7 January 2011


Stanley Krippner and Harris L Friedman (Eds.) Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion. Praeger, 2010

For some thirty years now there has been a fierce polarisation between advocates of the reality of psi phenomena such as ESP and their critics, herein called counter advocates. Readers might wonder whether in this book, in which both sides have their say, there will be any meeting of the minds. There isn’t.
There is a weak introductory piece, adapted from a book, by Dean Radin, a flash-by history of psychical research padded out by accounts of other scientific developments, which serves no obvious purpose, but perhaps highlights how little parapsychology has progressed over the years.

There are replies to this by critics James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Chris French and Michael Shermer. Shermer’s piece, a lightweight ‘how I pretended to be a psychic and fooled gullible people’ account is very weak and like Radin’s introduction the book would have been better off without it.

The critiques by Alcock, Hyman and French are more substantial, though there is much duplication between them. Though Alcock produces no fewer than 13 objections to parapsychological claims, ranging from his agreement with his main opponents that psi “cannot occur if modern materialistic science is right”, an over strong claim one suspects, to more plausible critiques, such as parapsychologists inability to boundary their field (is there nothing they won’t believe in essentially, through negative definitions, misuse of the term anomaly, lack of replication by outsiders etc etc.

Hyman like Alcock narrows down the discussion of anomaly, arguing that real scientific anomalies are precise deviations from some sort of previously known norm, and both Hyman and French look more closely at replicability, Hyman arguing that many studies are supposed to show replicability, while French concedes that many mainstream psychological studies show similar poor levels of replication. Hyman also devotes much attention to the problems of meta-analysis

Replying to this Chris Carter and Dean Radin argue that the evidence is stronger than the critics would suggest, and that indeed studies that critics claimed did not show replication actually did. By now the argument seems quite seasonal, for it has a pantomimic quality of the “Oh yes they did, Oh no they didn’t variety”, good fun for the children but not especially enlightening. While they make some good points, and in particular refer to neurological studies in the mainstream literature, which the critics never refer to, they weaken their case by long polemical attacks on the critics, alleging that they are motivated by a whole range of psychological and ideological issues, have massaged the data and so.

As both make strong transcendentalist claims for the data anomalies, they raise the suspicion among their critics that they engage in parapsychology not to study open-mindedly what causes non-chance results, but to accumulate ammunition to use against 'materialism'. These transcendentalist claims lie rather uneasily alongside their appeals to quantum mechanics, which provides some good ammunition to their critics. They are also show a tendency, much marked among parapsychologists and psychical researchers to argue from authority and quotation. Listing all the great and good of past generations who said things favourable to parapsychology makes very little sense, as no doubt one could assemble large numbers of authorities to argue the other way, or to argue for all sorts of now discredited causes and beliefs.

Equally the argument that until the arrival of scientific materialism most people believed in ESP, and most still do, but there are precious few university posts in ESP, proves there is some huge conspiracy against, carries rather less weight when one realises that before 'scientific materialism' most people believed in witchcraft, astrology, demons and the like, and many still do. So presumably the absence of a Hogwarts Chair of Spells at Yale and the Russell Grant Chair of Astrology at Cambridge is also part of the same conspiracy.

As the critics reply to the parapsychologists, we get bogged down into more and more detail of Ganzfield studies and meta-analysis. However Hyman makes perhaps the most telling point, that all aspects of mainstream science have at least some “paradigm experiments”, experiments that any first year university student or high school student can perform, and teachers know if they use the right apparatus in the right way, they will get the desired result. He also makes the point that quantum mechanics leads to many demonstrable results and can be defined in precise scientific terms, so that however weird its results, scientists have to accept them.

A particular example might be the experiment which reveals one of the most counter-intuitive results from quantum mechanics; the experiment where photons are fired at a double slit one at a time, but interference patterns gradually build up. This is an experiment which can be performed in any decent university physics lab (and in many a well-appointed high school) anywhere in the world. It can be demonstrated time after time, there is no question of the interference patterns not turning up if there are skeptics in the room because the photons don’t like their negative vibrations. To be taken seriously parapsychology needs its own double-slit type experiment.

There are then two additional pieces, one by critic Richard Wiseman, argues that parapsychologists have all too frequently hopped from one experimental procedure to another in pursuit of promising looking leads which eventually get nowhere. They need to stick to a set of procedures which have looked the best and keep on that them. He does not address the specific criticisms made of him by Carter.

The second by advocate Stephen Schwartz lumps critics of parapsychology along with opponents of evolution and critics of the theory of anthropogenic global warming as deniers. Of course this tactic, as critics of human-caused global warming constantly point out, is simply a cheap rhetorical trick aimed at delegitimising the other side by linking them with Holocaust deniers. This is a particularly dangerous trick for a parapsychologist to engage in because critics will point out that evolution is accepted as a fact by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, and there is a substantial majority opinion in favour of the theory of human-caused global warming, whereas it is the parapsychologists who are the minority outsiders. The tables could easily be turned and parapsychologists denounced as 'materialism deniers' who oppose the overwhelming evidence that consciousness is a property of embodied brains-human and animal.

In the round up, advocate Krippner and agnostic Friedman give their own views, as do 'moderate' advocate Damien Broderick and 'moderate' skeptic Elizabeth Loftus. These last four make better arguments for their point of view than do the main participants.

It is quite impossible for the outside observer to make much of many of the detailed accusations and counter accusations about replication with not just access to the original literature but the original laboratory workbooks and the buildings themselves. Despite both sides avowal of open mindedness I strongly suspect that in reality there is very little chance that any evidence would come along that would get Alcock and Hyman to change their skeptical opinions, and no chance at all that anything could persuade advocates Radin, Carter and Schwartz to change theirs. In the debates here the skeptics win on points, but whether that is a fair result is a moot point, because Radin, Carter and Schwartz made such poor advocates for their own positions.

Reading these papers began to give the impression of watching a very strange football match where one side was playing by the rules of Association Football, the other by those of Rugby League. Both sides are constantly moving the goal posts, and a high proportion of the scoring is generated by own goals. Nevertheless I came to some preliminary conclusions which I suspect are not going to be too far removed from the actual situation.

Much of the evidence comes in the form of esoteric and ambiguous statistical analyses, which can be interpreted with reasonable sincerity by each side to suite their own beliefs and prejudices. Despite that there are a number of cases of very puzzling above-chance statistical correlations which are more difficult to explain in conventional terms than critics would like to believe.

Advocates on the other hand need to be reminded that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Advocates tend to be their own worst enemies. In particular, much of their transcendentalist rhetoric gives the impression than they are less interested in a truly open minded examination of what might be giving rise to above-chance correlations, than as using them as ammunition in a cultural war against secular scientific naturalism. This automatically raises defensive hackles of much of the scientific community.

Equally reasonable critics of parapsychology could lessen parapsychologists suspicions of them by avoiding getting involved in moral crusading organisations such as CSI(COP).  -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.


Terry the Censor said...

> a cultural war against secular scientific naturalism

That seems to be it in a nutshell.

> avoiding getting involved in moral crusading organisations such as CSI(COP).

Again, a simple and just assessment.

Thanks for the very good, no-nonsense review.

Anonymous said...

For a more balanced review, see this:


Mark Szlazak said...

Good review. No evidence yet strong enough the persuade scientists. Does The field need more work. I now suspect that many parapsychologists are now more skeptical of psi phenomenon than before despite some puzzling above chance statistics. They have been at this to long with to little to show and keep switching paradigms once better meta-analysis come along which show outcomes coming closer to chance! Very suspect behaviour! I use to be in the pro-psi camp but now do not believe there is any good evidence to believe psi exists in any form.