26 September 2009


Chris Carter. Parapsychology and the Skeptics: a Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP. SterlingHouse, 2007.

Henri Broch. Exposed! Ouija, Firewalking and other Gibberish. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

One of the main features of the debates surrounding a range of anomalous claims, is the quasi religious divide into rival ideological camps marked 'believer' and 'sceptic' which is rarely encountered elsewhere in science, however rancorous these disputes can become. Perhaps the only other examples which come to immediate mind are the debates surrounding human induced global warming, or some of debates surrounding AIDS.🔻
Part of the difficulty in the case of the parapsychology is that the divide is not over whether or not particular anomalies exist or not, though these do occur, but on the philosophical superstructures erected on those anomalies. Once these ideological camps are set up, then debates rapidly assume the character of party political polemic of the sort we have in this country in Prime Minister's Question Time or on TV shows like Any Questions or Question Time. In this debate each side claims that it has the perfect policies and the most noble and true hearted spokespersons while the other’s policies would ruin the country, and is staffed in large part by Satan's less salubrious spawn.

Chris Carter is the Believer in this debate, and claims that "this is the book the skeptics don't want you to read". I am not sure whether some reviewer in the Skeptical Inquirer has actually said "don't read this book", but I rather doubt it. Perhaps he thinks that it will refute skeptics claims with the brilliance of its arguments, but there again I suspect he will be disappointed.

There are a number of actual claims in this book, which fall into the category of interesting if true, such as that experiments conducted by Susan Blackmore which she argues produced the negative results that turned her into a skeptic, actually produced positive results. Also the study by Richard Wiseman on the dog Jaytee, where Wiseman claimed to have refuted Rupert Sheldrake's claim that the said dog knew when its owner was coming home, actually confirmed it. There are also statistically arguments about the Gazfield experiment, with claim and counter claim. Think of party political clashes on government spending figures or the size of the national debt. Which side you believe tends to reflect which party you support.

Of course if this was just a debate about statistical anomalies then little of this heat would be generated. Unlike claims on, for example, the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, or air travel and global warming, there is little immediate consequence and no suggested course of action which might have a major impact on how people live their lives.

Rather the heat is generated by the philosophical superstructure. Carter like many other parapsychologists is not really interested in the statistical anomalies themselves, but in their utility as battering rams against 'materialism' and much of the contemporary scientific world view. It is precisely the fear of this battering ram or wedge which motivates many sceptics to go to extraordinary and sometimes less than scrupulous lengths to oppose claims for psi.

This also sets the demarcation line between believer and sceptic and a way rather different from mainstream science. Mainstream science (in theory if by no means always in practice) looks to competing hypotheses as potential explainers of certain observations or experiments in a fairly neutral fashion. However in parapsychology, rejection of certain interpretations of the results say of the Gazfield experiments marks one out as a sceptic. Those who propose hypotheses other than what might be called 'transcendental ESP' are accused of explaining away and are regarded as no longer part of the team. It is as if Lavoisier was regarded as not being a 'real' chemist because he 'explained away' pholigiston. Today we can see that 'explaining away' led to the flowering of modern chemistry. Psi might well be the phloigiston of today.

Susan Blackmore is probably saying just that when she argues that the search for the evidence for psi is getting nowhere. That does not automatically mean that there are no puzzling statistical anomalies, and that people do not have anomalous experiences which cannot be easily explained within current concepts, merely that the psi of the parapyschologists is not what is causing them, or that the term itself is simply an empty slogan.

Carter does not want to accept this, because he wants to attack 'materialist science'. Of course he also wants to have his scientific cake as well as eat it, so he appeals to quantum mechanics to try and get him out of the fix. Rather he appeals to a minority position within QM which argues for the crucial role of consciousness in collapsing quantum states into the defined world. He could, of course be up front about this and argue that "a minority of physicists believe ... and if they are right ... etc". But he does something else; he pretends they are the majority, and in presenting a list of alternatives, omits the one that is probably the majority view. In this the 'observer' which collapses the quantum state is nothing more than the environment in general.

There is real problem with the idea of consciousness collapsing quantum states, for this implies that consciousness is a physical thing interacting with the rest of the physical world. But consciousness is not a thing, it is a property. We might argue over what sort of thing or things it is a property of (the total embodied human being, the electrical and chemical activity in the human brain, powerful computers, any complex information processing system, life in general, matter in general, the whole of space time, some pre-geometrical bedrock, some field or other, astral bodies, astral brains), but it is a property all the same. What collapsed the quantum state would be the X factor that consciousness was a property of in that case.

Not only does Carter appeal to quantum mechanics in this rather underhand way, he also appeals to authority, with lists of scientists and others who support his world view. Trouble is that they are all dead, they are people from past generations. He might be correct in arguing that CSICOP sought to bolster its standing be inviting on board all sorts of authorities who looked good but knew nothing about the subject in hand, but the SPR did the same thing, and paranormalists now go on quoting mainly antique figures, as if they represent modern science.

The result is that though Carter lands a few bruising punches, they are drowned out by the rhetoric. This is not a knockout blow.

Does the opposing player, sceptic Henri Bloch score any decisive blow? Definitely not, for perhaps the greatest mystery of this book is how it got published by a major academic publisher. It is an essentially superficial account, and follows the classic skeptic pattern of the scatter-gun approach, so we have critiques of fire-handling, the ouija board, the Shroud of Turin, astrology, dowsing, clairvoyance. etc., etc. Academic parapsychology is dismissed by a quotation from Irving Langmuir about an alleged interview with J. B. Rhine, in which Langmuir claims that Rhine had cabinets full of unpublished results, and that he had "millions of cases" in which he had a success rate of 7 out of 25. Someone is talking rubbish here, for a million runs at a minute a run would mean working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 19 years! I suspect that Langmuir might have misheard Rhine defending the non-publication of negative runs, by arguing that it would take millions of such runs to even the odds out.

Bloch performs his own experiments, and tests clairvoyants. Here is a typical report (it is a little longer than most)
"S claimed to have a gift of extrasensory perception that gave her the ability ... to see the contents of sealed envelopes. ... We carried out a test of her extrasensory powers in our laboratory in May 2001 using photos - landscapes and portraits - sealed in envelopes. As requested by the clairvoyant we ensured the opacity of the envelopes using a sheet of heavy folded paper. She was supplied with a list of possible responses, together with a photocopy of the pictures. The experiment was extremely simple. However the clairvoyant saw nothing". (p23)
There are six other equally negative, equally brief and uninformative reports. Now you don't need ESP to know that if Broch had claimed a positive result for these seven cases, citing this kind of detail, there is no way that would have been published by an academic publisher, or for that matter by any respectable journal of parapsychology.

Let us take another example. A subject claims to have the ability to will a small door in a small room to close. He actually demonstrates this (it is not clear whether the door was pushed or pulled). Broch explains this by musculokinesis or myokinesis. This means that when the subject concentrated "he rapidly relaxed and contracted his pectoral and abdominal muscles" which led to "the creation of a subsonic acoustic wave by the compression and decompression of the thorax or abdomen, provoked by the abrupt muscular movements, whose effect was optimised by the small size of the room" (p29-30)

A quick Google search shows that neither musculokinesis nor myokineses with this meaning are recognised scientific terms. This is not a piece of established science, but a claim. To me this sounds like an extraordinary claim, for which I would rather like extraordinary evidence, and not just a lot of mathematical calculations. Now it is also an interesting claim, and if verified by repeated experiments, might suggest a possible starting point for the explanation of some otherwise puzzling anomalous personal experiences. However, imagine that Broch had claimed this effect not as a skepical demolition of psychokinesis, but as a claim that he had not only experimentally demonstrated PK but had a suggested physical mechanism for it in at least some cases. Again do you think that a major academic publisher would have produced a book making such an unverified claim?.

Increasingly this debate between believers and skeptics, in which both sides martial one sided evidence and arguments to bolster their own supporters, and often misrepresent the views of the other gets us nowhere. Both sides can make telling points against the other and raise valid issues, but these usually apply as much to themselves as their opponents, and many of the most telling blows are self inflicted. It is like watching a soccer match in which most of the goals are own goals.

1 comment:

Mark said...

"But consciousness is not a thing, it is a property."

Not to sound like too big of a jerk, but you might want to look up the definition of the word "thing" before you use it again. You also make too many materialist assumptions, like the fact that something has to be "physical" to affect the physical world. You don't know this, and this is exactly what people like Carter are arguing against.