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SPR Conference in Wales

I’ve just booked for the Society for Psychical Research’s annual do, which this year is being held at Swansea University. One of the speakers is neuropsychologist Peter Fenwick, who is always good value on the subject of near-death experiences. (The title of his talk mentions ‘End of Life Experiences’ and ‘Cardiac Arrest OBEs’, which are perhaps more exact terms, given that a near-death experience these days can simply mean an accident, or a narrow escape from one.) The last talk I heard Fenwick give was about deathbed visions, followed by one on terminal lucidity – which I wrote about here.

Other topics include electronic voice phenomena and precognitive dreams.

I wish I could go to conferences more often, but they are quite costly when you include accommodation, meals and travel. I tell myself one can get just as good information from the speakers’ books and articles – for a fraction of the cost. (I never bothered with lectures much at university, and it didn’t make any difference.) But there is something special about a group meeting. One picks up nuances that would otherwise get missed, and it’s good to meet the speakers and other people.

Would be glad to meet up with any of Paranormalia’s readers who might be going. I possess a little blogging camera, and with luck will be able to cobble together a little video afterwards.

Full event details here. Registration closes Tuesday August 27.

Sceptics Divided

The Newsweek article about the sceptics movement that I mentioned last week has appeared, nicely titled The Bullshit Police. I was interviewed by the writer, Michael Moynihan, but wasn’t quoted. No matter - it’s fine for journalists to get a broad range of opinions without having to describe them all.

The article is about the opposing currents within the movement itself, and it’s a fascinating read. Moynihan agrees with its worldview, but as the subtitle makes it clear is not an uncritical supporter (‘Inside a brilliant, nerdy, arrogant, sort of admirable, sort of insufferable movement that questions everything – and wants to upend the way you live and think’.) It’s interesting to learn about the confusions they have when it comes to climate change, and also about religion. The sceptic and the atheist aren’t the same beast necessarily.

The debate is not over the existence of God—almost all the skeptics I met . . . were nonbelievers. Rather, the argument is over whether skepticism should be synonymous with atheism, or whether the two movements should stay separate.

Jamy Ian Swiss, a close-up magician by trade, is one of the chief advocates for the latter view. Swiss lives in Southern California but is New York through and through. He’s voluble and opinionated, delivering withering judgments with the kind of lilting Brooklyn accent that one rarely hears in today’s Brooklyn. He’s a left-wing Jew who disdains religion (“The rabbi and the cantor were such assholes that they turned me into an atheist by the day of my bar mitzvah”) and is obsessed with science. He isn’t an academic, but his references to radical journalist I.F. Stone and knowledge of scientific history might persuade you that he should have been.

Addressing a group of California atheists in 2010, Swiss delivered a barbed speech on the relationship between skepticism and atheism. “Read my lips: there is no fucking God,” he roared. “But that is my personal belief, it’s not my public cause. My cause is scientific skepticism.” After the speech, PZ Myers, a widely read—and notoriously prickly—academic and science blogger, denounced “asshole” Swiss’s “incredibly repellent talk” and announced that he would “no longer consider myself a ‘skeptic.’?” The skeptic world, as it so frequently does, convulsed with charges, countercharges, ad hominem, and endless debates over whether God is a “testable scientific claim” or whether guys like Swiss were selling out atheism in an effort to expand the movement’s popularity.

This was a side of Myers that I wasn’t familiar with, so I took myself off to his blog to check it out. But before I could find it I came across posts taking shots at other people who I would also have thought were batting for his team. Fellow biologist Jerry Coyne, for instance, who with Myers started the TED row over Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock a few months ago. Coyne’s offence was to put in a good word for evolutionary psychology, a discipline that Myers is deeply suspicious of. Coyne notes that he started out as an opponent of sociobiology, as it was first known, but thinks that it has matured and is now a ‘valuable’ way of studying human behaviour. He decries the sceptics who debase it.

Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. . . It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.

‘Pure ad hominem, unsupported by evidence,’ Myers snorts.

I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.

Another post that caught my eye attacks Steven Pinker on the subject of scientism. The target was an essay that Pinker wrote recently for New Republic titled ‘Science is Not Your Enemy’, which has attracted quite a bit of attention. The article is actually an impassioned defence of humanism, and in that regard – considering, as I do, that humanism is the only ‘ism’ seriously worth defending, at least in its true sense – I found it rather admirable. I filtered out the patronising comments that people like Pinker always make about science in such contexts. Not so Myers. As an academic he rubs shoulders with people in the humanities, and was angered by Pinker talking down to them. He was especially incensed by Pinker recasting great Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant as early pioneers of scientific thinking. Pinker writes:

Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms.”

Pinker finds them all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.

The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

To which Myers retorts:

Hooooly craaaaaap.

Look, there’s some reasonable stuff deeper in, but that opening . . . could he possibly have been more arrogant, patronizing, and ahistorical? Not only is he appropriating philosophers into the fold of science, but worse, he’s placing them in his favored disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and social psychology. Does the man ever step outside of his office building on the Harvard campus?

Pinker commits the fallacy of progress and scientism, Myers thinks.

There is no denying that we have better knowledge of science and engineering now, but that does not mean that we’re universally better, smarter, wiser, and more informed about everything. What I know would be utterly useless to a native hunter in New Guinea, or to an 18th century philosopher; it’s useful within a specific context, in a narrow subdomain of a 21st technological society. I think Pinker’s fantasy is not one of informing a knowledgeable person, but of imposing the imagined authority of a modern science on someone from a less technologically advanced culture.

It strikes me that these sorts of disagreements are becoming more common. Sceptical scientists are taking public exception to each others’ positions, not just to the opposition’s. And it's interesting that some are starting to discover problems with ideological dogmatism. But it makes sense. As the sceptics movement grows (everyone Moynihan talked to used the word ‘movement’, he notes) it is bound to fracture and factionalise to some extent, as all movements do. Of course sceptics will always unify around core disbeliefs - God, supernaturalism and quack medicine, etc. But as they find some of their own, less central beliefs and interests coming under attack they might increasingly turn their attention to each other.

Could there one day be a major schism? And if so, what would it look like? Would it be ideologists and dogmatists on one side, moderates on the other? Or would it be the fuzzier, more open-minded speculative types ranged against the hardcore materialists?

It’s hard to say how the sceptics movement will develop in the future, but we can be reasonably sure it won’t always look the way it does now. In that changed environment, it’s possible that some people who call themselves sceptics might hold more nuanced views about psi-research than seems now to be the case.

Getting to Grips With Physical Phenomena

I mentioned mediums in passing recently, and it threw up a debate about seance phenomena (levitations, movements of objects, etc). Someone asked me about my position, so I thought I’d respond briefly.

Bottom line: I think physical mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, but one that can easily be faked. That makes it desperately hard to evaluate. It’s natural to feel that the field is mired in fraud. At first glance practically all mediums were caught faking at one time another – or even confessed to having done so.

In that case, why do I take it seriously? Partly because some of the most comprehensive research (eg. the Feilding Report) points in that direction. But also because it fits with types of spontaneous phenomena such as so-called poltergeists, where the issues are not so complex. If there is truly a psychic element to consciousness, then surely it supports the abundant testimony as to the reality of séance phenomena.

If asked, I’d advise anyone serious about understanding the truth about psi to steer clear of nineteenth and early twentieth century physical mediums – the likes of Kate Fox, Eglinton, Home, Palladino, Duncan, etc. It’s a big, roiling sea of suspicion, and if you’re not experienced you’ll drown in it. Other areas such as ESP research and spontaneous experiences are controversial, but are still easier to get to grips with.

Some interesting points were raised in the comments thread. One commenter suggested that believers filter out stuff that doesn’t suit their arguments. For instance certain confessions of fraud are only found in sceptics’ writings. He likes the idea of neutral books, those that look at it from both sides, and perhaps even present the arguments with equal weight, allowing readers to make up their own minds.

There was quite a lot of discussion about Brian Inglis, including a complaint that he defended obviously dodgy mediums like the Foxes, Eusapia Palladino and Eva C. There were also references to the Wikipedia page on mediums, which list a lot of the exposes and confessions.

It’s very easy to get bogged down; easy to get pulled this way and that. This happened to me, and I wrote about it at some length in Randi’s Prize, where I described the development of my thinking. It took me more than two years to come to a settled view. I grappled with Inglis, and also his nemesis Ruth Brandon: I had absolutely no idea which of these two completely opposite versions was more trustworthy. There are abundant sources that will back up whichever view you take.

I then realised that I needed to get to the primary sources – the research literature – and start making my own judgements. Then I started making progress. It seemed to me, for instance, that the Feilding-Carrington-Baggally investigation of Palladino was far more serious and conclusive than a rival one by Joseph Jastrow – more complete, more focused, better documented, and carried out by more experienced investigators (see extracts here).

I was impressed by the findings of the Dialectical Society, an atheists group, who investigated séance claims in a highly committed way, and had some dramatic experiences with table turning – which could not be accounted for by Faraday’s much quoted conjectures. There are many others of this kind. Having established that dedicated, intelligent investigators had witnessed the phenomena in controlled conditions, and been impressed by their reasoning, the fakery started to seem less relevant.

I also started to understand something about the sceptical literature that I hadn’t grasped before. When it comes to the exposes and confession, the definition between the real and imagined is blurred. Much of it is just conjecture and speculation. But that distinction gets lost, and it’s treated as fact. There’s a reason why ‘believers’ like Inglis don’t mention the incidents that sceptics find so devastating – a lot of them were just made up. (I’m used to being denounced for disputing the veracity of Margaret Fox’s ‘confession’. But there are so many reasons for doubting it that, if the positions were reversed, sceptics would be derisive that anyone took it seriously for a minute.)

The Wikipedia article on mediums reads like a party political broadcast on behalf of the sceptics movement. I suppose because Wikipedia is quite thorough and detailed on non-controversial subjects it is treated as an authoritative source. But if you know the research literature it creates a ludicrous effect. It would be like going to a creationist website to learn about Darwinist evolution.

The Scole circle gets mentioned in these discussions, I guess because it is relatively recent. But I don’t think it helps us to make judgements; it has simply reinforced the doubts and suspicions. I’m convinced that will always be the case with physical phenomena; the same has been true of Uri Geller. That’s why I think this is a bad place to start.

Since I made up my mind some years ago, I spend little time thinking about the subject, and on the whole avoid writing about it. I might try to convince someone – if I thought that person was interested – that telepathy or remote viewing, or mental mediumship perhaps, are genuine phenomena. In fact I do have those discussions sometimes, although I’m averse to the idea of trying to convert people to my way of thinking. I just think it’s good to make them aware of things they might not otherwise know about.

But when it comes to the physical stuff, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just explain why I take it seriously, and leave it at that. I’d have no realistic expectations of carrying my argument. And I can’t argue seriously with people who haven’t read the research (or at least more than the sceptic bits); all I can do is urge them to read it.

That said, the subject does interest for what it says about how humans react to these things. Scepticism is not a neutral business – it’s a natural reaction to something that we find unbelievable. Some investigators who made claims about séance phenomena – and this is one of many curious details that sceptics won’t know – eventually started paying attention to their own mental processes. They observed how the impression of having seen something paranormal was gradually erased in the memory, so that days later they were convinced they had imagined it. Or else they realised their mind had created an elaborate scenario of how the trick was done with concealed machinery.

So the séance literature is a potentially a rich source of understanding about fear of the paranormal. It documents a constant, neurotic manoeuvring to escape the implications. I believe that one day researchers will be mining it for insights in this regard.

Finally, there’s a point to make about the idea of a neutral book, one that makes an objective case for both sides of the argument and lets readers make up their minds. That’s what journalists and broadcasters often do, or claim to do. It’s not the way, though. I did come across a book like this once, long ago – and it was no help at all. It just made the confusion worse.

There really is no short cut, no magic wand. No single book will make everything brilliantly clear. It takes commitment, time and effort; months of reading and searching out of sources; months, perhaps even years of reflection. No one will ever know the truth who relies on other people to tell it to them.

Sceptics in the Media Spotlight

Back from my holiday now – camping in Norfolk in blissful warm weather.

I was just on Skype with a journalist at Newsweek. He’s doing an article on the sceptics movement, and has apparently spent some time with James Randi, et al, soaking up their wisdom. He admits to being sceptical himself, turned off by mediums like Sylvia Browne and John Edward making big bucks from the gullible public. But he seemed interested and open-minded, and it was a good discussion.

He said that Randi insisted on being referred to as an investigator, not a debunker. I came down on that one hard. I told him what happened when CSICOP, shortly after its founding, tried to suppress news of positive results, and how since then it avoided actual investigation for fear of embarrassment. There are real investigators and for the most part they’re parapsychologists.

He commented on the somewhat authoritarian, ‘Stalinist’ flavour to sceptic websites. Yes indeed. A symptom of the ideological war that sceptics are waging. They can’t allow people to believe this stuff, it’s against their religion.

He also asked why I thought the media tends to shut out people like me who take psychic phenomena seriously. That was an intelligent question, and not something that the media asks itself very often. I suggested that the sceptics’ movement has been effective in ridiculing paranormal belief - professionals just can’t afford to expose themselves to it. Science editors particularly must never seem ‘soft’ – even if they’re secretly interested they just don’t have the confidence, or in most cases the seniority, to be open about it. Actually I think that applies to most writers and broadcasters in the serious news media. It’s just not something one admits to.

I pointed out that people like me aren’t impressed by the celebrity psychics – that’s not why we take it seriously. It’s mostly because we’re familiar with the research literature. That’s where the arguments are. If I happen to think John Edward is a genuine medium it’s because I’m convinced by a century of research that mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, not by Edward’s performance. But, I told him, sceptics aren’t interested in that – their knowledge is limited to the exposes and confessions (whether real or alleged) that help them keep the faith.

It turned out that this is going to be Newsweek’s cover story next week. So there could be more than one article. I might be quoted, but probably not at length (knowing how we journalists work). He mentioned the cover story they ran on Eben Alexander’s NDE a while back, and it occurs to me that they must have got a lot of grief from sceptics about that. So this could be a way of redressing the balance.

But thinking about it, there’s so much that journalists don’t know about this subject, and trying to get handle on it while researching a single article is hardly the way to get a balanced view. Hell, some journalists write an entire book and still seem confused.

Still, it will be interesting to see the mainstream media’s take on sceptics. Something to watch out for.