6 February 2011


Jonathan C Smith. Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

Clearly aimed at a college or university undergraduate audience, psychologist Jonathan Smith examines various claims of the paranormal and suggests programmes of skeptical thinking. Smith suggests that critical thinkers should assess the value of their sources of information, whether the claims are logically consistent, and if there non paranormal alternative explanations. 🔻
These steps are elaborated on throughout the book, which includes sections on evaluating evidence, in particular the role of statistics and their pitfalls, looking out for errors in perception and memory, checking for trickery, the role of hallucinations and other neurological and sensory phenomena, and the placebo effect.

There are critical looks at astrology, spiritualism, parapsychology, alternative medicine, spiritual healing and creationism using these criteria and they are all found wanting.

While many of Smith's points are valid and make excellent advice, this book shares many of the flaws of the skeptical movement. For example he does not heed his own advice on selecting primary sources and critically appraising sources, thus in the sections on spiritualism and parapsychology he rarely quotes from primary sources, Internet sites are readily used if they support his point of view, the writings of James Randi on subjects far removed from his own speciality, and there is a general tendency to rely on a limited number of skeptical sources, never themselves subject to critical analysis.

There is also the classic scatter-gun approach, lumping all sorts of claims together and frequent use of ridicule and non-sequitors of the "if you believe in ghosts/UFOs etc., you must also believe in pixies and werewolves" variety. He also clearly misunderstands the idea of reductio ad absurdum, which is a tool used by mathematicians and philosophers to argue that the contrary of a certain proposition is logically self-contradictory, therefore the proposition must be true, (REF.).
He takes it as meaning that you can defeat an argument by casting it in such a way that it sounds silly. For example (p45) he quotes a piece from the Parapsychological Association:

Psi may be involved in Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." That is, modern machines based upon sensitive electronic circuits, such as copiers and computers, may at times directly interact with human intention, and as a result, inexplicably fail at inopportune times. Of course, the converse may also be true. That is, the possibility exists to repair, or to control sensitive machines solely by mental means. Such technologies would significantly benefit handicapped persons. (REF.)
He recasts it as "Copier isn't working ? Maybe its haunted by a ghost. Better call a ghost buster. If we find a ghost, perhaps we could use it to propel wheelchairs"

Now I don't hold any candle to the original, which at best represents an incredible degree of hope over experience, but note how others might use Smith's line of argument. For an example a creationist might recast "Darwin argues that human beings and the African apes shared a common ancestry" as "Darwin says your great great grandmother was a chimpanzee", and Isaac Newton's continental critics, such as Descartes, complained that his theory of gravity involved an 'occult' action at a distance, so perhaps they could have argued "Newton says that the apple is being pulled down to the earth by invisible demons, and they are also trying drag down the moon, but a team of angels are pushing it round so fast that it never actually falls."

Whatever the faults of paranormal beliefs, trying to blame them for the holocaust (p29) is absurd and more than a little sick. Maybe I am the wrong generation, but the silliness of the 'Flying Spaghetti Monster' adds little to the book's arguments. All of this is really sad, because, as I have said, there is plenty of good material and arguments in this book. It seems that skeptics share with paranormal advocates the tendency to self-destruct.

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