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Reply to Skeptics

As I may have mentioned (!) I gave a talk on skeptic psychology (see November 2) at the SPR recently. I wouldn't bring it up again, but it produced a couple of responses from skeptics, which I thought I'd reply to here. Here are the posts, followed by my response.

Dave W: Interestingly, it would be easy to write this same piece from a diametrically opposed viewpoint - that the nasty and corrosive responses of some psychic believers to criticism are due to fear that parapsychological effects are not real, confounded with a massive dose of cognitive dissonance. Anecdotes abound, for example, of psi researchers who were taken in by an admitted hoax but dogmatically refused to believe it. If the skeptics were to paint with a brush as broad as you have used, and portray all psi advocates as terrified of facing reality, I'm sure that you would (rightly) object to such a simple-minded generalization. As for the ridicule, it seems to be par for the course. Perhaps you are more polite with your language, but the idea that parapsychologists and their supporters are less insulting to their critics is clearly implied in the above piece, and is also clearly shown to be wrong by the same text. Leiter is obviously intending to be insulting, for just one example. What might be most insulting is your suggestion that cynics, climate-change denialists and creationists are the same sort of "skeptics" as Randi, Shermer, Gardener and the like. Creationists are not "evolution skeptics," they are evolution denialists with nothing but religious ideology to support their position. Such a comparison is at least as personal, divisive and rude as calling Randi a nitwit. But in only avoiding schoolyard-style name-calling (while still being a clear insult), it certainly is not a claiming of the moral high ground. So, obviously this post is at best a double-edged sword. A much more interesting thesis might have been about why the voices (on both sides) are often seen as being nothing more than reactionary cynics, resorting to insult over substance. Undoubtedly, some are, but why? If it's better to communicate without taunts, why doesn't everyone do so? You couldn't, so what drove you to step over the boundary of rational, insult-free discourse?

Greg T: "I'm going to wrap this up by suggesting that parapsychology could usefully devote a bit more time and resources to understanding how sceptics think, and making it part of its case." I wholeheartedly concur. Please do make a concerted effort to understand how skeptics think. You might discover that, when you do, you will be disabused of much of your confusion... but not necessarily in the way you may intend. For example, it might help if you could present a clear idea of what a skeptic is, rather than just hodgepodging groupings of various naysayers (hand-selected of course, to be depicted as universally mistaken) together and equating them all as one demonized group of opponents. From your discussion above, I cannot extricate what it is you mean by the word "skeptic," except that you seem to conclude that being one is a bad thing. Especially if one disagrees with you. It seems you have a rather wordy, and frankly abusive, way of trying to posit some kind of conspiracy of mental and/or emotional illness on the part of people who disagree with you. A singularly uninventive way of vilifying and deriding the person, rather than dealing with the failings of your subject matter. What you seem to be calling for is for this method to be adopted as a means of battling critics on a rhetorical level. How precisely does one make "understanding how skeptics think....part of [your]cause[?]" Again, I wholeheartedly endorse understanding how skeptics think. It likely will have quite a different effect than you are anticipating though... Just this style of rhetoric is precisely why we need an objective means for evaluation of claims. Hence methods of verification. Words are words. Evidence is evidence. What you have presented are a host of insulting, derogatory words attacking something you don't even have a clear idea of yourself. As such, your words are pretty much devoid of content.

This piece was a talk for members of the Society for Psychical Research. Hence it's one-sided tone. I don't mean that I don't stand by everything I said, but if I'd been talking to a mixed or uncommitted audience I'd have chosen a different subject, or presented some of these points in a different way. This particular audience understands the subject well and would have readily empathised with my points.

It's not clear from the written text, but I did acknowledge - since Professor Chris French was present and brought it up - that I was specifically talking about militant skeptics like James Randi, and the more extreme behaviours of psychologists like Richard Wiseman and Susan Blackmore. I certainly didn't mean to imply that everyone who disbelieves in the genuiness of psychical phenomena is an idiot.

I'm also fully aware that committed believers have their own mental blocks. But 'nasty and corrosive' - that's not something I generally recognise among paranormalists, and certainly not serious parapsychologists, except in a reaction of anger and frustration at assaults by people like James Randi, to whom that description really does apply in spades - and for that reason is at least understandable. 

'Angry and excitable' might be a fair description of some (Victor Zammit). But those of us who are serious about this know that's not the way to communicate. All of us are affected by temperamental biases. The only difference is that some of us strive to recognise them and take them into account; others simply let themselves be controlled by them.

'Anecdotes abound ... of psi researchers who were taken in by an admitted hoax but dogmatically refused to believe it.' Yes, the Conan Doyle syndrome. You're right that some paranormal believers insist that a magician must be psychic because they can't figure out the trick. It's embarrassing and doesn't help our argument. But no serious psi researcher can afford to behave this way - the possibility of hoaxing has to be a constant preoccupation. If it isn't - as in the case of Randi's Project Alpha, for instance - the result is instant loss of credibility among their peers, let alone skeptics. 

'... the idea that parapsychologists and their supporters are less insulting to their critics is clearly implied'. Yes I did imply that, and I can't think of any reason not to. Parapsychologists complain bitterly about dogmatic disbelievers, ideologues and so on. But they don't indulge in the casual playground jeering that Randi employs, as I understand it, as a deliberate technique to publicly shame the fools and fraudsters that he assumes us all to be. They don't have that luxury; they have to use arguments and persuasion. If you can come up with examples I'd be interested to hear them, but I'd argue it's not typical.

My perception is that skeptics are free with insults and abuse in a way that I don't find anywhere else - although I suspect it may be quite common in scientific controversies. I don't recall reading anywhere in psychical literature that skeptics are nincompoops, or not rowing with both oars in the water, or might have thinking defects or disturbed relations with reality - as Randi described parapsychologists in Flim-Flam!. It may exist on the margins but that sort of polemic just isn't characteristic of mainstream parapsychological discourse, as it so richly is of some of their militant opponents.

'Leiter is obviously intending to be insulting ...' Don't agree. He was recording his ideas and observations about the way skeptics behave, which you're free to disagree with - he wasn't laughing and pointing.

'What might be most insulting is your suggestion that cynics, climate-change denialists and creationists are the same sort of "skeptics" as Randi, Shermer, Gardener and the like.'... Creationists are not "evolution skeptics," they are evolution denialists with nothing but religious ideology to support their position.'

That was a bit provoking, I agree. Creationists and skeptics of the paranormal are at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. But it's legitimate to argue that militant skeptics are not really 'skeptics' in the literal sense, but denalists arguing from a profound and unshakeable belief in the mechanistic worldview. That may seriously get you going, but as long as militant skeptics like Randi and Gardner behave the way they do it's a reasonable conclusion to come to.

I don't know how much you know about psychical investigations, but this is the nub of my argument. It's one thing to disbelieve in the paranormal in a general way - from the beliefs of family, colleagues, peers; from a scientific education; from atheistic convictions and so on - but it's something else when, in order to protect this commitment, one has to perform all sorts of questionable intellectual manoevres, such as:

  • refusing to engage with parapsychological investigations on any level as being of no interest, undoubtedly fraudulent, obviously nonsense, etc.

  • engaging with them, but explaining them away with all kinds of implausible scenarios which in any other context no one would entertain for a moment

  • carrying out experiments with psychics on television with a very precisely determined pre-agreed protocol, getting highly signficant results, and then refusing to accept the results as valid

  • carrying out experiments in order to prove that, when properly conducted, the effect will not appear, getting an effect, and then explaining it away on the grounds of 'experimental flaws'

'If it's better to communicate without taunts, why doesn't everyone do so? You couldn't, so what drove you to step over the boundary of rational, insult-free discourse?'  The creationist thing wasn't intended as a taunt - I can't think of anything else that could be remotely construed that way. My discussion was a serious attempt to get at what movitates extreme skeptics, and it's valid to point out that the fear of psi is a real phenomenon with identifiable effects.

If you found all this so insulting, could it be that you're just not used to skeptics being discussed in this way? Surely it's tame stuff compared with what gets said about psi researchers - in print, on your websites and at meetings in skeptics organisations - and it has the virtue of being reasoned argument supported by examples and evidence. Which you're welcome to disagree with, but preferably on questions of substance, rather than because it upsets you. You may not think this applies to you, but I've noticed that debunkers like Randi are often surprisingly thin-skinned when it's them being criticised.

In the end, it shouldn't be about hurt feelings but about the evidence. I spent several years getting to grips with psychical literature, and the investigations and arguments eventually convinced me that psychism is a genuine phenomenon. I'd like to be able to discuss my reasons with skeptics, but it's difficult when they're so certain it's all nonsense, refuse to listen, and use all kinds of colourful language to make that point. That's what motivates me to understand how they think.

Coincidence ?

Last week we saw a wheelchair bound woman trying to get the law to show some compassion. Debbie Purdy, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, wanted the High Court to rule on whether her husband will face prosecution if, when the pain and discomfort become intolerable, he takes her to end her life in Switzerland.

The judge ruled that he can't change the Suicide Act of 1961, which rules that any person who 'aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another' could be liable for a prison sentence of up to 14 years. Her husband said he would go with her anyway. She said she would go alone, in order not to put him at risk - but since she would have to be fit to travel it would mean ending her life much earlier than would otherwise be necessary.

There's a lot to be said about this - one legal expert says that actually the law can be changed by courts, and that 'no patient should have to suffer immeasurable pain against their will just to salve the morality of others who think there is a purpose in such agony'. That would be my view, but I can see there's another side to the argument.

What I actually want to talk about here is not that, but something rather different, and which I suppose in comparison is rather trivial. It's the déjà vu of seeing two such closely similar cases within a few years of each other. Purdy's circumstances are almost a carbon copy of the case of Diane Pretty, who was also in her 40s, suffered from progressive motor neuron disease, and a few years ago tried and failed to get the courts to allow her husband to help her die - she died shortly afterwards in 2002.

That's not the coincidence, though. Look at their names. Debbie Purdy and Diane Pretty. It's not that they have the same initials, but that their surnames are so closely matched. It's a long while since I read American literature but my idea - perhaps from reading Mark Twain, or possibly John Steinbeck - is that 'purdy' is a sort of rustic American rendering of the word 'pretty'.

I've noticed this sort of thing a few times. A few years ago I enjoyed a TV documentary film about a popular, now quite elderly, TV comedian and performer. He had very definite characteristics and attributes. Unlike most comedians, he was an all-rounder, brought up in the vaudeville tradition with a good line in singing and dancing. He was quite short and slight of build. In terms of personality, he was a rather gentle, kind-hearted character, and generally very well liked. It then gradually occurred to me that only a year or two earlier I had seen a film about a very similar individual, someone who checked exactly the same boxes. It then struck me that they had very similar names. One was Ernie Wise, one half of the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise duo, the other the comic film actor Norman Wisdom.

The subject of coincidence is a bit of a flashpoint in the controversy about the paranormal, the kind of thing that advocates sometimes get a bit over-excited about, and which sceptics believe they have a cast iron explanation for. I'm used to hearing people like Richard Dawkins explaining to us beknighted believers that we just don't understand probability theory - if we did we would realise that these sorts of apparently uncanny matches aren't really that unusual.

I think there's a lot of truth in that, and I don't generally think that coincidence is a good indication of anything paranormal. But sometimes with cases like these I'm not so sure. I find myself starting to think in Platonic terms, of some kind of principle that shoots out examples of itself. It's as though, the template having come into being and started to activate, one copy isn't enough, so out come one or two more, slightly mutated, before it expires.

Another example of that of course would be the way that crucial discoveries in the world of science and mathematics occur in pairs. Leibniz and Newton both discovering calculus at the same time; Wallace and Darwin stumbling on the theory of evolution by natural selection. I've seen other examples of this recently, and I dare say if one started to look one would find loads.

Being purely, utterly subjective about it, unless one is committed to rationalist dogmas, it's hard not to feel that something is going on here. These seem like little hints that the world of appearances is not quite what we take it to be, and as though someone somewhere is trying to bring that to our attention - perhaps even having a bit of a laugh at our expense.