Unengaged, implausible, illogical
NDEs In the Press

Reply to James Randi

James Randi commented on my SPR talk on skeptic psychology (November 2 08), in which, among other things, I suggested that an unacknowledged fear of psi may motivate some skeptics. Here is his comment and my response.

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.

James, thanks for responding to this. I was interested to hear your comments and I have a few small rejoinders.

'... 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...?' 

I agree that in a general sense bias works both ways. Here I was talking about its effect in psi experiments. Mean scores in card guessing, for instance, would suggest that a person is showing no evidence of psi. Consistent above-mean scores might indicate the action of psi, while below-mean scores is thought to imply that a person is unconsciously suppressing it. In these three scenarios, both the latter two are held to be paranormal.

I know skeptics have difficulty with this 'psi-missing' idea. It requires accepting that getting none right over a large number of card guessing trials, where five is expected by chance, is as abnormal as getting ten right. This is fairly well accepted in the parapsychological community, which it would surely not be if it was statistically unsound. It can be argued that abnormally poor scores are just the negative tail of random guessing scores, but if that was the case, they would be as common as the above average scores, when in fact they are quite rare. Also, they would not correspond to skeptic psychological profiles, which however they often do. 

'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 could have expressed myself more succinctly.  Of course both skeptics and paranormalists form their own communities, talking and listening to each other, as in any controversy.

My complaint relates to the claim of skeptic authors to offer expert guidance about paranormal reports, for the benefit of scientists who don't believe them but need expert guidance. This claim is suspect, when debunkers do so little direct investigation, and instead are often content to recycle alleged exposes and confessions which, in many cases, even a little critical thinking would show to be problematic. By contrast paranormalists really do make an effort to get to grips with abnormal experiences first hand, and with the primary sources.

A small example is your paper on the 1984 Columbus 'poltergeist' incident, which attributed the effects to pranks played by a 14-year old girl to attract attention, and is widely quoted in skeptic literature on the topic. Another main source is a chapter in a book by another magician, Milbourne Christopher, whose examples of hoaxes and confessions seem to be mostly gleaned from news reports, and again is widely quoted. That's pretty much it, apart from references to the Borley and Amityville cases, which arguably aren't typical of the poltergeist genre.

It's interesting that neither you nor Christopher, who tried to debunk the 1958 Seaford, Long Island case, gained entrance to the house in question or actually saw the incidents that caused all the fuss. By contrast this type of thing has been witnessed close up by a number of psychical investigators - eg Roll, Gauld and Cornell, Scott Rogo, Owen, Playfair and Grosse, etc - sometimes on several separate occasions, leading them to consider it a genuinely paranormal phenomenon. It's not clear to me that it needs skilled magicians to catch out teenagers playing tricks, or why their armchair analysis should be the more reliable.

'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.'

I've never thought that Geller was a good reason for believing in the genuineness of psi, or any single self-professed 'psychic' for that matter. But could their reluctance to be tested by you have something to do with the fact that they don't trust you?  In that case, it's not so much an indication of psi's non-existence as the short-comings of your challenge as a vehicle for advancing our understanding.

'...proper evidence will establish, for me, any claim.' What is 'proper evidence'? What James Randi says it is? Why not the tests and investigations devised by scientists who believe it to be a genuine entity? Or for that matter other magicians, like Robert-Houdin, who believed the clairvoyant Alex Didier to be genuine, or J.N. Maskelyne, who debunked seance mediums, but then privately experimented with table turning and, far from being convinced by Michael Faraday's explanation - which skeptics take to be the last word - thought a genuinely psychokinetic effect was at work.

It's difficult to reconcile your apparent openness in this posting with the aggressive polemic for which you are better known. My understanding is that your fame and influence rests on your skill in persuading people not to take psi claims seriously, which is hardly compatible with encouraging a genuine demonstration. The idea that the million-dollar challenge is a meaningful test is surely an illusion. Even if, by some fluke, someone actually did win the prize, what then? Would your followers believe it, or would they just say, poor chap, it got him in the end?

best wishes

Robert McLuhan

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Hi Robert,

As I've pointed out previously on the Daily Grail, the Million Dollar Challenge has a number of problems (in turns of using it as a catch-all as to the non-existence of paranormal abilities:

http://dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge

I also think a whole book could be written about Randi's rhetorical "sleight-of-hand" - I note some instances in the addendum to my article, and noted also above the remarks such as "this unsigned essay".

Kind regards,
Greg

I quote from your note, Mr. McLuhan: "Consistent above-mean scores might indicate the action of psi, while below-mean scores is thought to imply that a person is unconsciously suppressing it. ...both the latter two are held to be paranormal."

I'd point out that there is the assumption here of the existence of psi effects. And, if there are indeed artifacts such as psi-missing and/or psi-suppression, these are of course matters of great and pregnant interest. I - and skeptics of my acquaintance - have no problem accepting that fact. However, when these excuses are invoked as needed to explain failure...

To quote, again: "skeptic authors... offer expert guidance about paranormal reports". Please do not suggest that MY expertise extends further than I have claimed; I am expert in the direction of fraud and also concerning how other "experts" can - and do - step outside of their own fields by stating that certain observed effects cannot be the results of fakery.

As for claimed psychics like Geller not trusting my being involved, none of my tests have ever been designed and/or implemented without the possibility of my interference being taken into account. Any and all elements have been designed so that trickery is impossible, by ALL the participants. Yes, that can be done, and has been done.

I agree, the million-dollar challenge is not, in any way, a "meaningful test," nor have I ever represented that it is. That was your suggestion, not mine. It is, however, the single greatest hurdle faced by those who claim paranormal abilities, and the wisest of them - Geller, John Edward, Sylvia Browne - have opted to simply ignore it, though they could easily and swiftly snap it up - IF they have the powers they claim.

I'll just comment that your identity was unknown to me simply because it did not appear anywhere in the commentary you offered. Your readers may have greater clairvoyant powers than I...


"I note some instances in the addendum to my article, and noted also above the remarks such as "this unsigned essay".

Kind regards,
Greg"

The blog referred to on this site was not signed. (Go look.) After sending Mr. Randi a link to the original blog entry, he emailed me back and asked me who wrote it. For some reason that email landed in my spam folder. I don't know what went wrong, but it wasn't for lack of trying that Randi didn't know who wrote the blog.

Perhaps Robert McLuhan should make a habit of signing all of his blogs. It's not as though we're all acquainted with Paranormalia.

‘However, when these excuses are invoked as needed to explain failure...’ Success in parapsychological terms means getting a consistent deviation from the norm. If the aim is to call cards correctly this would be a positive deviation, and the 32% that parapsychologists claim to have established in large scale meta-analyses, where 25% is the chance mean, is by common assent statistically significant and requires explanation.

However if certain individuals consistently get statistically significant low scores, that too requires explanation. If the positive significance is held to indicate psi and if, furthermore, the individuals who get consistently negative scores match a skeptic psychological profile it becomes reasonable to argue that they are unconsciously suppressing it.

Taking into account the emotional element involved in psi, that would not be surprising. It has nothing to do with explaining away failure, which would consist of not achieving any kind of statistical significance.

‘I agree, the million-dollar challenge is not, in any way, a "meaningful test," nor have I ever represented that it is.’ Fair enough, but you’re too modest. Many scientists now regard you as the pre-eminent authority on the subject, as in, ‘psychism can’t exist, because otherwise someone would have won Randi’s prize’. To a large section of academic opinion the Million Dollar Challenge has eclipsed the work on the subject that actually is meaningful.

I am curious about it, though. The TV film of your test of Derek Ogilvie was shown here recently, and it was the first time I’ve actually seen it in action. I wonder why that is. Is it true that no one has ever got past the preliminaries? If so, again, why is that? There’s a lack of transparency about it. If there’s a suspicion of it being a stitch-up then of course psychics won’t get involved. That automatically increases its propaganda value, while diminishing it as a serious test.

As for the essay being unsigned, I’m sorry if that caused any embarrassment. It hasn’t been an issue before. The blog’s authorship is stated on the right-side panel, and regular readers seem to know who I am. But perhaps I should make it a bit clearer.

James,

It's a testament to your conviction and interest in debating these topics that you find time to email people (such as myself) personally, and comment in reply to blog's like this, in spite of your busy schedule. Regardless of my disagreements with your opinions, I do respect you for that.

You reply to Robert by saying:

"To quote, again: "skeptic authors... offer expert guidance about paranormal reports". Please do not suggest that MY expertise extends further than I have claimed; I am expert in the direction of fraud and also concerning how other "experts" can - and do - step outside of their own fields by stating that certain observed effects cannot be the results of fakery."

If this is the case, why do you post about the scientific details of psi investigations on your Swift blog. In your February 22, 2008 entry, you serve up your opinion on Dean Radin:

"But the Radin sycophants – as they’ve done before – invoked a special rule for their “science” – in which they ask for exemption from these basics of science. That puts parapsychology outside of the company of legitimate sciences.

Radin’s latest distraction – parapsychologists are fond of abandoning lines of investigation when they prove fruitless – is “presentiment,” which offers him the same qualities as “meta-analysis,” with its dependence on assigned and interpreted values. Radin defines presentiment as “a vague, noncognitive sense that something bad or good will occur.” He uses a skin-conductance measure and a photoplethysmograph for fingertip blood volume – an indicator of autonomic arousal – as subjects are shown a series of randomized pictures on a computer screen. The photoplethysmograph is a device that can be used to determine heart rate via a volume measurement of blood in the arteries and capillaries, by using low levels of infrared light to detect small changes in blood content in the tissues with each heartbeat. A light-emitting diode is used to transmit light into the skin. Some of us will have a simple version of this device as a heart-rate indicator, though I find mine to be somewhat erratic and subject to interpretation… "

Many of your readers trust your opinion implicitly. And yet in this entry you mislead them about Dean Radin's research. In saying that presentiment is his "latest distraction" (when he has been researching it for over ten years), misrepresenting metanalysis, and the inaccurate nature of your "simple version of this device", you are certainly influencing opinion with half-truths as well as complete mistatements of fact. You can choose between either deliberate misrepresentation of Radin's research, or ignorance of it, but neither stand you in very good light.

I would also agree to with Robert's comments regarding the Million Dollar Challenge. Despite your protestations, you know how it is represented in terms of being the stock answer against paranormal/psi abilities, and yet you make no effort to correct this. As such, you are guilty of propagating a myth that suits your own purposes, much like those that you normally seek to attack.

Kind regards,
Greg

As is often the case, I think there's a significant gap between ideals and actions here.

The ideal: 'Science' = open, free enquiry, formal arguments, constructive criticism, careful examination of evidence, logic etc.

The actions: Ridicule,cant and strongly negative rhetoric ('Sycophants,' 'Woo-woo pedellers,' etc.) Little or no systematic argument; appeal to ridicule, etc.

I don't really understand why Randi appears blind to the contradictions between the ideals he claims he adheres to and how he actually deals with the evidence. Perhaps he could enlighten me.

After all, actions speak louder than words.

Hi. Good news.

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