Randi's Prize by Robert McLuhan joins the also excellent Parapsychology and the Skeptics by Chris Carter, in what could be the start of a long overdue response in book form to the free ride that organised, militant `skepticism' has had in the media for too long now. It is superbly researched and written in a gently humorous, thoughtful and penetrating style that manages to carry the considerable weight of the complex issues it discusses extremely well. The issues in question are, of course, the way in which skeptics have either polemicised in opposition to serious scientific research into `paranormal' (psi) phenomena when this has suggested that `there might be something in it'. Or, have simply not mentioned such work at all in their more public pronouncements, being content to give the impression that `science', or that which they like, has actually shown that psi cannot exist.
As others have remarked, the book is very even-handed in the way that it handles the issues involved. Yet despite this, according to precedent, I suspect that the eminently `sceptical' McLuhan will be subjected to hectoring, knee-jerk accusations by skeptics that he is a `believer', merely because he has dared to question the skeptical oeuvre.
Now we've got the synopsis out of the way, in the spirit of its last sentence, you might like to try the following: -
1) Read the one star reviews of this book. 2) Read some of the five star reviews. 3) Read the book. 4) Reflect for a while as to which set of reviewers show the most evidence of actually having read it - at all, let alone `properly'.
Forgive me if `1' to `3' seem a little obvious. However, there is a point to this and it relates specifically to `4', and one of journalist McLuhan's central contentions: that `skeptics' tend to play rather fast and loose with the facts in a number of ways when assessing evidence for psi. Yes, I know `true believers' do that in spades also. But McLuhan is asking whether those from the other end of the belief scale are any more trustworthy. Moreover he demonstrates that skeptical arguments, whilst superficially impressive at first glance, are often revealed to be shallow and misleading, perhaps disingenuously so sometimes, if you have the time to dig beneath the surface of the rhetoric.
For many I'm sure this would be quite surprising. However most people, when they catch an item about a paranormal issue on TV, for example, do not have the time or the resources to check whether a `skeptic' who has been wheeled in to comment on the matter in the interests of `balance' actually knows what he or she is talking about, and is approaching the issue from a balanced point of view ideologically.
The pertinence of the (largely metaphorical) main part of the book's title, is that it takes a great deal of time to dig beneath the surface of the rhetorical devices, including James Randi's `Million Dollar Challenge', that are routinely used by skeptics to denigrate `belief' in the paranormal. Indeed it takes much longer than it takes a media skeptic to trot out one of the movement's handy range of standard-issue sound bites: `...extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence', `...there's not a shred of scientific evidence for the paranormal' or, indeed, `...if any of this were real then surely someone would have won James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge by now?'
Randi's Prize effectively saves you the trouble of doing all that digging yourself, although it is meticulously referenced for those who decide to carry on burrowing on their own.
McLuhan examines a number of core issues (including mediumship, ESP, and near death experiences) and some of the considerable amount of scientific research suggestive that the phenomena are not totally illusory since around 1882 when The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed. Although, as he points out, you would not guess that much of this work had been carried out at all, or would be extremely doubtful as to its quality, if you just took skeptical claims at face value. He examines the original source material and compares this to the often virulent criticism of the research contained in the skeptical literature. He gives a blow by blow account of his personal journey from an initial position of finding the skeptical arguments persuasive, through his increasing doubts about them as he carried out his own inquiries.
A major effect of the book is to show skeptics, in general, as being a rather gullible lot who will swallow any claim about serious `psi' research or its subject matter, as long as this is made by a skeptical commentator. In other words they are guilty of `confirmation bias' or the habit of seeking the emotional security that comes from feeling that one's own cherished prejudices have been validated, by hastily embracing the opinions of others when they confirm those views - merely because they do. Of course, here, the accuracy of any confirmatory information may not be an overriding psychological requirement. This is ironic indeed given that this malady is something that skeptics seem to think only `believers' suffer from.
I guess that deals with the first part of the book's subtitle `Why They Are Wrong'. Although it is important to emphasise that McLuhan does not claim that, just because he believes that skeptics are being mislead by their own psychological/emotional need to disbelieve in many respects, that the beliefs about psi that skeptics decry are necessarily right.
`...& Why It Matters'?
A condensed version of McLuhan's answer to his own question is that it matters because psi research could help to increase our understanding of our own nature and that of reality itself. It is therefore hardly appropriate, from the point of view of `science' (or what, ideally, the scientific process is held to be), that a subtly powerful advocacy movement that claims to be `scientific' has been allowed to influence this debate, using arguments that are largely rhetorical.
Tacit in the foregoing is that skeptical commentators are, for the most part, unwittingly, I'm sure, propounding about paranormal subjects having formed their opinions largely from a database of information (the skeptical literature) that is highly inaccurate in many respects.
McLuhan could have added, perhaps, that the media and wider public for the most part, seem to have little clue that the organised skeptical movement, as such, exists at all. It is all very well and good that we have media personalities, who just happen to be skeptics, leaders from many different fields, who are allowed to encourage us with quasi-religious zeal to be aware of the `wonders' of science at every opportunity. But surely, as far as psi research is concerned, awareness needs to be raised of the possibility that figures such as Professors Cox, Wiseman and Dawkins, humorists Dara O Briain and Steven Fry, journalist Simon Hoggart, mentalist Derren Brown etc. may not be rowing with both oars in the water when they tell us, or merely imply by omission, that `science' has found `no evidence' for the `paranormal'?