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October 2009

Losing My Religion

by Matt Colborn

It's extremely hard to be a truly independent thinker in academia. Graduate training programmes tend to have an environment that 'some students find to be perfectly friendly but at the same time, is very hostile to students whose attitudes and values don't conform to the dominant ones (Schmitt, 2000. p.150).' Jeff Schmidt's observation encapsulates my own post-graduate experiences quite nicely, because my interest in psychical research flowered at the same time that I completed a mainstream postgraduate programme. As a consequence, the academic environment in which I moved morphed from one of overall benevolence to something rather different.

Schmitt suggests that one function of professional training is to narrow thought, so that by the end of such training, student's opinions will be far more uniform than they were at the beginning. Students tend to get 'guided', both passively and actively, towards orthodox views by both their tutors and their peers.

I can think of several examples from both my Masters in cognitive science and my doctorate in mainstream experimental psychology. Once our class watched a video of Kanzi the Bonobo apparently accurately comprehending some quite complex instructions from her trainer, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. It was fascinating to watch the expressions of several of my classmates take on the classical sceptical scowl, because in Psychology, any animal ability that seems close to human is 'naturally' regarded with scepticism.

 Another example was when a tutor took the piss out of me for 'believing' Penrose's claims about quantum consciousness, even though I'd merely brought the subject up for discussion and had made it clear that I didn't 'believe' it. A third example was being quite aggressively scolded for questioning the information-processing paradigm by a potential Phd. supervisor. A fourth, most relevant here, was the bewilderment of a fellow student when a paper by computer pioneer Alan Turing apparently took telepathy seriously. That's self-evident nonsense, isn't it?

It's important to understand how unremitting peer pressure to accept a certain point of view can be. In the academic environment, one is constantly pushed to conform to the views of your boss and your peers. A recent example of this policing reportedly occurred at the Perrott-Warwick conference, where parapsychologists were in a minority and aggressive skepticism rather high. One world-famous philosopher of mind apparently giggled every time 'psi' was mentioned; I have personally witnessed him simply ignore a question about psychic phenomena at a lecture. Academia can sometimes resemble a schoolyard.

But in a way, skeptics do us a favour by making these often-implicit attitudes explicit, because dissenting views are often totally ignored in the mainstream. Try finding a discussion of the 'aquatic ape' theory, aberrant red shifts or apparent past-life memories in most mainstream textbooks.

The exclusion of dissenters is also part of the filtering process. Those that stay on after their doctorate often do so because they've largely absorbed the ideology of their institution and their peers. Many academics will protest that no-one tells them what to think; but this is not necessary, because they wouldn't be in their position if they did not think they way that they do. Those of us who found the restrictions intolerable are shown the door, or leave voluntarily.

I find such fierce policing not only slightly revolting, but of questionable value to science. One dissenter might just be a bitter rebel, but the more one researches scientific anomalies, the more one encounters a similar situation in some very diverse fields. And when you read repeated pleas that science really must stop penalizing new ideas (Greenburg, 2007), it's hard to dismiss the thought that there's something very rotten in the State of Science.


Greenburg, R. (2007).Unmasking Europa: The Search for Life on Jupiter's Ocean Moon. Springer.
Schmitt, J. (2000) Disciplined Minds. Rowman & Littlefield: Oxford.

Spiritualists on TV

There's been a bit of discussion about Sunday's Channel 4 documentary by Richard Alwyn about a Spiritualist church, while I was in a tent in a field in Norfolk (see the post before this, 'So not farewell after all'). I've caught up with the film now (thanks to The Major for the link), and here are my thoughts, for what they're worth.

I liked the programme, and thought it was a pretty fair view. Alwyn seemed genuinely struck by the accurate information a medium gave him about his grandfather - also the fact that the medium was rather surprisingly a doctor, an educated man of science - and the success of a 20-minute healing session that fixed the back pain he had endured for years, and which he remains free from four months later.

However commentators are struck by Alwyn's failure to acknowledge the paranormality of what he experienced. Actually that didn't at all surprise me. It would have been a very different sort of programme if he'd shown any instant personal commitment. At the end of the programme he did suggest that once these things are better understood, they would come to seem normal. 

In these sorts of cases it's not what people say, but the way they say it, that counts. There have been a few books on paranormal subjects recently where the writers implied that they weren't personally convinced while showing a depth of interest and sympathy that rather belies it (eg. Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters, Barbara Weisberg's Talking to the Dead). But considering how controversial the subject is, that's what they have to do if they are going to retain credibility with their audience.

Also, I agree with Paul that there's a natural defence mechanism here. I think of it as a sort of psychological gag reflex. We reject experiences that seem to have no rational basis; we call that 'healthy scepticism'. It takes time for these things to sink in, to rearrange the furniture in our heads, to create a new worldview.

I remember having early experiences of this kind, to which I paid little or no attention at the time. They were just curiosities. But they stayed with me, and when I began reading about psychical research, they started to have resonance. It may take ten or twenty years, but my guess is that Alwyn will one day join the many of us who have come to recognise the validity of these sorts of experiences, and place them in a meaningful context.  

I think it would help bridge the gulf between sceptics and believers if we understood this psychological process a bit better. It wasn't hard to guess what the sceptical reactions should be: the folk at JREF were upset at the idea of a doctor acting as a medium in his surgery - he should stick to handing out pills - and one made a rather pedestrian stab at revealing cold reading by the doctor. But my take on this is that people are describing stuff that happens to them, not just acting out beliefs or performing parts.

This is terribly difficult for sceptics to grasp, particularly those who follow James Randi: they are so obsessed with the idea of conscious deceit they can't see what more open minded people would see - and which the film did a good job of showing - that whether they like it or not, some people actually are subject to meaningful hallucinations or other uncanny experiences, and in some cases learn that they have a practical benefit. The whole point about the surgery incident, as the doctor described it, was that his vision of the patient's father, and his ability to describe him to her, cured her of her depression and enabled her to stop taking pills. How is that wrong? Isn't it something we need to understand better?

So, not farewell after all...

Phil Plait at the JREF has a 'fantastic announcement' to make. The famous Million Dollar Challenge will not end next March, as previously announced!  After much discussion, ways have been found to get round the drain on time and effort, and to keep it going -  'improved, streamlined, and made more efficient'.

I'm all for this. The idea of a magician's test is too important a part of the skeptical movement to be let go, and I was never very convinced about its demise. It doesn't have to be James Randi that carries it out. But yes please, let it be improved, streamlined and made more efficient. Let it be transparent, so that we can see exactly who are all these nutters who apply, and their crazy crackpot ideas. Let's see what these preliminary conditions are that no one ever passes. Let the details of the tests be open to discussion - taped and posted online.

Expensive and time consuming? OK, but isn't there a million dollars to play with here? Where is the interest on that going? Let the Challenge pay for its keep.


It will be interesting to see how Rupert Murdoch gets on with his campaign to establish a pay-to-view model for internet access. A lot of sites have tried this, but the weight of media opinion is that it hasn't worked so far. A fair number of people think it never will.

Murdoch apparently plans to launch the Sunday Times as a sandalone site in November, and hopes that other newspaper owners will follow his example. But experience shows that only a hard core of users are actually prepared to pay, and not enough to make it worth while for advertisers - a lose-lose scenario.

I have some interest in this as a journalist, as I spend a lot of time poking around online researching stories. And as a foreign news junkie - yes, there are such people - I'd be devastated if I couldn't waste time trawling Google news for the latest bonkers story about  Ahmadinejad (see this on his dangerous mystical leanings), China, whatever. I wouldn't mind paying a single moderate subscription fee to go on doing that, but the thought of having to pay for every site I access - well, I don't go there.

It's not just newspapers that want to charge for their content. Greg Taylor ran a campaign a year or so ago appealing for donations for his very excellent Daily Grail site, and that's just the sort of regular, consistent specialist service that deserves to get some income. I hope it helped, but I'd be surprised if it solved the long-term problem, which is how to get a return from all that effort and creativity, instead of having to fit it into one's spare time.

In the case of Paranormalia the idea of charging doesn't arise. It wouldn't work, and in any case, the site's a labour of love. If it comes and goes a bit, that's not really about money, it's about having something to say.  But there's a bigger principle at stake here. The Internet offers a fantastic opportunity to raise the level of the debate about psi, not just in terms of providing this sort of comment, but of opening access to primary sources that previously one could only find in specialist libraries. (The SPR's library in Kensington is practically deserted these days, apparently, since all the Journals and Proceedings were made available to download.) I think we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible, in terms of packaging content and offering it to help people answer their questions.

But of course there's a problem here for the organisations like the SPR which own and create so much of the content. The SPR is largely funded by membership subscriptions. While the Journal of Scientific Exploration has opened its archive to free access you still have to be a member to access SPR publications, even those which are long out of copyright. As far as I know - and someone correct me if I'm wrong - the American Society of Psychical Research is still reluctant to provide any kind of online access, for fear of weakening its income.

So, mixed feelings. The Internet offers lots of possibilities for open access to existing research and case studies, but the new research has to be paid for somehow. And how does that happen, if people can read about it for free?