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, 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?