Journalist’s Book “Randi’s Prize” Exposes How ‘Skeptics’ Distort Evidence for Paranormal Activity.
Posted on 21 February 2011, 15:23
As long as works of fiction about girls with dragon tattoos and such things appeal to the masses, it is unlikely that a meaningful book like Randi’s Prize will ever make it to the best-seller list, but in my mind, at least, this book by British journalist Robert McLuhan (below) should be at the very top of the list.
Subtitled “What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong, and why it matters,” this book deals with things that go to the very core of our existence and which either give meaning to life or, in their absence, suggest that we live in a purely mechanistic universe with no meaning at all. This latter view appears to be that espoused by James “The Amazing” Randi, a Canadian stage magician known mostly as a debunker of paranormal claims. Since the 1960s, Randi has offered a million dollars to any person who can convince him that he or she possesses psychic powers, but the prize remains unclaimed.
An Oxford graduate and member of the Society for Psychical Research, McLuhan, who worked as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian in Spain and Portugal and now works as a freelance journalist, begins the book as a skeptic – an open-minded one – wondering why Randi’s Prize has not yet been won. He examines the evidence advanced by psychical researchers and parapsychologists favoring ESP or psi as well as the survival of consciousness at death and then looks at the counter arguments offered by the “skeptics,” (“Sceptics” in the King’s English). He carefully weighs the evidence for and against and in most cases concludes that the “skeptics” have ignored, twisted, distorted, misinterpreted, disregarded, or otherwise written off the evidence.
I recently interviewed McLuhan by e-mail.
Robert, how did you become interested in this subject?
“I studied literature at university, but then got interested in science, and read books by science writers like Isaac Asimov, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Paul Davis, that sort of thing. There just happened to be a New Age bookshop near where I worked, and I’d pop in there in spare moments to browse. So I ended up reading a lot of spiritualist-type literature as well. I got interested in such things as mediumistic channeling and near-death experiences. I became aware that science doesn’t accept that there is anything paranormal about them, and that made me curious.”
I gather that you initially found the arguments of the skeptics very persuasive.
“Yes, they had quite a hold on me for a while, they just seemed so authoritative, and their arguments seemed to be based on solid science. But at the same time, what they said didn’t seem to address what people actually say about their experiences, and it was a real struggle to try to work out where the truth lies. It was quite a while before I felt confident about making up my own mind – I didn’t want to feel I was succumbing to wishful thinking, or being superstitious, which is what sceptics always imply.”
So what swung you the other way?
“That started to happen when I realised that sceptics don’t really engage with the parapsychological research at all, but only with the idea that they have of it. They don’t read the literature, so they have only a very vague and general idea of what it is that people report. Not knowing the challenges makes it that much easier to explain it away.”
You obviously have dug deeply into both the old and the new research in both ESP and Survival.
“Yes, I spent a few months reading general books around consciousness and so on, and noticed several references to the Society for Psychical Research. So I decided to check it out, and found that it has a really good little library in central London, packed with useful books, and also its own quarterly publications going back to 1882. It’s a real treasure trove of research on kinds of paranormal topics. I hadn’t realised that so much scientific work has been done into things like ghosts, mediums and telepathy. It was a real eye-opener.”
And yet the skeptics continually insist that there is no evidence. Strange, isn’t it?
“I don’t blame people for feeling sceptical about paranormal claims. In fact I think we should approach the subject with a good deal of caution. But it really makes you wonder about the extent that some scientists are prepared to go to, for instance saying that there is ‘no evidence whatever’ for psychic functioning. That makes no sense to me at all, if you consider all the thousands of reports and studies and investigations that have been carried out over more than a century, and which are published in specialist peer-reviewed journals. There’s an enormous literature. If they wanted to say, there is no ‘scientific’ evidence, that’s something I’d contest, but at least we could have a conversation about it. Or that they aren’t convinced by the evidence, that would be fair enough too. But to say there isn’t any is just silly, and I think rather disqualifies them from being taken seriously.”
So, in a nutshell, what is your take on Randi and his Million Dollar Challenge?
“I actually don’t talk about Randi or the Challenge in the book very much, which I know might seem strange, since I’ve used them for the title. I just thought Randi’s prize was a useful metaphor for a certain kind of sceptical attitude, which is what I was critiquing in general terms. I would have liked to focus on this a bit more, particularly the question why no one has won the prize. This could be for some quite mundane reasons: for instance that the organizers make it really difficult for contestants, in terms of laying down conditions and taking them out of their comfort zone, which from their point of view I suppose is justified. I guess the high profile psychics who might have a chance of winning are already doing well for themselves as TV performers, and they’d have a lot to lose – and nothing much to gain – by risking their reputations. It would make no sense for them, considering how much James Randi himself would have to lose by endorsing anyone as genuine – his reputation, I mean, not the money, which I don’t think is actually his. But it’s still an interesting question.
“In the end, though, I don’t think you can answer it properly without understanding the whole background to the controversy, which is extremely complex. And that’s really what my book is all about.”
To me, the research carried out by pioneers of the SPR, such as Barrett, Myers, Lodge, Hodgson, and Hyslop is very impressive and as solid today as it was then. Yet, it is filed away in dust-covered cabinets. Do you agree?
“Yes I do, and I think it deserves to be better known. The work done with Leonora Piper, for instance – who so interested William James – is a landmark, and helped convince me, for one, that trance mediumship is a genuine phenomenon. Actually I think this could change quite a lot with the Internet. A lot of this material can be found online. The SPR has an excellent online library, where you can get just about any article from their publications within seconds, and hopefully soon it will be making some of the early out-of-copyright material available for free (I’ve published a few tasters on my book’s website http://www.randisprize.net including Richard Hodgson’s Piper papers).
“But it is strange the way the way that historians and biographers have such a distorted view of their work. I’ve recently been reading reviews of a new book by John Gray, a British political philosopher, which debunks people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who, he says, chased after dreams of immortality, among them people like Myers and Sidgwick, co-founders of the SPR. Typically, he presents them as odd-balls and eccentrics. No one ever questions why they reasoned the way they did, or relates it to their actual work. They’re just seen as crackpots.”
You discuss the supposed-debunking by C.E.M Hansel, a British psychologists, of the Raymond Lodge group photo. I think this is so typical of the way the skeptics conveniently slant the evidence. (note:Raymond communicated with his father and mother through two mediums after his death and referenced a military unit photo taken just before his death on the battlefield, mentioning that he was sitting with a walking stick across his legs and the officer behind him was leaning on him. At the time, the Lodges had not seen the photo, but it later arrived in the mail. Hansel dismissed the photo as coincidence and made no mention of the officer behind Raymond leaning on him.)
“Yes that’s something that sceptics do a lot, they misrepresent the original details and in so doing make it ripe for debunking. But I singled that instance out, because I think there’s an interesting mental process there. I used to think they did it deliberately, but actually I think that’s often not the case. When they read it, they unconsciously strip out the paranormal element, so that they literally can’t see what the fuss is about. It’s a sort of coping mechanism. Actually I think we all do it, and perhaps that’s a healthy thing – healthy scepticism, if you like. When we read about an allegedly paranormal incident our minds are working to try to provide a normal explanation. But where some of us stay true to the original, others alter it to make a normal explanation easier to identify.”
Raymond Lodge - bottom row, 2nd. from the right
And then the skeptics who know nothing of the case read Hansel’s words and accept what he has to say as gospel, although I’m not sure that word is in their vocabulary.
“Yes exactly. That’s what’s so interesting. The literature is full of alleged exposes, confessions and explanations which actually, when you scrutinize them, don’t amount to much at all, and may only have existed in the imaginations of the sceptics who described them. But in some cases, like this one concerning Hansel, you can actually see the process occurring, by comparing the original with the sceptic’s bowdlerized version.”
As you mention in the book, Randi’s attack on the research by Dr. Gary Schwartz is a good example of more modern research in the area of mediumship that has been twisted by the skeptics.
“Actually I do have some reservations about Schwartz’s work, and I think that some of the criticisms made by other sceptics such as Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman are fair enough. James Randi’s critique of Schwartz really doesn’t amount to much. I don’t get the impression that he’s interested in the details of these studies, if he ever was. He just looses off a tirade of complaints and abuse. He’s really just acting up for his audience. Criticisms are fair enough, when they are cogent and address the issues. But Randi is more in the category of a propagandist. He’s already got his audience. They don’t care about the details either, they just want a champion to voice their own gut feelings.”
You devote a chapter to near-death experiences and frequently mention the debunking arguments of Susan Blackmore. How do you see her arguments and those of other materialistic scientists relative to the NDE?
“Blackmore is certainly one of the more thoughtful sceptics, although I gather she’s rather lost interest in the field now. Her ideas about the near-death experirence, the ‘dying brain’ model, are interesting, and have certainly been very influential. But in order to make it stick she has to be able to explain away the veridical perception reported by patients and accident victims, that they observed what was occurring at the scene – by the roadside or in the operating theatre, or whatever – and that these details corresponded to what they found later occurred. I think this phenomenon has been documented often enough, and with sufficient consistency and corroboration, to be taken seriously. So it’s telling that she has to resort to discrediting their testimony and credibility, even to the extent of impugning their motives. It doesn’t look like science at all, it looks like the bluffing of a courtroom barrister.”
It often seems to me that these so-called skeptics are unable to distinguish religion from general psychic phenomena. Would you agree?
“Up to a point. To be fair, psychic phenomena imply for many people the existence of a spiritual dimension to existence, so religious issues are naturally present. Particularly with regard to afterlife, which sceptics find impossible to believe. But I do think that scientists get onto the subject of religion they go quickly astray. They tend to see it purely in terms of belief, a sort of voluntary identification with the idea that there’s a God and an afterlife, involving faith, and a suspension of reason. They very rarely take account of religious experience, in for instance mystical visions which come unbidden, and which can have life-changing effects, especially in the context of the near-death experience.”
Doesn’t it seem to you like psychical researchers and parapsychologists are forced to continually reinvent the wheel?
“Well, that’s the nature of the game. As long as a substantial section of society disbelieves in what they report then they’ll struggle to even get a hearing. But yes, it’s amazing that the work that has been done is still so little known. As I say in my book, after a century and a half of investigations, if we talk about it all we are still like children asking each other after lights out ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ The knowledge is there, however, inconclusive, but we have chosen to disregard it.”
Why do you think that is? That to me is the million dollar question.
“That’s perhaps not so strange when you consider how difficult it is to accept. Those of us who have become used to the idea of telepathy, for instance, and have the reading and even the personal experience to back it up, aren’t fazed by it. But it may actually scare some people. Sceptics talk about wishful thinking, but that works both ways: some people are clearly disturbed by the idea of their minds being open for others to read, or of existing for eternity in an sterile and static afterlife. It may also be that we have a natural disposition – some more than others, obviously – to explain it away. It’s the way our minds work, to tell us that what we saw yesterday that we thought was paranormal was actually a trick.
“There’s also the fact that psychic phenomena is so hard to pin down to the satisfaction of science. The claim is extraordinary, but the evidence isn’t extraordinary enough to make it stick. And then of course, if psychic phenomena is held to validate religious belief, that’s difficult in a world in which democracy and secularism are natural bedfellows. No one wants to go back to the old days of warfare between religious factions. Those of us who believe psychic phenomena to be real may not see the danger of that, but I think some sceptics do, and I also think those fears are not necessarily irrational. “
Thank you, Robert. Any final thoughts?
“Yes. I’m very struck by the absence of any serious comment about these things, at least here in Britain. Obviously the paranormal is a huge subject for novels, films and TV dramas, there are loads of books about it being published all the time, lots of websites following it, groups carrying out investigations, and so on. But it’s all on the level of popular culture. Here, it’s vanishingly rare to see anything relating to the paranormal to be discussed in an upmarket newspaper. Intellectuals and opinion-makers agonise about the role of religion in society, but almost always from the narrow faith perspective of the Christian or atheist. For them the paranormal is still unproven at best, or at worst a silly irrelevance.
“I’d like to see that change. That’s why I wrote Randi’s Prize, to try to draw their attention to something that ought to have a huge impact on our thinking, if it was better understood. I particularly want them to see through the myths and generalisations propagated by sceptics and encourage them to look at the scientific research.”
Robert McLuhan can be found at http://www.paranormalia.com and Randi’s Prize is available from Amazon
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Penny Hughes Hi there ! Its in his recent gay outing statement. Read the first two paragraphs a couple of times. He talks about abject fear that he is possibly projecting onto others… and for all of his life since age 10, that can seriously affect the physical growth of brain matter. Even preventing some brain organs developing (My Brainscan book says that) Now here’s a further possibility.
50% of gays were made that way by being molested which can result in severe post traumatic stress disorder for decades. (look up causes of H) We may never know for sure. And he uses the phrase “Totally hostile” to describe his perception of the world around him. Which means fear in him.I am sure he very carefully worded his outing statement. He talks about his lifelong misery due to hiding in the shadows. When waking up to this slowly during adolescence it would be natural to try and blame oppressive society, mum, and dad, religion, thus God, the possible molester, and of course blame himself. Thats the biggy. Narcissists actually hate themselves deep down. I make videos about this. None of that would improve his life ! In fact it could wreck it. This raises the question how many Pseudo-skeps are really just gays battering at religion, posing as intellectuals. So poor old Randi and followers are most likely walking wounded.
Outing page here http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/914-how-to-say-it.html
I’m kimbo99 on youtube I make pseudoskeptic videos
steve trueblue, Fri 2 Mar, 20:03
Thank you once again Steve. What a mess! In which book did Randi admit his fear? Perhaps I should email him and tell him that it’s absolutely OK to be gay and that no-one is to blame especially God/god… He uses a capital G for god in his email to me into which one might read some significance…
Penney, Tue 28 Feb, 07:58
Randi supplies the likely reason why he is such an extreme irretrievable narcissistic case. In his outing statement, he admits to being afflicted by chronic fear all of his life, of the “Oppressive society and their holy books” or something. More likely he is biochemically biassed toward anxiety (fear) toward almost everything. Not his fault. But chronic fear is known to prevent the brain from physically maturing to its full weight. (Brain scan book)Thus the narcissists failure, to develop a brain tissue vernier scale volume knob on their emotions and perceptions is such that their anger and intolerance is FULL ON for example. Their total self preoccupation and complete lack of empathy, is another example of full on unbalanced perception. Randi being gay and reporting his lifelong fear of exposure at 83 is his code for a lifetime of disabling misery and fear and anger. Likely some times, he blames God for his being gay. Hence his Heterophobia his disguised war against straights in religions and ESP proponents.
steve trueblue, Mon 27 Feb, 08:45
Thank you very much Steve for the link - this is most interesting. This now begs the question as to why Randi’s being a magician has not prevented/ameliorated his anger.
So, this is a nice summary about causes of narcissism from:
“Faulty or inadequate parenting, for example a lack of limit setting, is believed to be a major cause, and both permissive and authoritarian styles of parenting have been found to promote narcissistic symptoms. The following parenting behaviors may result in a child becoming a narcissist in adulthood:
Permissive parents who give excessive praise to the child, thus fostering an unrealistic view of themselves.
Overindulgence and spoiling by parents.
Failing to impose adequate discipline.
Idealization of the child.”
One of the many symptoms of narcissism is unreasonable anger. Anger alone does not make a person a narcissist.
Karen’s link is interesting too. I note that one of the books on the shelf behind the lawyer is David Fontana’s book, “Is there an afterlife..”
I think Dr John Turner in this forum also experienced narcissistic anger from Randi.
We should have compassion for Randi as he has an incurable mental illness, BUT his followers need to better informed as to how to avoid being sucked in and how to improve their own self esteem. It’s like vulnerable people joining a religious cult and being further damaged.
There is no way of dealing with narcissists except to keep well clear of them.
Penney, Sun 26 Feb, 07:26
To Penny Hughes who makes insightful observations about the makeup and behaviour of Pseudo-skeptics like James Randi. Penny Hughes you may be interested in how they get that way. It occurrs for many in childhood at a critical time, and there is a surprise objective discovery in a little video. Randi was unable to finish high school thats the only clue you need. Count the baby Randis in the video LOL
steve trueblue, Fri 24 Feb, 14:06
I recently read Randi’s book “The Faith Healers.” Now, this is a good expose of American charismatic “healers” who are total frauds and want your money. This prompted me to email him re two cases “suggestive of healing” (I use those words reservedly.) Both cases are very personal: one concerning my mother and one concerning myself which happened in the 1960s. The healer was UK Harry Edwards who was not an American scam artist, and who was not into money. Edwards truly believed he had a healing gift. Here’s the difference 1. “Healers” who are out to catch you
Penney Hughes, Thu 23 Feb, 07:42
and take your money versus 2. Healers (with or without the “”) who believe they are genuine. Randi does not make any distinction between the two types. He makes huge generalisations that all healers are false. He said that in a reply to my email. So I then emailed him again asking if he could point me to research that debunked (I used his word) Harry Edwards and eg, Jack Angelo (other similar healers.) I got a very rude reply, which spoke about God and prayer having no helpful effect on the Jews during the Holocaust. He finished with “GET REAL.” As I had told him in the beginning that I was an atheist, this remark had no relevance to my request and was of course very rude. Obviously he hadn’t read my original email properly or the subsequent one asking for information.
I fell in at that point. Randi is a narcissist. He is unable to cope with any perceived/imaginary slight on his work, and if he does perceive criticism he falls into a rage. At age 83, we might be kind and cut him some slack, BUT intelligent narcissists are high functioning and charismatic and create followers anxious to please them, so as narcissism is an incurable condition I suspect that Randi has not changed his personality as he has aged, but has just concreted into this trait.
I am currently reading Robert McLuhan’s book and have felt a great sense of relief so far. I hope to email him in due course with my stories (I have other ones… and I also have hypotheses as to how some apparently inexplicable anomalies might occur.) Perhaps my ideas will be examined in Robert’s book, I haven’t read it all yet, so I apologise! I might add that in spite of having science degrees I aim to look at the evidence from all aspects as does Robert.
Excellent interview, I advise you to take notice of http://www.victorzammit.com where you will find extraordinary evidence. He also makes clear why Randi’s Prize is a fraud.
Karel Lind, Sun 17 Apr, 01:10
The only thing amazing about the Amazing Randi is his brazen shamelessness in lying, in dishonesty, & in various fraudulent practices. His challenge is a first-class piece of fraud. As an example, see http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/ the link at the right concerning Randi.
Also, Stephen Braude, The limits of influence, 2nd edition, pages 30-31, plus the footnote on page 128 (should be footnote 7, not 6 as in the text), & his Gold-leaf lady, pages 22, 23, 110, 111.
But the net result is that the challenge was never meant seriously, & that Randi did everything in his power to ensure that it was never tested.
Milo, Sun 27 Mar, 12:00
I think this interview description of Randi skeptics is really a ciruum nagivation of the subject, expertly describing the many underfunctioning aspects of militant “Skeptics”, apologising for them, thus being too kind to them, by avoiding a descriptive phrase title such as “professional antagonists” which is how they behave. Maybe its in the book.
steve trueblue, Tue 1 Mar, 08:27
Dear Mr. McLuhan,
steve trueblue, Sun 27 Feb, 12:08
You write: “...but the evidence isn’t extraordinary enough to make it stick.” Its compelling to those involved, but less so, to those deprived of such experiences. Science rigour is at fault, disallowing personal experience, which keeps psychic phenomena coralled, and the victim of irrational attacks from those totally deprived of psychic experience
Years ago, not long after completion of a training course with Major Ed Dames (retired) in remote viewing, I had a chance telephone encounter with the Amazing Randi. He was lurking on Dr. Courtney Brown’s Farsight chat. Shortly after giving a friend my phone number, my phone rang. It was purportedly Randi. He refused to listen to any account of my first-hand experience with remote viewing. It was not very pleasant. It was not a pleasant encounter; he slammed the phone down to end the conversation.
I decided then and there that there would never be a prizewinner as a result of his offer.
Dr. John Turner, Sun 27 Feb, 02:49
Excellent interview, Michael. I agree that “Randi’s Prize” is a major contribution that should be read by everyone with an interest in this subject.
But don’t be too hard on those dragon tattoo books. They’re really quite good!
Michael Prescott, Tue 22 Feb, 07:37
Dear Mr. McLuhan,
Jane Katra, Tue 22 Feb, 03:55
You write: “...but the evidence isn’t extraordinary enough to make it stick.”
However, the evidence IS extraordinary.
So evidence is not what’s lacking.
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