Book Review: Free Radicals, by Michael Brooks
Why Only Now? (by Robert Perry)

The Man With the Hole in His Head

One of psi-sceptics' most popular arguments that anecdotal evidence can't be relied on. If you agree with that, you can ignore much of the case for psi - the whole human experience bit. With that out of the way, the experimental data can be waved away on the grounds of methodological flaws and wishful thinking.

I've been reading up on neuroscience recently, and started to notice how often the Phineas Gage story crops up. This is the nineteenth century railway worker who miraculously survived an explosion in 1848 that sent an iron bar 43 inches long and more than an inch in diameter right through his skull. Although Gage suffered massive damage to his frontal lobes, he remained conscious and eventually recovered, still able to function normally in most respects (although it did for him in the end - he died 11 years later). However he underwent a major personality change - having been a solid, dependable sort he now became roguish and disreputable, given to drinking and swearing, to the extent that his friends no longer knew him as the man he had been.

The story is told to demonstrate the dependence of the personality on the brain, and, more specifically, the frontal lobe as the seat of emotion. It's a colourful piece of evidence given in support of the orthodox view that the mind is what the brain does. If the structure of the brain is compromised, then so too will the personality be.

The case is big in popular culture - apparently there are rock bands named after him. It's also much referred to in academic books about cognitive psychology and neuroscience: I did a quick search on Questia and came up with 122 mentions. I can't tell in detail what each mention there consists of, but from the excerpts the majority seem to raise it as demonstrating the dependence of personality on the brain. And it continues to be influential - for instance it's a key piece of evidence in Damasio's controversial recent book Descartes' Error, which proposes that rationality is largely guided by emotions.

But how true is the story? According to author and psychologist Malcolm Macmillan, who did some sleuthing, the before-and-after contrast has been greatly exaggerated.

The main testimony comes from Dr John Harlow, the physician who attended Gage an hour after the accident and more or less put him back together. In 1868, eight years after his patient's death, he wrote:

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculty and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged that they are abandoned in turn for others. His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said that he was 'no longer Gage.

Yet Harlow said little about any of this when he first publicly talked about the case, when Gage was still alive. In 1850, two years after the accident, a Harvard professor of surgery stated that he was "completely recovered in body and mind", making no mention of any personality change.

In subsequent accounts by other writers Harlow's later testimony was embellished. Gage was now said to have become a drunkard and a boastful exhibitionist, as well as suffering an absolute lack of foresight - all unmentioned by Harlow. In fact most of what has been said about Gage subsequent to his physical recovery, Macmillan says bluntly, is "fable".

Coincidentally, I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's excellent Absence of Mind , an attack on the view of humanity represented in what she calls the "parascientific literature" of Dawkins, Wilson, Pinker, Dennett, etc. (She's actually a novelist - not one I've read, but after this I'll certainly be checking out her fiction as well). On the subject of Gage she asks whether it is really so remarkable that a man who has had a crowbar pass through his brain should not start to act in ways that other people find less than reasonable.

Are we really to believe that Gage was not in pain during the years until his death? How did that terrible exit wound in his skull resolve? No conclusion can be drawn, except that in 1848 a man reacted to severe physical trauma more or less as a man living in 2009 might be expected to do...

(Actually comic writer Rich Hall makes pretty much the same point, in a lol way, in a sketch in Things Snowball. I'd quote from it, but think I threw the book out because I kept reading it when I was supposed to be working.)

As for the attention the story gets from neuroscience, Robinson says, "It's as if there were a Mr. Hyde in us all that would emerge spluttering expletives if our frontal lobes weren't there to restrain him."

Nicely put.

Anecdotal evidence - that's to say, reported human experiences - are absolutely valid in scientific discourse. Surely most scientists accept this - psychology and medical science in particular wouldn't get far without it: it's just in anti-psi writing that it's so suspect. What matters is that a story be properly validated. That's not the case here, and it's interesting to see such a key element of the materialist worldview being illustrated by a story with such slender foundations.

Comments

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I don't know how you can question the fact that what happens to the brain affects the personality. That doesn't mean the personality is created by the brain. Just drink some alcohol and your personality will change, simply because of a chemical change in the brain. And it's pretty well known that Alzheimer's disease can result in personality changes. And head injuries can can personality changes -- this is well known and documented in neuroscience.

So it seems to be completely besides the point whether Phineas Gage's personality changed or not. We already know very well that things that influence the brain in turn influence the emotions and personality.

This is a fact, but it doesn't support the materialist idea that the personality is created by the brain. Thoughts and feelings and beliefs cause changes in the brain -- it goes in both directions. What happens to the body affects the mind, and the brain is part of the body. And the mind affects the body, and the brain.

Yes I agree with realpc here. The filter model of consciousness allows for these impediments (the filter gets clogged, so to speak), and personality and intellect are radically changed. Whether or not the Phineas Gage anecdote has validity is rather a moot point.

At least, this is a case of the old reduction valve or TV model of the brain being dismissed and ignored. I'm sure readers of this blog are familiar with them. Damage the television tuner, the signal gets scrambled, damage the reduction valve, and eddie's can develop in the flow.
Sometimes the organic mechanism can be fixed, and often it can repair itself. Sometimes the damage is irreversible.

IMO, it's more than a 'transmission' of data, more like an access to a greater consciousness filtered by an individuals ego. But the reduction valve/TV description of consciousness via the brain summarizes things well enough.

Thanks for this, Robert. I cite the Gage story in 'Pluralism and the Mind.' My source was Hothersall's history of psychology, and it depicts the story pretty much as you said. You're quite right about the need to be careful in interpeting historical sources.

As others have said here, I think the filter theory of mind-brain relations has no problem with Gage manifesting personality changes due to brain damage. But I think your main point is very well taken. There is a double standard in regard to anecdotal evidence: "How dare you use it/of course we get to use it."

I am reminded of the incredibly detailed, careful, multiple-witness, expert testimony documented with some of the mediums of a hundred years ago. I suspect that for those triumphantly quoting the Gage story, that evidence is probably quite suspect, while the equivocal evidence about Gage is taken for granted. I think everyone smells a rat when they see a double standard. This is the sort of thing, then, that the public should be more aware of.

"IMO, it's more than a 'transmission' of data, more like an access to a greater consciousness filtered by an individuals ego. But the reduction valve/TV description of consciousness via the brain summarizes things well enough."

Yes I agree. It is transmission, and filter, and god knows what else. It involves some kind of translation from a higher dimensional level, to our sensory temporal level. The brain is a complex machine and scientists don't understand it. They think it's just a computer -- well it probably does a lot of computing, but it is so much more than that.

And, of course, when the brain's normal functioning is disrupted, the "person" acts differently.

.....the brain is most likely a quantum computer and this is where the interaction with Planck scale geometry occurs.

".....the brain is most likely a quantum computer and this is where the interaction with Planck scale geometry occurs."

Yeah Michael, I agree. I'm a Stuart Hameroff fan myself.

has he been plagiarising me again? ;-)

I do not think Robert McLuhan is questioning the fact that changes in the brain can influence the mind, but he is questioning the materialistic double standards: when the anecdotes tend to materialism, as the case of Gage, the anecdotal evidence is accepted, but when the anecdotes are against materialism, as in psi phenomena, anecdotal evidence is rejected, which is obviously wrong. O anecdotal evidence is rejected in all fields or anecdotal evidence is supported depending on its quality but regardless of the field.

Juan, yeah, that's what I took to be his point as well. The more I think about it, the more this seems to me like part of a broader double standard, which I think goes something like this: "The bar is set very high for you and of course much lower for me."

I'd rather have trepanning than a hole in the head!

Here's the best part. I recently read a NY Times discussion of the Daryl Bem experiments (which you've written about at some length, Robert, right?). One of the contributors had this to say:

"It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories. If people really can predict the future in extrasensory (and extra-rational) ways, how come they only seem to manage it when ESP researchers ask them to do something trivial, like guess a playing card or a picture?"

So first it's "Don't give us that untrustworthy anecdotal evidence. We want something harder." This sends parapsychologists to the laboratory for the last 80 years, accumulating non-anecdotal evidence, at the end of which they are told, "It’s very suspicious that hard evidence of paranormal powers only ever seems to show up in laboratories."

Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/06/the-esp-study-when-science-goes-psychic/esp-findings-a-miracle-if-true

"when the anecdotes tend to materialism, as the case of Gage, the anecdotal evidence is accepted, but when the anecdotes are against materialism, as in psi phenomena, anecdotal evidence is rejected"

Of course there is a double standard. But the point is, the case of Gage has nothing to do with materialism. One of the big misconceptions that many neuroscientists have is that examples of the mind being influenced by the brain supports materialism. It does not. The mind and the brain influence each other. The brain is part of the physical body, and it is perfectly obvious that our minds are influenced by what happens to our physical body.

So what?

If the mind/personality/consciousness/whatever-you-want-to-call-it really is an independent entity that is separate from the brain, then there must be a way to test that hypothesis objectively. What is it?

If it can’t be tested, then it is not a scientific hypothesis, and it can therefore be safely dismissed.

Robert M – you say, “Anecdotal evidence - that's to say, reported human experiences - are absolutely valid in scientific discourse. Surely most scientists accept this - psychology and medical science in particular wouldn't get far without it: it's just in anti-psi writing that it's so suspect.”

But there is a reason why anecdotal evidence is accepted in science – and most other aspects of daily life – those anecdotes deal with things that are known to exist. A doctor, for example, needs feedback from his patients to find out, perhaps, whether a certain drug is causing known side effects. In a court of law, there is no dispute about, say, whether muggers exist, and so a witness’s testimony is not about whether mugging is a real phenomenon, but who might be the perpetrator of a particular crime. Even when people are being deliberately dishonest – like when someone wants a day off work and phones in with a “sickie” – it’s a fact that people do become ill; whether that person is telling lies or not does not invalidate the fact that illness is a real phenomenon.

That is why anecdotal evidence or personal testimony does not decide whether psi exists. There is no objective, reliable or repeatable evidence that psi is real. There is no dispute that people have experiences that are strange to them, of course, but reporting a strange experience is not evidence – and certainly not proof – that anything paranormal is happening.

Regarding things that are known to be real, anecdotes are useful – even necessary; but regarding things that are not proven to exist, anecdotes and personal testimony are worthless.

And it’s not just in “anti-psi” writing that anecdotes are suspect; it’s an everyday occurrence in mainstream science. Some scientific discoveries start out as anecdotal reports, but science will never progress on the say-so of well-meaning reports of unusual occurrences. Science usually starts with an observation of something that needs an explanation. A hypothesis is then formed to explain that observation, and then that hypothesis has to be tested. If Louis Pasteur, for example, had never gone further than telling people he had observed microscopic creatures that caused disease, then germ theory would still be in the same state as psi claims are today.

In fact, Pasteur was derided for his claims and he had to work hard to convince even fellow scientists that germs/bacteria were real. His findings started out as anecdotal reports, but he did what psi researchers have singularly failed to do: he demonstrated the reality of what he had observed.

Even real scientists have to survive scepticism.

Its rather strange that you think that the only valid avenue in which epistemological ventures can have any kind of sucessful result is in laboratory scenarios, where repeatability is the primary concern of the experimenters. In fact, the point Robert is trying to make is that anecdotal evidence is able to reveal a singificant domain of human experience.

It reminds me of the following passage in Fashionable Nihilism:

"
We best call this tidal wave scientism. This is the view that only
science can know. Scientism cannot be supported by science itself. For to
substantiate the claim that other ways of knowing are fraudulent, or at least
unreliable, would require that science pursue these putative ways of knowing and determine that they get us nowhere. But to pursue these other ways
reliably would require science to abandon its own proven methods and
scope of validity. Or, science would be required to rule a priori and arbitrarily that the other ways couldn’t possibly be effective in their subject
matter areas. Either way, science oversteps itself. Scientism is ideology, not
science. The simple fact is, not all questions or issues can be resolved by
any single method, scientific or otherwise"

In any case, your claim that "parasychologists have singularly failed to.. demonstrate the reality of [what is] observed" seens by and large unsubstantiated. Even 'spketical' students of the area have conceded that at the very least there is a statistical significance in various experiments which cannot be accounted for in normal terms, hence the ocurrence of ESP.

'But there is a reason why anecdotal evidence is accepted in science - and most other aspects of daily life - those anecdotes deal with things that are known to exist. A doctor, for example, needs feedback from his patients to find out, perhaps, whether a certain drug is causing known side effects. In a court of law, there is no dispute about, say, whether muggers exist, and so a witness's testimony is not about whether mugging is a real phenomenon, but who might be the perpetrator of a particular crime.'

Your analogy is inaccurate. Psychic-type experiences are known to exist too. They are very widely reported. That's not the issue. The issue is whether these experiences are truly psychic, or something else. They are considered 'anecdotal' until they can be verified in controlled conditions, in the same way as anecdotal reports of the effects of drugs.

We are free to make a priori judgements about anecdotal reports on the basis of known science, as sceptics do about psi. That could be common sense, but it could also be prejudice based in ideology. Not science, in other words, but scientism - as 'XXII' rightly comments.

True science reserves judgement until some actual science has been carried out.

When I wrote that the case of Gage tends toward materialism, was considering the idea that many neuroscientists go directly from the premise that the mind is influenced by the brain to the conclusion that the mind is produced by the brain, which is a mistake, as claimed RealPC, but you can not deny that it is true that many neuroscientists make that leap.
On the other hand, the hypothesis that the mind is a separate entity from the brain and can survive biological death if it is a scientific hypothesis can be tested. An example:
http://ncu9nc.blogspot.com/2009/05/further-record-of-observations-of.html
The super-psi hypothesis failed these tests, while the spiritualist hypothesis tests pass successfully, leading to the spiritualist hypothesis has been tested successfully.
This is historical research as opposed to physical or chemical research, but the parapsychology is closer to the human sciences as the sciences of nature. Support these distinctions is the problem of physicalist, not parapsychologists.

Robert – “psychic-type” experiences are commonplace, as you say, and I agree with you that the issue is whether or not they are truly psychic. We seem to agree, too, that an anecdote or personal testimony does not decide the matter; independent confirmation is required.

The problem, however, is that nothing paranormal has ever been verified in controlled conditions. I know that supporters of psi point to the work of Radin, Sheldrake, Schwartz and others; on the other hand, sceptics point to various flaws in the methodology of parapsychologists and the fact that their work has never been replicated.

In a certain way, though, I sometimes think that none of that laboratory work would even matter if only some psychic would do the things they claim in a way that is just totally unambiguous. I don’t mean spoon bending or any other example that can be reproduced by simple conjuring, but something that could have nothing other than a paranormal explanation. If clairvoyants could predict natural disasters before the event rather than claiming afterwards that they had predicted it, then that would have some meaning. Prediction of natural disasters could be presented on TV and radio in the same way as the weather forecast. It wouldn’t take many successes before the whole world sat up and took notice. (I would.)

What we have, though, is this sort of dangerous nonsense:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/community/columnists/wraithscape/casting_out_the_demons_within_1_3773730

Who would believe that we are living in the 21st century, when someone who claims on his website to be “...one of the World’s Finest Paranormal Researchers” is telling people in his weekly newspaper column that mental illness really could be demonic possession?

As I’ve said here many times, I don’t mind if paranormal events can be found to be real, and I have no objection to properly done research being carried out; but at the same time, I have seen people I know ripped off, sometimes to the tune of thousands of pounds - and now this sort of irresponsible baloney. Vulnerable people who need medical assessment and relevant treatment are being directed towards exorcists!

I don’t accept that what I say is “prejudice based on ideology.” And although I don’t think you were being deliberately insulting towards me when you used the term “scientism”, it is a word often used dismissively towards sceptics (including scientists) when paranormal beliefs are challenged.

Scepticism is not an ideology; it is not a faith-based system; it is not scientism. I see people making extraordinary claims, and I ask them to justify those claims. I see scepticism as a way of trying to work out what is really going on in the world (or out of it, for that matter).

I would be interested to know what you think of the article I linked to above. Do you agree that someone with a possible mental illness should be directed to an exorcist rather than their GP as the first point of contact with the relevant mental health professionals?

Is it possible that scepticism could be important in some circumstances? Or is it sufficient to be guided by the anecdotal account of a self-proclaimed “expert” in all things paranormal? Sometimes there can be a lot at stake.

Wouldn't we all be cranky SOB's if we had 43 inch pieces of steel shoved through our skulls?

Harley, I'm curious, did you ever get around to reading Randi's Prize?

The article you linked to seems to be, by and large, to be a massive red herring. If the arguement is hinged on the putative existence of frauds or individuals who decieve and con people out of their money, the case can be made against many areas that are otherwise considered stable and valuable grounds of knowledge and human practice.

This is to say that, just because some doctors take advantage of patients that do not understand their illness, or they administer drugs that have no positive effect on the patient, then we can discredit Medicine as a whole, or at least have reasonable grounds of having a grudge against it.

My point is that it is irrelevant to the discussion wether there are or arent indidivuals who claim to have psychic powers and in fact do not. You wont get anywhere tackling the weak links in the herd. You'd be much better off making an arguement against the studies that within the community of Parapsychlogy are held to reveal effects that are decidedly supernormal and for which no normal explanation can be given.

Now you claim that the studies have never been replicated, but this is quite false. Bem's experiments, the Ganzfeld studies, among others, have in fact been replicated and its results have followed a trend that make it clear something is going on.

Now, you might get as many criticisms as there are flavors of ice-cream, in regards to the methodology of these experiments, but none have I seen that is sufficient to discredit any given experiment (of the ones regarded as strong by the community itself.

Furthermore you have not, and I mantain cannot, shown that the only valid avenue to ascertain what the characteristics of reality are is experimental science. Anthropologic and ethnographic studies, such as the ones undertaken by the SPR and Stevenson, among others, are equally valid. Sceptics try and get away with claims that anecdotal evident is inherintly lacking and therefore, no matter how well documented, it cannot provide much grounds to hold that something like ESP is real.

This is completely false. If an anecdotal account is studied dilligently and the usual suspects can be safely discarded (fraud, self deception, etc) then normal explanations cannot account for the events as they transpired. This is scientism, and this is an ideology, as well as fundamental and rather narrow sighted understanding of Science, or the scientific method.

I would hope that if you are keen to continue the line of arguementation you have chosen to provide some tangible analysis of particular experiments, or a thorough-going analysis of the literature from which it can be deduced that, effectively, no result has been proven to be positive. So far you have provided allusions to ghostly figures which hold some authority withing the 'skeptical' community.

Arguements for authority, im afraid, dont cut it.

Robert – yes, I have read your book, although not in the usual way, i.e., I started at page one, intending to work through to the end, but I found myself exploring different sections. Consequently, I have the book on my desk in my office with a couple of dozen pieces of paper acting as bookmarkers sticking out of it.

As it happens, I think it is a useful reference book, and when I am looking at various paranormal or sceptical websites or blogs I sometimes think, “I wonder what McLuhan has to say about that?” and then pick it up to make comparisons.

If you want my opinion, I would say this: Randi’s Prize is a well researched pro-paranormal reference book. It is well indexed and referenced, and readers will have no problem finding a discussion of whatever their particular paranormal interest is. I would also add that your arguments are eloquently written and tightly argued.

This is a book that I think will appeal to believers and sceptics alike, but for opposite reasons. For the proponents of psi, it makes the job of presenting an argument in favour of the paranormal easier, because you have neatly summarised many of the main points, and explained why you think psi is real and sceptics are wrong. This, I think, will help the believers in psi to marshal their thoughts on the subject and help them to better articulate their own ideas on the subject.

On the other hand, however, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that you have not converted this sceptic into a believer. For sceptics, I suspect that the usefulness of the book also lies in the way you have presented your arguments, but they will see it from a different perspective. Although you do give a very good outline of many of the points raised by sceptics – and then go on to demolish those arguments – a sceptic like me is aware that those outlines tend to be incomplete. I don’t think for a moment that you are creating any deliberate straw man arguments, but I do think that the sceptical counter-arguments will point out what you have not included.

For me, I do not have a close interest in NDEs, for example, and I usually leave discussion of that to others who are more familiar with the subject, but I have a passionate interest in psychic mediums and how they work. For that reason, I took a close look at what you wrote about “cold reading.” I was hoping you would have examined what must be the most authoritative book on the subject, Ian Rowland’s Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, but I can’t find a single mention of the book or its author. You do mention Ray Hyman, however, and some of what he has to say about cold reading, but then, it seems to me, what he thinks about the subject is just glossed over and then dismissed.

But the same applies to other aspects of paranormal research. Although you have outlined and given emphasis to research that supports the psi hypothesis, there are many other, opposing, factors that have been left out, and sceptical arguments outlined but too quickly dismissed. I can’t blame you for that, however, the book is obviously intended to promote the paranormal hypothesis mainly by trying to diminish the criticisms of sceptics.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it 9 out of 10 as a pro psi book, but I don’t think that you have made an iron clad case. (By the way, many thanks for sending me an e-copy. I bought the book, though, because I’m a bit old fashioned that way – bookmarking with bits of paper and leafing backwards and forwards is what I am used to; although I don’t mind reading lengthy posts on blogs and websites, doing the same with a book-length piece on a computer isn’t quite the same as relaxing with one’s feet up and the book in one’s hands.)

XXII – there are no red herrings or arguments from authority in my previous post.

All of the points you make are areas that I have argued here before, and I don’t feel like spending time going over the same points again, except to say this: you cannot produce anyone who claims to have psychic powers who can demonstrate those powers unambiguously. I don’t mean that they have to pass Randi’s challenge, necessarily, or even pass tests by scientists who are not also parapsychologists. Let them just do it in a way that can’t be argued with.

Perhaps, as I have suggested here before, let us see remote viewers direct rescuers to survivors of an earthquake who are trapped under rubble. But it doesn’t happen. What does happen is that we get a lot of excuses to explain away the failure of these remarkable people to actually do anything even remotely resembling the claims they make.

I am not operating within what you call scientism or anything that could be described as an ideology opposing the possibility that psi could be real. It’s as simple as this: someone claims to be able to do something paranormal, and I ask them to prove it. They fail to do so.

It is often claimed by the pro paranormal community that science (scientism, as you would call it) is also an ideology – a system where scientists are there only to defend and maintain the status quo, but events this week prove that claim wrong. Scientists have revealed what might be an anomaly in physics – a finding that suggests that there are neutrino particles that can travel faster than the speed of light. If it is true, then a fundamental aspect of physics would have to be wrong – namely relativity.

It is interesting to note that this finding has not been covered up in the interests of maintaining the status quo; on the contrary, those scientists have publicised it for others to examine and test.

Should I be worried that my “ideology” is threatened by that? No, not at all. I suspect that the measurements of the speed of those particles might be wrong; or maybe there is an artefact in the system that has not been detected. Given the fact that the neutrinos and light from supernovae are detected at the same time rather than several years apart, as the case should be if the new findings are true, it seems unlikely that these new findings are correct, and that relativity is safe.

But it seems to me that if some subatomic particles do travel faster than light, then the worst that is going to happen is that a whole new area of physics will be opened up. A very exciting prospect, and a Nobel Prize, at the very least, is up for grabs.

In the meantime, pro paranormal supporters are still quoting the words of William Crookes, et al, from the middle of the nineteenth century, with no further progress, and the newspaper article I quoted is as up to date as the middle ages.

Call it scientism if you want, but in reality science delivers what it says on the packet.

You might also want to take note that it is scientists, not psychics, who have revealed a possible anomaly in what we think is true about the universe we inhabit.

Harley, thanks for your positive comments about my book. The reason I asked if you had read it was because you keep repeating positions that it challenged without appearing to have grasped any of its arguments.

I am familiar with Rowlands' book, and yes it might have been useful to cite it, as a more thorough overview than Hyman's. But Hyman's is nevertheless sufficiently detailed to grasp the principles of cold reading, and it's not clear at all how these principles can be applied to the examples I described, notably Leonora Piper and Gladys Leonard. I can't take your claim to be passionate about how psychics work at face value unless you show familiarity with the research on these and others, and provide some indication about how cold reading can plausibly explain such cases.

If you wish to argue that this research is old and not carried out "under controlled laboratory conditions", or some such, then I will argue that you are evading the issues it raises.

XII was absolutely right to characterise your complaints about phoney psychics as a red herring. Of course their behaviour is disgusting. But in this context it's relevant only in respect to sceptics like yourself, since it's what engages your attention and reinforces your prejudices.

Many of your complaints are rhetorical and frankly trivial. For instance, when you say 'pro paranormal supporters are still quoting the words of William Crookes, et al, from the middle of the nineteenth century' - well yes, but so what? Evolution scientists are still quoting the words of Darwin, also from the middle of the nineteenth century.

I'm very happy to hear from sceptics who offer something of real substance to challenge my arguments and positions. If you persist in posting here I must urge that you get to grips with psychic research. Then we have can have a meaningful discussion. Otherwise may I respectfully suggest that you have made your position sufficiently clear, and it might now be time to find a forum that's more suitable to your particular ideas and inclinations.

Well put!

Yeah, Im sorry. Your arguement, as Robert mentions, is largely rethorical and very poorly evidence, at least here and now by you. You keep putting up strawmen and casting the shadow of arguably irrelevant things into the discussion to avoid dealing with tangible examples. Look, im not trying to be belligerent (nor do I think you are being belligerent, for that matter) but most of the things you argue for stand, as of now, on their own, with little to back them up.

I asked you to link me to specifics which you think exemplify your point of view. This should be fairly easy and it would let us examine those claims for what they are worth, not for who argued for them.

I dont feel threatened to concede that the strongest cases within parapsychology are flawed and that there is no case for PSI, provided you are able to argue for it. Up until now, I have not seen any arguement that sucessfully deals with the body of data as a whole, but only tackling side issues (that can be revised, certainly) and arguing that it is enough to bring down the whole case.

PS. I think you feel that those who argue for the paranormal are laymen who have no aquaintance with science. This is a rather poor characterization and even a cursory approach to the history of paranormal research, despite its validity or lack thereof, shows that many who have explored it have been systematic, rigorous and often coming from areas of knowledge that are in their own right 'scientific'.

I dont use the terms "science" and "scientism" interchangeably. Those who put up the results of CERN up for scrutiny are behaving as scientists. Curiously enough, you omit various interesting points to this story. First, the actual type of neutrinos that were supposed to be coming from the supernovae wasnt clearly determined, so it might be that some types of neutrinos do not exceed the speed of light, whilst others do. Furthermore, the reaction has been all but 'open minded'. By and large there's been a knee jerk reaction, specially from non-specialists, to undermine the data claiming it wasnt replicated, that there was methodological flaw, or that it plain just cant be so.

By all means should be dilligent with those discoveries but that is quite different from the outrage that some circles have expressed at this finding. To me, it is evident that those who fashion themselves to believe in 'cold hard science' (which is just a poor characterization of the scientific process)are just as prone to hold, even if not consciously, a worldview which they will want to, emotionally, defend.

very poorly supported by evidence*

Anyone doubting the evidence for psi might read Dean Radin's "Entangled Minds'. Superbly argued IMHO.

Well, Robert, that’s plain enough. It’s your blog, and if you prefer your commenters to be yes-men, that’s up to you. But I might as well address the last comments you made to me.

A mistake that you and the regulars here make is the oft-repeated claim that those who do not accept psi as a real phenomenon disbelieve only because they “have not seen the evidence.” Presumably it is for that reason you seem to think I have not read your book. On the contrary, sceptics disbelieve because they HAVE seen the evidence and found it wholly inadequate to support the idea that the paranormal is real. I do, in fact, grasp your arguments, but you do not grasp the reasons why they don’t work. Your belief is far stronger than your logic.

Rowland’s book is not an “overview” of cold reading (calling it an “overview” is a bit insulting, actually), it is a textbook and instruction manual of cold reading and I would be willing to bet that many “psychics” practising today have a copy of it. I can easily use your own argument here: People who do not believe “how cold reading can plausibly explain such cases” have not read The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. While you might be in awe at how psychics get information “they couldn’t possibly know,” I look at them with a jaundiced eye as I recognise the psychological word games they use on the suckers they bilk. But if you don’t know how it’s done, then you, like them, are being fooled.

The research on Piper and the rest of them is indeed old, and the controlling conditions of the time questionable at best. But the beauty of such cases for the believers is that they cannot be tested. Just quote the big names like Crookes, Lodge, etc. That gives you an appeal to authority that cannot be conclusively refuted, and at the same time, you “forget” the other prominent researchers of the time – Amy Tanner and others - who concluded that the famous mediums of the day were nothing more than unashamed frauds (or deluded). Those dissenters, like me, are uncomfortable to have around here.

You’re not in a position to accuse me of throwing in red herrings when you yourself throw in your remark about evolution scientists still quoting Darwin. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the bedrock of biological science, not an airy-fairy fantasy that cannot be tested. Evolutionary science has advanced far beyond anything Darwin could have imagined, of course, especially considering the latest advances in medical knowledge – most of it based on the foundations Darwin laid. But the point is that the science established by Charles Darwin has important practical benefits today for billions of people around the world.

Now examine what practical benefits the world enjoys today from the psychical research that has gone on from the time of Crookes to the present day:

Erm...

That’s about it, unless the creation of a generation of people who are eager to hand over their cash for nothing of any value in return counts as a result.

Never mind; you clearly want a forum where you can post your views without contradiction, and a coterie of believers whose comments can all be summarised as “Yes, I agree with that.” That is your right, and fine by me. I won’t “persist in posting here” if it means I can do so only if I toe the party line and reinforce what are, in fact, your own prejudices.

I’ll finish with a definition that summarises the paranormal perfectly:

Clairvoyant, n. A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron -- namely, that he is a blockhead.
-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)

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