Randi’s Prize by Robert McLuhan

Robert McLuhan was kind enough to give away copies of his book Randi’s Prize: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters.  As a token of my appreciation I have decided to write a post about the book. The book focuses on psychic(al) research and describes how the author came to believe in psi. Though it is written by a believer in psi, it seems to be an even-handed look at the controversy over the paranormal.

Currently, Amazon does not have the table of contents available for preview so some prospective readers may be interested in an outline of the book’s contents. If the topic is at all interesting to you then I recommend reading the book.

  1. Naughty Adolescent Syndrome – focuses on poltergeist activity
    • The sceptics’ view
    • A close-up look
    • Outside the house
    • Another debunking magician
    • The Fox sisters confess
    • Some eyewitness testimony
    • Inside the house
    • Detailed investigations
    • The confessions examined
    • Rational gravity
    • How do the children do it?
    • When was Maggie lying?
    • Who should we trust?
    • Hume, Occam, Randi
  2. Eusapia Palladino and the Phantom Narrative – focuses on seances
    • The seance
    • Why take it seriously?
    • Tabel-turning
    • Eusapia Palladino
    • Hypnosis?
    • Palladino in Naples
    • Palladino in New York
    • More rational gravity
    • Wiseman vs Palladino
    • Seance sex
    • The will to believe
    • The phantom narrative
  3. Communicators – focuses on spirit mediums (those who claim to speak to the dead)
    • Piper and Leonard
    • Some Piper examples
    • Cold reading?
    • Fraud
    • The sceptics’ views of Piper
    • Some Leonard examples
    • Hansel vs Leonard
    • Oldfield vs Vandy
    • The Vandy sittings
    • Questionable logic and circular reasoning
    • Schwartz tests star mediums
    • Randi vs Schwartz
    • Wiseman and Hyman vs Schwartz
    • My view of Schwartz’s experiments
  4. Uncertain Science – focuses on experiments searching for psi
    • Coincidence
    • Card-guessing and other psi experiments
    • What sceptics say
    • Methodological flaws
    • Creating doubt
    • The sense of being stared at
    • Sceptics vs Sheldrake
    • A psychic dog
    • What Wiseman did
    • Science or propaganda?
    • What’s the score?
    • Psychic spying – Hyman vs Utts
  5. Experience and Imagination (I) – focuses on apparitions
    • The psychology of the believer
    • Ghostly encounters
    • Some other types of encounters
    • Analyzing the reports
    • The critics critiqued
    • Fallible memory
    • The psychology of the sceptic
  6. Experience and Imagination (II) – focuses on near-death experiences and reincarnation
    • The challenge for science
    • Could out-of-body perception be an illusion
    • Some questions about Blackmore’s analysis
    • A doctor debunked
    • A determined sceptic
    • Listening to the experiencers
    • The transcendent element
    • Belief and experience are not the same
    • What does evolutionary psychology say?
    • ‘When I was big’
    • Wilson et al vs Stevenson
    • How conclusive are the criticisms?
    • Is this our destiny?
  7. Psi in the World
    • Psi and science
    • Doubts about survival of consciousness
    • Arguments in favor of survival
    • But is it conceivable?
    • Psi and superstition
    • Psi and religion
    • My views on survival
    • Last thoughts

McLuhan is hoping to create a conversation. I don’t consider myself capable of writing a worthwhile review of the book, so I thought I would end this post with a number of quotes that I found particularly interesting or provocative from the book. The Kindle Edition location number follows each quote.

Another workplace incident, reported by German parapsychologist Hans Bender, is also worth mentioning at this point. It occurred in 1967 in a lawyers’ office in the Bavarian town of Rosenheim. Investigators watched and filmed as decorative plates jumped off the walls, paintings began to swing and drawers opened by themselves. There was rogue electrical activity, too: lights and fuses kept blowing, and the telephones all rang at once, with no-one on the line. As many as forty people were said to have witnessed the events, including power technicians, police officers, doctors, journalists and the firm’s clients. In this case, the disturbances were associated with a nineteen-year-old secretary named Annemarie Schneider. When she walked through the hall, the lamps behind her began to swing and light fixtures exploded, the fragments flying towards her. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Munich, called in to help, used monitoring equipment to systematically eliminate every physical cause, including variations in the supply of current, electrostatic charges, static magnetism, loose contacts and faulty equipment. Critically, they also ruled out manual intervention and concluded that the electrical deflections could only be due to some unknown energy that depended in some way on Schneider. (665)

As I came across more cases like this I started to feel that there was something rather interesting going on here. I’ve touched on the idea, common in sceptical discourse, that witnesses of so-called paranormal episodes fail to spot the obvious explanation because they are biased by their ‘will to believe’. They hope it’s true because they want a supernatural dimension to life, one that provides interest, meaning, and perhaps the prospect of life after death. One might call this irrational gravity, where the gravitational force of superstitious belief pulls the mind in the direction of wonders and away from cold logic. Popular television programmes on the paranormal suggests this is a common phenomenon: some people do seem willing to believe all sorts of things for which there is no credible evidence. But my reading of the investigative literature suggests that there exists a closely analogous process which I think of as rational gravity — a sort of backwards rationalizing that aims to expunge the sense of confusion that a paranormal claim tends to generate. There’s an almost imperceptible pull back to normality, a two-stage process whereby the mind first supplies a scenario that potentially resolves the problem, and then gradually creates the conviction that this is in fact what happened. (767)

The sceptics say that they can’t be expected to check out the truth of every claim. There will always be cases where witnesses and parapsychologists believe that something paranormal happened, and where there was no opportunity for this to be corrected by the more careful testimony of an objective investigator. Most people would consider this to be a perfectly fair argument. But they will be less impressed when they discover that debunking sceptics have made little attempt to investigate any such incidents. The implication the critics artfully convey is false: there is no independent body of cases that they have examined at first hand and satisfactorily explained in non-paranormal terms. In fact, if they were to read the parapsychological literature they would find quite a few instances of this kind, and could use them to strengthen their argument. But I can see why they might not wish to: it would mean acknowledging the competence of the investigators who uncovered them — investigators who also described a number of cases (a large number, when considered collectively) which they were convinced were paranormal.

Interestingly, these shortcomings are invisible to the critics’ audience. Scientists accept the critics as the experts because their analyses and conclusions are precisely what they expect. For instance the late Milton A. Rothman, a nuclear physicist, wanted to know where the poltergeist gets the energy needed to toss dishes and furniture around the house. Is it a new force, he asked, or a variation of something we already know about? A vital question, obviously, but only worth asking if it has been proven that poltergeists exist, and as far as he was concerned it had not been. ‘Investigations by trained observers,’ he insisted, ‘have invariably found these phenomena to be either natural events misunderstood by the observer, or simply tricks played on the public by professional or amateur charlatans’.

As I think you will now be able to see, this conventional wisdom is not at all true. ‘Trained observers’ here usually means ‘debunking conjurors and psychologists’, but ‘invariably’ is hardly the word when such people have attempted to investigate so few cases and observed little that might have been even potentially significant. On the other hand if Rothman had been fully aware of the many first-hand investigations carried out by Roll, Pratt, Gauld, Cornell, Playfair, Grosse, Rogo, Barrett, Barrington, Bender and others, but considered them inferior in their execution and wrong in their conclusions, then I would really like to have heard his reasons.

Even if sceptics did get out there and start checking out the claims directly, would they be any good at it? By definition, a debunker is usually considered to possess an ability to ferret out the truth, where less critical and perceptive minds have fallen for the illusion. But it’s not obvious that their skills are the ones that are actually needed here. If you think about it, it shouldn’t take a master conjuror to catch out teenagers playing tricks, unless you believe — as I personally do not — that adolescent children can acquire overnight skills of a master conjurer. Nor is it clear to me why someone who approaches a claim with the conviction that it is bogus should automatically be considered a better judge than a more open-minded person who considers that it might or might not be. What really counts, surely, is the degree of commitment, care and discrimination each exhibits in their approach — factors that the hostile critics, judging by their published work, typically score rather lowly on.

What the debunkers especially lack is the ability to identify promising cases and to gain the trust of the family concerned. It would be hard to imagine a less promising method than James Randi’s, who came to Columbus waving a cheque for ten thousand dollars and boasting how he had exposed ‘many tricky teens whose fraud was perpetuated by indulgent parents and journalists hungry for headlines’. Why let such a man into your home, only to see your reputation later being trashed by the local media? (954)

But the relevant words here [in Occam’s razor] are beyond need: the explanation has to be simplest one that is consistent with the facts. If we don’t know the facts — having neither investigated the phenomenon nor read the arguments of those who have — then this principle will mislead us. (1006)

My point is to question the reliance sceptics and scientists place on a mechanism such as The Million Dollar Challenge as a means to decide about the existence of such things — as I believe many of them do. A stage magician’s skills are indispensable, as parapsychologists are the first to acknowledge, but the [poltergeist] phenomenon appears too capricious and unpredictable to submit to simple tests, and can’t always be isolated from the social context.

I’d also suggest that the Challenge only has status as a check to paranormal claims. The moment it admits them its authority vanishes. This odd dynamic is worth reflecting on. Scientists whom critics characterise as rank believers — some of whom we will meet in later chapters — usually insist they were sceptics themselves at one time, but were forced by their investigations of paranormal claims to change their minds. That sounds to me like a fair and natural progression, and of course the opposite is also true: one-time believers also sometimes become sceptics. But for many people, the only true sceptic is one who resists psychic claims to the bitter end: someone who gives in to them, it’s later said, was always really a believer at heart . . . wearing sceptics’ clothes.

If you doubt this, consider what would have happened if Randi had observed at first hand the events at the Resch household, and come out bewildered by what he had seen. No question, he might have said, I was wrong — there really are psychic forces of which I had no conception. Tina, my child, here’s the cheque. Spend it wisely. Even if this fanciful scenario were one day to be played out, nothing would change. It would make headlines briefly but would not convert sceptics all over the world into believers. Its only lasting effect would be to end Randi’s career as a debunker: he would be written off as an elderly man who has finally succumbed to the madness of paranormal belief. Exactly the same fate, in other words, that he and other scoffers hand out to scientists whose ability to think rationally was never in doubt until they became convinced by their personal observations of psychic phenomena.

So how could we ever arrive at a safe conclusion? The least one can say is that individual cases will always be contested, and if there is ever to be a reliable consensus one way or the other it would be around a great accumulation of incidents that are well documented and corroborated and establish a clear pattern. While I’m unconvinced that ideas such as child conjurors explain the poltergeist phenomenon, I recognize that the existing testimony doesn’t reach the threshold required to overturn the enormous weight of scientific disbelief in an interaction between mind and matter. We are in a rather interesting no-man’s land, confronted by field research whose claims are not easily refuted, yet whose implications are simply unacceptable to the vast majority of scientists, and as a result can continue to be derided as if they were bogus. (1030)

This is the huge, appalling problem, not merely that hundreds of instances of this kind [seances] were documented, but that some of them were endorsed as genuine by reputable scientists who spent a good deal of time checking them out. One’s left feeling that either something happened that we should be paying serious attention to, or else that a lot of people simultaneously lost their minds on an epic scale — which is equally worthy of note. (1190)

Few people took much notice of Maskelyne’s experience [of psychic phenomena], and sceptics rarely mention it, which reinforces my point that debunkers are credible only in their natural condition of disbelief: when they change their minds they possess no more authority than anyone else. But more obviously, it dilutes the idea, implied — if not actually stated by campaigning sceptics like Maskelyne and Randi — that conjurers can duplicate any psychic feat. (1316)

For, in my view, a dispassionate analysis of this subject [seances] does yield an answer, and for one essential reason: the alternative narrative provided by sceptical writers, their idea of what really happened in those darkened parlours — an alternative truth that their imaginations can cope with — is manifestly incoherent. It doesn’t make sense: it’s misty and insubstantial, a ghostly shadow of the real thing — a phantom narrative. Interestingly, when this insight eventually took shape in my mind, the head-scratching stopped. The dissonance that had long held me in its grip melted away, having been caused, I now realized, by listening to clever people confidently explaining something they understand nothing about at all (1817).

In a press interview she [Piper] insisted she had always believed that the mediumistic phenomena she generated could be explained ‘in other ways than by the intervention of disembodied spirit forces’ and that telepathy strongly appealed to her as ‘the most plausible and genuinely scientific solution of the problem.’ (2182)

Sceptic literature is full of this sort of casual misrepresentation, and as I mentioned earlier I used to think it was deliberate, a quick and easy way of denigrating parapsychologists and persuading readers that the explanation is easily found. I no longer think this. What it really demonstrates, I believe, is the coping mechanism employed by the convinced sceptic. Some people really do seem to find it more difficult than others to engage with the material, and to recognize what the paranormality consists of. It’s as though they mentally filter out the key elements that pose the challenge, that puzzle other people so greatly. They literally can’t see it, so they can’t understand what the fuss is about. (2282)

It’s an example of the circular reasoning that is endemic in sceptical discourse. ‘Unfortunately we can’t believe parapsychologists when they claim to have observed paranormal phenomena, because they are unreliable observers. How do we know they are unreliable? Why, because they claim to have observed paranormal phenomena.’ It makes no difference how eminent they may be, or how many scientific or intellectual achievements they have to their name — on this matter the object of their interest automatically disqualifies them from serious consideration. (2468)

On the other hand, given that no-one has attempted an experiment of this kind and on this scale before, Schwartz’s achievement is by no means negligible. Critics can no longer argue that mediums can’t perform under controlled conditions, as he has shown that even where they are not permitted to engage with the sitter in order to get feedback they can still perform to the same standards. The transcripts do show the mediums asking for validation of their statements, but they don’t on the whole show the trial-and-error approach described by Hyman and others in the cold-reading process. This would seem to suggest that reading body language and getting the sitter to unwittingly provide snippets of real information is not, after all, an integral element of mediums’ methods. (2630)

A theology student named Hubert Pearce was the subject of four [card-guessing] experiments involving a total of seventy-four runs; where a score of 5 was the mean he scored averages of 9.9, 6.7, 7.3, and 9.3 — the odds against this are a hundred thousand billion billion to one (that’s a 10 followed by 22 zeros). In one of the experiments Pearce was guessing cards at pre-arranged intervals while the experimenter Gaither Pratt was turning over the cards in another part of the building. This meant Rhine could argue there was no realistic possibility that Pearce could have been getting the information by any means other than ESP. (2774)

It’s true that as long as sceptics are putting up resistance, nothing is resolved. But notice how inconsistent they are. In their own experiments they get positive results, but either do not acknowledge them or else retrospectively change the criteria in order to eliminate them. They carry out a ‘failed replication’, but vary the method to the point that it’s not really a replication at all. They try to improve the procedure in the expectation of eliminating significance, and when, despite all their precautions, they end up achieving significance, they criticize their own improvements. This type of behavior seems truly to deserve the kind of ridicule that they commonly dish out to parapsychologists. (3169)

An argument frequently made by sceptics is that hallucinations are much more common than is usually supposed. This allows them to suggest that the content may also from time to time coincide with some actual event, and such cases are the ones that are remembered and wondered at. Interestingly, one of the main authorities for the frequency of apparitions comes from the SPR researchers themselves, with their Census of Hallucinations, in which ten percent of respondents stated that they had at least once had the impression of seeing, hearing or being touched by something that appeared to have no external cause. But the survey also underscored the frequency of coincidental matches that occurred between the content of the hallucination and a crisis in the affairs of a friend or relative at a distant location. One would of course want to argue that such coincidences could occur in the normal course of things. However this was not borne out by the researchers’ detailed analysis. After they had weeded out all but the most reliable of the narratives, and measured the small fraction that remained against the known death rate in Britain, they concluded that one in forty-three apparitional hallucinations coincided with the death of the person whose apparition was seen. This figure was four hundred and forty times more than could be expected by chance — a highly significant margin. (3720)

If I’m unconvinced that the psychologists’ analysis provides the whole answer it is because it doesn’t connect in any obvious way with the experiences that interest psychic researchers. I expected the critics to apply their insights to specific cases in order to show that their analysis is superior, and that there are alternatives that the researchers hadn’t sufficiently taken into account. If they could do this consistently in a specific category of experience, they might neutralize the paranormal element and there would then be no reason to pay it any special attention. But this doesn’t really happen. Rather than dissect specific cases to show how parapsychologists’ judgments are unwarranted, the critics simply repeat claims about exposes and cheating and experimental flaws that they have skimmed from the literature. So what one gets is a lot of quite insightful psychological material about faulty reasoning, with episodes from the debunking literature tacked on afterwards, but with no clear indication of what the two have to do with each other. (3853)

With so much data to work with, researchers argue that enough is now known about the phenomenon to cast doubt on the sceptics’ explanations. Anaesthetics and medication could not explain near-death experiences reported by people who have come close to death by drowning or road accidents, or by heart attacks outside the hospital, they point out. There’s also the fact that anoxia is associated with loss of consciousness, whereas the near-death experience is a state of hyper-alertness and visual clarity, opposites that are hard to reconcile. It’s true that any stimulation of the temporal lobe caused by anoxia might lead to a hallucination, but anoxia is known to knock out the memory centres quite rapidly, which would make the recall of events supposedly taking place after its onset rather suprising. Pilots who experience sudden oxygen cut-off at high altitudes or in training do not generally report near-death experiences: interestingly, one pilot who underwent an oxygen shortage and a near-death experience on separate occasions said there was no similarity between them. (4214)

Sceptics like Shermer and Alcock rather imply that if they experienced it themselves they would not be misled, or at least not for long — rather they would recognize it to be hallucinatory. But is that credible? The literature on near-death experience is now very large, and I can’t recall ever seeing a secular version described anywhere: that is, a hospital patient who reported going up a tunnel to a bright light, being flooded with ineffable feelings of bliss in the presence of an angelic being, yet far from being overwhelmed and changed by the experience, dismissed it as the effects of anaesthetics, no big deal. On the other hand, it does happen the other way round: a person who claimed to have been agnostic or atheist at the time of the experience is just as likely to be affected by it as a religious devotee, if in slightly different terms. (4571)

However sceptical we may be about religion there’s a bottom line in this: a tendency to have these sorts of experiences is part of the human condition. Something happens to some people on rare occasions that causes them to see visions or to have insights about the nature of reality, the effect of which is to change behaviors, their own and other people’s. I find this fascinating, and I want to know why it happens. And I’m puzzled that it holds so little interest for scientific commentators. (4639)

It is surely a matter for wonder the way some well-known scientists insist there is not one scintilla of evidence for paranormal claims, when there exist thousands of reports of spontaneous psychic phenomena, many of them documented in large-scale surveys and corroborated to a large degree; when hundreds of controlled psi experiments have produced striking results; when scores of separate investigations of psychics and mediums have concluded that at least some are doing something genuinely inexplicable in conventional terms; and all this has been reported, analyzed and debated at enormous lengths by scientists, philosophers and intellectuals in books and specialist peer-reviewed journals in many countries for over a century. To be sure, I sometimes wonder whether disbelievers aren’t just using the term ‘evidence’ in its narrowest sense, meaning ‘conclusive proof’. But I don’t think they are. They don’t often bother to dispute the evidence. They say there isn’t any. (4955)

The truth about psi is not known because it clashes with what we take to be true, because we fear it, and because we believe, unthinkingly and erroneously, that we can always explain it away. It’s not known because the way that our minds work, as well as sometimes generating the illusion of it, often masks the reality. It’s not known because, being both rare and immaterial, a property of consciousness, it fails the criteria demanded by materialist science. Finally (and perhaps most crucially), it’s not known because it appears to validate religious belief at a time when much of humanity is desperate to eliminate a perceived cause of tribal divisions. (5586)


2 thoughts on “Randi’s Prize by Robert McLuhan

  1. Hi cl, sorry for the delay in approving your post. I have not read anything from Kurt Koch (don’t recall you asking before). Do you recommend any one of his books over the others?

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