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November 2010

Randi's Prize

Rpcoverthumb1 My book Randi's Prize is back from the printers and a press release goes out tomorrow. Yay. Reviewers should start getting copies in a week or two. Publication date is now November 1.

This is the culmination of years of work, and I'm pleased to see it finally in print. The book expresses my thoughts about how psychic phenomena is downplayed or disregarded in our society. I believe this is something we need to get to grips with.

Why? Simply because the evidence for psychic functioning is so widespread, as an aspect of human consciousness and experience, that it makes no sense to ignore it as if it didn't happen. Still less to abuse those who report it as stupid or gullible, as campaigning sceptics like James Randi do.

Scepticism is a natural and healthy response to paranormal claims. We can't take at face value the notion that some 'psychics', or people with so-called psychic ability, can read minds, tell the future, or converse with the spirits of the dead, or for that matter that there is such a thing as the spirit world. These claims are antithetical to the materialist paradigm, and at the very least need to be thoroughly investigated.

So sceptics like Randi - along with others whose views I discuss in the book: Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, David Marks, C.E.M. Hansel, etc - have a role to play. But it's wrong for sceptical scientists to imagine that these are the experts. They aren't; they're the fleas on the back of the elephant. The real experts are the parapsychologists who carry out experiments and field research.

Actually some sceptics do carry out investigations and even offer some original thinking - Susan Blackmore on out-of-body and near-death experiences, for instance. But their main concern, Blackmore included, is to dissuade their audience from taking psychic claims seriously.  Polemicists like Randi consider abuse to be an appropriate response.  I happen to think that empirical investigation, patient and painstaking, is a better way to understand these things than laughing and pointing and calling it 'woo-woo'.

Looked at from a historical perspective there is something really interesting going on here. To me it's as though the sceptics are patrolling the frontiers of the materialist paradigm, beating back the superstitious hordes. There's only a handful of them, the so-called 'specialists' who understand enough about parapsychology to sound knowledgeable to their audience, and create a plausible case against it. But if scientific materialism is to survive, these people have to be right.

After all, how much sense does it make for neuroscience and cognitive psychology to pursue the computational view of the mind if there's abundant data that would require some unknown Factor X? And how confident can evolutionary biologists and psychologists be about what has proved to be a hugely fertile field of thought if they are always looking over their shoulders at claims of telepathy and suchlike? That would put a spoke in the wheels, to put it mildly.

And do psychic phenomena indicate that consciousness survives death? If so, how will that affect secular society?  Would it end by reinforcing religious belief? And what would be the outcome of that? There are large issues here, and I've touched on some of in Randi's Prize.

I guess many of Paranormalia's readers will be familiar with a lot of the research in the book - many of them know a good deal more than I do about the subject.  But I hope that some will find something in it to interest them. Perhaps I should mention, though, that it's not primarily about James Randi - I just thought the prize thing would make a cool title.  I'm sure there is a book to be written about him, but it would be a different sort of book, and would probably only interest those people who already understand the issues. Mine, by contrast, is mainly concerned to try to explain the challenges posed by psychic research to those who know little about it, and its implications.

I'm putting together a companion website, which will contain a bit of supplementary information, and links to other research, which I'm sure readers will want to add to. There will also be a page with extracts from the book, and a summary of some of the ideas it discusses.

I'll be running a blog there too, which I intend to use to respond to criticisms and discuss readers' questions, while the more in-depth essays will continue to appear here, hopefully a bit more regularly than of late.

Aiee, so much work! So little time!