepathically with pre-verbal infants. I caught a previous TV film about this a year or so ago, which showed him interacting with the children and passing on what it is that's bothering them to the parents. A lot of it is along the lines of, little Jimmy says you are upset about the blister on your right buttock, but it's also a therapy thing, to help find out why the little one keeps throwing tantrums and what the parents can do about it.  He zeroed in fairly quickly to family issues which the parents often seemed convinced he could not have known about, although as often happens that impression was spoiled when he passed on other details that could equally easily have been gleaned from the circumstances.

I read in a preview that Ogilvie had been pushed into applying for Randi's prize by the programme makers, but actually he didn't seem at all reluctant. He set off all enthusiastic and hopeful, a lamb to the slaughter. First stop London, as a curtain raiser, to be tested at Goldsmith University by Professor Chris French. His task was to read six babies separated from their parents, and then for the parents to try to identify the transcript that applied to their baby. He scored only one hit.

Then off to Miami, where Uncle James gave his disarming 'I don't believe there's such a thing as a real psychic, but of course I could be wrong' speech, then shuffled around arranging a test. This involved sticking Ogilvie in a soundproof room, and getting a toddler outside it to pick numbered balls out of a bag. The number was linked to an object - a little keyboard, a guitar, a skateboard, etc - which the child held briefly, while Ogilvie, in communication through an intercom, had to decide what the object was. Spooky the-aliens-are-here type music played in the background while Ogilvie scratched his head and scribbled on a pad. He got one out of ten right, exactly the chance result that Randi had predicted.

The reviews the next day were brutal. Psychic submits to competent test. Psychic shows no paranormal knowledge whatever. Olgilvie phoney, psychics baloney.

Now I'm biased of course, because I think psychism is genuine - not because of what I've seen Ogilvie or anyone else do on television, but through studying psychical research. So what happened here? If it's real, why is it so effectively disguised? Why can't psychics pass tests of this kind? Why do they fail so miserably?

It was obvious to me at the outset - as it apparently wasn't to Ogilvie - that he would find himself having to do things he didn't normally do. Both French and Randi took him right out of his comfort zone: French by having the babies held by a child minder, so that he couldn't cold read the parents, and Randi by separating him from both. Of the two tests, French's was the more painful to watch. He and a colleague watched Ogilvie from behind a two way mirror, sniggering as he became ever more desperate and started apparently cold reading the child minder. But he was also pretty stressed out in Randi's test, hunched anxiously over his pad and pencil, sweating and more or less tearing his hair out.

If Ogilvie thinks he's getting images from the baby, then it makes sense from French's point of view to separate him. But I got the impression that he'd never read babies separately before, and one might think - on the assumption that he is genuinely psychic - that he's tuning into the emotional bond between mother and child. That's how it works: he has to be present with both. But of course that gives him opportunities for cold reading. At least he was doing his thing - communicating with the baby about its family situation. The guessing game that Randi made him do is probably something it had never occurred to him to do before.

Then there's the stress factor. In a living room, the child is happily clambering around his mum's lap or playing on the floor. In French's studio, the one child we saw was bawling his head off and trying desperately to escape the child minder's grasp. I suspect they weren't all like that, but it's not clear to me that a psychic would be able to establish any kind of meaningful communication under those circumstances. Especially in the state he was in himself.

All this reminds me of Wiseman and Hyman's televised test of Natasha Demkina some years ago. She too was stressed out by being asked to do things she had never done before, like divine that a certain person had a large steel plate in his head. Again, her reputation as the 'girl with the x-ray eyes' made this a logical test. But was she actually looking into people's bodies, or was she just getting intimations about what was wrong with them? If the latter, a man with a steel plate in his head is not necessarily ill, so it's not something she would have spotted.

So one conclusion is that taking a particular psychic ability from its context is like taking a fish out of water. The idea that a psychic who does one thing should easily be able to do something quite different is an assumption, and probably a wrong one. It's a mechanist view, as though psi is a force or an energy that can be switched on or off and applied at will in different circumstances. But what if it isn't? In that case, if we are serious about finding out about it, we have to develop ways to understand it within its context.

That's not at all what French and Randi are about - they want to reinforce perceptions that it doesn't exist. And from their point of view the programme was an absolute gift. That's the second thing: that psychics should be so naïve about these things. When Randi asked Ogilvie if he was happy with the test structure he said, yes, fine, but he shouldn't have, because he had no idea what he was getting into. Of course he probably doesn't think like that. He's popular and in demand: the parents like him because he seems to be helping them. So he can't imagine that anyone is going to be nasty to him. Did he get any objective advice before he set off?  He's unlikely to have got any from the TV producers, who usually know zip about the subject: even if they suspected that he'd get stitched up they'd hardly tell him - it's dramatic TV footage they're after, not the truth.

And they got that in spades. The human element was what made this film rather compelling. French amused, Randi grimly satisfied, and Ogilvie weeping tears of bitter frustration - 'but I do get these images in my head, I do, I do, I'm not a liar, I'm not a fraud'.

The programme made it up to him afterwards by taking him off to see a scientist who hooked him up to a an EEG machine while he was doing a reading. After analysing the data the scientist concluded pretty definitively that something was going on in his brain that supported his claims - that he was engaged in processing new information. The test was vague and passed without any comment. But it bucked Ogilvie up no end - he'd been waiting all his life for this kind of third-party validation, that what was happening in his head was real. 

The wonderful thing about these TV films is that they tell you everything and yet nothing. They perfectly portray the different players and their agendas and points of view, but instead of elucidating anything just add to the confusion. We're left at square one, with tests that superficially look convincing, but contradict each other, and allow us to think whatever we want.