Book Review: Witnessing the Impossible, by Robin Foy
It's Not About the Money

Denier Movements

I wrote a while ago about Debating Psychic Experience, a compilation of pro and anti essays, mainly in terms of Chris Carter engaging with sceptics Ray Hyman and James Alcock. I'm writing a review of the book for a journal now, and thought I'd have a look at couple of the other essays here (in separate posts).

One that struck me especially is by remote viewing expert Stephan A. Schwartz. Schwartz writes about something that I've been thinking a lot about recently, the way that psi relates to other controversial topics such as evolution and climate change (I touched on it here). His piece is titled The Antique Roadshow: How Denier Movements Critique Evolution, Climate Change, and Nonlocal Consciousness.

Schwartz complains about the lamentable effects of denier movements. Although creationism seems 'medieval and absurd', thanks to the efforts of well-funded religious organisations it's widely believed in the US (as, alas, it is increasingly in Britain). A 2008 Pew poll reports that no fewer than 55% of Americans believe the world was created in the last 10,000 years, with all species pretty much as they are today, and that the numbers have been steadily increasing over the past decade. Similarly, climate change deniers have been obstructing the development of rational policies to deal with what the best scientific research says is happening with our climate, with possibly fatal consequences.

The impact of consciousness-deniers, as Schwartz calls them, is less understood. But he argues this too has 'a very direct social consequence'. For the nonlocal aspect of consciousness 'may very well account for the insight of genius, for religious epiphany, as well as for psychic experiences'.

In an age when the acquisition and analysis of information as well as the fostering of innovation that produces breakthroughs will be critical determinants of societal success, learning how individuals make intuitive leaps that change the game is no small matter. More profoundly these studies, the collective product of multiple disciplines, are beginning to describe how consciousness and matter interact. Collectively they are defining a new paradigms.

Schwartz suggests that these three denier movements all share certain things in common. For instance, they make a point of defining themselves a sceptics but aren't really: it's an absence of doubt that defines their positions. Then, too, they are essentially there to defend a cherished paradigms slowly moving into crisis, just as described by Thomas Kuhn.

He gives examples of how all three movements are able to distort the science in order to influence policy-makers. The frauds are biggest and most complex in climate change denial, Schwartz says, carefully filtered through a network of denier institutes and think tanks. (Why is it oil companies that pour so much money into debunking global warming science? Does one even have to ask?) He describes the example of a climate denier Sceptics Handbook, that was created and funded by oil interests, including $676,000 from Exxon Mobil, and 150,000 copies distributed to opinion-makers across the US, largely neutralising the US government's parallel attempt to educate the public about climate change science.

The creationist lobby used its political influence over the Bush administration to stop the Grand Canyon National Park providing an official estimate of the geologic age of the canyon - to avoid offending religious interests. Far more serious is the effect it is having in classrooms, where children are increasingly being told that evolution science is no more than a theory and on a par with Old Testament twaddle.

On 'consciousness-denial', Schwartz describes with some relish the scandal surrounding the CSICOP's attempt to manipulate astrology data at the time of its founding, 'a comedy of incompetence, bombast, and a commitment to denial so powerful it overturned good sense and ethics, until the deniers were thoroughly tarred for their unscientific disdain of experimental evidence and integrity.' He also fingers Ray Hyman, who by the time he and Jessica Utts had examined the sample of remote viewing data provided by the US military's Star Gate program in the mid 1990s, was conceding that the experimental flaws that he had argued nullified previous research had disappeared. The effect sizes, he accepted, 'are too large and consistent to be dismissed as statistical flukes'. Yet seven years later he was still dissing remote viewing as if nothing at all had been agreed ('I didn't see any science at all, any evidence they got anything right other than pure guesswork').

Schwartz's essay is a bracing and passionate denunciation of the distortion of science and its consequences. But how close are the parallels between the three, and is it appropriate to conflate them?

In my book Randi's Prize I've briefly touched on creationism in the context of psi-denial. Obviously religious fundamentalists and secularist scientists are unlikely bedfellows, unless one wants to characterise the latter as 'fundamentalist' in their adherence to scientism. Personally I wouldn't want to go that far, but I think the comparison is fair, if only to demonstrate that the opposite pairing, of creationism and parapsychology, which tends to be held by sceptical scientists, is false. The data-bank that supports creationism is virtually non-existent compared to evolution science. The data that supports psi, on the other hand, if not conclusive to sceptics, is at least voluminous and well-established.

On climate change, as I understand it, the controversy mainly centres on disagreement about the use of computer modelling for predictions of future weather patterns. I accept that there may be uncertainty about the extent and nature of the likely problems. But given the enormous intrusion of human activity on the planet's ecosystems I fail to see the justification for ignoring scientific warnings and carrying on as if there was nothing at all to be concerned about. Watching über-sceptic Lord Monkton on Rupert Murray's BBC film last week scratch around for rocks that would somehow wreck the case for man-made global warming seemed laughably trivial, and so exactly how creationists behave.

I have no data to back this up, but I suspect that the people who think the world was created a few thousand years ago in all its diverse glory tend often to be the same sort of folk who think that climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by liberals and 'eco-fascists' to impose a global tyranny. Murray filmed the same spluttering media blowhards who back the Tea Party movement getting apoplectic about claims of man-made global warming: it's the threat of extra taxes and constraints to individual freedoms they're bothered about. That's their religion. The idea that science might have something important to say about the planet we all call home, or that some kind of adaptation might be necessary and sensible, just doesn't come into it.

When it comes to consciousness I have a few qualifications. To begin with, I'm not sure about the term 'consciousness-denier'. Sceptics no longer deny that humans are conscious, as they did in the last century, they just say they can explain consciousness within the materialist paradigm. It's claims of psychic functioning which threaten this paradigm that they deny, so strictly speaking they are psi-deniers. I can see that for rhetorical purposes 'consciousness-denier' is a more emotive term than 'psi-denier', as many people are probably unfamiliar with the term 'psi', but perhaps for that reason alone we should be wary of it.

For there's the question of who psi-deniers are. Creationists deny established science on an epic scale, and it's hard to believe that many thinking people subscribe to it. (I'm sure there are notable exceptions, but that's surely what they are). Psi-denial, by contrast, is led by the scientific establishment, which has sound scientific and philosophical arguments for doubting the reality of psi, whether or not we agree with them. Those of us who act as advocates just have to get better at confronting their objections, which ideally should relate to the data. I'm not convinced that bracketing them with Creationists and climate change sceptics is the way to get their attention and overcome their doubts.

I also have a comment about the way Schwartz identifies the negative consequences of consciousness-denial, to use his term. It's clear that creationism in classrooms could have a profoundly negative effect on education, while the antics of the climate change lobby could quite literally be the cause of humanity eventually frying to cinders. These are clear and present dangers and need to be combated. Is psi-denial in quite the same category? The way sceptics obstruct the emergence of a new paradigm can be frustrating to those who already in a certain sense accept it. But this discomfort is surely just part of the process, the birthpangs so to speak; they're surely not going to stop it happening

Ideally it might happen now, of course. Schwartz argues that humanity urgently needs to understand new ways of accessing information. But as he himself demonstrates, the use of intuition as a means to gain knowledge is already available to us: scientists, doubtless including those who ardently deny the existence of psi, often benefit from it in achieving conceptual breakthroughs; it's also evident in the arts. Psi deniers aren't preventing anything. Anyone is free to believe in the reality of psi and investigate it, and to hold ideas of consciousness that are profoundly at odds with the materialist paradigm for their personal growth and benefit.

I'm glad to see someone raising this issue and Schwartz has admirably made the point. The business of denial is becoming more and more a feature of our world, and it's natural that psi advocates should see the behaviour of sceptics in those terms. But I also think we have to be careful about going too far down this road. Calling it 'denial' is one thing, likening it too closely to other more egregious forms of the same thing could be going too far. In the long run, raising the temperature of the debate about psi is unlikely to help.


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Dear Robert, great post, but I slightly disagree with you when it comes to the Psi-deniers. The Psi-deniers have a world view just like fundamental religious believers and they defend it at all cost, many of them can be very, very mean at times and furthermore they confuse their Meta-Physics of Naturalism with Science. S not only that as you pointed out so well in your amazing book Randis prize how some of them degrade professional Parasychologists doing serious research, they have slowed down anomolous research and other mainstream Scientists wouldn't even dare to come out in support of Parasychology for fear of being ridiculed consequently they just take the words of folks like Ray Hymen and Robert Weisman as the final judgment on Psi, it's really sad.

Hi Robert... I have a slightly different take... I think deniers are sometimes acting out of a different/unstated/sometimes-unconsciousnes motivation.

Creationists are speaking out against the absurdity of a scientific institution that clings to a ridiculous materialist paradigm and denies all that is sacred/spiritual.

Climate change deniers are lashing out against a untterly corupt policitcal/monatary system that seeks to tax every person on the planet for their carbon footprint.

And Psi deniers (as you pointed out in our Skeptiko interview) are speaking to preserve a materialistic world view that "works" (at least for them).


Good food for thought. I think the issue that probably needs to be handled head-on and intelligently is the possibility of the scientific consensus being the denier position. With evolution and climate change, you have the scientific consensus opposite the side of the deniers. That is not a shock. Nothing about that jars our picture of the world. Of course you can have the scientists lined up behind the weight of the evidence and the interests of religion or business lined up on the other side. No surprise there. But that the scientific consensus can be the denier position--that's jarring. That rocks the worldview that turns the gears of society. I haven't read the Schwartz chapter (though I want to get the book), but my thought is that one would want to avoid a facile equation of those three situations, but still openly offer up the possibility that the scientific consensus can be the denier position, and then go on to make a judicious case for that possibility, along with explaining how the scientific community can be battling the deniers over there and then BE the deniers over here.

It seems to me that before one can rationally assess the evidence for parapsychology, one has to at least be willing to consider that a scientific consensus can conceivably be driven by mass bias. Otherwise, you're too wowed by the authority of all those scientists to really give parapsychology a chance.

Denial in these terms can indeed be a loaded word, and one too readily used try to discredit opponents (case in point the emotive language above of 'The Neuroscientist') by poisoning the well, but I think in the case of evolution and climate change, it is an accurate description.

Refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming weight of evidence, repeated experiment and the constant challenge of peer review of scientific theories - could you get a better definition than denier? If anything, the constant challenging of theories and their evidence means that science can be considered as a formalised scepticism, and a method which has proven to be (mostly) successful.

When it comes to psi, describing sceptics as deniers is unfair and way off the mark. Most sceptics only apply the same rules and expectations to psi research (or other supernatural or pseudo-scientific theories) as they would to any other proposition. Unless you have an objective set of rules untainted by emotion and intuition by which to measure the evidence put before you, you risk becoming victim to bias and ultimately irrational and possibly dangerous conclusions.

It's this method and an expectation by sceptics that psi researchers apply the same standards to their work which seems to annoy a lot of psi supporters, as if psi somehow exists in a special realm where the scientific method doesn't apply.

The conclusion is that the suggestion above the line (and in the above comments), that psi sceptics are 'deniers' in the category of those rejecting climate change and evolution, is wildly inaccurate. I would even suggest that there is a false dichotomy being constructed here as I don't think that the psi researchers are 'deniers' either, but obviously the burden is on them to prove their propositions, and that's all that sceptics (and science) are asking for.

(I tried posting this earlier and nothing seemed to happen, so I'm trying again.)

Brian, you mention "an expectation by sceptics that psi researchers apply the same standards to their work which seems to annoy a lot of psi supporters, as if psi somehow exists in a special realm where the scientific method doesn't apply."

I think our perceptions of the state of the evidence in parapsychology are very different. My perception is that psi is precisely not getting the fair shake that you mention.

I posted to my blog about this recently:

There I cite a recent paper that, using purely armchair observations, puts the odds against psi at 100 quintillion to 1, and then says that an experiment that would be considered statistically significant in any other area of science, would still only modestly reduce these odds.

Notice one of the quotes I include in that post, about the publication of a new paper supportive of psi by Daryl Bem: “The problem was that this paper was treated like any other,” said an editor at the journal, Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri. “And it wasn’t.”

Note also this quote from leading skeptic Richard Wiseman: "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven."

Or this quote from Donald Hebb: "Why do we not accept ESP as a psychological fact? Rhine has offered enough evidence to have convinced us on almost any other issue... Personally, I do not accept ESP for a moment, because it does not make sense. My external criteria, both of physics and of physiology, say that ESP is not a fact despite the behavioural evidence that has been reported. I cannot see what other basis my colleagues have for rejecting it."

So, as a psi supporter, I believe psi is being quite openly and vocally treated as if it is in a special realm where the normal method of science does not apply. But that treatment is coming from the scientific community itself, or at least from vocal skeptics. And as such I would be very happy to have the same standards apply to it that apply elsewhere.

Along these lines, I highly recommend Robert McLuhan's book, Randi's Prize, as well as Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Perhaps you have already read them, but if not, they are very eye-opening.

I do wish that the proponents of the paranormal would stop conflating sceptics with denialists – they are definitely not the same thing (although I can see how it can have some propaganda value).

But if you think about it, we are ALL psi-deniers in the sense that neither scientists nor believers think that the claims of psi can be explained by the known laws of physics. Psi is always claimed to be something that exists outside of the material world, and that is where the problems begin. Is there really a “psychic reality” outside of space and time?

I am a sceptic, but I do not deny that psi might exist; I don’t believe it does, however, because there is not only a lack of compelling evidence, there is also the refusal of its proponents to allow close examination of the claims made. A recent example is on the Paranormalia blog itself, here:

Robert quotes David Fontana on the value of infra red filming in seances: “It was an illusion, he told them, to suppose that it would satisfy die-hard sceptics, who would simply look for some other reason to reject it in order to stay secure in their comfort zone.”

So it seems that any objective investigation is not allowable, we just have to believe. And if, as sceptics, we want to test the claims of the paranormal, we are obviously being unreasonable for wanting to do so in a rational and methodical manner. But that is the way science is done – by trying to falsify a hypothesis. If the hypothesis survives every attempt at falsification, then it might even make it to the status of a scientific theory.

So if infra red photography reveals nothing in the way of people actually moving objects around, for example, then the next stage of an investigation might be to test for “invisible” threads that could be utilised for the same purposes. And likewise other eliminative tests might be done until the hypothesis of spirit materialisation is either confirmed or disconfirmed. Is that really denialism? It seems to me that it is more like a proper investigation.

One would think that if these phenomena are real, then proponents should welcome a proper investigation. We as sceptics and scientists are DENIED the opportunity to properly investigate paranormal claims and so we can only speculate about what might be going on - anything from the (remote) possibility of its reality, to the (more likely) possibility of outright fraud.

Take David Fontana’s example a stage further. Imagine calling in a mechanic and you inform him that your car will not start. He says that he will start by testing the battery, but you say to him, “No, because if the battery is OK, then you’ll just want to test the high tension leads; and if they are OK, you’ll want to test the ignition coil; and if that’s OK, you’ll just look for some other way to stay in your comfort zone.” He would probably think you were psychotic. But would he be a denialist if he is not even allowed to test your claim that your car has broken down?

In reality, it is the proponents of psi who make all the excuses. Someone claims to be psychic, so it is fair, I think, to ask him (or her) to prove that claim. It doesn’t have to be the clichéd “what are the next lottery numbers?” Ask a psychic to do anything psychic and you don’t need to be clairvoyant to know that the response will include such things as, “It doesn’t work like that”; “It can’t just be called up at will”; “The psychic energy is weak right now”; “An unbeliever is upsetting the vibrations”; and the list of (unverifiable) excuses goes on and on. The believers themselves manage to arrange things so that they stay in their own comfort zone.

Not only can psychics not produce the effects they claim, they cannot demonstrate that the excuses they make to cover their failures have any substance, either. All we have are claims and excuses. If I don’t believe that person is psychic, am I really just a denialist?

Robert, you've raised several interesting points. The first issue that I have difficulty with, if I understand your (very interesting) blog correctly, is your contention that confirmation bias forms the basis of scientific enquiry. I think this is slightly askew. If there is a bias, it's towards what is known, rather than against what isn't known. I see this disconnect in your blog post where you cannot seem to accept that in some circumstances the weight of evidence required to prove a proposition must at least equal, supersede or drive a reappraisal of the weight of evidence supporting the current state of knowledge.

Second, the quote from Laura King : “The problem was that this paper was treated like any other, and it wasn’t.” This quote is ambiguous - was she referring to the charitable treatment by the four reviewers, who knew it was Bem's work (against usual review protocol), or was she referring to the response of the media and sceptical scientists? As for Bem's work itself, my opinion is that the jury should be out until his work has been published, peer reviewed and subjected to repeated successful (or otherwise) experiment.

This leads nicely to Richard Wiseman's comment that "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven." Taken in the context of the whole quote from Wiseman, this is consistent with the concept of 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence', which he regularly repeats. Whilst he specifically talks about this in terms of psi with regard to his own speciality, it applies equally to other sciences. If a proposition seems to challenge known physical laws, particularly without a known mechanism to describe how such phenomena exists and interacts with the physical environment, then the proof must be robust and consistent enough to cause a knowledge shift. This applies to psi and to claims for miracle cures, energy sources and other claims which challenge the current understanding of the physical world and scientific consensus.

Back on topic, your response doesn't challenge my argument that you can't equate climate change and evolution deniers with rational scepticism.

Brian, all fair points. As I discussed in my post, I believe it's wrong to talk about psi denial in the same terms as other denier movements. I agree that it's rational to be sceptical of psi claims.

But if the 'denier' label is often applied to psi sceptics it's because of the dubious and illogical way they often behave and argue, the kind of thing I discussed in depth in Randi's Prize. If this is rational, it's only in the sense of defending the prevailing ideology. In the context of pure debate, it doesn't look rational at all.

Harley, I understand your difficulties, but I'm not sure I can help you with them. You really have to engage with the research, a point that has been made many times before.

'We as sceptics and scientists are DENIED the opportunity to properly investigate paranormal claims and so we can only speculate about what might be going on'.

If you read the literature you wouldn't be able to make statements like this. There's been a century and a half of scientific investigation of paranormal claims. Many of these investigators were and are scientists who believe psi is a genuine aspect of consciousness.

Robert – obviously, I should have been more specific. When I said that we are denied the opportunity to properly investigate paranormal claims, I thought the context would have made it plain that I was referring to investigation of séances in particular. I will try to be more explicit in future.

Nevertheless, we ARE denied the opportunity to investigate séances (particularly so-called materialisation séances). There are photographs available of William Crookes that purport to show him arm in arm with the materialised spirit of “Katie King,” who supposedly walked among, and chatted with, a séance audience for over two hours. All of this done in full light. So what’s it to be? If it is true that no light is allowed, then was Crookes a fraud or perhaps deluded? But if he was right, then how come not even infrared is allowed in a modern séance? These are the kind of questions I would like to have resolved. That is not denialism.

I think you are being a bit unfair when you imply that I do not read the psi literature (how many believers in the paranormal read anything about scientific methodology?). I’m sure I read less of the psi literature than you do, but I do read what I can (I have just started on your book, as it happens), but I have found that one does not need to go too far into the subject before questions arise (as above). I’ve asked that question elsewhere, and similar questions here, but when I ask for a resolution to such contradictions, I invariably find that they are studiously ignored. Perhaps someone will surprise me by explaining why (unobtrusive) modern technology is not allowed in a modern séance if full lighting was OK by Crookes.

I know that there has been a century and a half of psi research. But I would have to ask, what is there to show for it? What, exactly, has been added to scientific knowledge as a result? A similar length of time has been spent researching electromagnetism (courtesy of James Clerk Maxwell), but people are not arguing about whether all of the modern technology we have as a result actually exists.

In your response to Brian, you say that it is rational to be sceptical of psi claims, but then you say, “But if the 'denier' label is often applied to psi sceptics it's because of the dubious and illogical way they often behave and argue...”

I would agree that “dubious” and illogical arguments against the possibility of psi are representative of denialists, but not sceptics (in the true sense of the term “sceptic”). I am a sceptic, and I see fantastic claims made for psi, but I am often accused of “defending an ideology” when I ask people to justify their claims. What ideology are people talking about? I am not aware of a sceptical ideology, I just point out what I think are unjustifiable claims, and I ask (often awkward) questions, that are almost always ignored while I am personally attacked in lieu of explanations I have asked for.

For example: I am told that psi cannot be called up at will; it is an elusive phenomenon that can only barely be measured; the psychic energy can be disrupted by the presence of an unbeliever; etc.

Then I see a stage or TV psychic supposedly calling up spirits at will, never disappointing his or her audience, or being constrained by the usual reasons given for being unable to perform on demand. And the same psychic is performing his or her show under the protection of a disclaimer that says that the performance is for “entertainment only.”

So I ask more questions: if a psychic performs with a disclaimer, what justification do we have for believing that he or she is genuine? Is it fair to assume that such a psychic probably does not have the ability they claim? What logical reason is there to refuse infrared filming in a séance? Why do psychic predictions of disasters only surface after the event? Why was Uri Geller “shocked” by the sudden death of his friend Michael Jackson just after he had predicted the success of Jackson’s planned comeback tour? If those scientists who believe in psi have proven its existence, why is it not accepted by mainstream science? How can anyone differentiate between a genuine psychic and a charlatan?

These are genuine questions, not denials.

Harley, a lot of points here, but I’ll do my best!

‘denied the opportunity to investigate séances’ – as far as I know, materialisation seances require full darkness, and that includes Crookes. I’m not too clear about the circumstances in which photos were taken, but that’s only important if you take them seriously as evidence, which personally I don’t. The Scole people didn’t allow infra-red filming, but there have been instances elsewhere of it being used with success – I plan to post something about this soon.

One can make all kinds of objections about physical phenomena, and that includes advocates. But I think you can start to answer some of them yourself if you immerse yourself in the literature (Home, Palladino, Goligher, Crandon, Schneider, Eglinton, Slade, etc etc). You’ll find you can’t generalise too much.

‘how many believers in the paranormal read anything about scientific methodology? – experimental parapsychologists are obsessive about it, as I think is acknowledged by sceptical psychologists.

‘I have found that one does not need to go too far into the subject before questions arise’ – I completely agree. This happens to all of us. But don’t let the questions and objections bog you down. It’s by keeping going that you may come to a fuller understanding.

You want someone to resolve your problems for you? Ain’t gonna happen. Just try and learn as much about the subject as you can and the answers will gradually come. You’ll probably then have a bunch of different questions that need answering.

‘what is there to show for it? What, exactly, has been added to scientific knowledge as a result?’

Psychic researchers actually have gathered a good deal of data on a variety of different topics. Again, don’t ask rhetorical questions, read the research.

OK, that doesn’t answer your question But what are you looking for here? If you’re used to thinking of scientific knowledge as a precursor to technological development, then not much obviously. But not all scientific knowledge is about technology.

You can argue that Darwin’s ideas have led to modern genetics, which has huge potential for progress in medicine, among other things. But the understanding of evolution is also the basis of a view of the world, and of humanity, of what we are. Psi might be in the same category. If and when we accept the reality of it, we will have a radically changed understanding of these things. There could be a conceptual breakthrough, in how we understand consciousness, and perhaps ultimately a technological breakthrough in how we use it.

You want a quick pay-off? By any standards this is a difficult and controversial question. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing that will take centuries to understand. In the context of humanity’s age-span science’s five hundred years so far is a pretty small period.

‘Why do psychic predictions of disasters only surface after the event?’ I’d strongly recommend you forget all about stage and TV psychics. It’s not really about them. They provide a lot of ammunition for denialists, but that’s not going to help you if you’re a genuine truth-seeker. Look at the wider human experience.

Sceptic vs denialist. You call yourself a sceptic in the true sense, not a denialist, and interestingly advocates often say exactly the same. They call themselves sceptics in the true sense, in the sense of being questioning, rather than unthinkingly dismissive. I agree with you, I don’t think you’ve reached the point of being a denialist. For that, you would have to understand the challenge and construct scenarios to explain it away, scenarios that to advocates seem weak and implausible (ref. Susan Blackmore explaining away veridical perception in OBEs, or Hansel’s fraud scenario for the Pearce-Pratt ESP experiments). But you don’t know enough about it yet to need to do that.

Harley, I spent three years full time studying this subject, and believe me, a lot of the questions that bug you bothered me too. I sense that you are genuinely interested, unlike some sceptics. There aren’t easy answers; and frankly, unless you are willing to question the secular-scientific- materialist worldview you will always want to explain it away. All I can say is, speaking from experience, the closer you scrutinise the research – the reports, surveys, experiments, etc – the more difficult this becomes without creating the kind of absurd scenarios which attract the term ‘denialist’.

Hope this helps.

Robert – when I mentioned the Crookes photograph I wanted to give a link to

You used to have a link to it in the sidebar, but the site is offline (again). They had once let their domain lapse and another outfit took it over. It looks like the same thing has happened again. Until I can find another link to the same photograph(s), I can only give a description (I have cached copies of the relevant pages, but they are not my property to publish). The site, however, was very extensive and detailed, and was displaying many photographs of séances taken in full light and with flash photography.

Nevertheless, the name of Crookes is often thrown at me as if it is the final authority on the matter; but the point remains: if a séance has to be held in total darkness, as you say, what was Crookes doing? You say you do not take such photographs as serious evidence, but at least that is easier than trying to explain the obvious conundrum.

I’ll be very interested to know about séances that have been conducted during infrared filming, but I expect any such investigation will have been conducted by the participants themselves, with no independent investigators’ involvement, in much the same way that spoon benders can only perform if they supply their own spoons. But I’ll wait and see.

I am familiar with some of the names you listed, but I’ll focus on Palladino. You posted an account here some time ago and I took the trouble to actually read it. I did not find it remotely convincing, mostly because she was an acknowledged fraud who was caught cheating at every opportunity, and would fly into a rage when the controls applied prevented such fraud. The fact that there were a few occasions when she produced effects that the investigators could not explain, suggests that they were fooled by her. And the explanations she offered when caught - that she would lie so as not to disappoint her audience - ring a bit hollow to me.

I have no doubt that experimental parapsychologists read up on scientific methodology, but I was referring to the believers in general. I once pointed out here that Gary Schwartz, for example, took part as a sitter in his own afterlife experiments, which is a big no-no in science. By doing so, he invalidated his results by introducing (even unintended) biases. But the response I got from someone here was, literally, “So what?” he did, after all get the results the believers want. That is not good science, and only exposes the scientific illiteracy of the believers who think it is OK.

I’m not sure what you mean by, “You want someone to resolve your problems for you? Ain’t gonna happen.” If you mean, “You want someone to answer your questions for you? It ain’t gonna happen,” I’ve found that out already. If there are any problems, then it seems to me that they lie with the people who propose such things as “psychic energy” – a concept that does not fit within any scientific paradigm that I am aware of. Whichever way you look at it, the onus is on the person who makes an extraordinary claim to provide the supportive evidence. But if someone claims to have fairies at the bottom of his garden, I will need something more substantial than the fact that an eminent and respectable person such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “validated” their existence.

When I asked, “what is there to show for it? What, exactly, has been added to scientific knowledge as a result?”, the question was not rhetorical. You could have given me some examples.

I agree with you that not all science is about technology.

If we are to accept the “reality” of psi, then it will have to be demonstrated in a way that cannot be dismissed, just like the way that any aspect of accepted science can be demonstrated conclusively: TV, heart transplants, and everything else we know about cannot be dismissed, because they are unambiguously real.

I’m not asking for a “quick pay-off.” Maybe satisfactory answers to serious questions. But when you have said that there has been a hundred and fifty years of paranormal research, and then add that we might have to wait centuries to understand it, I admit that I have to look at that claim with a jaundiced eye. Some people might think it’s a cop-out.

“Look at the wider human experience,” you say. That is as vague a statement as any stage or TV psychic would make – and you said that in the same paragraph that you say that this is not about them. Right.

I acknowledge that you spent three years studying psi. For myself, I spent three years gaining an honours degree in psychology. This required that I did an additional piece of work – a year spent designing and implementing a piece of original scientific research. I had to satisfy my examiners that I understood the scientific method by designing and implementing the whole thing from hypothesis to conclusion. I succeeded in all that, so when I see claims made that do not pass the rigours of objective testing, I will question those claims.

The claim that sceptics have to invent absurd scenarios to explain away psychic claims is rhetorical itself. When someone asserts that this or that paranormal event has happened, it is fair to examine all possible explanations. The reality of a psi event is one possible explanation, but there can be many other more mundane answers, including delusion or trickery. Given the fact that no-one has demonstrated the existence of “psychic energy,” then it is a fair use of Occam’s Razor to assume that something we know exists is more likely to be the correct solution. Positing an undetectable, non-measurable energy for which there is no objective evidence constitutes “multiplying entities without necessity.” (That very definition is in your book) In other words, if someone cannot demonstrate the existence of such energy, there is no justification for inventing it as an explanation, and so it should be discarded (until such justification is presented).

By the way, I used to be a firm believer in all things paranormal. I was brought up with it – my family were staunch spiritualists and believers in all superstitions, and I am very familiar with the proceedings of the average spiritualist church. It wasn’t until I left school and got into the big wide world that I started to notice that the beliefs I was indoctrinated with just didn’t match what I actually observed for myself. I just began to doubt on that basis; and I no longer throw spilt salt over my shoulder, I don’t care if a black cat crosses my path or not, and I’m still waiting to experience a truly paranormal event. Have you experienced a paranormal event yourself?

@Harley: I just wanted to comment on your remark about psychics performing with disclaimers. The disclaimers are in place, at least in the U.S., because it's illegal to perform as a psychic in any capacity that I'm aware of without that disclaimer. "Fortune tellers," for instance, can be arrested for telling someone their future via a tarot reading if they do not disclaim that they're not gods, are not omniscient, and may be wrong. "For Entertainment Purposes Only" is the industry standard, to protect us for legal repercussions.

As for me, I've had a great number of paranormal experiences. But I can't prove them or make them happen again just because I want them to. This is not something that's easy to control, regardless of whether I feel I am a psychic or not. If we understood how this worked, it would be easier to duplicate, but we don't.

Similarly, "psychic energy" is a term for what we perceive outside the usual 5 senses, and it's only for lack of a better term. It doesn't mean that there is literal, measurable energy the way there is literal, measurable electromagnetic energy. We use terms like "metaphysical" because they're what we have to work with. Again, if we (and the greater scientific community) put some effort into understanding what might be happening, we could invent terminology that wasn't so problematic. Unfortunately, psychics are by default laymen, looking to understand that which no one can currently quantify. It's a handicap that we all share, skeptics and believers alike.

The term "denier" is so pejorative that its only real purpose is to terminate debate. I think it should be limited to positions that absolutely no one with a lick of common sense could promulgate. "Holocaust deniers" is a legitimate usage, because you really have to be crazy to deny the Holocaust. For the great majority of controversies, the term is just too loaded, IMO.

There's also the problem of tarring all critics with the same brush. Not everyone who questions neo-Darwinism is a young-earth creationist; many leading evolutionary biologists disagree with the standard neo-Darwinian paradigm, preferring newer formulations like evo-devo. Similarly, not everyone who questions AGW is saying that the earth isn't warming at all; many of these critics say that there has been some warming, but it's part of a natural cycle, or that human activity plays some role, but not the primary role, or that proposed solutions will be ineffective, or that the warming is less serious than advertised. All of these nuances are lost when the term "denier" is used as a blanket condemnation.

Even in paranormal skepticism, there are differences in degree. The intellectual skepticism of Ray Hyman is different from the popularist skepticism of James Randi or Michael Shermer. The cautious and self-effacing skepticism of Susan Blackmore is different from the aggressive, bullying skepticism of Martin Gardner or Penn Jillette.

IMO, labeling someone a "denier" occupies roughly the same plane of argument as declaring, "You're no better than Hitler!" It may be good rhetoric, but it makes for poor reasoning.

And if you disagree with me, you're a logic-denier and you're worse than Hitler.*

*Apologies to Greg Gutfeld for stealing his signature line.


With all due respect, I find it interesting that you can think that the scientific establishment is corrupt regarding the consciousness issue but somehow believe it must be as pure as snow on the climate issue.

Something I have noticed over the years is that despite people seeing and complaining about rampant corruption in their own areas of expertise, they somehow imagine that all other fields are inherently clean; but this assumption is merely based on their relative ignorance of those other fields.

'The term "denier" is so pejorative that its only real purpose is to terminate debate.'

I think some psi advocates, like Schwartz in his essay, talk this way out of frustration, which is understandable. And to be fair, in specific cases 'denial' is what it actually is. Remote viewing, Schwartz's specialism, is arguably the most successfully replicated of all ESP experimental protocols, yet is dismissed even by people who have witnessed it (eg. Damien Broderick's description of a National Geographic TV experiment in 2005 - in Outside the Gates of Science. I think this instance qualifies as denial, and there are plenty of them.

But I agree the term is perjorative, easily conflated with Holocaust denial, and should be used with extreme caution.

'I find it interesting that you can think that the scientific establishment is corrupt regarding the consciousness issue but somehow believe it must be as pure as snow on the climate issue.'

Matthew, it's not quite what I think! I'd say science is wrong to dismiss evidence of psi, and right to warn of the dangers of global warming. I accept that climate change sceptics may feel they are unfairly treated by scientists, but I persist in believing nevertheless that the scientific evidence is heavily in favour of man-made global warming.

Harley, forgive me if I don't answer all your points, but doubtless there will be other opportunities.

I'm interested when you say you used to be a 'firm believer in all things paranormal' and your parents were spiritualists, before you became disabused of it. That applies to some extent to many professional sceptics - Randi, Hyman, Shermer, possibly Blackmore. If you have been on that journey I guess it's hard to take the return trip. You've been there, done that, moved on. What I'm saying is, a large part of you will be reluctant to let go of the sanity and clarity that you believe you have found. As I argue in my book, I don't think sceptics have a monopoly on logic, reason and objective thinking. On the contrary, I think their reasoning is a filtered by emotive considerations as everyone else.

Robert – Yes, I was a firm believer because I was surrounded by family (including extended family) who were firm believers. It was what I was brought up with. Children tend to believe the same things their family believe, and it is the reason why most people do not choose their religion, either.

But I am also not a firm denier. Although people who believe in the existence of the paranormal accuse me of being closed-minded, I notice that when I ask them what would convince them that they might be wrong, I am invariably told, “Nothing will ever change my mind.” Who is being closed-minded? All I need is compelling, testable evidence.

When you say, “What I'm saying is, a large part of you will be reluctant to let go of the sanity and clarity that you believe you have found,” the same could be said of the believers. If nothing will convince them they might be wrong, no progress is going to be made. For myself, I really don’t mind if some aspect of the paranormal can be proven. But it doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.

I don’t think any sceptics claim to have a monopoly on logic, reason and objective thinking. But I think it is true to say that those of us who have qualifications that require a formal study of logic do tend to be sceptical. I do get quite irked by people who start to make a point by beginning with, “Look at it logically...” and then spout nonsense. Those who claim to be arguing in a logical manner are so often speaking sincerely, but also saying something that makes sense to them, even though it is irrational. Logic, as a formal subject in its own right, like much of science, can be counter intuitive.

Your comment about emotive considerations affecting one’s reasoning brought back some memories for me. You are quite right that emotions are an important issue. Many years ago – long before I went to university to study psychology as a mature student – I was in the sales business. One thing that professional sales people are taught is this: “Put a customer’s emotions in conflict with their logic, and emotion wins every time.” It is a psychological ploy, and the key to closing a sale: people mostly buy things because they want them, not because they need them. It works.

But the same applies when people go to see a psychic: they are psychologically vulnerable, particularly when they have lost a loved one and are desperate to “know that they are OK.” Yes – hence the platitudes they pay money for: “He’s fine and he wants you to know that he loves you.” How could anyone argue with that?

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