11 January 2011


Robert McLuhan. Randi's Prize: What the Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters. Matador, 2010

Robert McLuhan makes some very valid points about many of the sceptical writers on psychical research and parapsychology, in particular the way that many of them dismiss the subject with a wave of the hand or through polemic, tend to quote one another uncritically, and rarely do justice to the original reports.
Nearly as many of them think that the subject is so self evidently ridiculous that it is not worthy of serious consideration. That being said, I am not convinced that McLuhan has all that much grasp of the complexities of the topic himself, and his attempts to bracket all critics of his interpretation of the data of psychical research along with Randi is quite mistaken. He fails to understand that a good number of psychical research's critics from Theodore Besterman and Eric J Dingwall (neither of whom feature in the index) down to Susan Blackmore and Chris French started out as "believers" and only became sceptics over a period of time.

As one goes through this book, what starts of looking as though it was going to be an attempt at an open minded look at both sides of the argument, became increasingly skewed towards a spiritualistic interpretation, with most other outlooks dismissed in much the same manner as he accuses the sceptics of doing.

It is true that many "normal" explanations of paranormal experiences do not really do the experience justice or provide a satisfactory explanation of what is going on, but what is not acknowledged by advocates of the paranormal is that their own explanations (if one can call them that) do not really explain the data either, and often contain logical contradictions.

For example McLuhan seems to take a fairly literalistic explanation of out-of-the-body experiences as opposed to the psychological theories proposed by Susan Blackmore and Harvey Irvin (the latter not mentioned, perhaps because as an author of a standard textbook on parapsychology he is not easily bracketed with James Randi). Yet such literalistic explanations cannot be right, as no invisible entity could possibly gain any visual information from the outside world (a point made by C. W. K. Mundle in the Proceedings of the SPR back in 1973). McLuhan seems to grasp this at one point and comes out with the old chestnut that what is experienced is some sort of "astral" equivalent of the physical world. Either this means something like virtual, which is what Blackmore and Irvine argue, this virtual world being the model of the world stored in the brain, or it doesn't actually mean anything at all.

Though McLuhan avoids some of the worst excesses of advocates of the paranormal, such as the arguments from authority and quotation which are rife and in the field, he does share some traits with them. One is a strange naivete which extends well beyond the paranormal, such that at times you wonder what planet this guy is living on. He cannot believe that the Fox sisters fooled people including their parents for any length of time, or that children could cause the havoc in poltergeist cases and scare adults out of their wits, because he cannot imagine his own children doing that.

He seems to have no grasp of the world of problem children in problem families, where generation after generation after generation of children and adolescents have engaged in vandalism, anti-social behaviour, bullying and manipulation. No doubt it is difficult to imagine that then antics of local children and adolescents can drive adults to suicide, that young children can drop concrete blocks onto motorway traffic or murder toddlers, or that parents might stage the kidnapping of their own children, but these things happen.

It is also clear that like many writers in this field, he is mainly looking at the material produced by psychical researchers not as puzzles to be solved but as ammunition to be used in a wider struggle against secular scientific naturalism, which means they have little chance of getting any kind of sympathetic reaction from the scientific community they are out to overturn. Also like many writers in this field McLuhan makes little attempt to understand or come to terms with contemporary studies in psychology and neuroscience. What paranormal advocates have to understand is not only do they have to provide repeatable experiments or observations and provide a theory which clearly explains (in mathematical terms if not everyday language) what exactly is going on in these anomalous events/experiences, but also that theory also has to explain, at least as well, and preferably better, all known, normal phenomena as well. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson


  1. Anonymous11.1.11

    I have no problem with rationality. I have a problem with those that claim themselves as arbiters of said rationality. That being said, rationality is a word for which we possess multiple, often non-interacting and varied neural maps for. In other words, it's a meaningless word. As are constructs such as 'normal' and 'paranormal.'In order to define the paranormal, one must define the normal, again, a meaningless word without referents, or recognizable neural maps.

  2. Rationality employs facts and the principles of logic to understand reality. When a person is behaving in a manner contrary to the use of logic or despite the presence of facts that contradict them, we say they are behaving irrationally. Rationality is not a meaningless word. Also, of the other two words, it seems "paranormal" would be the only one without a clear definition.

    Anyway, great review.

  3. "Anonymous" is also a meaningless word, the way you are defining "meaningless."