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Bias and Climate Change

Recent posts attacking climate change sceptics bugged a few readers, who accused of me of just the kind of bias I complain of in psi-sceptics (Jan 25, Feb 9). We 'Warmists' just can't distinguish true science from false. It's true I don't know much about the science of global warming. I just go with my gut instinct and the majority opinion. So I started to wonder whether I should make more of an effort to understand it.

After all, that's what I did years ago when I started reading about psychic research. And it really opened my eyes, as it has for many people. Perhaps if I got to grips with the data on global warming I'd come round to the sceptics way of thinking. But it would be a huge job. Isn't there someone who can do it for me?

Along comes Richard Muller, a Berkeley physicist who has been working on a large-scale project to provide an independent assessment of global warming. His team is using new computer tools and more data than has been used before to try to provide an objective view. He says in an interview:

We are bringing the spirit of science back to a subject that has become too argumentative and too contentious. We are an independent, non-political, non-partisan group. We will gather the data, do the analysis, present the results and make all of it available. There will be no spin, whatever find... We are doing this because it is the most important project in the world today. Nothing else comes close.

There are already three heavyweight groups that publish climate data: Nasa's Goddard Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and one led by the UK's met office. So why do we need another? Muller says their data is incomplete and the science lacks transparency. There's also the fact of the Climategate emails scandal, which tarnished the credibility of climate scientists.

But assuming he doesn't sit on the fence, someone is going to lose out. And when that happens, are they simply going to give up? 'You know I used to think global warming was a fascist/communist conspiracy to create a world government and rob me and my family of our precious freedoms. But that Muller fellow has really set me straight. What's the weather doing?'

I don't think so, and neither apparently does anyone else, although there's plenty of praise for Muller's initiative in principle. One person quoted in the article says, 'There are people you are never going to change. They have their beliefs and they're not going to back away from them.'

I think most of us here think that about psi-sceptics, but they also think it about us. Changing perceptions isn't just about the science, it's about understanding the psychological factors that create biases and factoring them into the equation. I'd like to see Muller's project address that, but somehow I don't think it will.

More Precognitive Dreams

I used the example of JW Dunne's book An Experiment in Time to comment on Richard Wiseman's ideas about precognitive dreaming in the Guardian earlier this week. Now Andrew Paquette writes to tell me about his own experiments in recording dreams. He has a book out called Dreamer: 20 Years of Psychic Dreams and How They Changed My Life.

A point that Dunne makes, and which seems generally borne out by other anecdotal evidence, is that 'future' dreams aren't necessarily about big events like aircrashes, but more often the mundane events that occur in daily life.

I had a peek at Paquette's book on Amazon, and he too has examples of this nature. It's only when one takes the trouble to start recording one's dreams that one notices the effect, he suggests, and they are just as good as tragedies for making comparisons. 'Most offer details that, while not as newsworthy, are so ridiculous that when they do correlate with something else, they can be even more remarkable than a public disaster.'

His journal captured things that otherwise would have been lost. For instance he dreams of a talking egg in a sock that gets smashed into the wall. The next night, October 21 1989, he sees a skit on Saturday Night Live about a talking egg in a sock that gets thrown against a wall.

I've also seen the point made - whether by Dunne or someone else, I can't recall - that it's the dream images that match the event, not necessarily the interpretation that the dreamer makes of them. That seems to be an issue in mediumship as well. Again, Paquette makes the same observation. He once recorded dreaming news snatches of food shortages causing riots and the overthrow of the Latin American government, also of a large crowd clamouring to get into a McDonald's in that country. Short afterwards the evening news carried separate stories about the invasion of Panama and the opening of a McDonald's in Moscow, with a large crowd outside.

He says:

If I had written what I had seen, instead of drawing inferences from it, then my dream journal record would have matched what I saw later on TV, including the fact that the McDonald's was in Moscow. I saw that in the dream, but because I could not reconcile Moscow with the strong images of a Latin American city, I combined the two. The "food riots" comment was added as a logical explanation for the crowd outside the McDonald's.

Paquette also notes that precognitive images relating to different future incidents often merge into single dreams. One night he dreamed that an art director he knew was giving him a commission and that George W. Bush was smoking a hookah. The following day he was hired by the art director and later on television he saw a comedian impersonating Bush smoking a hookah. This is reliable enough, he says, that if two separate images occur in a dream, and one later occurs in reality, then he can confidently expect the other to be fulfilled also.

As someone who doesn't experience anything like this it seems rather fantastical. But I'm bound to listen to what people describe about their own experiences. Dunne seemed to think that anyone could do it if they recorded their dreams, and proved the point by getting friends and relatives to do it: some were reluctant at first, insisting that they didn't dream, but once they started keeping records found that actually they did, also that the dream images were sometimes acted out the following day. His book created quite a stir in the 1930s, and many readers described trying it out and finding it to be true.

Actually Paquette looks to be quite unusual in this regard. He later describes a long and involved dream as a 17-year old which appeared to precognize his relationship with his wife some way into the future. I wasn't able to read more than a few pages of his book, but it looks like a good read. He also has a website here.

Wiseman on Precognitive Dreams

'And so it begins,' tweets psychologist Richard Wiseman. He means the publicity campaign for his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which is out on March 4 and which I wrote about here. The Guardian magazine section ran some excerpts yesterday: a big one on precognitive dreams, plus smaller ones on seeing patterns and out-of-body experiences. Let's have a look to see what he says about dreams.

Wiseman starts with the Aberfan mining disaster of October 1966, when a small mountain of coal slurry collapsed onto a Welsh school, killing 139 children and five teachers. This tragic incident impressed itself on the national psyche, and some 30 people subsequently reported having dreamed of the event before it occurred. He then points out that precognitive dreams are commonly experienced, at least once by a third of the population, according to recent surveys. He also mentions some well-known celebrity examples, for instance Abraham Lincoln foretelling his own assassination.

However since we dream about four times a night, an explanation rather readily offers itself, he goes on. Let's suppose over a period of three nights you have a variety of jumbled up dreams: auditioning for a part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chatting to your favourite rock star Eric Chuggers while driving along a country lane, swerving to avoid a purple frog and crashing into a tree, falling into a vat of ice-cream, and so on. After waking on the third morning you turn on the radio and are shocked to hear that Chuggers has been killed in a car crash. Naturally you connect it with the dream about him - all the other dreams are forgotten.

It doesn't stop there, he adds: the creative imagination may get to work to create a whole edifice of meaning.

Because dreams tend to be somewhat surreal they have the potential to be twisted to match the events that actually transpired. In reality, Chuggers was not driving along a country lane, did not hit a tree and the accident didn't involve a giant purple frog. However, a country lane is similar to a city road, and a lamp-post looks a bit like a tree. And what about the giant purple frog? Well, maybe that symbolised something unexpected, such as the car that drifted on to the wrong side of the road. Or maybe it turns out that Chuggers was on hallucinogenic drugs and so might have thought that the oncoming car was indeed a giant purple frog. Or maybe Chuggers's next album was going to have a frog on the cover. Or maybe Chuggers was wearing a purple shirt at the time of the collision. You get the point. Provided that you are creative and want to believe that you have a psychic link with the recently deceased Mr Chuggers, the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.

The rest of the extract mainly covers mainly the familiar 'chance coincidence' argument, the fact that since disasters (air crashes, earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, etc), happen somewhere in the world on a regular basis, and since billions of people are dreaming billions of dreams, it would be quite surprising if they didn't sometimes match up.

It's hard to argue with this as far as it goes. The Aberfan claims attracted a good deal of attention, but are vulnerable on a number of grounds and perhaps not worth placing too much emphasis on as evidence of precognition. To be fair, the psychiatrist John Barker who carried out the investigation and published his report in the Society for Psychical Research's Journal - Wiseman's source - makes this point himself. Where there is no record of a dream having been dreamed before the event that it apparently prophesies he can argue that it was selected from lots of other unconnected dreams, or distorted to make the match a better fit. Where there is such a record, which applies to 21 instances in the Aberfan data, this is harder to do. However, for these cases one can invoke the 'chance coincidence' argument, that the match between the dream and the event was real, but purely fortuitous.

I don't think that seemingly precognitive dreams are necessarily good evidence, but unlike Wiseman I'm prepared to take seriously the possibility of them being real. That's because I have come to accept that ESP is real, on a variety of grounds, backed by evidence from a large variety of sources.

I'd point out two things that are rather glaringly absent from Wiseman's analysis: the high degree of specific detail that can often be present, both in the dream and the event it appears to precognize, and any reference to credible scientific research that appears to verify anecdotal claims.

Taking the first point, I'm impressed by the high degree of specificity that can occur. A dream of an aircrash, matched with an actual aircrash the dreamer hears about the following day, is not interesting at all. However a dream in which the dreamer is impressed by an odd red and green symbol, overlaid on a scene of fire and destruction, is potentially interesting if this symbol turns out to be the airline logo on the side of a broken fuselage which the dreamer sees in a newspaper photo the following day. This is what I associate with such claims, and where several such details are involved it puts some strain on the chance-coincidence explanation theory.

JW Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer, has several examples of this type in his 1930s best-seller An Experiment With Time, in which he described the process as he himself experienced it. For example he has a nightmare of being on an island which is about to blow up, and desperately trying to warn the French authorities that four thousand people will die unless they start an evacuation. The next time he sees a paper it carries headlines about a volcano eruption in Martinique, with the loss of 40,000 lives. He remarks that he initially read the headline number as 4000, which gives him the clue that the dream is precognizing his experience, not the event itself. The actual number of dead was quite different to both his idea and the one in the news report.

Dunne got friends to experiment, recording their dreams as soon as they woke up and being alert to anything that might match up with real world experiences in the following two days. These are usually trivial, but detailed enough to be noteworthy.

One woman dreamed of walking up a path and coming upon a gate, when a man passed on the other side, driving three brown cows in front of him and holding a stick over them in a peculiar fashion 'like a fishing rod'. While waiting for a train the following day she walked up to the end of the platform which gave onto a road, barred by a gate similar to the one she had seen in the dream. At that moment the scene she had dreamed about took place: three cows passed by on the other side, driven by a man holding his stick just as she had visualized it.

Another example: Dunne's cousin dreamed of meeting a German woman dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun at the back of her head. They were in a public garden. She suspected the woman of being a spy. Two days later she visits a country house, where she is told about an odd person staying there who is suspected of being a German spy. In the hotel grounds (that look like a public garden), she shortly afterwards meets the woman, who is dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun.

If it's true that these dreams were recorded before the experience of the matching event, I don't see how either of Wiseman's arguments could apply. It might indeed be the case that the dreamers had had other dreams that didn't match with anything that subsequently occurred. But if the time-lapse is merely a day or two then so what? And the odds of matches like this happening by chance are surely off the scale.

Then there's the scientific research. This tends to be a variation of experimental approaches aimed at finding evidence of ESP. In this case, instead of the target being selected before the experiment, in order to demonstrate telepathy or clairvoyance, it is selected afterwards. At the time the subject is recording his or her impressions, the target does not yet exist.

In the 1969 Maimonides series of ESP dream experiments, the subject sleeper, Malcolm Bessent, was woken at intervals one night and his dream impressions recorded. These revolved around a hospital building, a patient escaping and doctors in white coats arguing. A target word corridor was then selected by means of a elaborate protocol involving random number tables, by someone not involved with the dream side of the experiment. An image suggested by this word was then selected, a picture by Van Gogh Hospital Corridor at St. Remy. Bessant was then subjected to an 'experience' suggested by the image.

Judges subsequently matched the imagery Bessent described upon being woken with the word corridor, chosen from a total of eight target words. Five nights out of eight were similarly direct hits. The odds against are 5000-1, meaning that more than 5000 such experiments would have to be carried out before a similar coincidence could be expected.

These and other similar experiments are vulnerable to criticism, from psi-researchers as well as from sceptics. The sense is not that precognition has been proved or conclusively demonstrated, but that there are indications it might be real, and that these indications are worth continuing to investigate.

So where does all this leave Richard Wiseman's book? As I mentioned when I first heard about it, I wondered whether he would focus mainly on psychological generalisations or write also about his own debunking activity. I guessed the former, that he'd want to be positive and upbeat, stressing the achievement of science in unravelling the mystery, but without getting into arguments. That would seem to be the case, at least in this excerpt.

Yet it's an oddly distorted picture, achieved by glossing over or ignoring credible data that contradicts his argument. Precognitive dreaming could be illusory: it's an open question. The really interesting illusion being created here, I'd say, is the perception that such things have been explained away by the pitiless scrutiny of science, and therefore merit no particular attention.

Dabbling in the Occult

Recent posts (eg on the Scole report) have raised the issue of trust. Why should we believe paranormal claimants just because they seem so sincere? It's a good question, and I've been thinking about it in relation to Joe Fisher.

Fisher was a British-born investigative journalist who died in 2001 aged 53. Some 17 years earlier he had joined a channelling group in Toronto. The medium was a woman suffering from leukemia who had discovered her ability after undergoing hypnotic therapy. An 'alter-consciousness' came through while she was in a trance state, giving deep discourses on a wide range of metaphysical topics to the listening sitters: the worlds beyond, reincarnation, the true nature of mind and personality, and so on.

Eventually the medium's 'spirit guide' came through, a nineteenth century Yorkshire sheep farmer named Russell Parnick. As word spread, others came to visit and contacted their own guides. On Friday nights they would gather, and all the various guides would come through expressing concern for their charges and offering advice that was gratefully accepted. On his first visit Fisher learned that his guide was someone named Filipa; the two of them had shared a passion in an eighteenth century Greek village. Over the following months he became enthralled with this discarnate old flame to the point of obsession and dumped his real-life girl-friend to spend all his waking moments thinking about her.

In the meantime, the medium's poor health was a constant concern. At a certain point, 'Russell' demanded that the hypnotic therapist who had been conducting the sessions should withdraw, and his place be taken by one of the other sitters, named Sandford, who could more easily channel the healing energy that would keep her alive.

Fisher observed that over the following months Sandford became increasingly subdued and eventually disappeared. However at the time he paid little attention as he was engrossed in his own infatuation, while also carrying out an investigation into the true origins of the guides. One of them, 'Ernest Scott', had provided a lot of detail about a recent incarnation as a RAF bomber pilot, and he set off to England to see what else he could discover.

The background story checked out: the squadron, the aerodrome that 'Ernest' described, and little details, like the fact that initially there was no accommodation, and they had to sleep in a converted sports stadium. But there was no record whatever of an Ernest Scott. Confronted with this discrepancy back in Toronto 'Ernest' was evasive and unhelpful. However Fisher thought he might have better luck with some of the other guides. He got 'Russell' and 'Filipa' to provide him with copious details and set off again. Russell's village in Yorkshire more or less checked out, but crucial details were wrong and, again, there was no record of a Russell Parnick. With a sinking heart Fisher travelled to Greece. There was no village of the name Filipa had given, nor anything that could confirm her story, which was plainly untrue.

Devastated by this evidence of serial lying, Fisher now paid a visit to Sandford, who told him of the disaster that had nearly befallen him at the hands of the 'spirit guides'. Pressured, somewhat against his will, into directing the medium's trances and providing her with healing, he found himself being cajoled into forming a relationship with her. The guides got angry if he resisted, always telling him it was 'for his own good'. They started a whispering campaign against his wife, to the extent that they separated. His business was neglected and he became ever more depressed and lethargic. Things got so bad that he rowed with the medium, and that saved him: his contact with the guides was cut and he started to recover.

Sandford then realized how they had been brainwashing him.

It was magnificently done. They would scramble my thinking and feeling processes so that I wasn't able to function properly. And then they would be the ones to make me feel better. Practically every day I would get what you might call a maintenance shot which would make me feel better for a while. They turned me into a psychic drug addict. The guides were out to create enormous dependency - and they succeeded.

These 'guides', Fisher now decided, were merely the denizens of the 'lower astral planes' that insinuate their way into the minds of weak humans and, by manipulating them, vicariously experience the sense of physical existence which they crave. They are the tulpas or 'hungry ghosts' of Tibetan tradition. And it could apply across the board. He investigated the spirit personalities of other mediums and found that they too were lying. However helpful they might prove to be, in providing healing, for instance, they were not who they claimed to be. He then recalled Swedenborg's insistence on the brilliant yet delusive nature of many communicating entities, and his urgent warnings not to believe a word they say.

Having rejected his parents' Christian fundamentalism in order to pursue his New Age inclinations Fisher had, in a sense, come full circle. His disillusion now extended to the whole New Age channelling craze: even personalities like Jane Roberts's Seth were suspect. Spirit communication was by definition evil, as good spirits don't communicate; only demons do, just as his mother had always insisted. Why on earth, he wondered, would people voluntarily open themselves up to this sort of malign occult influence?

Fisher described this experience in his book 'Hungry Ghosts' (recently republished as The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts), and it's the kind of thing for which the cliché 'unflinching honesty' was surely invented. To admit to having had a destructive fling with a ghost would be difficult, to describe in detail how he was fooled by its lies must have been excruciating. A sceptic, of course, would say that the real error was to pay any attention to this nonsense in the first place. But is that realistic?

I haven't personally witnessed it, but the appearance of possession in trance states is so consistent and widespread, and has been so frequently verified, it's clearly a genuine phenomenon. It's something that happens in our world, part of the human experience. The information that is provided is not necessarily always evidential of survival of death, but it can be uncannily detailed and specific. For instance 'Filipa's' story of eighteenth-century passion may have been a fantasy, but idiosyncrasies of speech and certain linguistic references were discovered to be absolutely appropriate to the circumstances of the locality around 1912-1915 which only someone who had lived there at this time could possibly know. The only possible explanation would be cryptomnesia, but that leaves a lot unexplained. This is the puzzle that motivated the people who investigated Leonora Piper; they didn't doubt the paranormality of the information, they just didn't know where it was coming from or the real identities of the voices that spoke through her.

We have two ways of dealing with this. We can either ignore it altogether, reassuring ourselves that mediumship is explicable as 'cold-reading' - all flummery and foolishness. Or we can engage with it. But if we do that, we have to approach it with extreme caution, as the researchers did with Piper. If we don't, we risk becoming unhinged.

Our society knows this: that is why, for all its sophistication and scientific understanding, it continues to talk about the dangers of 'dabbling in the occult'. Possession following use of the ouija board has in the past been a frequently described phenomenon. And it can be fatal. The desperate coda to Fisher's tale is that he appears never to have recovered from his encounter with the ghosts, who he believed continued to persecute him, and he ended his life by leaping off a cliff.

I've often thought that this is the real significance of the idea of 'healthy scepticism', at least in this context. I'm fascinated by the visceral dislike which underlies so much sceptical discourse, the sense of disgust that the ideas of spiritualism and paranormal belief seem to evoke in certain people. Overtly, there's a sense of danger of giving in to illusions, things that aren't true. But perhaps on some unconscious level we know that the illusion is not the existence of an unseen world, it's the identity of the voices who communicate to us from it. Should we believe what they tell us? Or are they just luring us to destruction?

So one could argue that scientific scepticism, for all its intellectual shortcomings, is a necessary bulwark, a secular inheritance of the Biblical injunction against traffic with spirits. It's not just superstition in general we have to be wary of. It's being seduced by ghosts that inspire with their high metaphysical talk, merely to suck the life out of us. That's why it's ringfenced. We can stray beyond the perimeter if we wish, but if harm befalls us, we have only ourselves to blame for believing any of it was true in the first place.

Check Out the SPR Catalogue

I've updated the blog's design, as you can see. I threw it together one afternoon years ago, and haven't touched it since.

Not sure how much it matters, but it does no harm to ginger things up occasionally. Feedback welcome.

The Google Ads feature is gone. You never knew it was there - it was the unexplained blob of colour in the right hand column. I included it when a friend insisted it would make big bucks. It never worked properly but I lost interest after ten minutes, and never got around to fixing it.

Instead I've signed up with Amazon Associates, which does a similar thing. I thought it would be cool to feature some of the most current books, and I'll probably keep adding to the list.

There is one quite important change, however: the addition of separate pages, which I shall use to list resources. The first one is the Society for Psychical Research's abstracts catalogue. You'll find it if you scroll down to Resources in the right hand column. There'll be others in the next week or two.

I wrote the catalogue some years ago, and I'd like to see it being used. It's an incredible resource. It covers the whole of the SPR's publications (Journals and Proceedings) from its founding in 1882 up to about 2000.

Initially it was going to be a catalogue of reports relating to survival (ie poltergeists, mediums, ghosts and apparitions). However once that was complete it was naturally decided to extend it to cover all the material.

The catalogue gives a brief summary of each article (or book review, letter, etc). If you want to read the whole article you can get it from the SPR's online library (although I will be making some of the earlier out-of-copyright material available here too, for instance the reports on Leonora Piper, at least until they become available through the SPR's website).

Try downloading one of the Word files and scrolling through. It gives a good sense of the scale and depth of the SPR's research, and, just as important, a sense of just how widespread psychic experience actually is.

It's Not About the Money

One of the commonest reasons cited for scepticism of psi is this: Why do psychics never win the lottery?

Last night I picked up a favourite read, José Silva's The Silva Mind Control Method, which describes creative visualizing techniques in admirably pragmatic non-New Agey terms.

In chapter seven Silva talks about how he investigated the possible usefulness of dreams in problem-solving. He'd been studying Freud, Adler and Jung for some years, but these worthies didn't seem to agree about what dreams were for and he started to think he was wasting his time. Late one night he got fed up and resolved to drop the whole thing. He goes on:

About two hours later I was awakened by a dream. It was not a series of events, like most dreams, but simply a light. My field of dream vision was filled with midday sunlight, gold, very bright. I opened my eyes and it was dark in my shadowy bedroom. I closed my eyes and it was bright again. I repeated several times: eyes open, dark; eyes closed, bright. About the third or fourth time my eyes were closed I saw three numbers: 3-7-3. Then another set of numbers: 3-4-3. The next time the first set came back, and the time after that the second set.

I was less interested in the six numbers than in the light, which began to fade little by little. I wondered if life came to an end, like an electric bulb, in a sudden flash of light. When I realized I was not dying I wanted to bring the light back to study it. I changed my breathing, my position in bed, my level of mind; nothing worked. It continued to fade. Altogether, the light lasted about five minutes.

Perhaps the numbers had a meaning. I lay awake the rest of the night trying to recall telephone numbers, addresses, license numbers - anything that might give meaning to those numbers.

The next day, tired as he was after only two hours sleep, he kept trying to connect the numbers to something he already knew. Towards the end of the day his wife sent him out to shop for a particular item, which involved crossing the border to the Mexican side of town. While discussing his dream with a friend, it occurred to him that what he had seen might have been a lottery ticket number. The headquarters of the Mexican lottery was closing up, but by chance later they found a vendor selling that very ticket. He bought it and weeks later learned that he'd won $10,000, which he sorely needed.

From time to time I come across other similar cases, usually where the number comes unbidden in a dream, and turns out to correspond to a winning horse or something of the sort. Even so, it's probably still true to say that psychics don't win the lottery. Nor do they get rich in casinos. Apparently it's not something that you can just switch on.

This mystifies sceptics, but it's not so strange if you recognize the spiritual hinterground to psi. It doesn't flourish if the purpose is merely private material gain. This is what Silva says about his experience:

As elated as I was, I looked this gift horse carefully in the mouth, and what I found was more valuable by far than the gift itself. It was foundation for a solidly based conviction that my studies were worthwhile. Somehow I had made contact with higher intelligence. Maybe I had made contact with it many times before and not known; this time I knew.

Silva subsequently got rich by formulating his ideas in a best-selling book and a teaching course. But if that helped a lot of people achieve personal fulfilment and spiritual growth, then it was deserved. 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.

Book Review: Witnessing the Impossible, by Robin Foy

Foy Years ago I spent some time trying to get to grips with claims about séance phenomena. I remember spending weeks in the library plowing through long reports, including, among others, investigations of the Boston medium Mina 'Margery' Crandon that were published in the journal of the American SPR in the 1930s. The magazine Scientific American had offered a cash prize for a successful display of mediumship, but attempts to evaluate her effects quickly deteriorated into a long and noisy controversy.

The SPR's investigation of the Scole group in the 1990s was like deja vu. There's a circle of enthusiasts who claim to be generating superlative physical phenomena, including lights, images on film and materialised spirit forms. There are investigators who take an active interest and think it's real. Then there others who think their colleagues have lost their marbles. The sceptics had a point, given that the phenomena occurred only in total darkness, there were virtually no controls for fraud and that requests for infrared filming were rebuffed. But either way, I'd had enough of all of that, so when SPR's report came out in 1999 I just noted that some things never change and went on to less controversial matters.

I got interested again recently after reading a letter in the most recent SPR journal by David Fontana, one of the three sympathetic investigators (sadly deceased late last year). Fontana welcomed the publication of a definitive account of the Scole group's activities by its founder Robin Foy, titled Witnessing the Impossible. So I thought I'd take another look.

Foy is a retired RAF pilot, who at the time was working as a sales rep for a paper manufacturer. He'd had some striking personal experiences with mediums and had set up the Noah's Ark Society for physical phenomena, before moving on with his wife Sandra to found this new group. The circle met in the large basement of the Foy's newly acquired farmhouse in Scole, a small village near Diss in East Anglia. They were originally seven, but three dropped out leaving the Foys and two people, identified only as Alan and Diana, who acted as trance mediums, through whom a variety of 'spirit communicators' made themselves known.

The communicators also worked to produce a variety of physical phenomena. The one that is most frequently described is lights (in one place described as being 'like fireflies') that make displays forming catherine wheels, circles and ellipses. They are also seen to pass through objects and the sitter's bodies, causing a tickling sensation and on occasion bringing about healing effects.

Materialisation is another big feature: the forms can't be seen but make their presence known by constantly touching the sitters on various parts of the body. They include children, and at least one occasion a dog, and often make quite a commotion, walking around the room, clapping, clicking their fingers and sometimes even managing to talk.

The table levitates occasionally. There is a lot of experimenting with Polaroid film, producing some seemingly impressive images on film that was unused when it was introduced into the room drawings: writing from poems, signatures, photographs of deceased celebrities, etc. Apports appear: old coins and other small objects.

Mainly the unseen communicators seem preoccupied with trying new ways to create physical interactions. They mainly talk through the two members of the group who are entranced, but they also work hard to enable independent communication, and quite often succeed. This is not the old 'ectoplasmic' method, Foy stresses, but a new approach that they are pioneering for the first time. They also try to create a sort of rudimentary telephone, which by the end is starting to produce results, and even provides the beginnings of a synchronised video image of the celestial speaker.

At this point it all becomes a bit Star Wars, as the regular team of communicators abruptly disappears and an authoritative being, apparently from a far distant dimension, comes on the line. He identifies himself as Varren-here-ic and urgently addresses Jar-had-we Scole to tell them that they have to abort. Apparently their experiments have opened up a doorway, or vortex, in the time-space continuum, and this has unfortunately attracted the attention of experimenters in the future.

The interdimensional time wave pattern - generated by your future - is coming from another time belonging to your world... It is being generated by a crystalline time probe. This method of exploring time patterns is very basic, but still capable of generating a broad timecast. These are amongst the first of such experiments... It is this timecast that is creating the interference. .. By attempting to access your present time, those responsible are causing time ripples - or shock waves - to penetrate the doorway and the surrounding time space. It was these shock waves that severed your own special links with your spirit team at Scole, and are still causing imbalance in your dimension. ... this probing of time is a violation of the Cosmic and Intermidemnsional laws relating to time and space - and this will not be allowed to continue.

This made me giggle, but in other respects I was struck by the book's sheer ordinariness. The tone and ambience is absolutely unremarkable. Foy could be describing a group of enthusiasts setting up a successful animal shelter, perhaps, or a community choir practising to compete in a national choral event. There are discussions about the best way forward, excitement when progress is made, occasional arguments and disagreements, plans for extending the scope, and so on. It's all quite repetitive - a chronological description of each sitting, who was there, what happened, etc. In this case, half of the group are dead people, and they are meeting in a blacked out cellar two or three times a week to figure out new ways for the two sides to communicate.

The only real drama comes when the group starts opening up sessions to other people, including the SPR investigators Monty Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana. Initially things go well but the group is shocked by the hostility Keen starts to show when his demands for infrared photography are turned down. Foy makes clear that this refusal was made by the 'Team', which had strong ideas of what they were trying to achieve, in which this sort of intrusion would be unhelpful. From a scientific point of view this is no kind of answer, but from Foy's perspective it would have seemed reasonable. (Fontana in his letter claims the investigators remained completely unaware of the bad feeling they had caused, so the group obviously kept their irritation to themselves).

It also becomes apparent that the hostility that Keen's (and also on one occasion Ellison's) tetchiness was an effect of the extreme pressure they were facing from sceptics within the SPR. In these situations there are always people who assume it must be fraudulent, and either behave badly and disrupt the proceedings or else say nothing, but then go around afterwards noisily proclaiming that they know how the tricks were done. To be fair, the critics Alan Gauld, Donald West and Tony Cornell, had reasonable complaints. Gauld, in his typically acute analysis, pointed out that he was sympathetic to the existence of this sort of phenomena, he just didn't think the controls were sufficient for the group to be taken seriously.

However here's what Foy says about one particular incident:

WM - a member of the SPR - was apparently unsure and suspicious of the proceedings. We discovered afterwards that (although during our pre-sitting briefing we had specifically asked delegates not to do so) he had actually been making a grab for the spirit lights when they were in his vicinity - which may well be the reason that they did not travel down to his end of the room as much as they would normally have done. This information came directly from Monty Keen, who testified several months later that WM had telephone him personally - immediately he arrived back home from the Scole seminar - to allege that the sitting must have been fraudulent because he had been suspicious of the two microphones that hung down from the ceiling to record the session. These sat quite obviously in everybody's vision and - if anybody had bothered to ask about them at the time - we would have been quite happy to fully explain their use and allow any or all the delegates present to inspect and test them.

In a way, WM's allegations were a slight on the integrity and intelligence of the senior SPR colleagues who sat with us regularly; all of whom were vastly more experienced that he was in the research and investigation of physical psychic phenomena!

This is a pattern where physical phenomena is concerned. There are the enthusiasts who spend a lot of time on their own, and then invite other people in to watch. There are investigators who spend a lot of time with them and become convinced of their sincerity (for instance Malcolm Bird and Hereward Carrington in the 'Margery' investigations, or William Crawford in the Goligher circle). And then there are the occasional visitors (Walter Prince, Harry Houdini, Joseph Rhine in the case of Margery) who think it's nonsense. One's left trying to make sense of it all.

Looking at it from the outside, even through largely sympathetic third party appraisals like the SPR report, there's always a suspicion that we're dealing with shady tricksters. The claims are just too fantastic to be taken at face value. But if the logical conclusion is that it's all false - or 'a load of rubbish' as Richard Wiseman is said to have concluded after his visit - that doesn't make any sense either. It would be an extraordinarily complex and time-consuming hoax, and it must surely mean that the many sittings the group held on their own which Foy's book describes, and which were far more numerous than those held with other people present, were invented. For if the purpose was to fool investigators and the public, perhaps to make themselves famous on the world stage (there was certainly no money in it), they would hardly have had to meet on their own. In short, Witnessing the Impossible would be largely a work of fiction.

Read in another way, what this book provides, more than any other than has yet appeared on the Scole group, is a sense of the absolute sincerity of the participants, that they were doing something meaningful and useful. And at the end of the day, is there anything wrong about basing one judgements around these sorts of considerations?

David Fontana, perhaps the most open of the three SPR investigators, thinks not. He says he argued with Keen and Ellison about the value of infrared filming. 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. 'The task of psychical research is to collect and publish evidence and to leave others to make of it what they will. If the evidence is good enough, those interested and with open minds will find it convincing, and that is all for which we can hope.'

Thoughts About Consciousness

By Matt Colborn

[Author and researcher Matt Colborn has posted on Paranormalia a few times. He's just completed a book on consciousness, and shares some thoughts here on how his views changed during the course of writing. Thanks Matt]

In my forthcoming book Pluralism and the Mind, (September 2011), I argue for a strongly pluralistic approach to the mind-sciences, for an approach to subjective consciousness that conceives it as active rather than epiphenomenal, and against the idea that subjective experiences and actions are fully reducible to current physics and neurobiology. In the course of these arguments, I examine debates over 'free will,' the self, purposiveness in the Cosmos, and the occurrence of psi phenomena.

Writing the book has inevitably changed my view on a range of issues. Most significantly, I have shifted from wanting to formulate a 'grand theory' of consciousness to an appreciation of the limitations of individual worldviews - which are invariably partial - and to a love of cognitive diversity. I have also learnt:

1. That there are a variety of valid ways of seeing human beings, and that these vary through time, across cultures, across disciplines and between individuals. I have come to value this variety and have become suspicious of attempts to reduce humans to 'nothing but' this or that particular thing.

2. That how we see human beings matters immensely and deeply affects how we treat each other. That, despite recent attempts to develop a 'positive psychology,' Western views of human beings tend to be rather negative and disempowering, especially in the light of certain beliefs about materialism, determinism, free will (or lack thereof) and certain interpretations of evolutionary theory.

3. That differing traditions often have something worthwhile to contribute in understanding human nature, and that it is wrong to assume the automatic superiority of an idea just because it purports to be 'scientific.' (Or, conversely, the automatic inferiority of an idea because it originates outside science). What matters is for individuals to develop their own ideas, strategies and beliefs that suit the challenges of their own lives and not try to distort their lives to fit into an imposed set of beliefs about human nature. Science may contribute to this, but it cannot be allowed to dictate terms.

4. That neuroscience is developing rapidly, in ways that have by no means uniformly positive implications for personal autonomy, privacy and civil liberties. I refer partly to the research programs that seek to reduce virtually every aspect of human personality to definable neurological patterns, to unlock the 'neural code,' to manipulate the human brain and to develop 'mind reading' devices. More public debate on the desirability of these developments is urgently needed, as with GM organisms and nuclear power.

5. Following 4, that there is an almost total lack of critical science journalism. Currently, popular science functions mostly in a cheerleading capacity for the wonders of science and technology. If this situation occurred in political writings, we would call it propaganda. We all need to be far more critical of both mainstream and non-mainstream claims, and especially aware of the often covert vested interests that constantly shape opinions in science.

6. Finally, I think that whilst we know a great deal, we understand very little. This is because knowledge is often concerned with minutiae, whereas understanding is holistic. If we want to understand subjective consciousness better, we need to develop our understanding and not simply assume that mechanistic and reductionist models are the be all and end all in understanding human nature. Life is far broader than our models of it can ever be.