Among many issues that came out of my last entry, I was asked to provide evidence for certain claims I made about skeptics' behaviour. Here they are:
1) refusing to engage with parapsychological investigations on any level as being of no interest, undoubtedly fraudulent, obviously nonsense, etc.
It's surely not uncontroversial to say that this is true of many scientists, as most might proudly agree. Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and Lewis Wolpert have all been fairly explicit about their lack of interest - to name only three. If you want a specific example, try Lewis Wolpert's attitude during a public debate with Rupert Sheldrake on telepathy - notably his refusal even to watch a relevant clip that Sheldrake was showing to support his case.
Another example is the public exchange between Sheldrake and Atkins, in which Atkins candidly admitted he hadn't read any of the evidence of telepathy that he had dismissed as a 'charlatan's fantasy'.
2) engaging with [psychical investigations], but explaining them away with all kinds of implausible scenarios which in any other context no one would entertain for a moment
One could fill a book with examples. One that comes to mind at once is psychologist C.E.M. Hansel's 'explanation' for a successful experiment reported by J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s. Rhine's colleague Gaither Pratt tested a theology student named Hubert Pearce for ESP in card experiments. In four series involving a total of 74 runs, where 5 was the mean, Pearce scored averages of 9.9, 6.7, 7.3, and 9.3 - the odds of that happening by chance are a hundred thousand billion billion to one. In one of the experiments Pearce was guessing cards at pre-arranged intervals while Pratt was turning over the cards in another part of the building. (Rhine, J B and J G Pratt (1954), ‘A Review of the Pearce-Pratt Distance Series of ESP Tests’, Journal of Parapsychology, 18, 3, pp. 165-77.)
Hansel discovered that the office had a glass window opening onto the corridor, and proposed that, unknown to Pratt, Pearce had simply nipped upstairs and peeked through. When a different office was used, Hansel noted a trapdoor immediately above the table where the experimenter had sat; obviously Pearce had got above the ceiling somehow and looked through it to catch a glimpse of the cards.
The effectiveness of this explanation is that it provides a theoretical loophole. But it's not remotely plausible in practice. Even if Pratt had been conveniently sitting just in front of the window with his back to it, Pearce would have constantly courted discovery, lurking in the corridor. As for getting into the ceiling and looking through a trap door... (ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Re-evaluation, (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1980), pp. 111-23.
Another example might be Richard Wiseman's attempt to debunk the Feilding Report, a minutely detailed description of sittings with the séance medium Eusapia Palladino in 1908, which concluded in a firm endorsement of paranormal effects. The sittings were held in a hotel suite, in a room (B) that could only be entered via the corridor and then through another room (A). Wiseman argued that once the sitting had started an accomplice effected entry into room A, removed a false panel from the wall separating it from room B (which had somehow been constructed prior to the sittings), clambered through, where he/she remained hidden from the investigators by the curtain which separated a corner of the room behind Palladino (this was where much of the phenomena originated, eg the appearance of hands and faces, instruments playing themselves, the curtain billowing outwards, etc). The accomplice, Wiseman maintained, faked all these things and then effected his/her escape prior to the end of the session.
Among many objections, critics of Wiseman pointed out that, quite apart from the implausibility of a panel being constructed without anyone knowing, and an accomplice doing tricks a few feet from the investigators without ever being spotted:
the curtain often billowed up high, revealing the space behind, which would instantly have given the accomplice away
much of the phenomena occurred in front of the curtain not behind it
the phenomena continued after the session had finished
Palladino achieved precisely the same effects in numerous other investigations where an accomplice could not have gained entrance.
(Richard Wiseman, 'The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 58, 1991-92, pp. 129-52.)
I also think of Susan Blackmore's approach in Dying to Live to explaining away veridical out-of-body perception. This category of experience includes accident victims and hospital patients giving accurate descriptions of objects, scenes and events which they witnessed while they were unconscious, and which they could not normally be expected to have knowledge of.
One idea, which Blackmore puts forward, is that hospital patients are not always knocked out by anaesthetics and may have some residual sense of hearing, from which they can piece together what happened. There is some evidence that anaesthetics are not 100% effective in 100% of cases, so it's a point worth making. But she fills it out with the usual Humean claims about witness unreliability, that people get confused, or forget things, or exaggerate. This doesn't begin to account for the detailed visual descriptions recorded, for instance, by cardiologist Michael Sabom in his Recollections of Death (1982), where one patient commented on the surprising shape of his heart, as the surgical team lifted it out and snipped bits off, and another was surprised to see how deep her spine was within her body - other similar accounts describe incidents that occurred in other parts of the hospital out of range of their hearing.
Blackmore's performance here is spirited and confident, and out of context will convince like-minded sceptics who don't know exactly what it is she is trying to explain away. But if you do understand the context it's utterly lame - the desperate gambit of a clever defence lawyer with a patently guilty client and nothing to lose.
It's very hard to understand how a serious minded, objective person could take these sorts of 'explanations' at all seriously. One is left with the feeling that they are permissible because the alternative is just so flat out impossible that virtually any alternative scenario will do, no matter how implausible.
3) 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'
This happens on the rare occasions when skeptics carry out psi experiments. An example is their attempt to debunk Rupert Sheldrake's experiments in the sense of being stared at. In one experiment, Richard Wiseman used randomization tables to ensure that the subjects didn't start noticing patterns that enabled them to get correct guesses. But he still got significant results, and then decided it was because of the randomization. (R. Wiseman & M. Smith, 'A further look at the detection of unseen gaze' Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association 37th Annual Convention. Parapsychological Association, 1994, pp. 465-78.)
4) carrying out experiments with psychics on television with a very precisely determined pre-agreed protocol, getting highly significant results, and then refusing to accept the results as valid
In 2005 National Geographic made a TV film on remote viewing. The publication has a reputation for skepticism, but Joseph McMoneagle, one of the most successful participants in the US military's Stargate programme, and Edwin May, who ran it, nevertheless both agreed to take part, on condition that the protocols were specified in advance and followed exactly.
The target, a bridge, having been chosen with no means whatever of McMoneagle identifying it from sensory clues or anything else, to the producers' satisfaction, he nevertheless not only proceeded to draw an accurate image of it, but described the route leading to it in surprising detail. The crew and producer expressed astonishment at the exact match, and two policemen who stopped by said McMoneagle's drawing was so detailed that they would have easily recognised the spot from seeing it.
Interviewed at the end of the programme, the experts who had been invited to comment were unimpressed, a) because McMoneagle hadn't named the bridge, and b) because the match could merely have been a coincidence, achieved by guesswork. Why agree to a protocol, only to dismiss it so casually when it is precisely fulfilled?
Damien Broderick, who describes this curious tale in his book Outside the Gates of Science, comments: 'You get the impression a chimpanzee could have done it by reaching into a hat and pulling out a number. The copious valid and surprising details were ignored. Because it couldn't happen, therefore it hadn't happened.' (p. 113).