on 28 March 2011
I found this to be a stimulating read. It's an excellent collection of essays by leading thinkers and writers on both sides of the controversy over psychic research.
Psi-researchers like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake (the latter not, however, represented here) have no doubts that psi is a genuine phenomenon, while veteran sceptics like James Alcock and Ray Hyman have no doubts whatever that it isn't, and tend to think this should be obvious to any serious person. So despite their arguably robust research and penetrating arguments the parapsychologists often find themselves on the defensive.
Previous books of this kind have been rather gentlemanly affairs, with both sides showing a deference that belies the rather brutal nature of the intellectual conflict, and parapsychologists especially pulling their punches. Not here. This book crackles with tension, which makes it not just a bracing read, but gives a good sense of the depth and nature of the disagreements.
A general overview by editors Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman is followed by a 'brief history of science and psychic phenomena' by Radin, then by Alcock and Hyman stating their positions. Alcock kicks off with a quotation from Alice about ' six impossible things before breakfast', underlining his conviction that psychic phenomena can't happen so they probably don't. Criticisms of lack of repeatability and methodological weaknesses seem to Alcock to be 'very reasonable', and if parapsychologists were truly interested in pursuing the truth then they should at least acknowledge this. 'It reflects a triumph of hope over experience', he says, 'that so many have continued to devote themselves to parapsychological research over such long periods of time despite both the absence of theoretical or empirical progress and the continuing rejection by mainstream science'.
Hyman reprises the position he established during the 1980s, with claims of methodological flaws, unreliable meta-analyses, inconsistencies in data, etc. In this section there are also contributions by Chris French, who espouses a moderate brand of scepticism, and by Skeptic editor Michael Shermer, with a typically trivial account of how he bamboozled unsuspecting punters by pretending to be psychic for a day.
The last essay in this section, titled 'persistent denial: a century of denying the evidence' is by Chris Carter, a writer who in recent books has taken the argument to the sceptics. Carter underlines the logical weakness of many of their arguments and exposes the ideological element in the controversy. He characterizes debunking sceptics - justifiably, in my opinion - as 'heirs of the Enlightenment, guardians of rationality who must at all costs discredit any dangerous backsliding into superstition', essentially acting as defenders of the materialist faith. He offers detailed criticisms both of Alcock and Hyman, tackling their arguments head on, and also makes a fierce attack on the debunking activities of British psychologist Richard Wiseman, particularly with regard to the now notorious affair over Jaytee 'the psychic dog', first investigated by Rupert Sheldrake.
In the second section the contributors all offer rebuttals, and this is where the sparks fly. Parapsychologists are used to criticism, and fending off attacks is part of their job description. Sceptics strangely are not, and often seem often hurt and bewildered by criticism. Carter's essay clearly struck a nerve with Alcock and Hyman, who heatedly complained they had been misunderstood and misrepresented. Readers will make what they will of the claims on both sides, but if nothing else, it's instructive to see how much more comfortable sceptics are at dishing out criticism than answering it.
A third section contains an essay by Richard Wiseman which offers some quite cogent criticisms of parapsychology as a discipline - together with some throwaway, and grossly misleading, claims about the alleged failure of early psychic research - for all of which, alas, the necessary comeback is lacking from this volume. From the other end of the spectrum there is an interesting and provocative essay by Stephan A. Schwartz, who sees psi-sceptics as bedfellows of creationists and climate-change sceptics, as related 'denier-movements'. The volume ends with short pro and anti postscripts by sci-fi writer Damien Broderick and psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus.
In summary, this is an excellent resource by some of the leading players in the field, and gives a good snapshot of where the controversy now stands. A must for anyone who is serious about getting to grips with this fascinating subject.