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.