Silly Sceptic Tricks
Coincidence ?

SPR Study Day - The Psychology of the Sceptic

[This is the text of the talk I gave at the SPR's Study Day on sceptics last week. I'll post a link to the video recording when it gets published in due course, which will include Rupert Sheldrake's and Guy Lyon Playfair's].

When I first got interested in parapsychology I spent quite a lot of time reading debunking books by people like Martin Gardner and James Randi, and my delicate sensitivities were shocked - I wasn't used to scientific controversy, and I'd no idea that serious authors could the way they do about professional scientists and thinkers.  

Most of us would probably agree that a lot of paranormal belief is silly and shallow. The gullibility displayed by participants in some of these TV programmes embarrasses us. But it seemed to me that parapsychologists were on the whole serious, conscientious and intelligent - often scientists or university academics. So it puzzled me to see them constantly excoriated as gullible idiots, or peddlers of woo-woo, the insult de jour on Randi's website, their abilities and motivations subjected to such ferocious and unreasonable criticisms.

At the more polite end of the spectrum we find James Alcock, professor of psychology at York University, Toronto, calling them 'mystagogues in search of a soul'. British psychologist David Marks thinks they are 'shamans' or 'medicine men'. In his bluff, straightforward way, James Randi calls them psi-nuts, wide eyed nincompoops who are not rowing with both oars in the water. Not one to hog all the credit, he also remarks: 'Perhaps Dr Börje Löfgren, writing in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, had it right when he described Eisenbud and other parapsychology enthusiasts as 'decaying minds' with 'thinking defects and disturbed relations to reality'. (Flim-Flam! 227)

Then there's the sort of playground taunting of specific individuals. On his website, Randi tackles Professor Gary Schwartz, known for his research on mediums. Schwartz's experiments have been justly criticised, and more effectively by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But he's a respected professor and a serious investigator, who carried out experiments in a methodical way. Yet to Randi he's a 'typical ivory tower resident', and his experiments as footling as exploring the reality of Santa Claus. If Schwartz is so sure of his experimental results, Randi says, why doesn't he go in for the million-dollar challenge? Could it be that the professor doesn't  trust his medium? Perhaps he's too wealthy to need the money, and just doesn't care about giving it to hungry children or AIDS research.

There is of course a rationale to the jeering, first made explicit, I think, by Martin Gardiner, when he quoted H.L. Mencken's well-known epithet that a horse laugh is worth more than a thousand syllogisms. You can't reason with fools and fakers, so better just to ridicule them. It's right and proper to act like this, because paranormal believers are a threat to our hard-won freedoms. So much of the relative comfort and stability we enjoy, compared to our beknighted ancestors, is thanks to the triumph of reason in our political and social relations, also to the extraordinary feats of science in revealing the truth about the universe, and laying the foundations for technologies. All this is said to be threatened by the tidal wave of superstitious beliefs.

This is a popular theme with scientists. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, the American astronomer Carl Sagan wrote of his foreboding of a time when

clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to dinstinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. (28)

We may not agree with this, but it's a legitimate point of view. And paranormal claims are just flat-out incredible. So skepticism per se is absolutely rational. Indeed, for many people in our secular-leaning society, belief in such things as ESP is a deviation from the social norm. The believer is an odd breed who is willing to believe in things that aren't there, clearly prey to delusions and wishful thinking, unable to think critically, and so on. It's implicit in the titles of the debunking books: The Psychology of the Psychic, The Psychology of the Occult, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But the intensity of dogmatism of many of the critics, their violent responses and seeming inability to connect with our reasoning, makes us suspect that there is such a thing as a skeptical psychology. It's not just the believer who is special - there's an awful lot going in skeptics' heads as well. Where skeptics see their automatic dismissal of paranormal claims, even when made by serious scientists, as a necessary and healthy reaction, we often see it as dogmatic, intolerant, and religious in its intensity, indicating a deep emotional commitment to the mechanist worldview. Some even see it as a rerun of the Reformation in a secular setting - with dissenters beating at the gates of the establishment, and embattled scientists defending orthodoxy against their heresies.

Strictly speaking, this isn't skepticism at all, at least in its original sense. Where skepsis, in the original Greek, means rational doubt and probing, the word skeptic has increasingly come to mean defensive and doctrinaire, and a skeptic as someone who identifies with a position and defends it to the bitter end, often striving to downplay, misrepresent or simply ignore the evidence. This is by not necessarily a fair or universal definition, but it's nevertheless one that is increasingly made.

It's important to stress that not all critics think that outright abuse is such a great idea. The point was made explicit by American psychologist and CSICOP member Ray Hyman in the mid 1980s. When confronted with extraordinary claims, he suggested, if would be better for critics, instead of accusing parapsychologists of fraud and charlatanism, to respond with 'rationality, objectivity, fair play, integrity - in short, with accepted scientific principles.'

Unfortunately, he went on,

scientists are not trained or given models about how to behave under such circumstances. The reactions, understandably if regrettably, are typically confused, ambivalent, erratic, and emotional [...] If there is truly 'pathology' in these cases, the pathology seems to be exhibited as much in the reaction of the scientific community as in the claims of the offending scientist. The gut reaction of the scientific orthodoxy is to discredit the offending claim by any means possible - ad hominem attacks, censorship, innuendo, misrepresentation, etc.

We often see this overreaction where there is the prospect of change and risk. During the 1990s the big controversy was European integration, with skeptics bitterly opposing the implied loss of national identity. Today it's climate change, with skeptics first attempting to deny that it's occurring, and now that that's a dead letter, insisting it's not caused by humans, and there's nothing we can do to stop it. In this particular instance we see tactics that we experience in our own field. Scientists condemned as fraudulent, evidence clumsily altered or misrepresented to support the critics' version. (The Elusive Quarry, 1989, 245 )

That's a partisan view, perhaps, and of course people who take psychical research seriously may be skeptics in either of these categories - or others. For instance they may be creationists, who are of course skeptics of evolution.

On the other hand they are less likely to be Holocaust deniers, who we would probably all agree really has departed from rational and civilised standards.  Yet we are coming to understand that there are those in the world, many of them who should know better, for whom rewriting other people's history, or indulging in ludicrous conspiracy theories, comes much more naturally than to deal with the painful internal conflict engendered by incontrovertible facts.  

What we see in all these areas - in quite different ways, and to different degrees - is the effect of anxiety, the sense that a certain position or idea must be defended at all costs against an assault, whose implications are unacceptable, unimaginable or even terrifying. That applies as much to psychism as any other category. The undercurrent of anxiety comes through quite strongly in skeptical discourse. It seems curiously excitable. Militant sceptics like James Randi and Martin Gardiner don't just argue - they verbally gesticulate. They complain and denounce. 

I've noticed that it's particularly characteristic of psychologists who debunk the paranormal. It's as though contemplating a mind that perceives 'things that aren't there' induces a kind of vertigo, which expresses itself in wild overstatement. I'm thinking for instance of D.H. Rawcliffe, a British psychologist who published an influential debunking book in 1952s. Much of the time, he doesn't really bother to analyse the claims of psychical investigators, he just sweeps them aside as the 'insidious effects of superstition'. At one point he describes the paranormal as a 'dim underworld of psychological automatism, suggestion, hypnosis, hallucination, neurosis, hysteria, functional malady, sensory-hyperacuity, delusion, fraud, prestidigitation, and limitless credulity'. (The Psychology of the Occult, 326
). It's the psychologist as explorer, kitting up in a protection suit and for our edification nobly venturing into the sewers of the human mind. 

Another example is Hugo Munsterberg, who succeeded William James as professor of psychology at Harvard, and was as bitterly hostile of paranormal belief as James had been interested and engaged. He seems to have felt it was his duty to warn society of the madness that comes from occult interests. His writings suggest a man whose nervous disposition is in constant danger of being overwhelmed by other people's superstitious beliefs. Another famous debunker was the magician Harry Houdini, whose books contain heated denunciations of mediums as 'human leeches' sucking every bit of sense from their victims, and references to mental asylums bursting with insane spiritualists. (A Magician Among The Spirits, 1924, 243)

But what provokes these extreme reactions? Speaking for myself, the idea that some paranormal phenomena might be real intrigues me - I want to know more. I dare say most of you feel the same way. We can be objective about it. But over the years I have come to realise that some people don't think like that at all. They find the idea of telepathy, just to take one category, to be deeply worrying - it seems like the ultimate violation of personal privacy.

Sceptics are sometimes quite explicit about this. One is James Alcock - In a much quoted passage, Alcock considered that a future with psi would be 'chaos'.

There would, of course, be no privacy, since by extrasensory perception one could see even into people's minds. Dictators would no longer have to trust the words of their followers; they could "know" their feelings. How would people react if they could catch glimpses of the future? How could the stock market function if traders could use precognition? If most people could foresee the future, how would life be with millions of people all attempting to change present circumstances so as to optimize their personal futures? What would happen when two adversaries each tried to harm the other via PK? The gunfights of the Old American West would probably pale by comparison. (Parapsychology: Science or Magic?  1981, 191)

Parapsychologists have of course long been able to demonstrate not only the different profile of believers and skeptics - or sheep and goats as I believe they were first termed by Getrude Schmeidler in her studies back in the 1950s - but also the effect of their different attitudes on psi experiments. Sceptics - identified as such from prior personality profiling - have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance. This, Harvey Irwin says, 'confirms an effect of attitudes on the occurrence of ESP, but also reminds of the adage that there are none so blind as those who will not see'. (An Introduction to Parapsychology, 1999, 99)

Skeptical motivations themselves have had rather less attention. Charles Tart in the 1980s was among the first to draw attention to the fear of psi, pointing out that one way of dealing it is to deny that it exists. He says:

The vehement denial of the existence of psi, as in the case of some pseudocritics whose behaviour suggests they are protecting their "faith" against heresy, strongly suggests that fear of psi is quite strong in them at an unconscious level. Insofar as psi is an aspect of reality, its denial is inherently psychopathological.  ('Acknowledging and Dealing with The Fear of Psi', JASPR, 78, April 1984, 137)

Discussions about this fear have tended to centre on the idea of cognitive dissonance. This is the theory first formulated by social psychologist Leon Festinger back in 1957. It describes the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time. The idea is that people are motivated to reduce dissonance either by changing their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them.

In this context, cognitive disssonance can occur if one's idea of reality is challenged. A natural response is to deny the challenge, and to ridicule the person who makes it. That's clearly the case with paranormal claims. In 1930, Walter Prince, a respected American psychical investigator, published a very funny book about the intemperate responses he found among scientists and sceptics, and which he titled the Enchanted Boundary. It seemed to him as though when some people approached psychical claims they fell under a strange spell, that forced them to stand up and start loudly spouting nonsense.

In fact this seems to be a fairly typical human response to startling new ideas, by no means limited to the paranormal. Incredulity is a common reaction to new claims in science and technology. New theories that we take for granted today - the classic one of course is Wegener's theory of continental drift - were dismissed out of hand, if not actually derided as the ravings of lunatics, when they were first mooted.

The sense of disbelief is so powerful that it not only motivates people to slander those who make thm , but also refuse point blank to look at the evidence. A number of remarkable examples are described by Richard Milton in his book Alternative Science, which I'm sure many of you are familiar with - if not, I recommend it as a good read, and very relevant to this topic.

One is the case of the Wright brothers. It's not just that people disbelieved in the idea that heavier than air machines could ever fly. That wasn't so unreasonable - there'd been plenty of ludicrous failures, of people strapping artificial wings to their arms and launching themselves off cliffs, with disastrous results. But in this case people went on disbelieving it after the brothers had been doing it for a couple of years and their flights had been repeatedly witnessed by townspeople travelling on the railway next to their landing strip.

You'd expect the news to have travelled like wildfire, but far from it. The editor of the local newspaper thought the idea so obviously absurd that he never even sent a reporter to check it out, and no reporter did so on his own initiative. As for the scientists, Simon Newcomb, a professor of astronomy at John Hopkins University, published an article just weeks before the Wright's first historic flight proving scientifically that powered human flight was 'utterly impossible'. Unsurprisingly Newcomb was also a strident sceptic of parapsychology.

In 1879 Thomas Edison invented the incandescent electric light, but could not convince the scientific establishment that he had succeeded, even after he had rigged up a public demonstration - no scientist attended. A professor who lived nearby might have come to check it out, but instead wrote to a local paper to 'protest in behalf of true science' that his experiments were 'a conspicuous failure, trumpeted as a wonderful success. A fraud upon the public.'

A lighting specialist called his claims 'so manifestly absured as to indicate a positive want of knowledge of the electric circuit and the principles government the construction and operation of electrical machines.' All this language is strikingly similar to that used by leading scientists about psychism - that the paranormal is bunk, telepathy is a charlatan's fantasy, and so on.  (Richard Milton, Alternative Science, 1994, 11-23)

This seems nonsensical to us, but I think we have to recognise that the human imagination is not infinitely flexible. Some of us perhaps more than others may have extreme difficulty accommodating new ideas. This was experienced by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, a California psychiatrist who wrote a book called Extraordinary Knowing, published posthumously quite recently.

Mayer's journey began when a valuable harp belonging to her young daughter was stolen from a theatre. The police were unable to recover it, and all other conventional channels failed. Then a friend suggested she tried a dowser. So she got someone to recommend the best in the business. He lived in Arkansas, two thousand miles away. She rang him up. He said, hang on, I'll just check to see if its still in your town. Within seconds he had decided it was, and asked her to send a map. A day later he rang back to give her the address where the harp would be found. The police said they did not have enough evidence to get a warrant to enter the house, so she hit on the idea of putting up flyers in the streets outside offering a reward. Almost immediately she got a call, and a few days later the harp was returned.

Mayer struggled with this, but quickly realised the futility of trying to persuade herself that it was a meaningless coincidence.   On investigation she discovered that other people were having the same kind of difficulty.
This extraordinary knowing, as she termed it, is especially difficult for people with a scientific education to come to terms with. It contradicts everything they have been taught to believe. But where Mayer's response was to examine her own feelings critically, and to continue to explore the subject, she found other people trying simply to shut the whole thing down.

For instance she cites an article on ESP published in an engineering magazine. In his introductory blurb, the editor said he had decided, after some reflection, that he would publish it, despite some opposition from the peer reviewers. One of them, whose comments he published, apparently thought the research the article described was methodologically impeccable, but still recommended it not be published, adding: "It's the kind of thing I would not believe in even if it were true".

Denial and ridicule is one way to minimise the dissonance caused by paranormal claims. But the mind does actually have its own way of dealing with the problem. Parapsychology offers some rather interesting sidelights on this. It occurs particularly in episodes involving psychokinesis, the anomalous movement of objects, typically in so-called poltergeist incidents and in séance investigations. People who see tables and chairs jumping around apparently of their own volition understandably have trouble believing the evidence of their own eyes. And if they do at first believe what they had seen, the passage of time may subtly alter the memory of it. 

One of the first to notice this effect was Charles Richet in his investigations of the trance medium Eusapia Palladino. He observed many extraordinary effects - repeated table levitations, objects floating around the room, curtains billowing up, instruments playing themselves - all in conditions which he and his co-investigators believed were absolutely secure, and which she could not therefore have been directly responsible for. But he found that the memory of having seen them tended to weaken.

[A]t the moment when these facts take place they seem to us certain, and we are willing to proclaim them openly; but when we return to ourselves, when we feel the irresistible influence of our environment, when our friends all laugh at our credulity - then we are almost disarmed, and we begin to doubt. May it not all have been an illusion? May I not have been grossly deceived? ... And then, as the moment of the experiment becomes more remote, that experiment which once seemed so conclusive gets to seem more and more uncertain, and we end by letting ourselves be persuaded that we have been the victims of a trick.  (Quoted in Brian Inglis, Natural and Supernatural, 1977, 394)

Everard Feilding makes a similar point in a famous passage in his report on the investigation of Palladino in Naples. He explains that it took several sessions before he could convince himself of what he was seeing. It was in the sixth session that a breakthrough occurred. Now he found his mind starting to absorb ideas that it had previously repelled, like raindrops streaming off a waterproof coat. For the first time, he said, he had the absolute conviction that their observation was not mistaken, and that hands and heads had indeed appeared from behind the curtain.

Notice too what Feilding says next:

I refuse to entertain the possibility of a doubt that we were the victims of a hallucination. I appreciate exactly the fact that ninety-nine people out of a hundred will refuse to entertain the possibility of a doubt that it could be anything else. And, remembering my own belief of a very short time ago, I shall not be able to complain, though I shall unquestionably be annoyed, when I find that to be the case. I shall be told that this sudden declaration of conviction is absurdly hasty, highly unphilosophical and unworthy of a student of psychic science.

And here's the crux:

Perhaps it is; but the precise moment at which conviction is reached differs in individuals not, I think, according to the cogency of the facts presented to them, but according to their willingness to abandon a position which they feel to have become untenable. ('Report on a Series of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino,' Proceedings of the SPR, 1909, p. 462-3.

These are the reactions of two highly experienced investigators who had plenty of opportunity to understand the phenomenon, and yet seem to have been rather surprised by it. At least they became aware of it. But one would suppose that a great many people were not at all aware of it, and there are intimations of that in the literature of the mind rejecting the evidence of its own eyes. 

It was quite common, for instance, for visitors to a séance to come out shaking their heads with wonder at the extraordinary things they had seen, and then weeks or months later to confidently describe them as tricks. This of course doesn't mean that they were not conjuring tricks, but it does illustrate a natural mental trajectory.

In one case we find a well-known physicist named Sir David Brewster enthusiastically writing up his diary after a Daniel Home seance: a handbell rang when nothing could have touched it, actually floating through the air and placing itself in his hand. At the time he couldn't imagine such strange effects. Three months later he was saying not just that the handbell had not rung, but that the tricks were caused by machinery attached to Home's feet. The discrepancy was only noticed when his papers were published after his death.

This process, of initial wonderment being replaced with scepticism, was often documented with Uri Geller. One instance concerns a Sunday Times reporter named Brian Silcock. Geller had caused Silcock's thick office key to bend while it was lying in the flat of the hand of the paper's photographer. In his article Silcock wrote: 'It is utterly impossible to remain sceptical after seeing Uri Geller in action,' adding, 'I am convinced that Geller is a telepath too,' after Uri had reproduced pictures the journalist was only thinking, but had not drawn.

However over the years, Silcock reversed his opinion. He now says: 'I became convinced in my own mind that it was just a conjuring trick. I've no idea how the trick was done, but I think there was a process of my natural scepticism reasserting itself. I tend to be of a rather sceptical, downbeat frame of mind, and I somehow got shoved out of it. I don't really understand how that happened, either.'

It's also worth noting that John Taylor, a well-respected physicist who at first enthusiastically endorsed Geller, subsequently changed his opinion, although peer pressure and a failure to discover the mechanism may have also played a role.  It's important to point out that such cases say little about whether we are dealing with psychokinesis or clever conjuring, but they do illustrate an odd mental process at work which we need to be aware of.

I'd guess too that it occurs in most categories of paranormal experience. There's at least one possible example in near-death literature of the way that the passing of time can influence the memory of events.

It concerns the case of A J Ayer, a well-known atheist philosopher who in 1988 was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. While there he suffered a fit that led to him being clinically dead for several minutes. In an article published three months later Ayer described having what seems to have been a near-death experience, of being pulled towards a bright red light, and trying to cross a river, which he took to be the River Styx of Greek legend. However he insisted this had not at all altered his absolute disbelief in the idea of life after death.

Some years later, the junior house doctor who had attended Ayer claimed that shortly after he had been resuscitated he had confided to him rather sheepishly that he had met a 'divine being' and that he would now have to revise all his books and opinions'. One shouldn't put too much credence on posthumously revealed statements of this kind, but if it's true it illustrates an observable trend.

But victims of cognitive dissonance do not necessarily just wait for the impression to fade. They can take quick and aggressive action. Again there is abundant evidence of this in both poltergeist and séance literature in the phenomenon of the invented confession. In such cases, the odds are that sooner or later someone, usually a person who is only marginally involved in the case - or not involved at all - will step forward with a claim that the individual at the centre of it has confessed to trickery or has been caught red-handed in fraud. 

The claim superficially provides an explanation and is gratefully accepted as such by sceptics, who quote it for ever after as a damning expose of fraud and chicanery. Yet when you look at it closely you see it leaves a great deal unexplained, was never corroborated in any way, and appears to have no real substance outside the imagination of the person who proposed it.  

A poltergeist example, one of many, is the famous Miami case investigated by William Roll. This involved a warehouse where souvenirs and knick-knacks kept falling off shelves, for no apparent reason. The disturbances were witnessed by a number of independent investigators, including a local magician, who at first made light of them, and showed how he could create them by sleight of hand, but after repeated observation realised that he couldn't explain them after all.

This got some coverage in the local press. Eventually a news item appeared that Julio, the young man at the centre of the disturbances, had confessed to police that he had caused them by trickery. The article said Julio had described using a system of threads; he also placed objects at the edges of the shelves so that vibrations from jets passing overhead caused them to fall.  However Julio told the policeman to his face that it was a total lie and that he had said no such thing. According to Julio's boss, who was present during this exchange, the policeman did not deny that he had invented the story when speaking to a reporter, and only became red in the face. (William Roll, The Poltergeist, p. 173.

A particularly interesting example is a 1919 episode that occurred in a Norfolk rectory, where enormous quantities of oil and water suddenly started cascading down from the walls and ceilings.  The phenomenon could not be explained or even stopped, and was confirmed by various witnesses, including an architect, a geologist, a chemist, and apparently even a magician who had gone there to debunk it; the problem got so bad that the house had to be vacated. 

The mystery was 'resolved' in a press account some ten days after the start of the disturbance, in which an Oswald Williams, describing himself as an illusionist, said that he and his wife had laid a trap for the resident's 15-year old maid. The couple had laid out glasses of water, concealed themselves and waited: sure enough, the girl came into the room, threw the water up onto the ceiling, and cried out that another shower had occurred. When confronted with her trickery, Williams said, she 'broke down and made a clean breast of it'. Yet when the girl herself was quizzed about this scenario by local reporters she vigorously denied it, insisting the couple had merely persuaded her to go the house with them and then tried to bully her into confessing.  'I was told that I would be given one minute to say I had done it, or go to prison. I said that I didn't do it.' A.R.G. Owen, Can We Explain the Poltergeist? p. 73-5.

As I say, I could give lots and lots of examples of this sort of thing. And what it rather obviously suggests is that some people will go to any lengths to try to change the facts to something that they find easier to live with, to the extent of making stuff up.

The really interesting thing about this is that once a confession of the kind has made it into print it becomes part of the sceptical canon, and can be treated as though it was fact. A great deal of what debunkers write in their books is not really researched at all closely, but simply lifted from earlier books - and much of this consists of confessions and exposes which, on closer examination, are really no such thing. They are really just allegations or speculations that have acquired the status of fact. But they can nevertheless have the power to shape perceptions.

Here's an article by psychologist Scot Morris, published in Kendrick Frazier's Paranormal Boderlands of Science, in which he describes his own experience in this regard.

I believed in ESP. I was a teenager and had read one of those "Incredible Tales" paperbacks, and I believed. A patient teacher pointed out the fallacies and flimsy evidence on which I was basing this belief, and I began to wonder. Then there was a newspaper story about poltergeist - very exciting and mysterious. I believed, and tried to convince others, until two weeks later when I read in a follow-up story that the boy confessed to fooling his parents and the investigators "for a little excitement."

If one is serious about getting the bottom of the poltergeist phenomenon - and I'd argue that that's not often the case - one should take these sorts of claims with a strong pinch of salt, especially when the media is inivolved. But of course people take them at face value - it's what they expect and on some level perhaps even need to hear.  In this particular case, the shock seems to have brought about a sort of conversion.

The experience was embarrassing, but it taught me a valuable lesson- that I could be fooled. I was determined not to be fooled again. I am convinced that the best way to develop a healthy skepticism toward the many incredible tales one hears in life is not to go about disbelieving everything blindly, but first to believe, with all one's heart, and then suddenly and dramatically be disabused of the idea. The lesson, like a pie in the face, is never forgotten. (Kendrick Frazier, ed., Paranormal Boderlands of Science)

Many sceptics have had this experience, of being abruptly disabused of a belief, and it has had a powerful impact. From this moment an enduring belief in the fallacy of paranormal claims is formed.

This appears to have been a rather sudden conversion, but it can happen over a longer period. That seems to have been the case with Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe in Weird Things and one of America's best known sceptics. In his younger days Shermer followed a career as a racing cyclist. His coach was into various alternative regimens and supplements, which he forced on Shermer with ever greater abandon. Eventually Shermer started to become critical, and ended by becoming disgusted with all such New Age approaches and regimens.

Susan Blackmore is someone else who made the journey from enthusiastic believer to committed sceptic. As she says herself, she moved from being open minded to being closed minded. Precisely when she lost her faith in the reality of psi is a bit hard to determine. What we do know is that she attributes it to the failure to find psi in her own experiments.

But as Rick Berger has suggested in the Journal of the American SPR, this failure may just as well have been a consequence of her growing disbelief, not a cause of it. He claims that her experiments actually do show significance in many respects, but she explained it away on the grounds of various flaws, as any sceptic might when trying to dismiss a parapsychologist's positive results.  This incidentally is a tactic that other sceptics have adopted, as Richard Wiseman did for instance, when he unintentionally obtained significance in experiments on the sense of being stared at. (The Journal of the American Society for Psychical research
Vol 83, April 1989,  123-144)

Blackmore has written frankly and frequently about her feelings in this regard, and I think that's useful. In a way we need more of it, from both sides, as it helps shed light on the influences that shape beliefs and attitudes towards the paranormal - in either direction.  One remark of hers that I do recall reading recently - and I don't have the exact reference for this, but I'm trying to track it down - is an admission that she approaches parapsychological studies with some reluctance, for fear that it might force her to amend her ideas.

I'm sure that this is not exclusive to sceptics - I've observed it in myself, although much less now than I used to - and I suspect it happens on both sides of all sorts of controversies. Nevertheless an unwillingness to engage with the opposition does seem especially characteristic of militant sceptics of the paranormal.

David Leiter is a member of the Society for Scientific Exploration who for several years was involved with a local Skeptics' organization in Pennsylvania. This was the "Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking", better known by its acronym "PhACT". As he became closely acquainted with individual members he found that all those who discussed their early years had either had religion stuffed down their throats, or had voluntarily embraced it, and then become convinced of their folly, and thrown it off with a vengeance.

Obviously, Leiter points out, a person who has been duped frequently in everyday life might learn by bitter experience to be cautious and wary. But he believes the reaction of PhACT members is more dysfunctional.

They have been wounded at a deeper level, to the extent that what was purported to be a valid philosophy of life, and in which they were heavily involved, turns out to be empty and useless, even damaging, in their eyes. Thus, they gravitate to what appears to them to be the ultimate non-faith-based philosophy, Science.

Leiter thought at first that the members were too lazy to investigate the literature of psychical research, but then started to feel that they were actually phobic about being exposed to material that contradicts their beliefs, fearing contamination, as he puts it. He concludes:

Such scientifically inclined, but psychologically scarred people tend to join Skeptics' organizations much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous. There they find comfort, consolation, and support amongst their own kind. Anyone who has spent much time engaging members of Skeptics' organizations knows about their strong inclination toward ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints.  (Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 125-128, 2002 0892-3310/02)

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. We tend to complain about our opponents' intellectual dishonesty, ideological dogmatism, and so on and so on. But we aren't really going to convince them, or get them to be more reasonable. What we might conceivably do is lessen the negative effect of their discourse on perceptions among the wider public. We need to educate people about the workings of cognitive dissonance, to show how the fear of psychism can in some people engender fearful and violent reactions, and how these can influence the course of debate.

It's arguably the business of parapsychology to identify the psychological gag reflex with which humans are equipped, to a greater or lesser degree, that causes us to rationalise away paranormal experiences and, if the emergency is really dire, with invented exposes and confessions. This isn't just about getting back at our militant opponents, its about explaining to our audience that they need to be aware of what may be going on in their own minds when they read about telepathy or apparitions or near-death experiences, and the need often to observe their own mental processes - the detective watching the detective so to speak.

Finally of course there's a big issue here, which is the extent to which the data of parapsychology can be assessed objectively. If our responses to paranormal phenomena are necessarily subjective - and some people's more than others - how do we arrive at a universal consensus about it, one that we can be sure is true and reliable?

The short answer is that that's the job of science, to come up with evidence that is repeatable on demand, and lays all doubts to rest. The classic example would be quantum mechanics. The behaviour of matter at the sub-atomic level is in some respects so Alice in Wonderland that it couldn't possibly be true, were it not for the fact that it's repeatedly observed. The idea of particles being somehow connected over space is an affront to common sense, but scientists have learned to live with it because it's something they see happening all the time.

The impact or otherwise of experimental parapsychology is a large subject, but it's clear enough that the statistical effects gained in the ganzfield, remote viewing and staring experiments, for instance, has not reached sufficient scale and intensity to impact on the universal imagination. Certainly not in the way that the actual experience of an apparition or near-death experience impacts on an individual. Subjectivity is something parapsychology is fated always to deal with. The more we can understand about the role it plays, the more indeed we can objectify it, the more easily we will be able to make ourselves and our claims understood. 


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I enjoyed this essay. I do believe that Martin Gardner and some other skeptics seem to wish always to be correct, and will go to unusual lengths to make it appear that they are. A case in point is the old chestnut regarding Thomas Edison's machine to communicate with the dead. Edison himself admits that the whole story was a joke. When I read an article written by Gardner repeating the joke as fact, I wrote to him and included a copy of a letter to me regarding this story from an archivist at the Rutgers Edison Papers Project/ National Park sevice, and copies of information generated by the project in which the story is addressed, and which included the fact that no one has come across any plans for such a machine, or any records, notes or letters pertaining to such a machine. Edison, convinced of his own genius, kept virtually every scrap of paper he'd written on, including grocery lists, etc. They are all now stacked in piles at Menlo Park and archivists are systematically going through these piles to conserve the papers and publish them. Not one of these fine people has ever found plans or records of such a device. However, in Gardner's retelling in his "Did Adam and Eve Have Navels" (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), he indicates on pg. 219 that I wrote to him and "enclosed material containing a passage from a New York Times interview...." Notice that Gardner levels the playing field here by selectively failing to mention that this "material" originated from the folks who ought to know--the very people who spend every day knee deep in Edison's papers! He then goes on to dismiss me and my "material" by citing an entry in a 1948 redaction of Edison's diary published by Dagobart Rune, which--to him--has more evidential weight than Edison himself in the New York Times interview in which he claimed his story was a joke, and the Edison Papers archivists! How's that for keen skeptical intelligence? I'm a long-time fan of Martin Gardner's; however, in this case I think the point is pretty clear: Gardner and the other "skeptics" sometimes walk on feet of clay, but never want that fact to be known. I do have to admit that I myself am a skeptic, and have to caution you that citing old records of hauntings is a tricky business if you know your way around the ins and outs of historical research. Most of these stirring and spectacular anecdotes fall apart pretty quickly when you take a close look at them. Anyway, thanks for the fun! Jesse Glass

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?

"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.

Thanks for these interesting responses. I don't often hear from skeptics, so I'm glad of the chance to interact. I'll make it a separate post, and if you want we can take it from there.

Jesse - 'citing old records of hauntings is a tricky business if you know your way around the ins and outs of historical research. Most of these stirring and spectacular anecdotes fall apart pretty quickly when you take a close look at them.' I'd be interested to know what you're referring to here. The Borley case is the best one I can think of, and I know there are others. Hauntings I agree are difficult to substantiate.

But poltergeist cases are another matter, if they include a lot of eyewitness testimony, as they often do. The argument that such cases don't stand up to scrutiny when you look at them closely is itself suspect - the counter-claims about fraud and gullibility themselves often lacking substance, but taken at face value by debunkers.

I read this unsigned essay with great interest. Therein, I found a few canards of which I’d not previously heard. For example, I can assure the author that I, as a devoted skeptic but not a cynic, personally have no fear nor worry whatsoever that claimed psi phenomena might turn out to be real, as he thought might be the case with some. In fact,upon being presented with firm evidence establishing this wonderful circumstance, I would delight in trying to solve the modi operandi that might bring about telepathy, precognition, or other such phenomena.

The author writes: “Sceptics – identified as such from prior personality profiling – have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance.” Using that same standard, substitute “believers” for “sceptics,” and “higher” for “lower.” I believe this is properly described by an old saying involving interchangeable sauce for geese and ganders…?

The "It's the kind of thing I would not believe in even if it were true" statement is, to me, unforgiveable, and I cannot embrace that thought. I am a rationalist, and proper evidence will establish, for me, any claim. For the last decade, through the James Randi Educational Foundation, I have offered a one-million-dollar prize to any person who can establish that any paranormal, supernatural, or occult claim is true. The fact that no one has won this prize, nor even passed the preliminary stage of testing, either indicates that no one can do so, or that a suitable applicant has yet to apply. I prefer the latter possibility, though I admittedly have no belief in these wonders, because all that I’ve seen in my 80-plus years, have been the results of trickery or self-delusion.

The author also writes: “A great deal of what debunkers write in their books is not really researched at all closely, but simply lifted from earlier books.” In respect to this comment, I refer you to the geese-and-ganders sauce application mentioned above… I note, too, that the author quotes extensively from staunch believers, and expresses little – if any – doubt that they speak sooth.

True skeptics are always willing to be shown, as I am. And it may happen, though I note that none of the prominent figures of today such as Uri Geller have expressed any interest in accepting my challenge. That, in itself, speaks loudly to the skeptic. But then, Geller appears to be making a bid to tell all, since he now only accepts the designation “entertainer” or “showman,” not wanting to be described as “psychic.” What will the next phase of his newly-adopted stance involve, I wonder?

James Randi.

"Sceptics - identified as such from prior personality profiling - have been found unconsciously to influence the results of psi experiments by consistently producing results lower than would be expected by chance. This, Harvey Irwin says, 'confirms an effect of attitudes on the occurrence of ESP, but also reminds of the adage that there are none so blind as those who will not see'. (An Introduction to Parapsychology, 1999, 99)"

Interesting. So all that money the CIA spent on remote viewing was truly wasted (even if the experiments had worked) because all Russia, Iraq, Iran, Korea, et al would need to do is spread a few sceptics around to seriously doubt the US could remote-view on them and, therefore, the US would not be able to remote-view.

I do agree though. I've always found my ability to fly is quickly curtailed as soon as anyone tries to watch :)

You cite the example of a woman calling 'the best dowser in the business' (how would anyone know?) to locate a missing harp. What is supernatural, paranormal or even unusual about indirectly being prompted to post flyers? Had it been James Randi she contacted (or any other rational person) he would have suggested this eminently sensible course of action in the first place. Immediately and for nothing. Do you read what you write, or is it just dictated by a dead Red Indian?

'You cite the example of a woman calling 'the best dowser in the business' (how would anyone know?)' - I suppose they'd look for the one that gets the best results, as with anything.

'What is supernatural, paranormal or even unusual about indirectly being prompted to post flyers?' Nothing at all, obviously. The paranormal bit is in knowing exactly which house in a large city to post them outside.

'Do you read what you write, or is it just dictated by a dead Red Indian?' A couple of guys from a skeptics site who commented at the top of this thread stayed to kick the ball around in a subsequent one, and after a somewhat ill-tempered start they had a productive discussion with other less skeptical visitors. Their original complaint was that despite my moderate language in this essay I was being no less insulting than the skeptics I criticise. I pointed out that there really is an important difference between engaging in debate and exchanging arguments than posting gratuitous abuse. Do check out Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's book Extraordinary Knowing. You may not agree with any or all of it, but you will at least see why this area of human experience is worth studying and debating.

Robert, I believe James (above) made a few interesting points that might interest you.

Thanks Nillin - I read it with interest.

James, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. I'd like to make one or two points, but perhaps best in a separate post.

I'll be interested in your reply. :P

Robert, even the fact some of the best known cases. Jesse--Oh, and hello to Mr. Randi from Jess!

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