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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Reality Check for Skeptics.
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...
Published on 13 Mar 2012 by Steve Hume

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82 of 118 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Big Disappointment
Most of us have experienced strange occurrences, from the sensation that someone is staring at us, through remarkable coincidences (I was just thinking about you and now there you are), to curious, unexpected sounds and sights. Most of us rapidly realize that our senses have played tricks with us, whether or not we can fully explain the experience: some of us see a...
Published on 21 Mar 2011 by F. Odds


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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Reality Check for Skeptics., 13 Mar 2012
This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
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'?
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39 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A counterblast to ignorance, 24 Mar 2011
By 
L. Brennan - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Randi's Prize is a long overdue counter argument to the ocean of "skeptical" books on the market with titles in endless variation of "Why people are a bit thick for believing stuff".

It's central conceit is one of the author recounting his own thought processes as he studied and compared the sceptics/skeptics responses - both general and specific - to reported data on psi-related phenomenon, and how these observations and comparisons have lead him personally to accept the probability of psi as a genuine and established phenomenon with convincing scientific credentials to back them up.

He acknowledges from the outset what most of us have experienced - a swaying back and forth as we read one book or another promoting or debunking strange phenomenon, each leaving us utterly convinced of their case until we read the next and finding ourselves reneging on our previous convictions. He acknowledges too that any impression his own book will leave on you may be just as temporary. With this in mind Mcluhan is meticulous in presenting the sceptical view of the issues under scrutiny. Every argument, every fraud, every suspicion, every failing - real or potential - in the scientific papers or parapsychological case studies is laid bare, before Mcluhan places them in context and asks just how rational these objections really are in relation to the actual data, and just how far removed the skeptical reconstruction of events usually is from the accounts or experiments they attempt to debunk.

While his own conclusions are known from the start - they are of course revealed in the book's title - his account of how he came to them as an intrigued layman is as objective and rational as its possible to be without staying permanently impaled upon the fence. The data says this, he argues, the skeptics respond with that, and the latter - time after time - fails to account for the former. The conclusion that the phenomena collectively called Psi are a genuine and worthy subject of continued inquiry seems unavoidable. With this in mind the author intermittently turns his attention to the psychology of the sceptical mindset, what drives it - a genuine devotion to scientific methods or pure reason being convincingly brought into question - and what makes these strange people tick. The irony of turning the tables on those commentators who like to smugly wonder aloud about the wishful thinking of credulous "believers" isn't lost on the reader.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Mcluhan's writing is his apparent ability to read the reader's mind...anticipating and dealing with every objection that might occur to you before you even have time to express it. There is no "cherry picking" here, and the previous review which claimed so (along with the erroneous statement that the author is a "parapsychologist". He is not.) is littered with precisely the same kind of false and misleading claims and fixed opinions that this book describes, dissects and predicts in remarkable detail.

Finally, acknowledging his is an argument like any other, Mcluhan invites the reader to take his word for nothing, but to simply as he has done examine the published evidence - and the arguments of its detractors - for themselves, and to compare the two. There is a large bibliography, copious notes and resources included to locate all of the original material discussed and judge for yourself how far short the sceptical view of events is from the events themselves.

His own conclusions on the matter of survival and its nature are subjective, but the road that took him there is a remarkable, well written and highly recommended guide to TRUE objective thinking.
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33 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story of the author's search for the scientifc truth behind "psychic" phenomena, 2 Jan 2011
This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
I greatly enjoyed Robert McLuhan's fine new book "Randi's Prize" - it's packed with accurate information while at the same time is surprisingly engaging and fun to read. I'd like to say I couldn't put it down but I actually did put it down late in the evening and picked it up the next morning to finish.

If you haven't investigated the scientific research regarding psychic (now generally called "psi") phenomena objectively and are curious, I assure you it's an amazing adventure and "Randi's Prize" is an excellent place to start. Incidentally, McLuhan is taking some flack because his book doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the prize per se, but because a large part of the book deals with the Skeptic vs Scientist "debate" that is symbolized by the prize, I thought the name was appropriate. (By the way, since most humans could surely be considered to be "skeptics" or we would have died out long ago, that term doesn't convey much information; we really need another name for an extreme close-minded "Skeptic" who believes that the ends (obliterating this branch of science) justify the means (including personal attacks), perhaps something more like "Antibeliever" or "Denouncer").

As it happens, I have a strong background in science (PhD Geophysics, 20 years in research with teams of nuclear physicists and other highly-qualified scientists), so I understand science and, like you no doubt, I also recognize hot air and hype when I see them. I didn't know anything about the scientific study of psi phenomena until I stumbled onto some of the scientific research three or four years ago. To my total astonishment, I learned that psi phenomena do appear to be an actual part of our reality, but they mostly tend to operate down in the background noise of consciousness and hence are extraordinarily elusive to study, like many other phenomena involving the mind. I found this fascinating, and I've read many scientifically sound books and refereed journal articles on that subject area since then.

Yes, psi effects are elusive but, as the book "Randi's Prize" makes clear, they HAVE been studied in painstaking detail for 150 years by highly qualified scientists, including in recent decades some of the most carefully executed scientific experiments ever conducted with multi-layered experimental controls that put other fields of science to shame. Because researchers in this field are under unrelenting, often vicious assault, they control even against absurdly improbable and unrealistic forms of cheating and fraud among other things, problems that most scientists don't have to think about at all (imagine trying to work in that environment). Statistically and taken as a vast body of work, their results are rock solid with odds against chance of a quintillion to one in some cases, yet the elusive nature of the phenomenon is what gives the million dollar prize offered by entertainer and famed trickster James Randi its power. The terms of the prize demand a single demonstration of psi resulting in immediate, absolute "proof." Since that's not how psi manifests in our world, this prize stunt achieves its goal of "disproving" something that almost certainly is real but not simple.

McLuhan's book "Randi's Prize" is paced like a good novel, yet is solidly factual. He describes his experiences as he delves deeply into the vast body of published work currently available on psi phenomena, carefully studies what the "skeptics" say about each subtopic, and then puzzles out the baffling disconnect, in the process occasionally laying bare his soul - oops - heart, as he struggles to make sense of it. But make sense of it he does, and he clearly distinguishes between known facts (which I found to be accurate according to current understanding) and his own speculations (which I found to be interesting and useful, if not always the same as mine).

If you are new to the topic of psi as understood through science this is a fascinating overview of a noisy controversy that has largely been manufactured by a relatively small number of extreme "skeptics". Both sides of this polarizing issue are treated sympathetically and fairly -- in my view McLuhan shows amazing restraint and civility when dealing with examples of seemingly blatant intellectual dishonesty -- but after careful consideration he does find many of the "skeptics'" arguments unconvincing and he explains his reasoning in detail so you can form your own conclusions.

If you already have a good grasp on the facts about psi I think you're likely to enjoy this book and learn a few things, and probably will find the unobtrusive yet comprehensive end notes and references useful as I did.

If you are an extreme "skeptic" you may still profit from reading this book. It might help you sharpen up your game and avoid pitfalls like posting 1-star, single paragraph book reviews that denounce the book while making it obvious the reviewer hasn't read and thought about the material.

The scientific facts are in; they're well-proven and extensively documented - many tens of thousands of pages of detailed studies. The demand for more proof is simply a ploy. Robert McLuhan's book makes it clear that what has largely been missing for the past century is a FAIR AND CIVIL DEBATE on the ACTUAL, UNDISTORTED, SCIENTIFICALLY DEMONSTRABLE FACTS. This book sets a good example; let's now see a similarly honest, ethical, and fact-based treatment of the topic from the extreme "skeptics".
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters, 21 Jun 2012
By 
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This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Since I basically concur with the positive reviews here, I don't need to repeat well-written plaudits but will concentrate on answering the best-regarded negative review., A Big Disappointment by F Odds, which gained 68 out of 96 "likes". There is classic "sceptics" material in Odds' replies, that I think deserves answering. Perhaps McLuhan will take his critics' words as the starting point for his next book. I think there is gold therein, and ripe for his style of approach.

But first a couple of remarks on the book. I think this is a very important piece of writing. I thoroughly applaud the way the author chronicled his own reactions in generally shifting from "ignorant sceptic" to "informed believer - with limits to belief, where informed scepticism applies". Again and again, I witnessed myself asking questions, only to find them addressed a few paragraphs further on - as described elsewhere by a reviewer I think. This held my interest, even excitement, until the last few chapters when the original sense of High Purpose faded a bit.

I would also like to recommend a book that has a unique quantity of evidence and trenchant comments regarding the early story of CSICOP and James Randi: Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal, by Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent. This book is an unknown classic which complements Randi's Prize very well, and is well worth bringing to people's attention again.

Now to my answers to Odds. He writes:
"Randi's Prize sets out to take to task those who debunk psi. The attempt fails, not because the author is necessarily wrong in the (relatively small) number of instances where he picks up possible faults and oversights among those he criticizes, but because ... it cherry-picks what it cites, it focuses far too heavily on personal testimony, and it fails to see the wood for the trees."

I reply:
Firstly, the author picks up a large number of serious instances of faults and oversights. The whole book is about such omissions. Secondly, regarding the things criticised (cherry-picking etc) I say: Look in the mirror. Cherrypicking: Madeleine McCann. Personal testimony: your words "Whether through bad or good intention, humans don't tell the truth. They persistently misrepresent..." Maybe you are talking about yourself. McLuhan is skeptical and nuanced and your testimony doesn't begin to convey that. Failing to see wood for trees: ditto.

Odds writes:
If clairvoyance, psychic communication and precognition were meaningfully real, accidents would never happen and everyone would win national lotteries or clean up at all forms of gambling...

I reply:
Classical strawman arguments, shooting down claims that McLuhan is not making and would not make.

Odds writes:
According to his CV, McLuhan has no scientific background... It's not just in parapsychology that poor quality science is peer reviewed and accepted for publication: "journals of last resort" exist in all [scientific] disciplines...

I reply:
Classic argumentum ad verecundiam. Lack of official qualifications is no proof of inability.

Odds writes:
And this brings us to the book's greatest weakness. One might expect a book called "Randi's Prize" somewhere (preferably early on?) to give a dispassionate account of what Randi's "Million Dollar Challenge" comprises, rather than refer to it intermittently and en passant with the tone of contempt normally reserved for something unpleasant found on the carpet.

I quote, Introduction, page 1:
"James "The Amazing" Randi is a Canadian stage magician well known to scientists as a debunker of paranormal claims. Since the 1960s he has pledged a cash prize to anyone who can convince him that they possess psychic powers. The amount on offer has grown to a tempting one million dollars, but he says no one has ever come close to winning it... The invincibility of Randi's Challenge doesn't surprise scientists at all... It took me a while to grasp the conflict here... I began to realize this ambivalence won't do... Unwilling to take either side's word for it, I read everything I could lay my hands on..."
What more is needed? Content and context are both perfectly present.

Odds writes:
Randi's challenge is the embodiment of hypothesis-driven science.

I reply:
That's exactly what McLuhan set out to investigate, and eventually showed that on multiple counts, Randi's challenge, as pursued, is anything but the embodiment of hypothesis-driven science: it usurps that name.

Odds writes: The scope for credulity knows no limits.
I reply: Look in the mirror, friend.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Much needed , well researched and well written, 10 Mar 2011
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This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
In his introduction, Robert McLuhan says ' At the very least , Randi's Prize will give you a good idea of what it is that could make one twenty-first century European, questioning and respectful of science, come to believe in propositions [to do with the reality of many psi phenomena and their significance] that many of his peers instinctively reject. It's a record of my journey: the authors I have consulted, my reactions to their research and analysis, and the gradual development of my ideas. I've tried to make my thinking as transparent as possible'

He does what he set out to do most impressively. I say this as someone who has had experiences that I think were almost certainly paranormal, who believes the gist of what many other people have told me about their ostensibly paranormal experiences, and who has also read widely on the subject over more than thirty years - including much of the sceptical literature that is the focus of the book. Where I am very familiar with the books and articles the author refers to, I think he selects from, summarises and comments on them entirely fairly and honestly. So when he refers to the literature I am not so familiar with - particularly some of the sceptical literature - I have no reason to doubt his fairness and honesty here too. And when he gives his reactions to what he reads, indicates the questions he asks himself and expresses his doubts and second thoughts about things - all this rings completely true as well.

To refer to the subtitle of the book: this is by far the most thorough overview and critique of what sceptics say about the paranormal that I am aware of; I think the author is entirely right about why they are wrong to dismiss all the evidence for the paranormal on the grounds they usually do; and also right that it matters whether or not the paranormal is real.

On the last point, the author says `As to what it all means, I have offered some ideas of my own, but there are large questions here which all of us will respond to in our own way. If in the future we can discuss them openly, with the best available information and without fear of ridicule, then that at least will be a beginning'. I agree.
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82 of 118 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Big Disappointment, 21 Mar 2011
By 
F. Odds - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Most of us have experienced strange occurrences, from the sensation that someone is staring at us, through remarkable coincidences (I was just thinking about you and now there you are), to curious, unexpected sounds and sights. Most of us rapidly realize that our senses have played tricks with us, whether or not we can fully explain the experience: some of us see a deeper mystery. Remarkable subjective sensations, whether highly vivid or more subliminal, are obvious research topics for psychologists. However, some people, who call themselves parapsychologists, are convinced that a hitherto unknown force, nowadays called psi, is at work in creating a wide range of otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

Author McLuhan is a parapsychologist. His book, "Randi's Prize" sets out to take to task those who debunk psi. The attempt fails, not because the author is necessarily wrong in the (relatively small) number of instances where he picks up possible faults and oversights among those he criticizes, but because what he presents is no more than many predecessors from those who think poltergeists, psychic mediums, clairvoyants, out-of-body experiences, ghosts, reincarnations and a lot more represent unexplained and inexplicable aspects of our lives. The book has the same feel as one of the many that set out to convince their readers of the reality that unidentified flying objects are really visitations from space aliens: it cherry-picks what it cites, it focuses far too heavily on personal testimony, and it fails to see the wood for the trees.

If clairvoyance, psychic communication and precognition were meaningfully real, accidents would never happen and everyone would win national lotteries or clean up at all forms of gambling. If psychokinesis were meaningfully real, dice games would have been driven out of casinos years ago. If the spirits of the dead really visited the living in any meaningfully measurable way, unsolved murders would not lie on police files, nor would missing bodies stay missing. Instead, we are left with parapsychologists publishing statistical outcomes from tedious experiments with volunteers guessing remote objects while covering their eyes with ping-pong balls. McLuhan mentions how such volunteers tire of their participation so may lose their psi energy: but that doesn't apply to someone who's put money they can't afford on a bet. Lest anyone should argue that gross effects of psi don't manifest because too many people are psyching competing thoughts, just recall the massive focus generated a few years ago by the disappearance in Portugal of three-year-old Madeleine McCann and the massive collective psi that went into finding her. She's still missing.

According to his CV, McLuhan has no scientific background; yet he has a lot to say about science and scientists. He makes no acknowledgement at all that the quality of science can range from very high to very low. It's not just in parapsychology that poor quality science is peer reviewed and accepted for publication: "journals of last resort" exist in all disciplines to help boost the length of scientists' publication lists, and at the other extreme professional scientists spend hours in "journal clubs" finding flaws even in studies that at first seem to be of top quality. The very best science is driven by hypotheses. Someone designs experiments to DISprove their own or someone else's model for how something works. That something needs to be measurable and reproducible. It may be a statistical effect rather than all-or-nothing - for example the relationship between smoking and cancer - but it has to be measurable under defined conditions.

And this brings us to the book's greatest weakness. One might expect a book called "Randi's Prize" somewhere (preferably early on?) to give a dispassionate account of what Randi's "Million Dollar Challenge" comprises, rather than refer to it intermittently and en passant with the tone of contempt normally reserved for something unpleasant found on the carpet. 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. An additional condition is that the paranormal ability must have an outcome that requires no judging. This eliminates, among others, psychics who say they're getting a strong sensation about water, which could be matched to anything from boiling a kettle to captaining The Titanic. McLuhan doesn't even seem to have bothered to digest the detail of Randi's Challenge - astounding for one who complains the sceptics have ignored details and particularly when he chooses it for his book's title - in a footnote he doesn't comprehend that Derek Ogilvie and Patricia Putt failed the preliminary, not the final-stage test.

Scientists have an old chestnut that "the plural of anecdote is not data". McLuhan overrules this to the extent of repeatedly using the word "data" for his collections of anecdotes. He has a touching belief that peoples' stories and recollections - many if not most of them recorded decades ago - are faithful and unerring accounts of fact. Similarly, he presupposes that everyone's standards and abilities are the same as his. Does he not realize that "scientific" investigation of something someone claims to have seen, felt or done is akin to forensic examination of a crime scene. Does he not realize that assembling different "witness" accounts of an event is to deal with the horrendous unreliably of personal testimony, which lawcourts worldwide struggle daily to unravel. Whether through bad or good intention, humans don't tell the truth. They persistently misrepresent, misunderstand, misinterpret and miss essential detail. After more than one hundred years of "investigations" by "parapsychologists" one would hope for something far more convincing than a tedious re-examination of what people said and wrote, with a few experiments of questionable quality and no clear hypothesis to test.

According to Appelle (1995) some 5-6% of the US population believe they have been abducted and experimented on by aliens. These people often report their experiences with exactly the same vivid detail and self-evident concern that so impresses McLuhan when people refer to seeing ghosts, telepathic contacts and precognition. Maybe the aliens are using psi and this has been overlooked. The scope for credulity knows no limits.
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14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating tour through parapsychology and the methods and mindset of the sceptics, 5 Jan 2011
By 
This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
I thoroughly enjoyed Randi's Prize. I couldn't put it down, in fact. McLuhan's method is to walk you through his own mental journey, in which he was initially quite influenced by the sceptics of parapsychology, but then read voluminously in the actual parapsychological literature, whereupon he saw the sceptics in an entirely new light. What he discovered was that they systematically failed to really engage with their subject matter, keeping their distance from doing actual research and even from becoming genuinely acquainted with the original literature. It is as if they walked up to a field ripe with produce, which someone else had spent years carefully cultivating, with the sole intention of destroying it--preferably with a device like a flame-thrower that would allow them to stand at a safe distance.

In the process, McLuhan essentially turns the tables on the debunkers, deconstructing their methods and practices under the spotlight of detailed examination, just as they purport to do with parapsychological research--a refreshing reversal indeed.

I also learned a great deal about subjects I haven't read about in years, such as poltergeist phenomena, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mediumship, and early experimental parapsychology. I found myself trusting and appreciating McLuhan's extensive, in-depth familiarity with his subject matter. I also enjoyed his readable and engaging style, which at times struck me as elegant and even profound yet never distracted from his content. I also appreciated his willingness to state his own views, especially in the final chapter, despite how far he has come from where he began his journey. If you have any interest in this subject matter, this book is a must-read.
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16 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pseudo-sceptics Watch Your Back - The British Are Coming!, 28 Jan 2011
By 
Henry Brand "RabbitDawg" (Nashville, TN) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Robert McLuhan isn't playing. This is a man on a mission, and he wants to bring you along with him.
Of course, in the world of psi and the paranormal, there are a ton of people on "missions", but McLuhan is different. His approach is calm, deeply rational, and piercing. He really wants us to pay attention to all of the facts, and have an open, honest discussion - sceptic's and believer's alike.

I've found that too often, when psi advocates confront the professional sceptic's, their arguments range from boring and analytical, to New-Age spacey and timid. Researchers such as Dean Radin can be excellent defenders, but for Average Joe Six-pack, the data can be eye-glazing. And because so many pseudo-sceptic's can be downright insulting, many counter argument's to their bellicose polemics amount to little more than the equivalent of crying "Mommy, he's being mean to me!"

So, based on the rave reviews that I had read prior to reading Randi's Prize, I expected it to be a good book. I also assumed that this would be another analytical attempt at eviscerating pseudo-sceptic arguments, with perhaps a bit of whining thrown in - I'm used to it. But I was wrong. There were a couple of things in this book that I wasn't expecting.
I wasn't expecting the absolutely serene, intelligent style in which McLuhan accomplishes his task. In fact, he is so even-handed in his approach, he comes across as a true sceptic himself. Gullible believers, as well as professional pseudo-sceptic's will not be comfortable with this book. Robert McLuhan does lean toward the advocacy side, but he wants to see the evidence, no matter where it leads. It's all about the evidence.
And the last thing that I was expecting was to laugh. This ranged from simple chuckles and belly laughs, to completely laughing out loud. I couldn't tell if he was deliberately using the dry, subtle humor that the British are famous for, or if the humor was the result of watching him effortlessly kick the ego inflated posteriors of some arrogant folks that perceive themselves as Teflon-coated experts. Either way, it works.

My personal primary interest is in Near Death Experiences, and even though Randi's Prize centers mainly on various forms of psi and mediumship, I was not let down. McLuhan deftly defends the dignity and validity of experiencer's better that anyone I've ever seen. Well, Chris Carter is up there too. In fact, even though they take different approaches, Robert McLuhan and Chris Carter could be the Dynamic Duo leading the pack of a newer, bolder psi-defense SWAT Team. Really. In my opinion, with the exception of Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, most NDE-topic books over the past decade have essentially consisted of what could pass as "campfire stories" with a bit of wistful science tossed into the mix. Though these books can be quite inspiring, they can't help you out in the conversations around the water cooler at break time, so to speak. Perhaps books like Irreducible Minds, and authors like McLuhan and Carter herald a new Renaissance in paranormal literature?

The bottom line is, after reading this book, pseudo-sceptical arguments will simply never look the same.This book is deep, yet it's so much fun to read!
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18 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A well written and much needed deconstruction of the current sceptical approach to psi, 31 Dec 2010
This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
The existence of the paranormal (also known as psi), and whether it is a subject worthy of proper scientific study, is a divisive issue that is capable of polarising opinion into extreme, and often highly emotionally charged, positions. On the surface this might seem a surprising comment to make about those who hold the sceptical view. It is often claimed or assumed that our modern, reason based and dispassionate, scientific worldview has comprehensively dismissed the possibility of any genuine paranormal phenomena; with all of the purported evidence of its existence either having been explained away, or demonstrably merely the product of quackery or pseudoscience. Look beneath the surface, however, and it quickly becomes clear that the true picture is very different; with much of this dismissal of the paranormal based not on a dispassionate and reasoned examination of the evidence, but on something rather different.

This is the underlying theme of Robert McLuhan's book. He surveys the available evidence, and the responses of sceptical investigators, across the whole spectrum of paranormal phenomena. Of course there is some fraud and quackery. But where that doesn't look to be the case the picture he paints - and he has some compelling examples - is one where time and time again the source material is dismissed without being properly engaged with, while the methodology of parapsychologists who come up with positive results is subject to all kinds of unreasonable, and at times frankly far fetched, criticisms.

When investigating the paranormal, obeying the injunction `Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' is understandable. But McLuhan demonstrates that sceptics sometimes take this injunction to ludicrous lengths, effectively giving them carte blanche to simply evade dealing reasonably and fairly with what's in front of them. Their mindset, thus, is clearly one of having decided in advance that the phenomena under investigation cannot be genuinely paranormal. Furthermore, their resultant confidant sounding and debunking findings - no matter how superficially or unreasonably arrived at - quickly gain wide scale credence, thus perpetuating the view that science has somehow disproved the existence of the paranormal.

What is going on here? McLuhan points out how troubling - or even threatening - the possibility of there being paranormal phenomena might be for many people. These fears are understandable. I would add there may be a bigger picture issue playing out here i.e. the difficulty materialistic science has in accommodating properly, or even acknowledging the existence of, consciousness, free will & emotional subjective states. In many ways, 'mind' per se as we commonly understand it poses the same challenges to materialism as the paranormal. Certainly, there is much about the mind both philosophically and scientifically (e.g. the `hard problem' of consciousness and how subjective & intentional mental states arise, how perception & memory works, whether there is free will, and so on) that is still far from fully understood. Given this, perhaps for many in the scientific community any kind of attempt to come to grips with the paranormal, or even acknowledge its possible existence, is simply a step too far.

McLuhan also raises the religious dimension. He points out that some fundamentalist religions demonise the paranormal, while some other religions at best patronisingly dismiss it. In response to that, part of me would certainly like to see at least some aspects of the paranormal being regarded as wholly naturalistic phenomena. After all, as I see it the boundaries to perception cannot be defined a priori (not at least now quantum non-locality has been established). Rather, such boundaries should be regarded as fixed contingently by evolutionary processes. Studying scientifically where the boundary falls for us - as parapsychology attempts to do - is thus clearly a bona fide scientific activity. However, while doing this might help make some scientists more sympathetic, for McLuhan - and I have to agree with him here - the position is not that simple. Much of what paranormal phenomena purports to be about does have implications for any religious world view. Near Death Experiences (NDEs), for example, if genuine are clearly telling us something very important.

To summarise, I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject. Even for those who hold strong views on the non-existence of the paranormal it offers, I think, a thoughtful and coherent challenge to the view that science has already explained such phenomena away. There is clearly something going on that requires full and honest investigation, and if science is to explain it away then much more heavy lifting needs to be undertaken by sceptics than has so far been attempted.
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19 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All Open-Minded Sceptics Should Read, 5 Feb 2011
By 
Michael E. Tymn "Michael Tymn" (Kailua, Hawaii) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters (Paperback)
Subtitled "What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong, and why it matters," this book deals with a subject matter that goes to the very core of our existence and which either give meaning to life or, in its absence, suggests that we live in a purely mechanistic universe with no meaning at all - psychic abilities and, concomitantly, the survival of consciousness after death. "The controversy about the paranormal may seem like a petty dispute on the fringes of academia, but it is not insignificant," author Robert McLuhan advances. "It could impact on people's lives and the health and progress of our society in the most fundamental way imaginable."

McLuhan. a British journalist, goes on to explain that our psychic nature is the basis of an optimistic philosophy, "one that offers hope and guidance, provides meaningful alternatives to the pursuit of wealth and status, urges social co-operation, exposes the futility of religiously motivated violence, and encourages the breaking down of ethnic, religious, and nationalistic barriers."

The pessimistic view of the world - one which the non-believers in psychic abilities attempt to put a positive twist on by calling it humanism - is espoused by James "The Amazing" Randi, a Canadian stage magician known mostly as a debunker of paranormal claims. Since the 1960s, Randi has offered a million dollars to any person who can convince him that he or she possesses psychic powers, but the prize remains unclaimed.

McLuhan begins the book as a skeptic - an open-minded one - wondering why Randi's Prize has not yet been won when there seems to be so much evidence in favor of psychic ability, or psi, as it is often called. He examines the evidence offered by psychical researchers and parapsychologists favoring both psi and survival and then looks at the counter arguments offered by the "sceptics." He carefully weighs the evidence for and against and in most cases concludes that the "sceptics" have ignored, twisted, distorted, misinterpreted, misrepresented, disregarded, ridiculed, or otherwise dismissed the best evidence.

As an example, he cites the story told by Sir Oliver Lodge, a distinguished British physicist, involving his son Raymond, who was killed on the battlefield in World War I. Shortly after Raymond's death, Sir Oliver and Lady Lodge began receiving messages from him through Gladys Osborne Leonard, a trance medium, and another medium. Raymond mentioned a military unit photo taken shortly before his death in which he (Raymond) was sitting on the ground with a walking stick over his legs while the officer behind him was leaning on his shoulder. The Lodges had never seen the photo, but a month or so later they received it from the family of another officer in the unit, and Raymond appeared in the photo just as he had communicated through the two mediums. However, C. E. M. Hansel, a British psychologist, supposedly debunked the story in a 1980 book, suggesting that the renowned physicist had succumbed to wishful thinking. Hansel reasoned that there were many families who received photos of their loved ones after their deaths. But Hansel made no mention at all of the fact that the photo showed the officer behind Raymond leaning on him. "He has omitted the detail that gives the incident its meaning, in the process making the scientist look like a fool and the medium like a lucky chancer," McLuhan offers, going on to say that the sceptic literature is full of such casual misrepresentations and these adulterated versions enter the skeptical literature, where they tend to be treated as authoritative.

McLuhan says that he initially assumed that such misrepresentations were quick and easy ways of denigrating parapsychologists and persuading readers that there is an easy explanation. But he changed his view on this. "What it really demonstrates, I believe, is the coping mechanism employed by the convinced sceptic," he writes. "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 others so greatly. They literally can't see it, so they can't understand what the fuss is about."

McLuhan examines other research done by the pioneers of a century ago, including a full chapter on the Italian medium Eusapia Palladino, but also looks at more current research, such as that done by Dr. Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona involving mediums. In discussing Randi's negative assessment of Schwartz, McLuhan concludes that Randi's arguments don't relate to Schwartz's work in any substantive way and wondered if Randi even read Schwartz's detailed reports and was just rehashing old clichés. He sees Randi as merely trying to reassure his audience of skeptics, while discouraging potentially open-minded members of academia, the media, and the general public from taking Schwartz's results seriously.

One chapter is devoted to recent research in the phenomenon known as the near-death experience. McLuhan looks at the arguments by sceptics, including Dr. Susan Blackmore, who claim that the NDE is nothing more than a brain shutting down accompanied by hallucinations. "As sceptics do," McLuhan writes, "Blackmore reconstructs the events in a way that leads to her desired conclusions." And when she runs out of arguments, "she resorts to bluffing, like a courtroom lawyer with a patently guilty client and nothing to lose."

McLuhan addresses the psychological, sociological, and philosophical implications related to acceptance of psi and survival, recognizing that some arguments made by sceptics have merit and that for mainstream science to endorse psi "might potentially open the door to the worst kind of superstition." He discusses some of the difficulties that society would face if there were absolute certainty relative to psi and survival. He also recognizes that a belief in psi does not necessarily mean a belief in survival, as there are alternative hypotheses. On the other hand, he suggests "that for most people the idea that death spells extinction is not a well-considered moral position, but a burden, dutifully perceived and dutifully born, that leaves a vacuum in the centre of their being." He concludes the book by stating that if empirical observations can confirm what many people intuitively believe to be true, "we surely need to accept and understand it."

It's unlikely that hard-core sceptics, or pseudosceptics, will be swayed by the author's well-researched and well-written book, as they seem stuck in the muck and mire of atheistic dogmatism or scientific fundamentalism, just as religious fundamentalists are stuck in their belief system. But for the truly open-minded person in search of truth and meaning, this book has much to offer and think about.
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