Examining Psychic Ability: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Before the internet, skeptics ruled the day. They have always been more or less in charge of the machinery of science and were able to effectively squelch dissenting views about the existence of psychic ability and the place of consciousness in physics. But now we do have the internet and skeptics no longer have a death grip on the flow of information. Without that crucial weapon in their arsenal, things have been changing.
Skeptics were the first out of the gate and have been taking full advantage of the internet to further their cause. They basically own Wikipedia and squash any attempts to make the information on that site fair and objective. I’m not being paranoid; there is a skeptical organization dedicated to creating skeptical wiki pages and re-writing existing ones to match their belief system. It’s done through a blog called Guerrilla Skepticism. Here’s a snippet on Sylvia Browne: It’s the usual hate fest, but it demonstrates the fanaticism I’m talking about.
Anyone that knows me understands that I hold the “grief vampires” like Sylvia Browne, Robbie Thomas, James Van Praagh and John Edward on the top of my t0-do list. Anyone that can tell a desperate family that their loved one has been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Japan needs to be slapped down hard. The grief that is heaped on these families must be overwhelming and adding these sick opportunists to the stress is just uncalled for.
This is missionary zeal at work. These true believers, who see themselves as crusaders for good battling the forces of evil, are quite determined to recruit people to their cause and spread the word about the evils of psychic ability. It’s actually kind of ridiculous. One of the themes that runs through most skeptical sites I’ve visited is recruitment and persuasion; ironically, two things that are conspicuously absent from the other side of the debate.
If this was just a bunch of bloggers and basement dwellers, that would be one thing, but this missionary zeal unfortunately carries over into the academic world. There is a terrifically good account of an incident at Edinburgh University. (Read the full account here.)
In Britain there have been two major sources of psi funding, the estate of writer Arthur Koestler and the Perrott-Warrick studentship endowed by two members of the Society for Psychical Research and administered (reluctantly, it sometimes seems) by Trinity College, Cambridge. Some of the money has been well spent – the current recipient, Rupert Sheldrake, is the country’s highest-profile and most prolific psi researcher who continues to produce compelling evidence for telepathy in both humans and animals.
Easy money to skeptics and debunkers
Yet much P-W money has also been given in the past to self-declared sceptics including Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman and Nicholas Humphrey, whose three years’ funding (an estimated £75,000) produced no original research at all and a book, Soul Searching, notable for the absence of any reference to any published psi research. Clever exploitation of loopholes in the wording of the P-W bequest has enabled opportunistic sceptics to get away with this kind of thing.
Koestler’s wording, on the other hand, left no room for argument – his money was ‘for parapsychology and parapsychology alone’, and for nearly twenty years, with Professor Robert Morris in charge at Edinburgh University, his wish was obeyed to the letter (see FT201). Yet with Morris’s sudden and premature death in 2004, strange things began to happen. Applications were invited for what appeared to be the post of his successor, though the Koestler Chair had somehow been quietly renamed the Robert Morris Chair (without, it later emerged, the consent of trustee John Beloff, thanks to whom the Chair had come to Edinburgh in the first place). More about that later.
Applications duly came in from a dozen or so of the great and good of the psi research community including no less than six past presidents of the Parapsychological Association as well as from three high-profile sceptics and a little-known sociologist. The short list of four was announced in December 2005 and – you’ve guessed it – these were the three sceptics and the sociologist. The fact that Nicholas Humphrey was the assessor might have been a factor.
This aroused a fair amount of fury from several of Koestler’s and Morris’s friends and admirers, who fired off a barrage of complaints to the appropriate head of department, with copies to the university ombudsman, rector and principal. That these had some effect can be assumed since in a mere week or two (an incredibly short time by academic standards) it was announced that all four of the finalists had been rejected, a measure unheard of, I am told, in academic circles where to be put on a short list is presumably tantamount to recognition of your fitness for the job.
So what was going on at what until recently was regarded as the centre of excellence for properly conducted psi research? A year on there was still no sign of a new professor, and attempts even by Edinburgh graduates to find out why failed, without even an acknowledgment apart from one of those ‘Vicky is out of the office’ reply emails (I got one of those and heard no more). A request from one senior academic to see the minutes of the meeting at which it was (presumably) decided not to replace Morris was rejected ‘on the grounds that this ‘might violate privacy’ – an excuse hard to justify in the case of a public position at a state-funded university.
In fact, Guy Lyon Playfair does not recommend that anyone who wishes to leave money to a university to study parapsychology do so. He says:
Thinking of leaving your fortune to parapsychology or psychical (psi) research? Read this before you sign your will, for the chances are your money will not be spent as you intended. It may end up in the hands of people who do not believe in psi, do no research, and instead do their best to rubbish the whole subject out of existence. It may even not be spent at all after vanishing into some university black hole. With one or two distinguished exceptions, the history of private funding of psi research over the past century has not been a happy one.
This is, by far, not the only example of skeptics playing with a heavy hand. In a highly publicized incident, Nobel prize winning physicist Brian Josephson and two others were uninvited to a conference in 2010 solely because of their psi proponent attitude.
Last week, any veneer of serenity was shattered. Conference organiser Antony Valentini, research associate in the Theoretical Physics Group at Imperial College London, wrote to three participants to say their invitations had been withdrawn.
The physicist and science writer David Peat, biographer of David Bohm (co-founder of de Broglie-Bohm theory), was considered tainted because of his books on “Jungian synchronicity” and “connections between Native American thought and modern physics”.
Brian Josephson, head of the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge, was rejected on the grounds that “one of his principal research interests is the paranormal”.
Professor Josephson, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on superconductivity, has long been one of the discipline’s more colourful figures.
In 2001, he attracted derision from some of his peers when he discussed telepathy in his contribution to a booklet issued to celebrate the centenary of the Nobel prizes.
What we find here, whether the skeptics are from the rank and file editing Wikipedia pages or scientists and professors preventing funding of parapsychological research, is a squeeze on information. Last week for instance, on the Skeptiko parapsychology forum there was a discussion about the latest experiments of Dean Radin, Senior parapsychology researcher: http://deanradin.blogspot.com/2012/0…uble-slit.html. Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern: Six experiments: http://www.deanradin.com/papers/Phys…in%20final.pdf.
One of the forum contributors who goes by the name Johann, attempted to post about this topic (post #146) on a physics forum only to have the thread deleted and himself banned even though he put the topic in the “Skepticism and Debunking” category. The peer reviewed scientific paper was labeled “crackpottery.” (According to others who visit this forum, the paranormal is discussed regularly. You’re just apparently not allowed to take it seriously.)
I cannot help but sense a desperation in this sort of skepticism. Whether it’s D.J. Grothe, president of JREF, (think million dollar challenge) blogging on the Huffington Post in order to go after Van Praagh . . . again, scientists furiously keeping away any serious discussion of psi or sad skeptics working furiously to edit Wikipedia pages, the fact is that no matter what they do, about 75% of the population will disregard it. Too many people have personally had psychic experiences or been party to them. And direct first hand experience will blow away a whole library full of skepticism in a heartbeat.
Which brings me back to the internet. We can now find each other and share information and the general public is with us on this one. This is the real threat to the gatekeepers; when we share the taboo science of parapsychology, when we expose the misdeeds of skeptics and when they have to fight on level ground, they lose. And even though the much better organized skeptics got to the internet first, they cannot stem the tide of knowledge that has been accumulated over the past 130 years and is now being shared. The number of knowledgeable psi proponents has been growing fast because of the ability to share this information and skeptics now have a much larger battle on their hands than they did even five years ago. Scientists might not be able to get published in the fashionable journals, but they do get on TV and the public is rooting for them. No one, after all, likes to be told that they’re crazy and let’s face it, the study of consciousness in physics is waaaaaay cool. At the very least, the skeptics in the halls of academia must increasingly defend their weak position against ever more knowledgeable proponents and face being exposed as ignorant and -gasp- belief driven.
This is already happening. Earlier this year Maaneli Derakhshani, a graduate student studying theoretical physics at Clemson University did a guest post defending parapsychological research on the blog “Rationally Speaking” by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York and parapsychology skeptic. (You can read it here.) Professor Pigliucci remained unconvinced at the end, but the point is that the skeptical position is being questioned more than ever before. This grad student can still have his career derailed solely because he open mindedly explores this topic, but this won’t last. He’s not alone, not by a long shot.
In fact, in a recent Pew Research poll, 51% of scientists believe in some form of deity or higher power. A higher power of course, implies the existence of psychic ability. While this percentage is far lower than the general public, (91%), it still runs counter to the skeptical mantra that scientists don’t believe in psi. The pressure caused by the constant attention on parapsychology research that the internet generates, (which finds its way onto TV) will continually apply pressure to scientific skepticism. It’s all happening, it’s now just a question of timing.
UPDATE: I ran into a pertinent website that blends medicine and consciousness. According to M.D. Melvin Morse, the neuroscience is basically there. It’s been more or less confirmed that consciousness is non local. It’s now just a matter of changing the culture. http://www.spiritualscientific.com/
I think that on some level, the skeptics know this and that’s why they are acting so desperately. The skepticism is being backed against a wall and being forced to make its last stand.
The cat is out of the bag and if you’ve ever tried to put a cat in a bag, you know that it’s never going back in.