26 February 2010


Martin Bridgstock. Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and Belief in the Paranormal. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This book by an Australian academic and member of the Australian skeptics movement, is not particularly concerned with refuting specific paranormal claims, but with a more general defence of skepticism as a mode of thought. It includes a brief history of skeptical thought from the Greeks onward.
This includes a detailed examination of Hume's position on miracles, an examination of the scientific method, and its contrasting with various protoscientific, cryptoscientific and pseudo scientific claims.

He next examines the nature of paranormal claims and makes the interesting point that if any of these claims could be verified and subject to real scientific study, by many definitions of paranormal, they would be immediately cease to be paranormal and become part of normal science. He might have gone on to argue that if scientists then used these new findings or principles to explain further tranches of anomalous phenomena, they would be accused of 'explaining away' by paranormalists.

There is a useful discussion of the various ways in which paranormal claims can be based on false premises, errors of perception and memory and so on, and notes how advocacy groups such as the creation science movement can manipulate evidence and misquote sources (sadly some skeptics are not beyond this either).

He follows sociologist Erich Goode in classifying proponents of paranormal and other anomalous claims into several categories, these range from protoscientists (or wannabe scientists) such as academic parapsychologists who at least try to use the language and protocols of science in their work, through pseudoscientists, practitioners such as alternate medicine practitioners, religious groups such as creation scientists, grass-roots movements such as ufology, through to the socially isolated crank. Of course, it must be said, in the real world things are never as clear cut as that, for example many cranks are not socially isolated, they are able to gather followers or create communities, and much of the motivation behind parapsychology lies in a quasi-religious concern for the preservation or restoration of a transcendentalist and anti-materialist world view, combating what one might call secular modernism.

Critics will point out that at least some of these trends appear in the organised skeptics movement itself, groups such CSI(COP) and its offshoots do not actually conduct any critical scientific studies of paranormal or other anomalous claims. Bridgstock accepts that they fall into the category of grass-roots social organisations, but if you look at the associations of the initials CSI COP (ie police) or CSI (officially standing for Committee for Scientific Investigation but the association of those initials with Crime Scene is total in the popular imagination and their use deliberate).

This shows that the role that the organised skeptics movement sees for itself is not a scientific or even primarily educational one, but as a policing one. They are what sociologists call 'moral crusaders' or 'vigilante movements'. These are groups which organise to protest, witness and campaign against social ills real or imaginary. Though these terms are often used just as terms of abuse, the ills against which they campaign are often real, and their causes by no means absurd. However they do have a tendency towards an increasingly radical Manichian world view, seeing themselves as the children of righteousness and light battling the forces of cosmic darkness.

Many of these organisations have arisen from an evangelical religious background, and often they can be seen as defending the fundamental structures of society against the forces of antinomian chaos, defending habitat against wilderness. CSI(COP), though many of its members are ostensibly atheists or humanists, has many features of religiosity: a sense of evangelical mission, of proclaiming a saving message, of tales of conversion and even the idea that just reading a sacred text can produce a metatonia which will transform your life.

Furthermore the ills against which the moral crusaders campaign are often metaphors for deeper changes in society, and for the campaigners perceived loss of status. Psychical research arose in England partly as a defensive move among sections of the classicist élite against the 'materialism' associated with the new forms of industry and social organisation. Creation science and intelligent design organise against the mid/late twentieth century rise in secularism. As science and secularism moved from being outsider forces in society into the mainstream, they too became elates which looked out to protect their roles. CSICOP emerges in response not to Joseph Rhine's psychical research but in response to the youth antinomianism of the 1964-72 period.

If CSI(COP) and its fellows are moral crusaders, against what might they best crusade? The obvious examples are those elements of paranormalism/fringeism which are primarily after wallets and credit cards, and which feed on the lonely, gullible, bereaved and desperate. The sort of people who sell worthless mine-detection devices to third world countries for example, and who offer worthless, pain free alternative cures for cancer to parents who cannot bear the sickness and distress that chemotherapy causes their toddlers, or those who promote a narrow sectarian and completely false worldview and at worst pathological hatreds.

In other areas actual scientific enquiry, such as the replication attempts by Marks and Kammann on Targ and Puthoff's remote viewing experiments would seem to be a good way forward. The real sceptical viewpoint lies in attempts at impartial investigation, rather than the battle between often uncritical promotion of paranormal claims by believers, and the often equally uncritical debunking of them by skeptics.

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