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Randi’s Prize Revisited

It’s three years since I published Randi’s Prize, and I thought it would be a good time for a catch-up.

Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. I was thrilled with the generous responses from readers on Amazon, also the many who took the trouble to write to me. I still sometimes hear from new readers, and get special satisfaction from those who say that after reading the book they are taking the subject seriously for the first time.

Naturally I wondered what sort of critical reactions the book would get. I guessed that readers would either like it or hate it, and that seems to have been the case. The Amazon reviews, both UK and US, tend to be 5-stars (the great majority) or 1-star and not much in between.

An exception was a quite interesting three-star review which complained I was preaching to the converted.

It's nice when you're cheering your supporters up but that's not who this book needs to impress, in my view. I happen to think the points he makes are excellent but he perhaps doesn't realise that if non-believers had the same reality analysis values he does, they wouldn't be sceptics. . . I think he really needs to get more in sympathy with the highly intolerant and almost impossible conditions that hardened naysayers lay down and get in some quick hooks, quickly.

In fact I had thought a great deal about how to talk to non-believers. But a writer has to be honest; anything else won’t do. So I said what I felt, which is that sceptical responses to psychic claims are often defensive, incoherent and nonsensical. I knew that wasn’t going to win over sceptics, but they were never my target audience.

Instead I hoped the book would appeal to agnostics, people who had vaguely thought about the subject after having perhaps experienced a psychic incident themselves, or been told of one by a family member. I think I was right about that.

We all come to a book, or any creative work, from a different place, which is why there are so many different critical responses. I certainly didn’t think that coming on hard and strong from the beginning would work. On the contrary, it would be tiresomely dogmatic, and would turn readers off. If one expresses a strong view on the subject the reader is always asking, how did the author get to this position? What truly motivates him? That’s why I took so much trouble to explain my reasoning at every step.

Anyway how does one argue with the naysayers? Some hostile reviewers objected to the idea of a mere journalist, a purveyor of tittle-tattle, correcting credentialled scientists. One damned me as a parapsychologist (ouch!). Understandably there were complaints about my shabby treatment of James Randi, the heroic defender of science, and of his transparent and easily winnable prize:

Randi's challenge is the embodiment of hypothesis-driven science. If you think you can do something "paranormal", says Randi, say exactly what it is, under exactly what conditions, and with exactly what expectation of success. That's an entirely rational requirement for anyone who says they can do things that defy rational explanation.

Yes indeed. Useless to explain that people have been doing this for more than a century, not just scientific investigators but stage magicians like Randi – and getting convincing results. Why is Randi so special? My idea of hypothesis-driven science is that, if you think the claimed phenomenon might be real, you set up an investigation or an experiment. To set a trap and wait for people to fall into it is something quite different – and certainly not science.

What I mainly noticed from the complainers was a mule-like resistance to any kind of reasoning whatever. They seemed hardly to have read the book; instead they just skimmed the surface for points they could rebut. One reviewer lifted a comment out of context and attributed to it the opposite meaning from the one I intended. Another complained of my ‘touching belief that peoples' stories and recollections - many if not most of them recorded decades ago - are faithful and unerring accounts of fact.’ Gaaah!

Then there was this one:

I was fooled by the blurb into thinking this might be an evidence-based account employing standard best-practice methodologies. In fact, it is simply a collection of completely biased accounts involving data drilling and anecdote; a re-hash of the centuries-old superstition dressed up (incompetently or dishonestly) as objective research. It should really be called "Why Skeptics are Only Right if you Take Evidence into Account" . . . But until McLuhan can get *properly designed trials* to support him instead of the skeptics, his battle is not with the skeptics but with the real world.

Since the whole point of the book was to argue the opposite – that many accounts of psychic incidents are fully investigated and well corroborated, that many successful experiments are indeed ‘properly designed’, and that therefore we should revisit materialist preconceptions about the ‘real world’ – I wondered where I had gone wrong. What could I have done better? What can anyone do, apart from using the tools of persuasion: collect abundant facts and apply rigorous reasoning?

I couldn’t come up with a solution, except to stand over the critic with a big stick and make him read each paragraph of my book over and over until I was sure he’d grasped the point - and then force him to make an appropriate answer.

It’s not that I especially minded this sort of thing, and I certainly shouldn’t have been surprised about it. (Some of the more obtuse critiques were capably answered by other reviewers, which was gratifying – my thanks to them.) But what did disappoint me slightly was that no sceptic, as far as I can recall, has ever engaged with a single one of my arguments. They appear not even to notice that I have made any.

An exception might have been French blogger Jean-Michel Abrassart, who read the book attentively and said he liked it because it did at least air sceptical arguments quite fully. He wasn’t impressed with my counter-arguments, insisting that I minimised the problem of replication in experimental parapsychology, and underestimated the weakness of testimony in spontaneous cases. But he didn’t respond to my reasoning in either case, only to my conclusion, which he rebutted simply by reiterating the sceptic position. If sceptics have outed Eusapia Palladino as a fraud, for instance, why then, there is nothing more to be said. There can be no retrial.

Abrassart and a few others took exception to my idea that a person who confesses to fraud in this context might not be telling the truth. Some seemed scandalised by the suggestion that Margaret Fox was lying when she publicly claimed that she and her sister had fooled their parents with childish tricks all those years before.

But there are points about this episode that cry out for exposure. Margaret was clearly lying about her and her sister’s ages, seeming to believe it would make the confession more plausible. Her statement does not remotely explain the events described in great detail by eyewitnesses forty years earlier. Scores of precisely similar incidents have been reported by other people. And all of this is indisputable to anyone who takes the trouble to check, and if the positions were reversed no sceptic would take her statement seriously for one second. Yet a position I saw repeated in reviews and comments is that Margaret Fox’s confession is indubitably true.

This really astonished me. Do we believe that criminal confessions are always true? No we do not. On the contrary, it’s shaming and disturbing to learn, again and again, how innocent, vulnerable people have been banged up for decades on the basis of nothing more than an invented confession, often put into their mouths and assented to in a moment of weakness. Why is this different?

What all this told me is that sceptical responses aren’t based on argument, they’re about defending the integrity of scientific materialism. I know that’s obvious, but I needed to confirm it for myself. Sceptics bang on endlessly about following the evidence, but in this context they could hardly care less about it – as their responses to my book abundantly show.

Still, the phenomenon of denial is so gross, and so extraordinary, that instead of simply expressing frustration and puzzlement, a writer like myself might profitably investigate the reasons for it. In Randi’s Prize I explored what I thought were promising leads about the psychology underlying militant disbelief, and whose importance I hope will one day be more generally recognised.

But in the last chapter I started to think about what it is that is so hugely valuable to humans, so necessary and important, that it needs to be protected by evasions, distortions and even outright lies. Could it even be that there is a point to this, that scientific materialism needs to be nurtured and protected in this way? There’s something be said on both sides, and in my next book I hope at least to take the matter a bit further.