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James Randi's Personal Troubles

More Psi Wars

I reviewed Debating Psychic Experience here a year or so ago, and another review is coming out in the current issue of the SPR Journal. Meanwhile, parapsychologist Chris Roe sends me a copy of a recent exchange in the UK Skeptic magazine.

As usual the critics, represented here by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, want parapsychology to declare itself dead. Hyman contests the claim, based on ganzfeld meta-analyses and supported by Dean Radin and Jessica Utts, among others, that the reality of psi has been established. Wiseman argues that parapsychology is by now 'confined to the fringes of academia'.

However Wiseman also generously offers parapychologists 'one last chance' to prove themselves. They need to focus on one or two of the most promising approaches, he says, aiming for replications in a number of different labs, and pre-registering details in order to avoid the problems that arise with retrospective analysis.

If this approach yields a significant and replicable effect then the scientific mainstream would be forced to take the topic seriously and allow parapsychology in from the cold. If it fails the field needs to have the courage to accept the null hypothesis. In short, the time has come to put up or shut up.

Counter-arguments are put forward by Caroline Watt and Chris Roe. Watt, from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, points out that parapsychology hardly exists as a discipline: there are fewer than 100 researchers working full time in the world, and many of those study not psi itself but other areas such as paranormal belief.

Roe, a psychology lecturer and psi-experimenter at the University of Northampton, adds that at least 16 UK universities have academic staff whose doctoral training is in parapsychology. Parapsychology has featured regularly at conferences organised by the British Psychological Society, and he personally has had papers accepted by its annual conference. Interestingly, the largest of the A-level (the standard pre-university qualification) examination boards for psychology includes 'Anomalistic Psychology' in its specification, including elements on testing of ESP and PK. This means, Roe says, that 'future undergraduates will come to university with a grounding in parapsychology and an expectation that the subject will be represented on any comprehensive undergraduate syllabus' - hardly characteristics of a subject confined to the fringes.

Roe vigorously contests Hyman's claim that parapsychology doesn't look scientific. According to what criteria, he asks. For instance, studies show that the use of double blind methods are common in parapsychology at a level of 85%, but hardly at all in physics and biology and only 25% in medical sciences.

When it comes to arguments about replication, Hyman picked a poor study but could just as easily have chosen a good one, Roe says. Also, there is a very strong correlation between standardness and effect size, and where the focus in meta-analyses is on standard studies you get something that looks very like replication.

So why aren't there more of these? In such a tiny field, the active players tend to be innovators looking for interesting new approaches, Roe continues, not technicians engaged in replication exercises. This rather reinforces Wiseman's point, and Roe agrees there need to be changes, but then there's the problem of funding.

These arguments are by now quite familiar, and many were covered in Debating Psychic Experience. It's worth noting, though, that Hyman hardly ever talks about flawed methodology these days in the way that he used to. An alert reader might wonder why, if psi-researchers' experimental methodology is no longer the target of critics' attention, they are still often getting highly significant results.

But Hyman does have a new gambit, and it strikes me as one that goes to the heart of the matter. He claims that some psi-researchers themselves agree that parapsychology has failed. These neoparapyschologists, as he calls them - he mentions Dick Bierman, Walter von Lucadou and Robert Jahn - appear to concede that psi fails to meet scientific criteria, and that the evidence for it will never satisfy scientific standards. In that case, he argues, the goal set by the founders of psychical research, that psi be accepted by mainstream science, is clearly unattainable.

Since the time of Calileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton, modern science has flourished just because it focused only on phenomena that were available for public scrutiny, were lawful, and could be independently replicated.

Quite so, and for science to restrict its focus in this way has made sense. But it does not follow that a phenomenon for which there is abundant evidence in a number of areas - often anecdotal, to be sure, but also confirmed by careful investigation - does not exist, merely on the grounds that it does not fully meet these three criteria. On the contrary, an entity that arises from consciousness would surely be expected to be fitful and elusive.

Jahn notes that psi's primary correlates appear to be subjective in character, including such nebulous factors as

teleological intention (need, desire); emotional resonance (bonding, meaning, personal importance); attitude (confidence, playfulness, low ego involvement); masculine/feminine distinctions (both psychological and biological); and perceived uncertainty or complexity, all of which may function at the unconscious as well as the conscious level'.

('Change the Rules!', Journal of Scientific Exploration), 2008.

Such an entity is likely to evade detection as long as it fails to conform to scientific objectivity, he says.

This is what Hyman's neoparapsychologists are really talking about. If psi lies outside science, as science is presently conceived, then as far as they're concerned, so much the worse for science. It's time, as Jahn says, to change the rules. In particular - as Rupert Sheldrake too argues in his new book - scientists need to abandon the illusion that what they do is somehow purely objective, as if human subjectivity never entered into it.

The problem, then, is how a methodology designed to deal with material entities can be modified so that it can also deal with immaterial ones. And how can its guardians be persuaded to relax their vigilance?

For Jahn there are plenty of precedents. Change is a characteristic of human endeavour, for instance in sports competitions, where a modification of rules can often lead to improvement. There's a similar process of continuous change and development in the creative arts, religion and spirituality, psychology and philosophy, he notes. (Also in politics of course; there are good reasons why the American constitution has been amended so often.) So why should not change also come to science?

A rather obvious reason is its sheer authority and prestige. Science continues to be a fertile source of new technologies, and continues to attract huge public interest in areas like cosmology and neuroscience. So why tinker with it? For critics like Hyman, changing the rules would destroy science: if you let in psi, you risk endorsing other, equally dubious claims, like N-Rays, cold fusion and polywater. Indeed, from his point of view, an article with the title Change the Rules! might almost have been a spoof penned by a satirical critic.

He surely has a point. Yet all this further exposes the ideological nature of science, as an institution based on nineteenth-century positivism. Reality is held to be synonymous with what is lawful, and psi's irregular and subjective nature puts it beyond the pale. It's as much about the reality that we want than the one we're in.

So the psi debate has shifted to a new and more interesting phase, to the nature and purpose of science itself. And at bottom it's driven by the same differences of temperament and vision that drive political arguments. The Hymans and Alcocks are the reactionaries, for whom the unstable, unlawful nature of psi is intolerable and want to prevent change at all costs. The Jahns and Sheldrakes are the visionary pioneers, mapping paths to a future in which the spiritual components of humans are at last recognised.

History tells us that their time will come, because change always comes eventually - whether we like it or not. Positions that once were defended to the death are overrun and disappear, and with hindsight it's incredible that anyone took them seriously. That will happen with the resistance to psi - of that we can be sure. What we don't know is how long it will take.


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Didn't Wiseman recently opine "that by the normal standards of science remote viewing (he later recanted and said he meant ESP in general) has been proven"? Now he is calling for an end to parapsychology! This guy is more interested in garnering attention for whatever media savvy project he is cooking than a genuine attempt at getting to the truth. I am disappointed with his partner's (Caroline Watt) stance on parapsychology though...

I was just about to say exactly the same thing, Michael! Where would Wiseman be without parapsychology, and where would Dawkins be without orthodox religion? Room 101 for the pair of them!

Hi Robert
Really enjoy your fascinating pages. In 1999 I went with a few friends to the Scole Study day in London with a few friends and Richard Wiseman stood up and gave a short speech - he then said the evidence was "very impressive".
So I really find his comments above unusual to say the least. Lights, films, levitations - as you know the Scole Experiment studies has a great deal.
I also went along a few months back to this celebration of Prof. David Fontana's life (one of the Scole Report authors as you know):

and all academics there were universal in their huge respect of him in his investigations and in his academic life. We knew Montague Keen and Arthur Ellison a little from the late 1990's and they discussed very openly what they had seen at Scole - and of course phenomena were seen in the US and Europe.

It's just a very bizarre state of denial or "ignoring" that seems to be going on here. People know of these sorts of investigations but just cannot, or will not, recognise them,
and it's also pretty clear that some form of non-physical intelligence manifested at Scole. Be quite interesting if some scientists "actually" turned up more to witness such phenomena, as did Sir William Crookes in the late 1800's - verdict real he said and unexplained still by science.

Put's into perspective this "one last chance" business above - rather silly!

Thanks Alan. I didn't know Wiseman had made that comment about Scole. Quite surprising. I think Robin Foy quoted him as saying he thought it was all 'complete nonsense' - which sounds more likely.

I increasingly view this debate in the same way as politics, and Wiseman himself as a leading protagonist on the other side. He's bound always to put a negative spin on positive-seeming evidence. But I agree, it's puzzling that he should also concede that the case for ESP has been proven (however qualified), and I wonder how he personally squares that with his continued stringent opposition.

Hi Robert
Re-Scole, The Study day 1999, it was a fascinating day! I was with my wife and two friends and Richard Wiseman was sitting in front of us with Matthew Smith. This is why I found it quite bizarre when I heard his comments against it. Also reported here:

I don't know if you'd gone to any of those SPR meetings in the late 1990's but often there was was a dinner after in a local restaurant in Kensington. Arthur Ellison, Montague Keen and Bernard Carr were there sometimes and several other long time members. We remember Montague talking very seriously about the Scole phenomena and Arthur Ellison was as open and forthcoming. You knew it was real.
It was only a while after when we realized how much experience they had in all this!

Just one more thing. Tim Coleman was at the David Fontana memorial event above and I had a brief chat with him. I had seen a little of his Scole documentary, The Afterlife Investigations. Again you realize how seriously these events were taken by the investigators and he had access to many of them while making it. Anyway - very interesting.
I've always wondered though about denials in all this. It almost seems to be a covering up sometimes of evidence and some just like to try and mire it in statistics. If so, the question really is why?
For Scole as real, maybe some just don't want too much "intrusion" from somewhere else, shall we say - and certainly it would be massive for science to accept. Quite frankly, where do you go with such data? Cheers

Montague Keen has assured us in his own voice after his death that Scole was exactly as he had written, there was no fraudulence, some of the tapes are on the web site; Monty has materialised many times. He also said from the other side on tape "Randi will never pay up". Monty's work is translated into 14 languages each week as well as all the English speaking sites. He is bringing amazing information about what is happening in our world right now. He also told me not to belong to any organisation other than our foundation as they avoid proving the afterlife exists. The dishonesty within this field shocked him when he went to spirit. Monty's work goes on from the other side of life. He intends to make a difference in our world, and he does. He was, and he continues to be a most remarkable man, I was privileged to know and love him.

RE Scole 1999: I was there too, and I spoke to Richard on the day; he didn't seem any less sceptical about scole than any other paranormal claim and I really don't think he thought the evidence presented was impressive, but you'd have to ask him.

RE: Psi wars. Yeah, I cover this exchange in my book, and I too think it reveals much about the differing cultures within science. In the exchange, the differing players appeal to different standards of evidence and proof, with Hyman being more conservative and insisting on 'hard science' levels of evidence, whereas Roe appeals to social science levels of evidence. So it depends upon what view of science you have. My own view is that 'hard science' levels of evidence seem unrealistic in this field, but that 'social science' levels seem more attainable.

Materialistic skepticism has been on the decline in the past decade. The calls by Hyman and Wiseman represent the last desparate attemps to once again move the goalposts.

The current discussions of consciousness in theoretical physics should be significant to any responsible observer. Science and philosophy are merging, whether skeptics like it or not. If the skeptics don't modify their agenda, it is they who will quickly become irrelevant. One could say they already are so.

As regards, Randi, it was observed by a blogger last year that the Million Dollar Challenge may be a hoax, nothing more than a simple series of magic tricks to convince onlookers that no one has psychic abilities. This charge is believable given Randi's history and the desparate attempts by skeptics evidenced by Wiseman's tactics.

It is important to remember that psi research is leading edge science and is a clear indicator of the future; it is by no means something solely of the past. It is truly unfortunate that some in the field actually do not realize the import of their own work.

I may have related this story here earlier, but it's relevant here as well. I saw a TV show where Ray Hyman led an experiment in which a teenage Russian girl, who claimed to have X-ray vision, had seven people, each with problems clearly visible by X-ray. She had to match the right X-ray to the right person (the people were blindfolded, still, and silent). She got 4 out of 7.

It sounded pretty impressive to me, but Hyman had set a passing score as 5 out of 7. As a result, he struck a very condescending tone and hoped she would give up this nonsense and pursue a career in conventional medicine. She had been debunked. End of story.

However, I later heard that the odds for getting 4 out of 7 are something like 78 to 1--well beyond what is conventionally considered significant (20 to 1).

So what should Hyman have said? Certainly not "give it up and get a real life." He also couldn't have said, "This experiment was too poorly designed to yield anything reliable," since he designed it. At the very least he should have said, "In point of fact, these results impressively exceed the standard level of statistical significance. It certainly gives the appearance that something is going on here. Looks like we need to inquire further." But of course, he said nothing of the kind.

This story seems to me to be a great parable for his whole stance toward parapsychology, and the stance of other skeptics as well.

We need, as a group, to ignore people who pronounce on these things without taking the bother to inform themselves, and professional non-scientific skeptics who will grind their ax as long as someone is giving them attention. Let them talk to themselves.

"We need, as a group, to ignore people who pronounce on these things without taking the bother to inform themselves, and professional non-scientific skeptics who will grind their ax as long as someone is giving them attention. Let them talk to themselves.

I agree Michael, and I read your comment as more than a flippant quip.
It describes a newer, more assertive attitude that I see in current paranormal literature specifically, and the paranormal community in general. I personally started noticing it with Chris Carters Science and the Near Death Experience (his new book is out now) and Robert's Randi's Prize. Then Steve Volk and others started popping up, along with the arrival of newer and more assertive blogs, blog posts and websites. There's more to come in the near future.

Thanks to the internet, e-publishing and print-on-demand, legitimate paranormal discourse is dancing right around the pseudo-sceptics.

Of course, as Alex Tsakiris pointed out in a recent Skeptiko forum exchange, there's the institutional freeze-out to deal with, and that is no small thing. IMO, it may take a little while, but those doors are starting to shake and the foundation is starting to crumble.

Unlike the militant sceptic approach, this Rising Up of the Seekers is not an arrogant, violent thing. It's better thought out, aggressive, and has a smile-on-the-face, kiss-my-a*s disposition. :-)

Hey Robert (and everyone else), about a year ago, Paranormalia had an entry about a medium who was just finding his way, and had a charmingly transparent and guileless approach to blogging about his experiences.
A few months later, the "white collar medium" dropped off the scene due to internal issues with his "gift".

Well, he's back! I am happy to see him in action again and I just thought at least a few of you folks might want to know. And even if you weren't around back then, you might want to check him out:

Skeptics like Hyman and Wiseman make a livelihood and a lot of money out of being skeptics, TV shows, books etc. I find they are really of entertainment value only and not scientific at all, and are of no relevance to science. The TV program of the Russian girl is an example, where they stipulate that she had to achieve a higher level of success than is scientifically accepted as relevant. And she actually performed above chance. Alex (skeptiko) also did animal psi experiments with him, and he falsely said in his book that the results showed no significance when in fact the results were significant. Which shows that manipulation is not past him either. Consciousness is in the fore gound of research and very difficult to study. It is stupidity to say that because something is hard to prove, we just give up. I cant say I have seen a string around anywhere to back up string theory, have you? Stupid statements from people who grandstand to gain publicity for their latest venture, and shouldn't be taken seriously at all.

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