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February 2009
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April 2009

Skeptics Welcome

More sound and fury after my last post titled Passion for Fairness - ironic, as it turns out, as it reignited a previous tetchy exchange between regular visitors and skeptic Keith Augustine on the topic of near-death experiences, which he critiqued a few years back (NDEs in the Press, December 15, 2008).   Keith complained about bad behaviour, while his critics said he wasn't answering their points and that his arguments were generally preposterous.

I noted Michael Prescott saying on a previous thread here that he had given up arguing with skeptics, because it was pointless, and didn't change anything, or words to that effect. As someone whose been at this game quite a bit longer than me, I respect his viewpoint. I may feel the same way in time. But right now I have a different idea. I don't expect to change skeptics' minds any more than a Labour politician mouthing off in parliament seriously expects to change the minds of opposition MPs - it's voters he wants to influence.  Likewise, I think that listening to an informed debate by people at polar opposites helps other people make up their own minds.

For that reason, I'm really comfortable with skeptics showing up and exchanging views. I mention that, because Keith said at one point he had

the mistaken impression that this blog would be a civil environment for multiple points of view, in which constructive dialogue between skeptics and believers might be possible, given the "About Paranormalia" statement acknowledging that "the issues are hard to penetrate." Actions speak louder than words, however ... if skeptics are not welcome here--hinted at in Robert McLuhan's comment that "each side has its own forums, where likeminded individuals meet and discuss"--then the About Paranormalia statement should be changed to reflect that.

To clarify - that statement I made in the previous post about forums existing for likeminded individuals is factually accurate - that is what associations, societies and blogs mostly are for - but isn't meant to imply that Paranormalia is hostile to other points of view or to people who make those statements. The fact that we can have these discussions at all - and at considerable length - is surely testament to that.  My point was that these forums aren't obliged to go to the other extreme and give equal time and status to their critics in the interest of balance. 

Keith also complained about flaming, and wondered why I didn't moderate the comments. I'd only do that if the blog got a lot of junk messages, which mercifully hasn't been the case so far. I've only had to stop one comment - the guy has since moved on - which is pretty good. I'm not keen on the idea of chairing  discussions, even if I had the time for it (other regulars have stepped in with calming comments from time to time - for which, many thanks).

It's in the nature of things that these arguments get seriously heated. I take the view that if you have the guts to take the argument to the opposition, then you deserve credit for that, but by the same token, you shouldn't be surprised or upset if your opponents get frustrated, or the comments you get are hard to take.

Michael Prescott gave an admirably succinct appraisal of Keith's views on NDEs some years ago, and it pretty much expresses what I'd say, so I won't go into that here. I don't agree with most of what Keith thinks, and I'd suggest he greatly exaggerates the reliability of sources like Susan Blackmore on the topic of paranormal perception during NDEs, for instance.  But the point is, there are many, many people who are disposed to believe his arguments and will take them seriously, if they think they're the ones that are most convincing.  It's up to us, if we can, to change that perception. If we can't do this to the satisfaction of an uncommitted bystander, so much the worse for us.

The fact that Keith Augustine shows up to debate at least gives us an opportunity (and the serious stretches involved in his arguments - such as NDErs getting their OBE perceptions by normal means, inadequate anaesthetics, etc -  should make it all the easier). We complain about the angry snarky types who think people like us don't deserve to live, so it's good to find a skeptic who is prepared to discuss his ideas with us.  We're not going to agree with him, but does it really matter if we can't get him to agree with us? What matters is that we have clarified the points of disagreement, and in such a way that it's us, not him, that other readers agree with.


Passion for Fairness

One of the most trying things about growing up during the Cold War was the sense that we had to live and act by different standards to our enemies. Totalitarian regimes could beat up their critics, or let them rot in jail after putting them through a mockery of legal justice. But democrats were bound to be true to their principles. Free speech required that they give a platform for communists to preach their overthrow, just as today Islamic terror supporters get to live on benefits given them by the British state while shouting against everything Britain stands for.

This problem crops up sometimes in our dealings with skeptics. I remember when Nicholas Humphrey's Soul Searching came out, being shocked that something so vacuous and mindlessly disparaging could even get into print - surely a low point in the sceptical canon. I was even more dismayed to read a review in the SPR Journal by John Beloff, who thought we might be a bit miffed that the Perror-Warrick award, which is supposed to go to fund genuine parapsychological research, instead went to finance a book designed, as he says, 'to ridicule the field', but nevertheless advised us to 'swallow our resentment'.

Our Society has always prided itself on being open to every shade of opinion and Nicholas Humphrey knows how to write. He is erudite without being ponderous and witty without being frivolous. A belief that dare not expose itself to such urbane scepticism must be frail indeed.

Beloff had been making sterling attempts to reach out to skeptics, for instance trying to draw their attention to the Feilding report on Eusapia Palladino. 'What is your explanation,' he kept asking them.  I remember admiring him for it, while at the same time recognising the futility. They just seemed a bit embarrassed, and didn't really want to reciprocate. But with this review I thought he'd gone way too far. 

Today the SPR's Paranormal Review arrived, and it includes quite a long review by Matt Colborn on the SPR study day last October, when I joined Guy Playfair and Rupert Sheldrake in a discussion of skepticism. Guy gave a run down on the history, focusing in particular on CSICOP. Rupert talked about his own experience of getting stuffed by skeptics, and I talked about skeptic psychology. That seemed to me a reasonable topic: believers are routinely criticised for the way they think, but skeptics betray biases of their own.

Matt gave a detailed and pretty fair description of the talks, but he seemed to be bothered about the lack of balance. He was 'perturbed' to see that there would be three talks by anti-skeptics, and a single skeptic, Professor Chris French, would merely be invited to comment. He had 'feelings of unease', he wasn't sure it was 'constructive', he thought it was important to have a 'level playing field'.  He accepted that skeptics shout down the opposition, but 'two wrongs don't make a right'. He was puzzled that someone should have complained about French being given the last word.

I remain troubled by any tendency to want to silence the opposition, simply because this is undemocratic. And if parapsychologists demand a level playing field, then they should do everything they can to maintain it.

Well, up to a point, Matt. I agree completely that we should engage with skeptics where we can, as I've tried to do here, occasionally with some success. We even had that James Randi drop by a while ago. But each side has its own forums, where likeminded individuals meet and discuss. There's no rule that says they have to invite people who think their ideas stink. Since it was an SPR event, the bulk of the audience was always going to be SPR members, and they wouldn't necessarily have paid to hear people trashing their beliefs. 

As I recall, there was some discussion about whether or not to invite Chris French - it wasn't automatic. If he hadn't come there'd have been no balance at all. As it happens, I was very much in favour, for precisely that reason. But it never occurred to me that we should have gone the whole way, inviting an equal number of skeptics, and giving them equal time to make their own presentations. If we had done, none of us would have been able to give the kind of detailed, thoughtful presentations we did. It would not have been about information and insights from people who know their subject. Not at all, it would have been an intellectual fist fight. We would have been up there about defending our positions against critical attack, which is what we have to do all the time.

By all means let's run that event that sometime. It would be interesting, and we might establish some common ground. But there's a time and place for it. We don't owe our critics anything, and we don't have to go out of our way to let them join our discussions. 

Recession Blues

Things are getting a bit spooky. As a freelancer I normally get an average of 15-20 work-related emails a day. Three days into this week, and I've had none at all. Not a single one. Zilch.

No phone calls either, except for one with no one on the other end of the line. Perhaps it was my Mum calling from the Beyond. Just for encouragement.

An ideal time for blogging, you'd think. But it doesn't seem to work like that. It's an odd phenomenon which I've often noticed. The less I have to do, the less I get done.

I'm not completely unemployed, fortunately. But two days a week ain't enough. People ask if I'm available for commissions, as if nothing had changed - and then I never hear from them again. As I say - spooky.

Apologies for absence

I'm a firm believer in only writing when one has something to say, and not for the sake of it. But it occurs to me that my updates are becoming quite infrequent, which isn't what I intended at all - ideally I'd be posting something at least a couple of times a week. I don't want Paranormalia to become one of those deserted ghost-blogs, a curiosity only to cyber-archaeologists.

There are two reasons - one, which I've mentioned before, is that I'm still doing edits on my book Randi's Prize, although mercifully that's nearly done. The more serious reason is that as a freelance journalist a lot of my work has dried up in the recession, and commissions are few and far between. So I've been having to focus hard on putting that right, which means less time to think about psi-matters. There are starting to be some good signs, so hopefully things will start picking up soon.

Why Did You Do It? (Part II)

'Spiritualist jailed for killing wife' is not a headline you see every day. Spiritualist minister David Chenery-Wickens apparently did away with his trusting spouse after she confronted him with his serial bi-sexual philandering. He sounds like a pretty unpleasant character. The thought that came to my mind when he was first arrested, (Why Did You Do It?, Feb 3 2008), was that if he really was a spirit medium, after the grisly deed had been done the two of them could have had a little talk about it - a post-mortem, so to speak. I wonder if she haunts him.

Of course if he's the 'predatory charlatan' in the news reports, then he's probably just pretending to be in touch with spirits, in which case these potential problems would never have occurred to him.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone else, possibly because few people these days even know what spiritualism is, or what spiritualist ministers claim to do. They might not automatically see anything at all religious about being in touch with the dead.  For those who do, I suppose this sort of thing simply underlines the fact that religious folk are as fallible as the rest of us, and some of them apparently a good deal more so.