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Psi and Climate Change

Nurse It's tempting to compare psi-sceptics with deniers of climate change, as I was doing all through yesterday's Horizon programme Science Under Attack. But while the parallels are there, trying to tease them out isn't easy. The differences are instructive as well.

The programme was an appeal by Sir Paul Nurse, newly appointed president of the Royal Society, for media sceptics to stop misleading the public about global warming and to focus on the scientific facts. Fat chance, but he made his point well and I was cheering him on.

His main antagonist in this programme was the Telegraph writer James Delingpole, who I gather considers himself responsible for breaking the 'Climategate' emails scandal and is still basking in the glory.

Nurse pointed out that climate scientists have reached a consensus about this and asked Delingpole to consider an analogy. If he had cancer, would he accept his doctors' consensus about treatment or reject it in favour of his own opinion. Delingpole was reduced to stunned silence, then looked shiftily at the camera, and eventually embarked on a petulant rant. A dramatic encounter that will be played in a loop in YouTube, and if he wasn't so hugely pleased with himself I could almost have felt sorry for him.

Delingpole is now fighting back biliously on his blog. Nurse, it appeared, had spent three hours on the interview, and had only picked out the bits that made him look stupid. (The other was where Delingpole complained it wasn't his job as a science writer to read peer-reviewed scientific research).

What upset Delingpole so much was Nurse appearing to compare climate change sceptics to devotees of quack medicine. But it was a fair question, I thought, and might equally have been put to an advocate of psi. Surely one should respect the scientific consensus on such things, and the consensus among mainstream scientists is that psi does not and could never exist.

However in the case of psi, one would then point out that this sceptic consensus, although impressively wide, actually applies to scientists who know very little about psi-research and who do not themselves carry it out. Their view is based on a commitment to the materialist model that rules psi out.

On the other hand there is also a consensus among the people who do seek out psychic phenomena wherever it may be found and try to recreate it in controlled conditions. And this consensus is that psi does exist. It's true that in terms of numbers it's far smaller. But in my view quality counts for as much as quantity in this matter: parapsychologists are the experts in their field, as climate change scientists are in their's, and they are the ones we should be listening to.

When it comes to sceptic behaviour the parallels are more obvious. A reader recently pointed out to me this complaint about climate change sceptics, who typically 'raise a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing ...' Almost equally true of psi-sceptics, he remarks. The article goes on:

There is a fundamental asymmetry of forces at work. It is, in fact, easier to form an allegation than to track down a reasonable explanation of what it means and how it really fits in to the balance of evidence. Also, the skills required to reflect the science are deeper than the ones required to attack it; hence the defenders are outnumbered and outgunned.

Nurse thinks the deniers exploit the complexity and uncertainty of the science to raise doubts, and this too is true of psi-research. Just think how the proper interpretation of the statistics, or entities such as psi-missing and the experimenter effect, are exploited by psi-sceptics to cast doubt on its reality.

Then there's the tone, which personally I pay quite a bit of attention to in these debates. I want to see an objective consideration of the facts. Exaggeration, arm-waving, dark claims of conspiracy, are a turn-off. Even allowing for the considerable advantage a programme maker has over his interviewees, the contrast between the reasonable Nurse and the excitable Delingpole was clear, and is even more on display in his furious blog post. To me, an argument studded with complaints about 'eco-fascists' and followers of the 'warmist faith' is not the reasoned judgement of a dispassionate mind but the ventings of an angry obsessive. And the notion that global warming is a ploy cooked up by leftwingers 'for power and control' makes no sense to me at all.

There are exceptions, but a characteristic of professional parapsychologists like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin that has always stood out for me is their resigned tolerance of attacks: a patient and detailed rebuttal of misrepresentations together with a general unwillingness to imitate their opponents by getting verbally snarky. If they did, it would erode my confidence in their arguments.

I know quite a lot about parapsychology. I'm as convinced as I can be that psi is real, and that sceptics are wrong. That conviction comes from my own application over the years and conclusions I have reached in the subject on a host of matters.

By contrast I know practically zilch about global warming. I have to admit, the sceptics could be right and I could be completely wrong. But what I have learned along the way tells me whose judgement I can and cannot trust.

The Fox Sisters Revisited

I've been thinking about poltergeists recently. Not the thing itself, whatever it may or may not be. But the way we relate to the reports.

Most reviewers of Randi's Prize have been very kind, however there was a criticism in a review by a sceptic recently that puzzled me. I'm accused of

a strange naiveté which extends well beyond the paranormal, such that at times you wonder what planet this guy is living on. He cannot believe that the Fox sisters fooled people including their parents for any length of time, or that children could cause the havoc in poltergeist cases and scare adults out of their wits, because he cannot imagine his own children doing that.

He seems to have no grasp of the world of problem children in problem families, where generation after generation after generation of children and adolescents have engaged in vandalism, anti-social behaviour, bullying and manipulation. No doubt it is difficult to imagine that the antics of local children and adolescents can drive adults to suicide, that young children can drop concrete blocks onto motorway traffic or murder toddlers, or that parents might stage the kidnapping of their own children, but these things happen.

Of course they do, but my point was to question how problem children can cause the effects that are described in these poltergeist episodes.  Do their antics include making loud rapping or banging noises in such a way that they appear to come from the walls or furniture? Can they also make furniture and household objects appear to move by themselves? Because these are the specific kinds of activity that characterize so-called poltergeist cases, and they would seem to require, to a high degree, the conjuror's skills of deception, distraction and sleight-of-hand, qualities that we don't normally associate with problem children. 

I went back to have another look at the statements made by Mrs Fox and various neighbours two weeks after the onset of the disturbances in 1848. As far as I know these documents aren't published online, and I'll fix that when I get round to it. In the meantime, here are some excerpts (quoted from EW Capron, Modern Spiritualism, 1855).

Let's hear first from Mrs Fox:

We first heard this noise about a fortnight ago. It sounded like some one knocking in the east bedroom, on the floor. Sometimes it sounded as if a chair moved on the floor; we could hardly tell where it was. This was in the evening, just after we had gone to bed. The whole family slept in the room together, and all heard the noise.

The first night we heard the rapping we all got up, lit a candle, and searched all over the house. The noise continued while we were hunting, and was heard near the same place all the time. It was not very loud, yet it produced a jar of the bedsteads and chairs, that could be felt by placing our hands on the chairs, or while we were in bed.

On Friday night... we went to bed early, because we had been broken so much of our rest that I was almost sick... My husband had gone to bed when we first heard the noise this evening... I knew it from all other noises I had ever heard in the house....

Mrs Fox here describes the episode of the girls clapping and clicking their fingers and finding that the raps respond.  Then:

 My husband went and called Mrs Redfield, our next door neighbour. She is a very candid woman. The girls were then sitting up in bed, somewhat terrified, and clinging to each other. Mrs Redfield came immediately. She came in thinking to joke and laugh at the children; but when she came she saw that we were all amazed like, and that there was something in it.

Many called him that night, who were out fishing in the creek, and they all heard the same noise. The same questions were frequently repeated as others came in, and the same answers were obtained. Some of them stayed here all night. I and my family all left the house but my husband. On the next day the house was filled to overflowing all day. Some said that there were 300 people present at this time. They appointed a committee and many questions were asked.

William Duesler, a neighbour, now appears on the scene:

Mrs Redfield came over to my house to get my wife to go over to Mr. Fox's. Mrs Redfield appeared to be very much agitated. My wife wanted I should go with them, and I accordingly went. When she told us what she wanted us to go over there for, I laughed at her, and ridiculed the idea that there was anything mysterious in it. I told her it was all nonsense, and it could easily be accounted for. This was about nine o'clock in the evening. There were some 12 or 14 persons there when I got there. Some were so frightened that they did not want to go into the room.

Duesler appears to take charge and directs the questioning. This leads to the revelation that the source of the raps was murdered and buried in the cellar,  and they all go to investigate.

Charles Redfield then went down cellar with a candle. I told him to place himself in different parts of the cellar; and as he did so, I asked the question, if the person was over the place where it was buried, and I got no answer and he got over a certain place in the cellar, when it rapped. He then stepped one side, and when I asked the question, there was no noise. This was repeated several times; and we found that whenever he stood over this one place, the rapping was heard, and whenever he moved away from that place there was no answer to my questions.

On Saturday night I went over again, about seven o'clock. The house was full of people when I got there. They said it had been rapping some time. I went into the room. It was rapping in answer to questions when I went in. I went to asking questions, and asked over some of the same ones that I did the night before, and it answered me the same as it did then. I also asked different questions and it answered them... There were as many as 300 people in and around the house at this time I should think.

The singular noise which I and others have heard it is a mystery to me which I am wholly unable to solve. I'm willing to testify under oath that I did not make the noise of the rapping which I and others heard; that I do not know of any person who did or could have made them; but I spent considerable time, since then, in order to satisfy myself as to the cause of it, but cannot account it on any other ground than that it is supernatural.

The noise appeared, when we were in the cellar, to come from the ground. Some thought it was on one side, and some on the other. We could hardly tell what direction it came from. It did not sound like any noise that can be made by rapping or striking, either on the floor, or on the ground. I have since tried to make the same noise in various ways, but never succeeded in imitating it.

Some short statements by other neighbours. Elizabeth Jewel:

I never saw anything before which I could not account for in some way or other. This I am wholly at a loss to account for, unless it be a supernatural appearance. I have been acquainted with Mr. Fox and family some time, and cheerfully certify that I never saw anything in their conduct, or heard anything about them, that would lead me to suppose that they would be guilty of carrying on the trickery in order to deceive the public; on the contrary I've always looked upon them as honest, upright people, and good neighbours.

Lorren Tenney:

I have no doubt that what Mr. Fox and family are honest, and will tell the truth about this matter. It makes a great deal of trouble for Mr. Fox and his family. They are thronged with visitors, and broken their rest. The house has been searched from top to bottom, and nothing found that could make the noise. I did not go there believing that there was anything in it; but supposed that was some trickery or deception.

James Bridges:

I cannot in any way imagine how these noises can be made by any human means. If it had been heard but on one or two occasions, I should not think such a mystery, but should be satisfied that someone was cutting up a caper, in order to alarm Mr. Fox's people. But now I think that is impossible.

Mrs Fox concludes:

I'm not a believer in haunted houses or supernatural appearances. I'm very sorry there's been so much excitement about it. It has been a great deal of trouble to us. It was our misfortune to live here at this time; but I am willing and anxious that the truth should be known, and that a true statement should be made. I cannot account for these noises; all I know is that they have been heard repeatedly, as I have stated.

Her husband adds:

I do not know in what way to account for these noises being caused by natural means. We have searched in every nook and corner in and about the house, at different times, to ascertain, if possible, whether anything or anybody was secreted there that could make the noise; and have never been able to find anything that explained the mystery. It has caused a great deal of trouble and anxiety. Hundreds have visited the house, so that it is impossible to attend to our daily occupations; and I hope, whether it be natural or supernatural, the means will soon be found out.

Too bad these people weren't around forty years later to hear how they had been fooled. According to Margaret Fox, making her famous 'confession':

At night, when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She could not understand it and did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young.

As far as I can gather, that's pretty much it. Apples tied to string. 

It's true that Margaret in her confessional statement also talks about making the raps with the knuckles, joints and toes, but this was only afterwards, when they were taken by their elder sister to the nearby town of Rochester. During the initial outbreak there could have been no time to switch to the more sophisticated method, which in any case Margaret says required quite a bit of practice. 

I'm struck by the fact that the girls hardly appear in these witness statements at all. There's a mention of two girls (unidentified) in the cellar, where the action had shifted, so presumably there were in the thick of it.  And I suppose the fact of their presence can be held to support the theory that they were also creating the noises. But try as I might, I can't see how all these people could be so seriously bothered and bewildered by two young girls bumping apples tied to string on the floor.

There's also the question of the girls' ages, which I discussed in Randi's Prize.  In her confession, Margaret makes a big deal about the fact that they were such young children ('I was eight, and just a year and a half older than she'). By her account this had three consequences: one, their mother did not suspect them of playing a trick; two, they did not see how wrong it was play tricks; and three, they had the flexibility required to train themselves to make rapping noises with their feet.  Yet their mother's statement, made shortly after the event, has them as fourteen and twelve.  I think we can join up the dots.

In parenthesis, I recently came across this short 2008 article by a historian, which references contemporary census information, and which of course I would have cited if I'd been aware of it. From this it appears that over the years the two women had been revising their ages downwards, to the point where Margaret stated, two years before her confession:

When Spiritualism first originated at Hydesville, Wayne County, in 1848, we were little children, and have no recollection of the events said to have occurred at that early period."

No recollection at all... 

There's an issue of trust here. The confession statement looks tricksy to me. On the other hand I'd still maintain that parents really do understand their children, their characters and what they are and aren't capable of. Certainly in a context like this. 

And again, as I discussed in my book, these events correlate quite closely with a number of other similar episodes of unexplained noises that witnesses describe as 'raps', 'knocks', 'bangings' - often appearing to have an intelligent source.  (See here for my description of a 1974 case bearing close similarities to the Fox episode.) Another reason, surely, for taking the witness testimony seriously.

Preposterous and unbelievable? Of course, but there's no reason why we shouldn't get to grips with this problem. There's a lot of documented material out there.  I agree that it requires a high degree of tolerance of mystery, which by definition is problematic for sceptics. The review I mentioned at the beginning of this piece concludes as follows:

What paranormal advocates have to understand is not only do they have to provide repeatable experiments or observations and provide a theory which clearly explains (in mathematical terms if not everyday language) what exactly is going on in these anomalous events/experiences, but also that theory also has to explain, at least as well, and preferably better, all known, normal phenomena as well.

Sure, I'd love to see these things neatly explained, but I suspect it's not going to happen at all soon.  This isn't a nice tidy world, it's the world we just happen to live in, and we have to try to make sense of it. However we can't do it all at once. Having the clarity to recognize anomalies when they occur, and the courage to grapple with them, is a necessary first step.

It's Madness - Madness I Tell You!

I'm enjoying the media furor about Daryl Bem's recent psi-research.  It's always entertaining to see scientists getting hot and bothered about parapsychology. 

Bem, a highly-regarded Cornell University psychology professor, has described nine experiments that he carried out over the past eight years.  The one that attracted the most attention involved getting students to look at a computer screen that showed two curtains and to guess which one had an erotic image behind it. In fact both spaces were blank, and the image was randomly assigned by the computer after the subject had guessed. Bem says that volunteers showed a slight tendency to identify the space with the 'rewarding' sexy picture, by a margin of 53%. In trials where the picture held no particular interest the results were the 50% expected by chance.

Another gave a spin to a classic memory test, in which subjects are given a list of words and asked to identify a suitable category for half of them (if the word was 'tiger' the category would be 'animal', for instance). Tested on their recall later, subjects are more likely to remember the words they categorized. In Bem's version, the process was reversed, so that subjects first tried to recall words, and only afterwards carried out the categorization element. But the words they picked to categorize tended towards those that they had earlier been able to recall. Bem suggests that this shows that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, 'reach back in time' to facilitate the recall of those words.

In a parapsychology journal the report might not have attracted much notice. But it has been accepted for publication in the mainstream Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which makes it earth-shattering, apparently. 

A New York Times piece last week appeared to be on the verge of panic.  It said scientists were 'mortified' and quoted Ray Hyman saying. "It's craziness, pure craziness. I can't believe a major journal is allowing this work in. I think it's just an embarrassment for the entire field.' Hyman thought Bem might be carrying out a practical joke. In the comments thread others agreed: perhaps the prank had a purpose, to expose the shortcomings of his own discipline.

The problem is that Bem is not your garden-variety ghost-hunting whacko. He's a senior psychologist, top of his field. His work is in all the textbooks. He wrote the textbooks, for God's sake! What's he doing advocating this ESP nonsense? 

Some think the publication itself is overrated, but that doesn't really work either: journalists describe it as one of psychology's flagship journals. Others say the magazine knows nothing about statistics...oops, its editor, Charles Judd, is said to be one of the world's leading stats experts. So sceptics are anxiously looking for other explanations, for instance appealing to Occam's Razor and/or Randi's prize - 'if the shrink wins I'll believe it'.  Or instant dismissal: 'This study is junk' (from the noted philosopher of science The Amazing Kreskin). 

Two approaches in particular offer possibilities. One is the familiar 'experimental flaws' ploy which Ray Hyman pioneered in the 1980s, and which has become the standard CSI(COP) response. James Alcock has used it to make the prosecution case in the Skeptical Inquirer, quite effectively, I thought. Bem's work was extended over many years and was subject to frequent revision, which makes it easy to bury in a mass of complaints about procedural 'messiness'.

In fact here the professional sceptics are being upstaged by conservative statisticians, who it appears have an axe to grind with the ways statistics are used in the social sciences and medicine. Their idea is that the threshold of significance in experiments in these disciplines is far too generous, with the result that all kinds of unlikely claims are validated. They argue instead for the use of Bayesean methods, after the eighteenth century mathematician Thomas Bayes, who wanted the numbers to be weighted to take account of what was observable in the outside world. If the claim that the stats seemed to validate are inherently unlikely, then they should be downgraded accordingly.

In the past, statistics hasn't been the most successful area of attack against parapsychology.  Statisticians themselves have been among its most vocal supporters, beating off complaints about improper statistical analysis. There's a lot of uninformed pontificating, as in this comment from the NYT thread:

What people apparently don't want to realize is that the laws of probability absolutely require you to take all prior information (i.e. results of past experiments) into account. The very, very vast majority of past ESP experiments has produced negative results. If you conduct thousands of ESP experiments, you are virtually certain to obtain extraordinary results once in a while, but picking out the "winners" is unsound and unscientific.

Well it would be if that's what's going on, but parapsychologists insist this so-called 'file drawer' problem is a myth, and even the professional debunkers aren't seriously pursuing it. But then you'd need to take an interest to know that.

However this looks to be a bit different, as the sceptics here are arguing not that the method has been wrongly applied, but that a different method is required altogether. Some statisticians have apparently been campaigning about this for years, with regard to the social sciences, and this controversy is a perfect opportunity for them to press their point.  There have been a couple of rebuttals of Bem's findings along these lines (here and here).

But really, is it that different from anything else that sceptics have complained about over the years? For you don't have to be a mathematician to see the problem with applying Bayesian techniques. It's not just that the whole notion of weighting the numbers to allow for inherent unlikeliness is suspect, it's the specific factors that the Bayesians identify as relevant are so arbitrary: No mechanistic theory for precognition and no idea of how brain processes could produce it. If it's true, the world should be full of powerful psychics, but it isn't. There's no real-life evidence that people can feel the future. No one has won Randi's prize. 

These are all loaded with assumptions about what should be the case, and exhibit a complete ignorance of the data that describes the phenomenon, as it appears in real-life situations.  So using them to weight a statistical experiment is pointless, like carefully measuring out the ingredients for a cake, and then adding random handfuls of flour, sugar and flavouring until the result 'feels right'. 

What it all seems to boil down to is the complaint that the margin of significance is insufficient to support the claim. In practice that's what sceptics feel anyway, otherwise we wouldn't be arguing about it any more. All this does it give their gut-rejection a veneer of scientific respectability.

It's certainly true that the effect size in Bem's experiments is quite small, as it is in parapsychology generally. A lot here has to do with the size of the sample. An average 51% result where 50% is the chance mean is taken to be significant in psychokinesis studies, for instance, only because huge numbers of trials are involved.  And it's widely recognised that the effect sizes reported by parapsychology are as great or greater than, for instance, the link between aspirin and heart attack prevention, calcium intake and bone mass, second hand smoke and lung cancer, and condom use and HIV prevention - none of which are especially controversial. So in theory, there's a case to answer from Bem's work.

As it happens, I don't think these experiments alone provide particularly good evidence of psi, but they do confirm a long-established trend in parapsychology. More to the point, they offer a new experimental approach, which I guess is what Bem is more concerned with than making grand claims about psi's existence. Like Rupert Sheldrake's staring experiment, it's quite easy to do and he wants others to try it. Apparently there have been three failed replication attempts, so far, which has given heart to sceptics, but for Bem it's still early days.

I'd be interested to hear what statisticians like Jessica Utts, for instance, have to say about the Bayesian critics, and it will be interesting to see how the controversy pans out. For the moment it seems clear that the sceptics have a new argument to run with - the NYT in particular is keen to push it, as in this follow-up piece a couple of days ago.

All this aside, I'm encouraged by the responses the Bem debate has been throwing up.  The comments thread on the first NYT piece contained the usual snarky responses, but there were also a number of thoughtful ones. Quite a few urged that it's the job of science to investigate, not to suppress or make a priori assumptions. Some recognized quantum entanglement effects validate the possibility of psi and others described their own experiences, rebutting claims that there's no real-life experience of it.

And a lot of the Internet coverage has been informed and positive, eg this Huffington Post article. Psychologists in the past have been fiercely critical but these two pieces in Psychology Today are informed and interested (here and here). My sense is there are plenty of professionals out there in the scientific mainstream who take parapsychology seriously, and who won't take the sceptical brouhaha completely at face value.

John Gray on Immortality

Straw dogs One of the most unusual books I've ever read is John Gray's Straw Dogs, a rant against secular humanism. Many CSICOP-type sceptics consider themselves to be humanists, and since sceptics can be such a pain in the ass it got my attention.

It's actually not atheism that annoys Gray, it's the belief in progress, that humans will inevitably go onwards and upwards to make a better world. Rubbish, he thinks: the notion of eternal progress is a ridiculous illusion. As the dominant lifeform, all humans are good for is exploiting all the others, which we're doing to the verge of extinction. We're destroyers, not improvers or creators.

More than that, the humanistic belief in the power of technology to bring ever greater progress is a quasi-religious ideology, Gray insists, a hangover from Christianity, just without God and afterlife. It's something we need to grow out of.  He ends by saying, 'Why can't we be just be content to be?'

In the same spirit, Gray is now gunning for the continuing obsession with immortality (mainly the secular, not the religious kind).  In Saturday's Guardian review he had a big piece trailing a new book coming out at the end of this month: The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. In it he talks about Frederic Myers, Henry Sidgwick and other nineteenth century psychic researchers, then goes on to discuss the Russian communists obsession with embalming Lenin, HG Wells's scientific utopianism and Ray Kurzweil's way-out ideas about thinking machines.  The intro reads:

How do we deal with a purposeless universe and the finality of death? From Victorian séances to the  embalming of Lenin's corpse to schemes for uploading our minds into cyberspace, there have been numerous attempts to deny man's mortality. Why can't we accept the limits of science?

But what are the limits of science?  As Chris Carter has admirably pointed out in both his books, the conservative science that denies the reality of psi is firmly wedded to the kind of classical physics that quantum physicists believe no longer provides an adequate description of reality.  Myers, Sidgwick and the others - with their studies of telepathy, mediums, apparitions and other spontaneous psi phenomena - helped build a body of data which leaves this worldview seriously compromised.

Immortalization But that's invisible to those like Gray who live inside it and have complete faith in its validity.  Inevitably, he follows the consensus among British intellectuals that Myers and his colleagues were sad individuals, their wits addled by the impact of Darwinism, desperately searching for hope and meaning in a world becoming devoid of either. Scientific curiosity is never considered an adequate motive: it's always personal. So Gray depicts Myers as being driven by the tragic suicide of a woman he was in love with, leading him to spend the rest of his life visiting mediums, which makes him sound utterly banal.

Perhaps I should wait to read the book before passing judgment. It may be that Gray really has considered what Myers actually thought and wrote. But I'd be surprised: secular writers prefer to see him as a quasi-fictional character in their own narrative.

Take the case of Janet Oppenheim, who considers Myers, Sidgwick, Hodgson and others at some length in her book The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. She brushes away their conclusions as obviously confused and wrong yet hardly at all examines the route they took to reach them.  It's extraordinary to watch. Yet when, as if by accident, the implications of the research penetrate her brain, she's impressed, despite herself. About the cross correspondences she thinks it's extraordinary that all these different mediums could have produced messages, some in different parts of the world, that closely related to each other.  Yes Janet, exactly: this was what psychic researchers found so fascinating, and what motivated them to pursue this kind of thing. But Oppenheim never makes the connection, she can't see the point. 

Typically Gray too repeats the claim that the cross-correspondences indicates the reality of survival of consciousness after death, but without - here at least - even trying to assess its validity.  (I shall be interested to see if he goes any further in his book). He quickly goes on to describe the Willett-Balfour affair, in which researcher Gerald Balfour, brother of the former conservative prime minister, had a secret love child with 'Mrs Willett', one of the mediums who was producing the cross correspondences, allegedly 'designed' by dead scientists trying to fashion a new Messiah (a farcical story described by Archie Roy in The Eager Dead).   And of course as long as psychic research is conflated with this sort of dotty, flamboyant spiritualism it will never be taken seriously.

What I liked about Straw Dogs - as a literary work, at least - is that it offered a vision of living without illusions.  Of understanding what reality is, and living by that. I didn't actually believe its core idea  - how can humans survive without illusions, the belief in a better tomorrow? - but I admired its coruscating clarity. 

Here I agree with Gray that these graspings for immortality substitutes - downloading our minds to mechanical robots, or finding ways to make the biological organism last practically for ever - are banal distractions.  But obviously for quite different reasons: If consciousness and personality survive the death of the body then it's our minds and spirits we should be tending to here, not worrying about the package that they come in.

What Straw Dogs doesn't really make clear, as this new book seems to, is how deeply wedded Gray's vision remains to an ideology which itself faces all kinds of challenges, not least from people like Myers who he so glibly dismisses.  I thought of him as a free spirit, but this rather locates him firmly as adherent of scientism. 

'Why can't we accept the limits of science?' If history teaches us anything, it's that the limits of science are constantly being pushed beyond what humans can easily conceive of. That's the challenge we face, trying to keep up with reality, not learning how to passively accept it.

Wiseman on the Paranormal

Richard Wiseman has a new book coming out in early March, and I've just pre-ordered it on Amazon.  It's  called Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there.  Here's the publisher's blurb:

For the past twenty years, psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman has immersed himself in the weird world of supernatural science; testing telepaths, spending nights in haunted castles, and attempting to talk with the dead.

In Paranormality he cuts through the hype and goes in search of the truth behind extraordinary stories of poltergeists, possession and second sight. And along the way, he shows us some really rather remarkable things about how our brains work, how it is possible to have an out-of-body experience or lucid dream of our own, and just why we feel the need to believe.

The title echoes Thomas Gilovich's How We Know What Isn't So, and I expect it will be in the same vein of books by psychologists pointing out faulty reasoning in daily life (of which there are now any number).   But where Gilovich has little of interest to say about the paranormal - his chapter on it just repeats potted debunkings - Wiseman knows quite a bit about it. In some ways he's the most interesting of the high profile sceptics: personally pleasant and genuinely interested in the subject. Surprisingly he still sometimes to be seen giving presentations to the Society for Psychical Research, and there aren't many sceptics you can say that about. 

So in theory we ought to see some interesting insights.  My guess is Wiseman will avoid being strident, and 31mu98vGViL._SL500_AA300_won't insist that his explanations rule out 'some small psychic effect', as he suggested in the Jaytee 'psychic dog' affair.  However given the direction of his views and activities in this area, I'd be surprised if this was more than a token gesture. The implication readers will be left with will surely be that psychic effects are all in the mind; the paranormal is not to be taken seriously.

In that sense, this will surely differ from his other pop-psychology/self-help books in that its basic premise is strongly contested. Its arguments will be susceptible to public refutation. That's especially the case if he describes his own adventures in Paranormal Land, as he can hardly avoid doing: Jaytee, the sense of being stared at, Victorian seances, Natasha Demkina, etc, all of which were controversial.  How far will he go in presenting his findings as the dominant truth? Will he acknowledge other points of view? Will he rehearse his public spat with Rupert Sheldrake, and what spin will he put on it?

Finally, are we going to see lightweight musings or a heavyweight addition to the sceptical literature. An interesting event, whichever way it turns out.

Common Sense

A reader sent me this rather good quote, from one of GK Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries.

It's what I call common sense, properly understood,' replied Father Brown. 'It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it's only incredible. But I'm much more certain it didn't happen than that Parnell's ghost didn't appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand ...

This perfectly expresses an idea I've long been trying to articulate, but never quite nailed. It's that dichotomy between two quite different spheres: the metaphysical and the mundane.

Those of us who take psychic episodes seriously blanche at the contortions involved in 'normal' explanations. It's much easier for us to make adjustments on the metaphysical level, our idea of what this world is actually all about.

For sceptics it's the opposite. They can't stomach the stretching of metaphysical boundaries that psychic claims seem to demand. But they have no qualms at all about extending the boundaries of the possible in the everyday world - to an extent that make the rest of us gasp. 

This came to mind while I was discussing the Pam Reynolds NDE case in my most recent post. I can imagine that she might have entered an out-of-body state, an astral, a spirit world - call it what you will - to accommodate the fact that she accurately described the scene around her inert, unconscious body.  It doesn't bother me. I can work with that stuff in my imagination.

I absolutely can't see her construing the details from noise and chit-chat around her¸her anesthetic having unaccountable failed and her hearing unimpaired by the loud noises going off constantly in her ears.  Just can't.

Other examples. In a séance with Eusapia Palladino the psychologist Hugo Munsterberg felt, as did other sitters, pinches by an invisible hand on his upper arms. His explanation? That she artfully created this impression using her unshod foot. Now look: this woman is short, stout, middle-aged, and she's wearing an ankle-length dress.  Also, she's sitting right beside him. So I can't make that one work either.   I know the idea of disembodied spirits is difficult, but if we have to go there...

Then there's C.E.M. Hansel's 'explanation' of the Pratt-Pearce ESP experiments at Duke.  The one that involves a theology student, supposedly sitting in a library downstairs identifying cards as the experimenter turns them over in his office, actually nipping back upstairs, unseen by passing students, teachers, janitors, etc,  and either standing in the corridor peeking through a glass window, or clambering into a loft and getting a bird's eye view through a conveniently placed trap-door.

Or James Randi's 'debunking' - as his followers believe it to be - of Uri Geller at the Stanford Research Institute.  The hole at waist level in the wall of the isolation booth that Geller allegedly used to sneak a peek at the drawings outside that he successfully identified.  (According to David Scott Rogo, who went to check, the hole was actually at floor level. So Geller would only have benefited if he had been asked to divine the colour of the experimenters' socks.)

The point is, I don't feel qualified to pronounce on the limits of the possible in terms of what this world is and how it's made. I might do if I had absolute faith that humans, just now, at the very moment that I happen to be alive, have got to the bottom of the mysteries that have puzzled them ever since they started to reason. Finished the job, so to speak.  It's tempting to believe that, and a lot of the time I think we often do. But if you really start to ponder it, it doesn't seem all that likely. 

On the other hand I do feel comfortable about assessing the limits of the possible in every-day matters.  I don't think that scientists and investigators - or practically anyone, for that matter - are capable of the heroic levels of stupidity and gullibility needed to explain away some of the things they have witnessed and described. Or that short, fat women are covert contortionists. Or that mixed-up teenagers in poltergeist cases are actually covert conjurers. And so on. I just don't buy it.

None of this is scientific  - on the contrary, it's entirely subjective. But like it or not, it's the basis upon which many of us base our beliefs about these things.  And really, is there anything wrong with that? Because a lot of them don't lend themselves easily to scientific measurement. They have to be investigated, and understood through the application of ordinary common sense. 

Not the kind of common sense that we apply to the external world, about which we are routinely mistaken (the world is flat, heavy objects fall faster than light ones, and so on).  But common sense about the limits of human capabilities, about which we are surely well qualified to judge.

New Year Giveaway!

The response to the free ebook promotion for Randis' Prize has been excellent and I want to keep it going for a bit longer. So the Christmas giveaway has now become a New Year giveaway!

Just send me an email with 'e-book' in the subject heading, then your name, your city (or county or state) and country, and whether it's for reading on a Kindle or iPad or whatever, and I'll attach the appropriate file. The address is

If you don't have an e-reader, you can read it on a PC or Mac via Adobe Digital Editions. It's free to download and takes about a minute. ADE reads the epub format. Just click on the file and it should open automatically.

The point of the promotion is to help publicise the book, so do talk it up if you get a chance, mention it on Facebook, etc.

You might also consider writing a short review for Amazon. It doesn't have to be long - just one or two paragraphs. You don't have to have bought it from Amazon - the more interest there is the more books they sell.

And send me your feedback if you like. I'll be discussing points that arise here and on

All the best to everyone for 2011.

Book Review: Science and the Near-Death Experience - How Consciousness Survives Death

I started Chris Carter's new book on near-death experiences some months ago, and got half-way through before events forced me to stop. Frustrating not to be able to write about it then, and I'm guessing that most Paranormalia readers will by now be well familiar with it from reviews elsewhere. But here are my thoughts, for what they're worth. 

Carter's previous book Parapsychology and the Skeptics was a welcome attempt to redress the balance against the decidedly uncritical criticisms made by some high-profile sceptics. (My review is here).  It was deservedly well-received, not least by parapsychologists who are at the receiving end of their assaults. Having an interest in this area myself I've long felt that parapsychology needed to speak up for itself a bit more firmly.  Of course psi-researchers and their supporters complain about the way their work is trivialised and misrepresented. But there's a need for people outside the field to assess the arguments and clarify the issues for a wider public. In that regard I'd say the expectations raised by Carter's earlier book have been exceeded here.

Carter first clear away some conceptual difficulties with survival of consciousness, specifically the proposition - accepted by the great majority of scientists and intellectuals today - that the mind is a product solely of brain functions. 

I've often wondered at the insistence on this. Experiences with mescaline in my student days - including trips that turned out a lot more intense than I'd anticipated - brought home to me just how very particular our every-day consciousness actually is. As I later discovered, this was the insight that William James arrived at after experimenting with nitrous oxide: consciousness comes in different guises, and what we humans experience could well be just one of them. His conclusion - shared by thinkers like Ferdinand Schiller, Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley - was that the brain does not create consciousness from scratch but filters and regulates that great Consciousness out there - Mind at Large, Huxley called it - to a form that works for human needs.  

To me this seemed to fit with evidence that impairments to the brain - epilepsy and schizophrenia, just to take two examples - are often the source of mystical or religious feelings, not to mention the effects of hallucinogens themselves.   Of course the materialist view of the mind-brain problem is dominant for all sorts of reasons, but I was puzzled how little consideration this alternative 'transmission' view of consciousness receives. It's hardly discussed anywhere; the publication of the Kellys' Irreducible Mind recently was the first time I had seen it given serious consideration. So it's good to see Carter focusing on it so fully, and exposing the theoretical difficulties with the 'production' model.

Carter is good at exposing the logical fallacy of materialist philosophers assuming a functional dependence of consciousness on the brain that in fact has never and nowhere been demonstrated. I especially appreciated his dismantling of Paul Edwards's argument relating to Alzheimer's.  Edwards insists, on the basis of observing a friend with the disease, that the implications of the survivalist position is that inside she remained her normal self, but was simply unable to express it. As Carter firmly points out this is a 'crude caricature', and when Edwards suggests it is 'perfectly natural' to argue that a person's mind has deteriorated with age, the correct response is that all sorts of observations that once seemed 'perfectly natural' in fact turned out to be wildly mistaken (for instance the proposition that the sun goes round the earth).

'It is testimony to the desperation of the materialists and the weakness of their case,' Carter suggests, 'that one of the strongest arguments Edwards can invoke for his cause is that "the annihilation theory is completely consistent" with what he feels it is "perfectly natural to say."

I was also glad to see Carter's exposition of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield's work, again tackling the objections of Edwards along the way. In operations aimed at curing epilepsy Penfield discovered that electrical stimulation of certain areas of the cortex would produce in the patient very lively and detailed memories.  Sceptics have sometimes produced this as evidence that the panoramic flashbacks reported by near-death experiencers are the effect of the dying brain - the memories being lodged in the brain tissue.  But Penfield himself eventually decided that these sorts of investigative methods provided no good evidence that the brain alone can carry out the work of the mind, and he became personally convinced that it does not. 

Carter then dives into the history of science, describing the development of classical physics, to which he sees the scientific establishment still firmly wedded while it largely ignores the implications of modern quantum mechanics.

The point here is to demonstrate that quantum theory provides a potential gateway to viewing the brain as interacting with an external source of mind. Again, it's good to see this subject grasped in a philosophical analysis so firmly and authoritatively, as it's one that few parapsychologists - Dean Radin is a notable exception - have much concerned themselves with. (In conversation with the late Bob Morris, head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University, I once mentioned that I intended to get to grips with the arguments of Evan Harris Walker. 'Good luck with that!' was Bob's curt response.)

Walker makes an appearance here, as does the quantum physicist Henry Stapp, who has remarked:

The only objections I know to applying the basic principles of orthodox contemporary physics to brain dynamics are, first, the forcefully expressed opinions of some non-physicists that the classical approximation provides an entirely adequate foundation for understanding mind-brain dynamics, in spite of quantum calculations that indicate just the opposite; and second, the opinions of some conservative physicists, who, apparently for philosophical reasons, contend that the successful orthodox quantum theory, which is intrinsically dualistic, should be replaced by a theory that re-converts human consciousness into a causally inert witness to the mindless dance of atoms, as it was in 1900. Neither of these opinions has any rational basis in contemporary science.

It was good, too, to see Carter tackling Daniel Dennett, whose book Consciousness Explained has been hugely influential in reinforcing the materialist conception of mind and brain recently, as Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind was back in the 1950s. Dennett, it appears, offered a hostage to fortune in basing his rejection on dualism firmly on the apparent violation of the principle of conservation of energy.  Henry Stapp brushes this aside, pointing out that the Dennett is basing his argument on classical physics, and that the objection disappears in contemporary physics. 'Contemporary physical theory allows, and its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism that is fully in accord with all the laws of physics,' Stapp insists - a message that Carter's quite full analysis drives home.

The second part of the book gets down to the NDE research. It capably describes the phenomenon with full reference to specific cases, identifies the challenges to orthodox scientific thinking and picks off the sceptical objections. I particularly appreciated Carter's skewering of research by Michael Persinger that purports to show most of the NDE features being artificially created by means of electromagnetic stimulation. I have long wondered at the ability of sceptics to see in these rather weak phenomena a significant and illuminating parallel to the far more dramatic reports made by near-death experiencers, showing as they do little or nothing of the latters' clarity, intensity and transformative effect.

Carter reproduces Persinger's own table of effects, which - with sensations of dizziness, tingling and vibrations, all more or less absent from NDE research, topping the list - shows how unwarranted the comparison actually is. Yet more interesting is the failure of a Swedish team to replicate his findings. Even using his own equipment it found no effect whatsoever; suggestible subjects reported strange experiences whether or not they were actually receiving a current.  The study surely deserves to be quoted by sceptics in their discussions of 'pathological science' along with landmark examples such as Blondlot's mythical N-Rays, although I somehow doubt that it will be.

I wondered whether Carter would respond to the recent cavils of NDE sceptics who creatively come up with loopholes that subvert the conclusions of dedicated researchers without really explaining anything (for a typically tetchy discussion see this comments thread on Paranormalia.) I think he is wise to pay them no particular attention. Instead he provides very full descriptions of key arguments and cases and addresses the key objections, leaving it up to us as readers and observers to judge the validity or otherwise of sceptical nit-picking.

Personally, I'd find it hard - after reading his very full account of the celebrated Pam Reynolds's case, for instance - to sympathise with the argument that a woman in surgery, anesthetized and unconscious, her eyes taped shut, micro-speakers in her ears emitting a stream of clicks at 100 decibels, could accurately have described the instrument with which her skull was being sawed open (apparently from an out-of-body perspective), by means of 'hearing and background knowledge, perhaps coupled with the reconstruction of memory'. This sort of thing leaves one thinking that the determined sceptic can believe absolutely anything.

Two qualities stand out in this treatment: clarity and confidence. The clarity with which some quite difficult philosophical and scientific concepts are elucidated, and their relevance demonstrated, and the confidence with which the challenges of sceptics are confronted and answered. As I think has been said by other people, I wish Carter's books had been around when I first started trying to figure out this stuff.  It's not that there aren't some great books around, but to the beginner especially, the dismissals of sceptics and the absolute certainty with which they are expressed - NDEs are obviously "hallucinatory wishful-thinking experiences" and so on - can create a great deal of confusion.  It needs a strong logical mind with a good grasp of the totality of the research to provide proper guidance.

As to whether the phenomenon provides proof of survival of death, this is more implied than actually stated. In the absence of alternative candidates - the sceptics' counter-explanations having been examined and rejected - survival does seem all-but-certain. However more detail specific to this subject will doubtless be provided in Carter's third and final book of the series, which will deal with children's memories of a previous life, apparitions and channelled communications. These offer all sorts of challenges, and it will be fascinating to see Carter's take on them.