On the Critics of Parapsychology
Nancy Zingrone argues that whereas parapsychology has made substantial scientific progress in the past 120 years, techniques of criticism have not advanced correspondingly. Ms Zingrone suggests that this state of affairs is partly self-inflicted. Parapsychologists have been too willing to accept inadequate standards of criticism from the skeptical community. This article outlines four ways in which critics have failed to go the distance in their approach to psychical research and parapsychology and seeks to put the skeptics on notice – tolerance of inadequate, incomplete, and unfair criticism is a thing of the past.
Over the history of psychical research and parapsychology, in the exchanges between critics and proponents, it has been the critics who have set the agenda. Critics have claimed the right to set the standards by which research in our discipline must be conducted. Further, critics have kept us from equal participation in the negotiation of what constitutes appropriate standards for their critical enterprise. As our discipline has progressed, we have accumulated what appears to be, at least to us, a fairly consistent set of claims about the reality of the phenomena under study, about the conditions under which the phenomena are likely to occur, and about the persons who are likely to show what seems to be psychic ability in life and in the laboratory. That is, since the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, we have made substantial progress in the scientific sense. We have done this beyond the boundaries of mainstream science, without adequate funding or personnel, and, at many points, under siege from opponents, skeptics, and critics. When useful and productive criticism has been levelled against us from without, or brought up from within, we have profitted methodologically and otherwise. We have valued the impact of useful criticism on our science. But, unfortunately, not all criticism is useful.
When I look over the history of criticism itself, it seems to me that the critical enterprise has not progressed much methodologically over these last 120 years. Perhaps this lack of progress stems from the unwillingness or inability of critics to take criticism, to draw lessons from the reception their work receives in our community. This sad state of affairs is partly our own fault. We have allowed critics who “fail to go the distance” in scientific terms to flourish among us. We have joined the scientific community and the skeptical/critical community in rewarding inadequate and unfair criticism. We suffer frequently and without protest the proliferation of criticism that is out-of-date by many decades or inherently flawed methodologically or statistically. Worse still we have, on occasion, behaved as if any critical claim, no matter how superficial, no matter how wrong-headed, is vastly preferable to any positive claim. We have rewarded critics who save for themselves what the magical community calls “multiple outs”, that is, ways to preserve the contents of their criticism against all evidence to the contrary. We have often rewarded critics who perform a kind of rhetorical and scientific sleight of hand, but who, on the basis of their prominence in other fields or in the popular culture, just seem too important to call to task, however useless their message.
Of course, critics have long accused us of constructing and maintaining multiple outs for ourselves, of setting up unfalsifiable hypotheses, of preserving our phenomena at all costs, of fitting our results to our beliefs rather than modifying our beliefs as the results accrue. Critics themselves, however, have been as guilty of this behaviour as we have been, if not more so. But because critics have been able, historically, to set the agenda, they have so far avoided being held accountable for their failings. They raise doubts – frequently without evidence of any kind – and once raised, they “dine out” on these doubts. They rest secure in the knowledge that it takes less effort and less intellect to raise doubts than to answer the empirical questions inherent in the doubts. We, on the other hand, are expected to lay those doubts to rest whether they are reasonable or not, and in spite of the fact that doing so is often a debilitating detour from our own scientific agenda, costing us many more hours of work and dollars of funding than we have to give.
It is my belief that the time has come for us to put the critical community on notice – tolerance of inadequate, incomplete, and unfair criticism is a thing of the past. To be heard and to have an impact, future criticism will have to “go the distance”. Some critics are like lazy runners who begin the foot-race with their colleagues, agreeing to the rules of the run at the outset, but somehow circumventing those rules along the way. Seldom seen on the track between the starting gate and the finish line, they still appear in the winner’s circle after the race, diverting attention from their own failings by turning a critical eye towards others. Their effort serves no one completely, least of all the pursuit of knowledge. In our difficult discipline, it may well do us harm to open the gates of the winner’s circle to them. It is about time we drew attention to these lazy runners, about time we recognized their failure to go the distance, about time we demanded that they at least run the race with us.
In this paper I will outline four ways in which critics have failed to go the distance in their approach to psychical research and parapsychology. These failures fall under four headings: a lack of critical thinking; a lack of self-reflection; a lack of openness to communication; and a lack of interest in the consequences of their criticism.
A Lack of Critical Thinking
There are three ways in which critics exhibit a lack of critical thinking. Firstly, critics often propose conventional hypotheses to explain those phenomena which seem paranormal without providing any acceptable evidence to support their claims, either in general or in particular.
One example of this practice can be found in the writings of an otherwise fairly responsible and informed critic, James E. Alcock. A professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Alcock has made a name for himself publishing articles and books that criticise psychical research and parapsychology (Alcock 1979, 1981, 1987). In one of his more recent essays (1996), he has suggested a variety of explanations for spontaneous experiences, among them coincidence, subliminal and subconscious perceptions and misperceptions, and the common experiential histories of the experiencers. All of these counter-explanations are plausible in general, and should, of course, be tested in the first stages of analysis of any ostensibly psychic experience. However, even a cursory understanding of the literature of psychical research makes it obvious that these counter-explanations can not be applied reasonably to all reported experiences, much less all properly investigated experiences. Yet Alcock and other critics apply such notions in a blanket fashion to any and all seemingly psychic experiences, past, present, or future. When he offers these counter-explanations Alcock neither cites research to support their goodness-of-fit to the data that exists, nor does he attempt to apply them to data he has gathered himself. Like many critics he merely raises the doubt, and then reifies his own unwillingness to do research into a principle: that it is the responsibility of our community to test his hypotheses and not his. (Alcock has done some valuable work on the correlates of belief, however. See, for example, Alcock & Otis, 1980; Otis & Alcock, 1982)
Alcock is not alone in refraining from making claims that are unsupported by either his own research or that of others. A wide variety of other examples are easy to find in the critical literature. Take, for example, Andrew Neher (1980), who, in a discussion of auras, once stated that: “The expectation of seeing an aura is, of course, sufficient to produce the perception of an aura in some individuals with strong imagery” (p. 187). Not only had virtually no systematic work been done on aura vision reports when Neher made his statement, but even work conducted since then has not tested for a correlation between expectancy sets and aura vision. In fact, only one recent study has found that aura claimants reported more vivid imagery in general than did those who do not claim to have experienced aura vision (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1994). Although, much support for the point Neher made was not available when he made the point, 2 the lack of supporting research – his and others – did not stop him from making sweeping causal claims about the experiences.
Zusne and Jones (1989) make equally strong and equally unsupported claims about the causal underpinnings of auras. They said “A person who has strong imagery and expects to see auras because of his religious upbringing, for instance, will see auras even though no corresponding sensory event is taking place” (p. 80). Their support for this contention rests, surprisingly, on historical anecdotes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Baron Karl von Reichenbach’s claims to have seen an “Odic force” around magnets. Their statement is plausible, of course, and would be a useful hypothesis to test. But, neither Zusne nor Jones seem daunted by the fact that no scientific data existed at the time to support their specific claim, nor did they personally feel the need to do the appropriate research.3
Secondly, when critics do provide “evidence” to support their counter-claims, they are often uncritical of the source and validity of that evidence. For example, Zusne and Jones were perfectly willing to hark back to a single experiment they conducted but never published (Zusne & Jones, 1978), citing it as a failed replication, and on which flimsy foundation they placed evidential weight for the non-existence of ESP. Similarly, Martin Gardner included this paragraph in his 1983 work, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener:
“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming from a much larger group of skeptics.” (p. 60)
Because a search of the literature turns up very few disconfirmatory experiments by skeptics – whether one searches in psychology, in parapsychology or in the skeptical and critical literatures – one must assume Gardner is referring to informal, unpublished results. Honorton (1993) commented on this particular passage: “Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction” (p. 194).
Paul Kurtz’s comment (1978) in a Skeptical Inquirer article provides another example:
“The basic problem, however, is the lack of replicability by other experimenters. Apparently, some experimenters – a relative few – are able to get similar results, but most are unable to do so (p. 21).”
To whom is Kurtz referring when he says “most”? No references are given to either the successful or the unsuccessful replicators in this instance, although a little farther along in the same article, in a critique of the then-fledgling ganzfeld research, Kurtz remarked (p. 25):
“But given the sad experience in the past with other alleged breakthroughs, we should be cautious until we can replicate results ourselves. Moreover, we do not know how many negative results go unreported. (I should say that I have never had positive results in any testing of my students over the years.)”
The implication of this passage is unavoidable: that informal, unreferenced, unpublished student research outweighs, evidentially, the entire experimental base of scientific parapsychology. The skeptical argument is then that:
1. scientific disconfirmatory “evidence” exists (which can not be substantiated in Gardner’s or Kurtz’s case);
2. informal experiments conducted in the classroom with students count as evidence (an assertion our community would never be allowed to make);
3. a single unpublished experiment counts as evidence if the author conducted the experiment him – or herself (as in the Zusne and Jones example).
These assertions set up instances of private (or non-existent) research as equivalent or superior to the formal experiments published in refereed journals in our field. It does not take a close reading of these examples to conclude that some critics apply lower standards of evidence to the support they provide for their own positions than they would ever allow proponents to apply to theirs.
One egregious example of this double standard comes from the writings of James Alcock. To support the notion that seemingly precognitive dreams might have cryptomnesic components (an altogether reasonable assumption), Alcock (1981) used an unreferenced anecdote from “psychologist Carson Bock” (p. 86). Bock apparently told Alcock that, while being coaxed through a tunnel as a therapeutic exercise, a patient of Bock’s claimed to have dreamed about the tunnel the night before. The patient, Alcock wrote, was later told about an article published years before in which a photograph of the tunnel appeared. The patient remembered having seen it then. Bock believed that the memory must have bubbled to the surface in the patient’s dreams the night before his session because he had recently arrived at the hospital (and this was a detail about the hospital which the patient had locked away in his memory). Whether the article included photographs of other sites in the hospital, Alcock does not say, nor – on the other side of the evidential coin – does Alcock mention whether or not the patient knew about Bock’s use of the tunnel in his therapeutic practice and could therefore have been expected to single out that site in his anticipatory dream as being of potentially personal importance.
Of course, it is possible that some seemingly precognitive dreams can be explained by coincidence, by cryptomnesia, or by unconscious knowledge of other sorts. Alcock would have been on firm ground if he had used Bock’s patient’s experience as a rhetorical device to illustrate a brief review of scientific evidence supporting his point.4
If the author using anecdote in this weak way had been someone other than Alcock, I would be more disposed to afford some latitude here, given that the most relevant scientific studies were published in our literature and most critics and skeptics seem to be woefully unfamiliar with the content of our journals. Alcock is, however, quite familiar with our literature: yet he chose to offer the Bock anecdote without qualification or support, as evidence in and of itself. Given his level of scholarship in psychical research and parapsychology, one could also have expected that Alcock might have attempted to apply cryptomnesia as an explanation, however briefly, to some published case of an ostensible precognitive dream. But he apparently did not feel the need to contextualise his friend’s experience with his patient, nor to qualify the debatable point he seemed to be implying, that all, most, or even many seemingly precognitive dreams are cryptomnesic.
If one reads the articles Alcock published before 1981, it is obvious that Alcock does not see anecdote as proper scientific evidence. This is a common stance in science in general, and in psychical research and parapsychology as well. It is not at all unreasonable (e.g., Thouless, 1969, 1972), even though some of us would argue that close study of anecdotal material can be very fruitful, scientifically-speaking. A reading of Alcock’s review of parapsychology as a science that appeared in an early issue of Skeptical Inquirer (Alcock, 1979) underscores his rejection of anecdote as evidence. In this review, Alcock criticised Osis and Haraldsson’s (1977a) summary of the evidence for survival provided by their death-bed vision research. In their book, At The Hour of Death, Osis and Haraldsson (1977b) presented the results of Osis’s pilot study and their own extensive replication of survey and interview research conducted with doctors and nurses in the US and in India. In their studies, Osis and Haraldsson had asked respondents if they had ever observed dying patients, if within this set of observations they had ever observed behaviours that seemed to indicate that the patient had experienced a death-bed vision, and if so, to describe that experience as they observed it.5 Osis and Haraldsson also sought experiences in which patients had recounted such a death-bed vision to the respondents as well as experiences in which the doctors or nurses themselves witnessed something around the dying patient which seemed to them to be indicative of such an experience, even if the patient did not report such an experience personally.
Setting aside the fact that the research was based on a survey which is certainly an acceptable method of research, and setting aside the fact that the anecdotes, albeit second-hand, were gathered systematically from credible witnesses first as reports and then through follow-up elaborative interviews, Alcock (1979) says: “However, can we have any confidence in the veridicality of the patients’ reports? The authors in this case didn’t even interview the patients … . [Osis and Haraldsson] … argue that these trained observers are likely to be more accurate in their accounts of what the patients reported than would be the patients themselves. This is difficult to accept, of course, since what they were really doing was asking for anecdotal reports about the observer’s impressions of what a patient was experiencing in a situation that occurred in all likelihood years before” (p. 29, my emphasis).
Although Alcock’s concerns about the veridicality of the reports as depictions of the patients’ first-hand experience are reasonable, his characterization of the research and its goals as inherently and weakly anecdotal is simplistic and misleading in the extreme. Osis’s pilot study on the topic (Osis, 1961) made a point of labelling the phenomena of interest as “hallucinatory behaviour” which gave the appearance that patients had had a deathbed vision (p. 10, my emphasis). Osis and Haraldsson were well-aware of the methodological advantages and disadvantages of their approach. They devoted a number of pages, in both the pilot study and in the replication, to a discussion (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977a) of efforts they made to improve on previous death-bed vision case collections. Such early case collections as that conducted by William Barrett (1926) had compiled experiences from any observer; from family members who might reasonably be assumed to be compromised observers operating under extreme emotional and psychological duress, and from dying patients whose perceptive faculties could reasonably be assumed to be compromised by either their medical condition or by the treatment they were receiving. It is equally obvious that Osis and Haraldsson were well aware that, by surveying individuals who had merely observed these behaviours, they were working at one remove. But for them, the key element in choosing doctors and nurses was to obtain accounts from skilled, dispassionate observers (Osis & Haraldsson, p. 14). In addition, they had hoped, in both the pilot study and the replication attempt, to interview experiencers and other witnesses directly.
Unfortunately, in both studies, respondents were unwilling to provide specific details necessary for further corroboration such as the names of the dying persons, their family members or other witnesses. Indeed, some respondents were even unwilling to provide the exact dates on which their observations occurred (p. 15), presumably to prevent Osis and Haraldsson from obtaining identifying information from other sources such as medical records.
One additional and very important advantage of focusing on physicians and nurses in both studies was that Osis and Haraldsson could ask questions about their respondents’ general experience with dying patients so as to assess the prevalence of death-bed-related hallucinatory behaviours and subsequent apparent mood changes attributed by the patients to such experiences. Having access to expert medical testimony also allowed Osis, in the pilot study, to compare the reported content of the experiences of terminal patients with non-terminal ones, and Osis and Haraldsson, in the replication, to look more deeply at the impact of a variety of medical, psychological, and cultural variables on the type and content of reported experiences.
By the time Osis’s pilot study and the Osis and Haraldsson cross-cultural study were combined with a general treatment of the background of deathbed visions into At the Hour of Death (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977b), the authors had begun to make a strong case that their work provided evidence in support of the survival hypothesis. Still, even with that rhetorical bent, the book provided a fairly detailed description of the methodology used in both studies (see, for example, pp. 28-37) as well as a fairly complete tabular presentation of the results (pp. 223-238). Rather than deal with the empirical content of the book in his article, however, Alcock’s “horror of anecdote” argument hinged on the gross over-simplification “The authors in this case didn’t even interview the patients …” (Alcock, 1979, p. 29). He rejected the interviews with doctors and nurses a priori, never giving any indication that Osis and Haraldsson understood the methodological risks of such interviews. In addition, although the point is made in passing in their book (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977b) – and not in the detail in which it appears in the scientific reports (Osis, 1961; Osis & Haraldsson, 1977a) – it is obvious even to casual readers that the authors of At the Hour of Death had hoped, from the beginning of the decade-long research program, to interview the patients themselves when possible, or their family members and other witnesses when not. It was only the unwillingness of the doctors and nurses to share identifying information that thwarted this aim. (This is not to dwell on the fact that, given that the experiencers, by definition, would have either already died at the time the study was conducted or have been further into the process of dying, first-hand interviews would have been difficult, if not impossible or unethical, in most cases.)
One must assume that Alcock understood what he read. Perhaps the pro-survival tone of the book influenced his ability to take in the details of the underlying research and thus, he felt pushed into focusing on what he saw as the anecdotal nature of their research. Or perhaps, like many critics, he deliberately oversimplified his description of the work so as to make it an easier target for ridicule. Alcock’s review does not show that he has an understanding of the unexpected logistical difficulties that often bedevil even the most well-thought-out research program (and one would presume that he does have such an understanding, given that he has conducted survey research himself). One wonders what Alcock would have done if, after gathering thousands of questionnaires and conducting scores of interviews, he found that doctors and nurses could not be convinced to provide the necessary information to do what first-hand interviews were possible. Would Alcock have scrapped the project and left the data he obtained unanalyzed on some forgotten shelf? I doubt it. More likely, as Osis and Haraldsson did, Alcock would have made a reasonable, albeit pragmatic, decision to investigate a set of claims the best way possible, to analyze the data obtained, and to report the findings with the proper qualifications. Because they made that reasonable pragmatic decision, Osis’s and Haraldsson’s efforts resulted in a creative and important contribution to the literature on survival.
It is likely that Alcock was making a pragmatic rhetorical decision6 to set aside his distaste for anecdote in order to use Carson Bock’s patient’s tale “as is”, even though at the time there were relevant scientific articles available in our literature on cryptomnesia and in the mainstream psychological literature on forgotten memory with which this anecdote could have been scientifically contextualised. Apparently, however, Alcock’s ability to make pragmatic decisions does not translate into the ability to understand the pragmatic decisions of others. Instead of discussing, acknowledging, or even quibbling with the methodological constraints faced by Osis and Haraldsson as they conducted their studies, and in spite of the systematic methods they used to collect the data they did analyze and present, Alcock dismissed the entire research program as merely anecdotal and, by implication, useless and unscientific. At the same time in his own prose, Alcock was perfectly happily to rely on one unreferenced and unexamined story from one lone clinician drawn from one personal caseload.7
One can read the Alcock examples even more closely. Was Alcock tacitly evoking a corollary to the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Was he telling us that conventional claims require no evidence at all? Certainly this seems to be what Zusne and Jones, Neher, Gardner and Kurtz are saying when they rely on their own unpublished, informal experiments, on untested generalisations, or on a mythological body of “evidence” to bolster their points. If so, this is a corollary that we are well within our rights as scientists to reject categorically: All explanations, conventional or extraordinary, require real evidence.
A third way in which skeptics and critics betray a lack of critical thinking is their frequent inability to be self-critical. One would expect that if they reflected for a moment on the force of their arguments, they would understand the need for “real” evidence when any conjecture is being made. But this does not seem to happen. One would also expect that critics and skeptics would understand that, having proposed conventional hypotheses, they are the scientists who are in the best position to test these hypotheses. In general, critics have not taken up the challenge of their own conjectures. Finally, one would expect that critics would be able to apply their critical sense to themselves – to their biases, their habits, and the complications that arise from their disciplinary identities.
The fact that some critics – such as Chester Kellogg and John L. Kennedy in the 1940s, and Susan Blackmore and David Marks in the 1980s, and Richard Wiseman and Christopher French in recent years – have been or are now active scientists in this domain is laudable. However, the problem of self-reflection also plagues even the most accomplished of these. There have been instances in which critics have set up criteria to test the claims of the paranormal that are so arbitrary and self-limiting as to be almost beside the point. It is almost as if some critics avoid designing experiments that might provide evidence that would disconfirm their own dearly-held beliefs. Although it is difficult to design experiments that test our treasured hypotheses or to think about the goodness-of-fit of our preferred methodologies to the question at hand, this kind of intellectual flexibility is one of the most important tools of science. Just as critics have a right to expect us to think deeply about why and how we conduct our research, we have a right to expect critics to do the same.
Unfortunately, a number of modern examples force one to assume that critics and skeptics have no difficulty designing experiments so as to ensure that confirmatory evidence, if it has the bad taste to appear, can be rhetorically ignored. A recent set of experiments conducted by Richard Wiseman and his colleagues (Wiseman, Smith & Milton, 1998) seems to fall into this category. These experiments center around the reported phenomena of the “psychic pet” (Brown & Sheldrake, 1998; Sheldrake & Smart, 1997; Sheldrake & Smart, 1998; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000b). In 1994, the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake with a dog named Jaytee was publicized by the British press. The owner of the dog, Pamela Smart, had claimed that Jaytee seemed to know when she was returning home. Sheldrake set up a series of observational tests of this claim, moving from hand-recording of the dog’s behaviour to videotaping, plotting the data graphically as he went along (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, pp. 225-226; Sheldrake, 2000, p. 127; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 238-239). In this series Sheldrake and Smart tested a variety of normal hypotheses for the dog’s behaviour by varying the distances from which Smart travelled to come home, the length of her absence, and the vehicles in which she travelled (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, p. 222; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 236-237). Richard Wiseman and his colleagues, in response to an invitation from Sheldrake, decided to test Jaytee for themselves, using the video equipment Sheldrake had set up for the purpose. Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments both preceded and succeeded Wiseman’s four experiments (Sheldrake, 2000, p. 126; Sheldrake & Smart, 1998, pp. 222-223; Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a, pp. 237).
Ultimately Wiseman and his team published their report in the British Journal of Psychology (Wiseman et al., 1998) and Sheldrake and Smart published their work in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (Sheldrake & Smart, 1998) and in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Sheldrake & Smart, 2000a). In the Wiseman, Smith, and Milton experiments, Wiseman and his colleagues developed an operational definition of the dog’s behaviour which was not based on Sheldrake’s original research but rather on a media simplification of the phenomena.8 In his videotaped experiments and in the observational studies that preceded them, Sheldrake tested the claim made by Pamela Smart, Jaytee’s owner, that her dog frequently exhibited what appeared to be a possibly paranormal anticipatory pattern of behaviour with some specific features. For example, Smart had claimed that Jaytee waited by the window when she was on her way home, sometimes coming to the window to wait slightly before she formed the intention. Rather than test whether or not Jaytee, in fact, showed such anticipatory behaviour, Wiseman and his group chose to test specifically the media claim that the dog “always goes to the window … when her owner starts home” (Wiseman, et al., p. 454). To test this claim, they devised a method of analysis which effectively discarded all of the behavioural data they collected except that which occurred during a 10-minute block of time beginning at the point at which the outbound experimenter (Smith) and the owner (Smart) began the journey home. Each experiment was captured on three hours of video-tape which was then segmented into 18 10-minute observational blocks. Two additional criteria were used: Firstly, if Jaytee visited the window during the target block, no other conventional reason should be visible to explain the visit to the window and if such a reason did exist then Jaytee could not be said to be responding to his “signal”. Secondly, if, Jaytee visited the window for “no obvious reason” (Wiseman et al., p. 455) before the target block, any activity during the target block, even if it occurred for “no reason” was disregarded.9
Before the Wiseman team went to press with their four experiments, Sheldrake reanalyzed the data Wiseman and his team discarded as beyond the area of their interest and found that it confirmed the broader claim Smart had originally made, and in fact, when graphically presented, replicated very closely Jaytee’s pattern of anticipatory behaviour obtained in the subset of the Sheldrake-Smart experiments completed at that point.
Wiseman et al. have disagreed that their data replicated Sheldrake and Smart’s data, of course. Further, in preparing their own paper for publication, although they were aware of it, they completely ignored Sheldrake’s reanalysis. Wiseman argued that Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments were unpublished at the time Sheldrake presented the reanalysis to them and that the “only claim that had been made about Jaytee’s abilities at the time of [their] … experiment” was the one they chose to test (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 47), that is, the media claim. Wiseman and his group have also said that they were unsure when they were shown the reanalysis whether Sheldrake had been analyzing the Sheldrake/Smart data in terms of behavioural patterns plotted on a graph before Wiseman et al. completed their segmented analysis (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 47-48), or that Sheldrake and Smart had instituted that procedure only when the disconfirmatory results of the Wiseman group became known. Wiseman offered these arguments to explain why no mention of Sheldrake’s reanalysis was made in their published paper, and why Wiseman and his team continue to characterise their four experiments as having settled the debate on “psychic pets” once and for all (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 48)10.
I will speculate later as to why Wiseman and his colleagues seem to categorically dismiss the publication of the observational experiments that were not videotaped, even though these experiments were published in a peer-reviewed journal – this journal – in 1998. Further, considering that the Wiseman team must have been in contact with, even in consultation with Sheldrake and Smart as they designed their experiments, it is also exceedingly difficult to believe that they did not know what the underlying scientific question was and thus were forced to fall back on the simplistic media claim. Finally, the assertion that the graphical reanalysis of Jaytee’s behaviour might have been a kind of post hoc data manipulation on Sheldrake’s part designed to counter the fact that the Wiseman team considered their own results to be disconfirmatory is an exceptionally weak argument for the reasons I will outline below.
Firstly, the data Sheldrake reanalyzed and presented in a graphical form to Wiseman before his paper was submitted to the British Journal of Psychology were gathered by the Wiseman team themselves. Consequently, whether or not Sheldrake’s own videotaped experiments were complete or had been published in a peer-review journal is altogether beside the point. The issue at the heart of Sheldrake’s reanalysis – that the data Wiseman and his team collected and discarded appeared to support the claim that Jaytee showed what seemed to be anticipatory paranormal behavior – is separate from the issue of whether or not the Sheldrake/Smart analytical methodology had been tested by peer review and published. Sheldrake’s claims about the Wiseman team’s own data could easily have been checked – in terms of the accuracy of the data as it was plotted, the appropriateness of the statistical method used to analyze it and the shape of the plots that resulted, considering that the Wiseman team could have had no objection to the data itself. Had the Wiseman team cared to do so they could have raised Sheldrake’s reanalysis and their examination of it in their BPS paper, presenting their arguments for their dismissal of it. Such a discussion would have lent some rhetorical and substantive weight to subsequent arguments with which they have attempted to justify the operational definition of Jaytee’s behaviour they devised. Secondly, in the meeting in which Wiseman received the reanalysis, he could easily have asked Sheldrake how he had been analyzing the data he had collected before and after the Wiseman team began to publicize their findings. Indeed, one wonders why the Wiseman team did not know this seemingly key detail about Sheldrake’s experiments before they conducted their own experiments, considering that they were stepping into a pre-existing research program. Because Wiseman et al. appear not to have asked this simple question, one gets the impression that, at worst, the Wiseman team did not trust Sheldrake as a scientist (why else would one design an experiment completely without the benefit of essential knowledge of pre-existing research on the same topic) or at best, did not trust Sheldrake as an informant about his own work (which implies an assessment of competence and honesty that the Wiseman team has not made public). Further, even after the publication of the Sheldrake/Smart experiments, the Wiseman team have proceeded in print and in public as if no reanalysis of their own data had ever been done – that is, they have continued to privilege the simplistic media claim they tested over the underlying scientific question that was at the root of Sheldrake’s research program with Jaytee. Is this acceptable science practice? One wonders.
If the Wiseman team found Sheldrake and Smart less than credible as scientific colleagues or informants, I and others (Radin, 2001, p. 237) have found the conclusions promulgated by the Wiseman team to be less than credible as well. To build a case that a scientist is worthy of credibility, that scientist must also show the ability to be self-critical (and is, therefore, a trustworthy informant). In order to establish credibility in the realm of published scientific results, the author of any experimental report must follow the conventions of science practice both as regards the conducting of experiments and as regards the structure of the report (Bazerman, 1988). One such important element is “explicit intertextuality” (p. 324-325), rhetorician of science Charles Bazerman’s term for the need to embed one’s experiment – and especially the report of it – in the appropriate scientific surround. That is, a scientific report must show evidence that the experimenter or group who authored the report have taken the scientific “measure” of the claim they say they have tested. That is, they must show evidence that they have read the relevant published literature, and if a published literature does not already exist, it is expected that they will show evidence in their report that they have taken the time to discover from the relevant experimenters what has been done previously in all the essential details. If it is apparent from the published report that these criteria have been fulfilled, the arguments made in the report – whether confirmatory or disconfirmatory – carry more rhetorical weight in the sense that they are more convincing, more satisfying in a substantive sense, and more useful scientifically.11
A convincing disconfirmatory study was conducted by J. M. Kmetz (1978) and published in the Skeptical Inquirer. The series of experiments reported in Kmetz’s paper were designed to replicate Cleve Baxter’s work on the supposed “primary perception” of plants and lower organisms. In his report, Kmetz described his evident willingness to test the underlying scientific claim seriously and to involve Baxter in the process of methodological refinement as the replication attempts proceeded. Kmetz’s respectful treatment of Baxter and his descriptions of his efforts to test Baxter’s claims fairly combined to make the report of his disconfirmatory results quite convincing. This was true even though Kmetz’s paper appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer.
The ability to be self-critical should also extend to the discipline in which the scientist operates. Are the methods of our own corner of science practice the appropriate ones for the task at hand? The inability to ask this question leads to a kind of scientific ethnocentrism which I think also complicates the Sheldrake/Smart-Wiseman et al. example. Wiseman’s team are experimental psychologists and Sheldrake is a biologist. Had Wiseman’s team been comparative psychologists who routinely work with animals, examining their purposive behaviour as it unfolds over time, they might have shared some operationalising or analytical ground with Sheldrake, or at least, shown more understanding of the content of his original claim. Operationalising complex behaviour into simplistic tasks for the purpose of analysis is a fairly common practice for experimental psychologists. (The reduction of Jaytee’s anticipatory behaviour to a single 10-minute block out of a three-hour observational period is an example of such a reductionistic operationalism.) Obviously reductionism is not useless as science practice, but it can have severely limited usefulness when the original phenomena is truncated beyond all meaningful recognition. Rhine’s operationalisation of spontaneous psychic experiences into card-guessing tasks was roundly criticized for obscuring the complexity of those experiences for the purpose of providing crude proof of extrasensory perception (e.g., Tyrrell, 1948a, p. 37; 1948b, pp. 85-86). Because Rhine’s operationalism at least tested the original claim, however, even in a limited way, the results are still useful as the bedrock upon which modern experimentation has been built. This is so even though the complexity of the phenomena (both in terms of the target material, the response modality and the subjective experience of the participant/experiencer) has been re-established (Alvarado, 1998, pp. 40-42).
When the experimental test is not an adequate test of the original claim, however, and indeed, discards relevant evidence, science is not served. One clue that a kind of disciplinary enthnocentrism may have blinded the Wiseman team to the inappropriateness of their analytical methodology lies in their apparent inability to accept any mode of analysis other than the one they chose as anything other than post hoc (that is, illegitimate). Another clue that interdisciplinary ethnocentrism has blinded them is their statement that: “the Science Unit of Austrian State Television carried out one of the first formal experiments with Jaytee” (Wiseman et al., 2000, p. 46). This statement sets aside the observational experiments Sheldrake had done before the Austrian television demonstration event.12 Observational studies may not normally be accepted as scientific evidence in those areas of experimental psychology in which the emphasis is on the definition of specific tasks and the accuracy or timing of task completion. However, such observational studies are common in comparative psychology and in biology in which the emphasis is on animals and their behaviour, both in captivity and in the wild, in response to natural or manipulated conditions. In these disciplines, systematic observation of behaviour is an accepted experimental tool for the development of scientific knowledge (and because variables can be introduced or controlled for in such investigations, the term “experiment” can be appropriate). Typically in such observational studies and experiments, data is gathered and analysed in exactly the same way Sheldrake analysed his data. Therefore, Sheldrake’s comment that “the plotting of graphs is not normally regarded as a controversial procedure in science” (Sheldrake, 2000, p. 127) can be seen as underscoring the differences between what is normal science practice to him and what is normal science practice to Wiseman and his group. Set in a comparative psychology or biology context, the operationalism and method of analysis used by the Wiseman team was wide of its mark, analogous to the poor soul who drops his or her keys in the middle of a dark patch and then looks for them under the light, no matter how far away the light might be from the point at which the keys were dropped, simply because they feel more comfortable searching in an illuminated space. Such misfits between the underlying scientific question and the method have provoked a number of scientists to call for a widening of the methodological repertoire in parapsychology (e.g., Alvarado, 1996; Braud & Anderson, 1998; White, 1964; 1992). The arguments of these authors have persuasive force. After all, that the method should fit the question is not a controversial assertion.
A Lack of Self-Reflection
In order to be self-critical, one must have the ability to be self-reflective. Critics have often shown that they lack this more fundamental ability. They seem, in some instances, to be unable to face their own experience and/or their lack of it. It is one of the myths of science that intellectual training provides immunity against our personal tastes and temperaments. There is, of course, a lessening of the impact of our own worldview that comes from disciplined thinking and training, but we can not be other than what we are. As human beings, psychical researchers and parapsychologists have often had to engage in some soul-searching to determine how much of our openness to particular ideas and particular phenomena is a consequence of our early training, our social mileau, or our personal experiences. Critics, on the other hand, to a large extent, have been able to maintain the fiction of complete objectivity for themselves.
Presuming that critics act in good faith, what might be influencing their attitudes towards paranormal phenomena? Let us speculate for a moment. How many of them doubt that spontaneous experiences could possibly occur because they themselves have never experienced anything? How many of them assume that those who report spontaneous experiences are necessarily suffering from psychopathology because the first experiencers they met were people who were a little strange or a little frightening? How many of them are convinced that whatever seemingly paranormal effect they witness must necessarily be the result of fraud or misperception because they have learned and performed magic tricks and without testing this hypothesis, they assume they have fooled everyone in the room? How many of the critics with training in magic believe that the average person is capable of the deception in which they themselves regularly engage and the discomfort which they themselves regularly endure just to produce a trick?13 Only the critics themselves can answer the question of what obstacles their own psychology and their own experience have thrown up along the road to objectivity. But if they will not look inward honestly, how can such obstacles be overcome? Many critics are quick to point out to us that we do not have the necessary experience to understand what we see. In some situations, they are absolutely right. But how has their experience distorted their own perceptions? Are they sure their interpretations of their own experiences are reasonable?
The sociologist of science Robert K. Merton proposed many decades ago the existence of four norms in science (Merton, 1973): communism (the willingness of scientists to share data and collaborate freely); universalism (the notion that scientific data and science practice rises above the specifics of the scientist or the institution); disinterestedness (the notion that scientists must approach their science practice in a dispassionate, even-handed way, allowing the data and not some personal or institutional agenda to shape their work); and organized skepticism (the need for self-criticism and criticism of the work of others, with a belief that criticism is one of the most important engines driving the refinement of science practice, fact and theory). A number of writers have noted that these norms do not, in fact, describe science, but are rather ideals to which scientists aspire (e. g. Gieryn, 1995; Hess, 1997, pp. 56-58). Others (e.g., Mitroff, 1974; Mulkay, 1975) have noted that for every norm Merton identified there exists an “anti-norm” which can be more at work in everyday science practice than the Mertonian norms14.
Still as ideals the norms are socially useful. It is a productive strategy to try to conduct research that runs contrary to one’s own preconceived, unempirically-held beliefs, or at least to try not to bend one’s science to one’s faith. For many modern scientists, this is the most important seachange to come with the Scientific Revolution, this movement away from science done within an occult context (e.g., Vickers, 1984). Critics regularly accuse parapyschologists of being unable to shake off their belief systems in the face of evidence, of allowing their science practice to become an exercise in intellectual wish-fulfillment. To some extent this accusation serves to remind us that we really do need to understand our own motives as we enter the field to encounter experiencers and as we approach the laboratory bench. But, we can ask, are the critics aware of their own motives?
Alcock (1987) makes the following points about the motivations of scientists in general:
“If one is to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of something, one must surely believe that is it likely that “something” exists. If researchers did not believe it is possible to cure diseases, they would hardly be motivated to try to find the cure. … While curiosity can explain why researchers initially turn their attention to the study of particular phenomena, the researcher’s belief structure is very important in maintaining enthusiasm for continued research when no convincing evidence is forthcoming. Otherwise, he or she might well decide that the trail being followed was a false one.” (p. 541)
The impression Alcock gives in this paragraph is that passion for one’s research area and a belief in the existence of a particular subject matter and its importance is a normal element of scientific research, even if such passion and belief can persist in the face of little evidence. However, Alcock really does not mean to be as egalitarian as he sounds. Almost immediately Alcock shows that he really only means to extend the privilege of passion for one’s research to members of his own community. The passionate parapsychologist is instead tarred with the brush of fanaticism:
“[P]arapsychologists] … often show unrelenting tenacity in the maintenance of their belief that paranormal forces are real: Despite their professional frustration with the paucity of evidence, and despite the difficulties they face in the effort to win legitimacy in university communities and in the halls of science, they continue to persevere, confident, it would seem, in the view that, just as the great Lavoisier had to admit that he was wrong about the extraterrestrial source of meteorites, the day will come when science will be forced to recognize the reality of psi and all their efforts will be vindicated.” (p. 541)
Alcock seems to be unaware that lauding passion and persistence in the face of little evidence in science at large and then decrying a similar level of commitment in our community is prima facie contradictory. He is very clear in all his writings that he believes no persuasive evidence of any kind supports the existence of anything we would class as paranormal. In addition, Alcock also seems to believe that the presence of social and intellectual obstacles to a particular set of explanations are, in and of themselves, proof that the set of explanations are necessarily false only in our discipline – that is, “great Lavoisier” being confronted with disconfirmatory evidence about the origin of meteorites only happens in mainstream science and that we psychical researchers and parapsychologists are foolish to believe such a moment might lie waiting in the future of our field.
But the histories and sociologies of science have shown us that scientific consensus is a result of a wide variety of factors, some of them more social, political and economic than rational (e.g., Myers, 1990; Shapin & Shaffer, 1985; Taylor, 1996). In addition, Alcock does not seem to be able to see that a correlate of enthusiasm for a phenomena or for an explanatory model in a “normal” scientist can reasonably be expected to be associated with a certain confidence in the ability of one’s own ideas to win out against one’s opponents.
The key here to Alcock’s (1981) objections to paranormal phenomena may lie in the following paragraphs. In them Alcock speculates on what he thinks would happen if extrasensory perception, precognition, or psychokinesis were proved to be real:
“But what chaos we would have. There would, of course, be no privacy, since by extrasensory perception one could see even into people’s minds. Dictators would no longer have to trust the words of their followers; they could “know” their feelings. How would people react if they could catch glimpses of the future? How could the stock market function if traders could use precognition? If most people could foresee the future, how would life be with millions of people all attempting to change present circumstances so as to optimize their personal futures? What would happen when two adversaries each tried to harm the other via PK? The gunfights of the Old American West would probably pale by comparison.
“If psi exists, practically everything is possible, and science, the very tool that most parapsychologists swear allegiance to in their examination of psi, will be superfluous. It will turn out to have been a gigantic error, since the uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) influence of psi, perhaps poorly developed, would have presumably been operating throughout the history of science; scientific laws as we know them may simply be a sort of “psi-consensus”: the experimenter effect happened to work in the same direction for all who tried a given experiment. It would seem, then, that “scientific validation of psi” would be a contradiction of terms: if psi exists, science as we know it cannot.” (p. 191)
One can clearly hear his anxiety. For Alcock, the prospect of psychic functioning is absolutely terrifying. It sounds as if the existence of psi would upset absolutely everything he holds dear – privacy, order, science, the reliability of scientific truth. For those of us who do psychical research and parapsychology, who have come into contact with the findings in a way that is less emotionally-charged, we know that the magnitude of the effects and the incompleteness of the information and action conveyed can not possibly have the impact on life and science that Alcock predicts. Even the “psychic stars” are not strong enough, or accurate enough to produce the magnitude of effect that Alcock fears. As for science being formed by a kind of false “psi consensus”, it seems to me to be a reasonable off-shoot of the findings of science studies to assume that there may be, in the mix of objectivity and subjectivity that is science, a psi-propagated experimenter effect that has some influence, albeit small, on consensus-building. As I have said elsewhere, as objective knowledge of nature grows it is likely that the influence of subjective and social variables lessen in impact on the shape of that knowledge (Zingrone, 2001, p. 13). Further, given the weak effects of even the strongest psychic functioning for which we have evidence, I find the notion that psi might be in the mix altogether palatable, and certainly not worrisome enough to even hinder, much less eradicate, scientific progress per se. The point is not to fault Alcock for his belief system, however, nor to characterise him as completely and totally compromised by his beliefs. Rather the point is that Alcock and other critics like him also need to be reminded that objectivity is a goal, an ideal, something that cannot be approached, even remotely, if we remain blind to our own motivations. What, one must ask, has Alcock done to hold his beliefs in abeyance when he comes into contact with the literature of proponents?
A Lack of Openness to Communication
The third way in which critics fail to go the distance is their lack of openness to communication. Some critics protect themselves from competing on an even playing field by erecting barriers to communication. They raise social and rhetorical barricades to protect themselves from debate. As human beings, it is difficult for us to come into full contact with the experience and understanding of others, particularly when what others say seems threatening to us, to our time-worn notions of how things work, to our carefully-constructed and jealously-maintained intellectual structures. The experience and opinions of others can come crashing through our barriers like a river raging out of control.
But psychical researchers and parapsychologists have long been subjected to this onslaught. Some have even invited it. Many of us understand that we have to tear down barriers, that we have to face experience in its rawest form, that we have to listen to and even welcome opposing voices because of what we can learn, of how we can improve. There is no profit in a race that is won by sabotaging, diverting or otherwise running your opponents off the track.
When critics talk about counter-hypotheses for spontaneous experience one wonders if they have ever even listened to the tale of one being told. They seem to clutch at conventional explanations that block the nuances of the voices of the experiencers. They set aside experiences and experiencers with ridicule and derision. They have even, on occasion, justified ridicule as an effective weapon (Kurtz, 1996, p. 609). If other critics share the same emotionally-charged fears that Alcock expresses, one can hardly blame them. For such critics spontaneous experiences may represent chaos, disorder, an unstoppable slide back into the Dark Ages, the re-enchantment of the modern world.
But even for those of us who find paranormal phenomena easy to contemplate, it is difficult to refrain from trying to control our confrontation with the personal experiences of others. We struggle to hear accounts of spontaneous experiences without allowing our analytical capacities to distort the tales being told. We are aware that if we come to the spontaneous paranormal experiences of others with a reified analytical framework, we will hear only that which fits the frame. For many of us, contact with experiencers has to occur in two stages. In the first stage we try to uncritically gather as many details as possible, to listen to as many personal theories of the experiencer as they are willing to offer, and to go away with the fullest depiction of the experience in the experiencer’s own voice. In the second stage we allow our analytical tools to operate, so that we may sort through misperceptions, false memories, elaborations, and embellishments. At this stage we are as aware – or perhaps even more aware – of the conventional hypotheses that are likely to supplant the paranormal attributions of the experiencer. If we are doing our jobs correctly, even though we ourselves are passionate about our work and open to the possibility of the paranormal, we will systematically work through conventional hypotheses as we analyze these experiences. It is supremely important to us to be able to attach a kind of probability judgement to the tales we’re told. It is part of our remit to do so. Critics, on the other hand, do not seem to be systematic in this. The first conventional hypothesis that occurs to them, no matter how implausible, seems to suffice.
One thing we know for certain is that we must avoid trivialising the experiences we are told just as we must avoid ridiculing and deriding the experiencers. The climate that is set up and maintained by trivialisation and ridicule is one in which no self-respecting experiencer would care to come forward. To what end should they tell their experience? To have it dismissed as simple misperception without examination? To see it used as evidence of incipient schizophrenia, of delusion, of fraud?
In addition to erecting social barriers to communication with experiencers, some critics spend a great deal of time erecting rhetorical barriers that prevent a useful flow of communication between them and us. In the published literature there are a number of examples of critics who privilege themselves unfairly over the course of a debate. Take, for example, these titles, published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Barrington & Palladino: Nine Major Errors
Fontana & Palladino: Ten Major Errors
Martínez-Taboas, Francia & Palladino: Nine Major Errors
(Wiseman, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c)
These titles are the rhetorical equivalent of building a Roman fort on a hillside in the Midlands in plain sight of a tribe of Bronze Age Britons – communication among equals is not the point. Instead, just as a Roman fort signaled the imposition of a hierarchy of power and privilege, these titles award rhetorical advantage to the writer and rather than inviting response (or in this case, rewarding the willingness to engage in useful debate), they label the writer’s opponents as fools. Little further response – save that which is weakly defensive or unproductively angry – is left to the opponent. The rhetorical result of these titles on the ensuing exchange is the same whether or not the critic intended to disadvantage his opponents. How is the pursuit of knowledge served by such strategies as this?
Readers of this journal will recognize these titles. In 1992, Richard Wiseman published a study drawn from his thesis research, The Fielding Report: A Reconsideration (Wiseman, 1992). Wiseman’s article situated the Fielding Report in its historical context briefly, gave brief biographies of the sitters, outlined the content of the report, focused on some of the ways in which Palladino had been known to fake her phenomena, as well as past criticism of the report. Wiseman’s original contribution to the debate on the report was to examine very closely the idea that an accomplice could have had access to the room through a panel in the door that was partially covered by the curtain of the medium’s cabinet or by some other means, and thus could have aided in the production of faked phenomena during the séances. Wiseman’s arguments were ingenious and insightful. He concluded that the accomplice theory was not a weak one by any means, and that the report could be characterised as “flawed” in a variety of essential ways that either make it impossible to rule out the accomplice theory in the case of some of the phenomena reported, or to get a truly exact idea of the conditions under which the seances were held. Quite rightly he noted that future mediumship investigations should be written in such a way as to attempt to “minimise retrospective counter-explanation” (p. 151). Wiseman acknowledged that such a task could be daunting but he quite reasonably set aside the difficulties such an approach would entail because of the importance it could have to both the conducting of future studies and to the evidential strength of the published reports that would result. The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research published three comments on Wiseman’s original paper. Two of them had titles that were themselves somewhat inflammatory:
Palladino and the Invisible Man Who Never Was (Barrington, 1992).
The Fielding Report and the Determined Critic (Fontana, 1992).
The third had a more conservative title:
The Feilding Report, Wiseman’s Critique and Scientific Reporting
(Martínez-Taboas & Francia, 1993).
Barrington’s reply touched on the context in which the Naples sittings occurred and drew some comfort from previous séances in which similar phenomena were produced but the possibility of an accomplice had been ruled out. Then she focused on the actual events across the series of séances, when the accomplice could have arrived, and when he must have departed from the cabinet so as not to be discovered when the séances ended. She concluded that an examination of the time frame and the movement of the experimenters into and out of the cabinet after the séances showed that it would have been impossible for an accomplice to have escaped unnoticed. She concluded “Except in a world of fantasy where anyone can get away with anything, there is too much in the Palladino sittings that is unexplained by Wiseman’s confederate theory and is inconsistent with it” (p. 339).
In his reply, Fontana (1992) commented that while Wiseman raised the question of whether or not an accomplice could have been at work in the Naples séances, “… [h]is argument rests entirely on alleged ambiguities, omissions and inaccuracies in the Fielding report itself” (p. 341). Fontana noted that a determined critic could always find some way to maintain his or her suspicions even in the face of greater and greater detail about the security procedures and precautions that had been taken. In doing so, Fontana actually produced a good security checklist for séance room experiments. Fontana’s other criticisms focused on the ambiguity of the report text and how it could be understood in a variety of ways, the logistics of building a trap-door undetected, the timing of entry and exits for a possible accomplice, and whether or not the cabinet curtains could have obscured an open panel.
Martínez-Taboas and Francia (1993) focused on two aspects of Wiseman’s paper; his purported lack of “patience” with “scientific documents … [which do not] present all the details necessary to counteract all possible normal explanations” (p. 120-121) and the details of Wiseman’s accomplice theory. The former involved a critique of what they saw as Wiseman’s out-dated understanding of science and what a scientific report should include; and the latter, like Barrington’s and Fontana’s critiques, examined details of the security procedures and the séance phenomena that seemed to preclude the presence of an undetected confederate.
All four commentators engaged Wiseman’s points in a very active way, returning to the Fielding Report for a closer reading of the details. As such, while clearly in disagreement over the likelihood that an accomplice was active during the seances, their comments were “informative, interesting and productive”, (Wiseman, 1993d, p. 217), one of Wiseman’s stated goals for the debate. They were, of course, quite forceful in their disagreements but nothing in their prose warranted Wiseman’s characterisations of the disagreements as “errors.” According to Wiseman (1993a), among Barrington’s “errors” were that she “incorrectly assumed that Feilding would have mentioned the appearance of the ceiling in Baggally’s room, if it could have contained a false panel” (p. 20), that “the ‘accomplice’ hypothesis is disconfirmed by Palladino not asking for a curtain to be hung at the back of the séance cabinet” (p. 22), and that “as some phenomena in the Report appear inexplicable, the ‘accomplice’ hypothesis should not be taken seriously” (p. 25). Among Fontana’s “errors” (Wiseman, 1993b) were that he “incorrectly argues that a faced door panel would have been likely to have been detected after the termination of the eleven seances” (p. 39), that “the position of the séance curtain should not be reconstructed from either the original floor plan or the photographs taken at the time of the investigation” (p. 41), and that “the séance curtain could not have been pulled forward so as to obscure the lower panel of the right-hand door connecting Baggally’s room to the séance room” (p. 42). Among Martínez-Taboas’s and Francia’s “errors” (Wiseman, 1993c) were that “the investigators would have noticed an accomplice entering, and leaving, the séance cabinet” (p. 133), “that an accomplice would have been present in the cabinet, and therefore would have been detected, when the investigators looked inside the cabinet” (p. 135); and “that the accomplice hypothesis is falsified by the occurrence of ‘inexplicable phenomena’ after the end of the sixth séance” (p. 137). One does not need to have read the Fielding Report itself to know that these “errors” are not errors per se: they are disagreements about the likelihood of the behavior and observational habits of the experimenters, about the true positioning of the curtain and the door, and about the importance of phenomena that can not be explained by an accomplice, or that seems to have occurred after the accomplice would have had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid being detected. When one does read the Fielding Report (1963), it is obvious that there is a lot of interpretative latitude available to the reader and that varying conclusions are not only possible, but probable.
So what happened here? Wiseman made a series of assumptions and probability assessments, probably based on his study of the apparatus, his knowledge of magic, and his reading of the Fielding Report. Barrington, Fontana, Martínez-Taboas and Francia have made different assessments based on their readings of the Fielding Report and the other intellectual and experiential contexts out of which they personally operate. Although all four respondents showed some emotional engagement in the topics in their initial commentaries which could be read as a passion for the topic and a reasonable preference for their own differing views, the tone of both Barrington’s and Fontana’s replies to Wiseman’s reply showed some real alarm at the use of the word “errors”. The heat of the debate had clearly been ratcheted up a notch. As Barrington (1993) said “Ten major errors are ten reasons for alarm and despondency, but I have to say that my panic subsided on learning the nature and the quality of the complaints” (p. 196). Fontana’s (1993a) reply was even stronger: “Not only does he fail to identify any of the ‘factual errors and logical flaws’ to which he refers in his abstract, he makes a number of major errors (of misrepresentation) of his own” (p. 198). After Wiseman wrote his summary reply (1993d), Fontana (1993b) returned with a brief letter to the editor in which he complained again about the “misrepresentation” of his and Barrington’s points in Wiseman’s summary reply. It is clear from the tone of Fontana’s letter that it is unlikely that Fontana would be amenable to collaborating on the joint article Wiseman hoped for in his summary reply (Wiseman, 1993d, p. 217). Had Wiseman chosen to deal more respectfully with his commentators, given the ambiguity of the Fielding Report itself and the impossibility of knowing for certain what actually happened in the Naples séances, perhaps the resulting round of further debate would have lead to something like the collaborative effort he sought. But who wants to collaborate with someone who insists that his own opinion is “truth” and your opinion is “error”?
Making rhetorical choices that work against your stated goals is not the particular province of the critics of parapsychology. Recently, a rhetorician of science Leah Ceccarelli (2001) examined several documents that attempted to forge a consensus across disciplinary boundaries in biology and genetics. In one section of her book (pp. 113-156), Ceccarelli focused on the prose in E. O. Wilson’s (1999) book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and noted that the rhetoric he used in an effort to build an interdisciplinary bridge produced anything but positive feelings. Rather than communicating the merging of two disciplines for a common goal, Wilson used military imagery, the rhetoric of a conqueror. She compared Wilson’s attempts at persuasion to those of two scientists whose bridge-building books led to the consilience for which Wilson had hoped, Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1937) Genetics and the Origin of the Species and Erwin Schrödinger’s (1944) What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Ceccarelli showed that both Dobzhansky and Schrödinger used rhetorical strategies that brought the two sides closer to each other, making the points of one side more understandable to the other, showing each how important each group’s methods were for progress, with prose that allowed each group to “hear” criticisms and statements that deprivileged their own situated understandings without the emotional noise that such confrontational points normally engender. According to Ceccarelli, Wilson, on the other hand, raised the noise to such a decibel level by his rhetoric choices that any bridge-building message he meant to convey was lost. The group he hoped would be conquered were incensed and even members of his own discipline were angered on behalf of the other discipline. Wilson’s fondly-hoped-for consilience did not occur.
To my mind, in the controversy over the Fielding report, Wiseman’s rhetorical strategies more closely mirror Wilson’s than Dobzhansky’s or Schrödinger’s. Wiseman’s willingness to label disagreement “error” and to maintain that a document so distant in time and so open to interpretative reading had only one reasonable reading – his – is not unlike Wilson’s attempt to bludgeon his readers into submission with military imagery. To promote dialog there has to be mutual respect, and mutual respect often flows from a healthy sense of one’s own vulnerability to error. When one chooses absolutist, unqualified, self-privileging language, the reader “hears” arrogance and disrespect. In addition the heat of the debate over the Fielding Report was also raised by the mass of séance room detail which Wiseman glossed over in his report and in his replies to his critics as by his rhetorical choices. But because of his choices, the important methodological issues for future mediumship research that Wiseman raised – such as the need for a heightened awareness of the possibility of sustained and sophisticated deceptive techniques, as well as the need for extreme clarity in language when describing observations, and extreme accuracy when plotting floor plans and reporting on the structural details of the séance room – were somewhat lost in the angry noise he himself inspired. Deviating from the qualified, measured, and respectful language that is expected in scientific prose has consequences. The social consequences for the participants in the debates are unfortunate; the substantive consequences to progress in science in general and for methodological and theoretical refinement in a field of endeavor in particular can be devastating.
A Lack of Interest in the Consequences of Criticism
The final way in which critics fail to go the distance in their contact with spontaneous cases and with our community of researchers is their lack of interest in the consequences of their criticism. Many critics write (and speak) as if they have no consciousness of the fact that they are creating and maintaining a climate in which experiencers are afraid to “tell” their experiences. Sometimes the creation and maintenance of this position of disadvantage seems to be a mere by-product of efforts by critics to create and maintain their own self-identity as worldly-wise, objective, scientific, unable to be fooled and so on.
We all like to believe that our understanding of the world has some objective reality in it; that we, unlike the impressionable horde around us, have been able to perceive without prejudice. But we are all human. We all bring our own intellectual, social, and psychological baggage to every act of perception and interpretation. None of us is completely worldly-wise. None of us is wholly critical or scientific. Consequently, it seems to me that a certain empathy for others is warranted. Our confidence in our own points of view ought to be tempered by some humility. If the experiencer is a fallible observer, so are we fallible listeners and fallible interpreters. Each experiencer is different from all others. There are subtleties among experiencers that are important to the progress of our science. We need to know and to understand the varieties of experiences as fully as we are able.
But critics will frequently dismiss the experiences of others with facile generalisations, with or without any evidence to support those generalisations. Television documentaries have sought out those commentators who are willing to debunk psychic experiences in a few well-chosen, quotable sound bites. Sometimes the debunking is warranted and necessary, and in other cases, it can only be justified on the basis of a superficial understanding – or a self-motivated misunderstanding – of the details of the experience with which the debunker is presented on camera. One does not often hear from the mouths of TV critics any consciousness of the impact of their quick and sometimes thoughtless commentary. Neither the impact on the experiencer as a person, nor the impact on the depth and subtlety of explanatory models in psychical research and parapsychology are taken into account.
There is also an impact on the credibility of science. Alcock’s anecdote about Bock’s patient’s seemingly pseudo-precognitive dream may make sense to some experiencers whose experiences lack depth and complexity. But to those whose experiences do not yield to such obvious conventional explanations, Alcock’s dismissal is just the unknowing “nattering-on” of yet another over-rated expert. Superficial dismissals do not serve the needs of science, nor do they serve the needs of experiencers. Perhaps some of the wilder forms of public belief in the paranormal arise from such weak explanations as these. It does not take a psychical researcher to know that spontaneous experiences and the people who have them are far more complex than the average critic or TV-debunker appears to believe. The experiencers, their friends and families know this too.
Related to the climate in which the experiencer finds him or herself, is the climate many critics create for us as scientists. The social costs of being a “proponent” are many, and known only too well to most of us. Many critics, as David Fontana has said, regularly label us “fools or frauds”: whether or not they use those exact words, their meaning is quite clear. Wider science sees us as deluded, willing distorters of objective truth because of our personal experiences, our tastes, our beliefs, our deepest psychological needs. It is true that wider science and critics alike often write from a naive scientism – they take science to be the unified and objective enterprise positivist philosophers and pre-revisionist historians of science have portrayed it to be, an enterprise impervious to social forces, able to objectively identify bad science and pseudoscience and shrug them off. But science is neither unified (e.g., Gallison & Stump, 1995) nor impervious to social and psychological forces (e.g., Hess, 1997). Scientists and the scientific enterprise are far more complex than many critics appear to understand. So if we operate through the fog of our fallibilities, if we swim upstream against social, political, and economic forces that complicate our scientific lives, then so do the critics and all those who hold to a simplistic notion of science practice and the unexamined delusion of their own unassailable objectivity.
Can it be true that many critics behave if they have never really noticed how complicated the world really is, as if they have never turned their focus inward? When one reads their writing in a systematic way – from the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer (e.g., Alcock, 1979, 1984; Bunge, 1992; Hansel, 1981; Kurtz, 1978; Marks, 1982; Singer & Benassi, 1980-1981) to the entries in Gordon Stein’s (1996) Encyclopedia of the Paranormal to their various book-length treatments of the paranormal (Alcock, 1981, 1990; Hansel, 1966, 1980, 1989; Gardner, 1981, 1983, 1992; Kurtz, 1986; Marks & Kammann, 1980) – one gets the impression that what characterises the genre is exceptionally superficial reasoning. It is almost as if whenever a critic feels that a finding might be the result of bad methodology, inadequate statistics, or motivated misperception, then, whether they have thought their feeling through, whether they can find evidence for their belief or no, whether the complexity of their scenarios of incompetence or fraud makes them a priori logistically impossible or completely implausible – it must be so. Because they know they are right, because they know we are wrong, skeptics uncritically believe they hold the scientific high ground. Any social or rhetorical barrier they erect against us becomes, in their view, wholly justified, even if the consequence of their actions is that they push us off the map of science entirely.
Paul Kurtz, for example, in his essay “Is parapsychology a science” (1978) rules out the possibility that any results produced by parapsychologists can be taken as evidence.
It is not enough for parapsychologists to tell the skeptic that he, the parapsychologist, has on occasion replicated the results. This would be like the American Tobacco Institute insisting that, based on its experiments, cigarette-smoking does not cause cancer. (p. 23)
Kurtz is right of course when he says “Esoteric, private road-to-truth claims need to be rejected in science, and there needs to be an intersubjective basis for validation” (p. 23) but the replication he seeks is replication on demand by specific individuals – not done in the laboratories of proponents or even the mildly interested, but rather in the laboratories of “the most thorough-going skeptics they can locate” (p. 31). The enterprise, in other words, if it is carried out by us – or perhaps even by our sympathizers – is a priori suspect.
On the other hand, when critics and proponents work hand in hand, mindful of the good faith of the other, even when wide chasms exist between them in terms of their valuation of findings, then progress is made. The Hyman-Honorton (1986) joint communiqué on the ganzfeld technique in experimental parapsychology is a case in point. Not only did the productive collaboration that produced this communiqué profoundly impact the future methodology of that technique, but the rapproachment that seems to be slowly occurring between some legendary critics and our phenomena may also have been, the result of Honorton’s and Hyman’s joint efforts. “Working” critics like Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman and Christopher French, no matter what specific flaws one can find in their methodology or the rhetoric in which they couch their work 15, are extremely important to our field, especially when they provide a mentoring atmosphere for the work of serious students. Likewise such “conservative” parapsychologists as Professor Robert Morris, who are better known for investigating what “is not psi but looks like it” are also important to our enterprise. But the importance of work from the conventional and the critical perspective, in and of itself, does not in any way negate the work of those among us who pursue the paranormal, who are convinced that the accumulated evidence proves that the phenomenon, at least in principle, exists, and who shift the focus of our work to the investigation of process and mechanism. We are all capable – critics and proponents alike – of contributing to scientific progress, especially if we are able to be self-reflective about what we believe and what is needed in our work to guard against our own fallabilities. In the parlance of pop psychology, we need to “own” our motivations, the implications of our research, and the consequences of our conclusions. We need to incorporate these attributes into our individual and social identities as scientists.
Many critics, however, rhetorically build for themselves an identity of incisive analytical ability that, for some, incorporates a complete ignorance of their own deeper selves. They seem to claim that anything beneath, or arising as a consequence of, the surface content of their own criticism is a complete surprise to them.
Another point at which there seems to be a disconnect in the minds of critics between what they say and what happens because of what they say is the willingness of some critics to spin elaborate scenarios of purported incompetence without evidence well within the hearing of the funding agencies or other institutional supports upon which the criticized person depends for their ability to work and to live. But should these institutional supports be withdrawn as a result of the criticism, most critics will claim they never meant to curtail the research, only to help make it more useful, more tightly-controlled, more methodologically-rigorous. If something more dire happens to the criticised person as a result of their critique, well, then, that consequence is also a complete surprise to them, a result well beyond their powers of intellect to predict. One finds it difficult to decide whether it is better to suffer such self-delusion quietly, or to face the often brutal honesty of such a person as David Marks who is perfectly willing to call for an end to psychical research and parapsychology, even if he does it in a conference organised for the benefit of a group that has provided important funding and seemed, at the point of Marks’ comments, to be wavering in its support (Simmonds, 2000, p. 20).
In any case, whatever the consequences that befall the criticised person, many critics will maintain that it is unreasonable to attempt to hold them accountable for the consequences of their critical statements. I disagree strongly. I agree that criticism per se must not be crushed and that it is a lot to ask to the critic to think ahead, to weigh the consequences of their particular message on the person or the research program about which they wish to speak. But I believe that the strength of, and demands for, evidence connected to every critique must be moderated by the reasonably-foreseeable consequences of that critique. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, well, then, criticism that carries damaging consequences requires evidence commensurate with the damage that will probably result. A criticism that destroys a reputation or brings an entire line of research to a screeching halt must be supported by strong evidence that the criticism is valid or strong disclaimers that the criticisms are speculative. If not, then it is reckless and irresponsible, and should be labeled as such. So, just as we “own” the methodology we employ, just as we own the consequences of our research on our participants, our colleagues, our discipline and science as a whole, critics must own their rhetoric and its consequences.
I have argued here that criticism that fails to go the distance in any of the ways I have outlined is incomplete, inadequate, and of little use to science. I have also argued that if a critic believes a conventional hypothesis is a better explanation of some phenomena or other, and no evidence or little evidence exists to support his or her contention, then he or she has a responsibility to conduct the research to fill that substantive void. I have argued that critics must strive to remove the social and rhetorical barriers to communication that are in place, and that they must refrain from constructing more. I have argued that critics must learn to be self-critical, to confront their biases and preconceptions and to think clearly about their rhetorical choices especially when they promote consequences that are debilitating to scientific progress and devastating to the careers of their colleagues.
We must all strive to be task-oriented and not ego-oriented, no matter how difficult that goal may be. What is important here is to understand the experiences and findings that point to paranormal models of explanation, to determine whether or not such models of explanations are justified. The point is not to build barricades against competing theories but to provide an environment in which competing theories can contend with one another on equal terms. Armchair criticism is not useful. Blind criticism – which sees neither its own flaws nor any consequences – is not useful. If critics wish to be heard they will have to progress methodologically, they will have to evolve. It is no longer enough merely to raise a dissenting voice. There must be substantive content in that dissent and a consciousness of the context in which that dissent is raised.
As we move through our second hundred years in psychical research and parapsychology, we have to recognize that without us the critics have no impact, no influence, and no audience. We are running too hard towards our scientific goals to be slowed by criticism that is methodologically flawed. We have come too far to let others set our agenda. Future critics must go the distance to be heard. We must see them on the track as the race is run – doing the research, showing evidence that they understand the scientific terrain into which they have ventured, proving that they are committed to engaging in competent, self-critical science practice, behaving as if they understand that in this enterprise they are colleagues and not tourists. Finally, it is our job to close the starting gate to those who defend their right to remain tourists, who have repeatedly been impervious to counter-criticism, whose research programs are more self-promotional than scientific. It is time that we welcome only those who are willing to run the race with us, even if, at the finish line, our assessment of the evidence and its meaning are still worlds apart.
1. The author wishes to thank Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado and Dr. Robert L. Morris for comments on earlier drafts of this paper which was presented both at a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1997, and at a meeting of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research in 1999. The author also wishes to acknowledge the financial support of the following institutions which provided funding for various phases of the project of which this paper is a part: the Parapsychology Foundation in New York, the Society for Psychical Research in London, the Perrott-Warrick Committee of Cambridge University, the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology of the University of Edinburgh, and the Institut für Grenzegebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg, Germany.
2. See footnote 3 for references.
3. Although precious few scientific works existed which speculated on the nature of visual auras (e.g., Beal, 1974; Beck & Guthrie, 1956; Dreistadt, 1972; Fraser-Harris, 1932; Kenneth, 1932; Tart, 1972) at the time Zusne and Jones wrote their book, a large literature on perceptual processes and perceptual illusions and distortions was in existence (Artamonova, 1969) – a literature to which Zusne has made substantial contributions of his own, in fact (e.g., Zusne, 1975; 1977; 1993). But the authors chose not to cite findings from which analogies relevant to their statement about aura vision could be drawn. Had they been commenting on a phenomena less marginal, one can assume that they would have felt compelled by the norms of the genre in which they were writing to provide at least some evidence for their argument.
4. Unfortunately for Alcock almost nothing was available in the psychological research literature specifically on cryptomnesia in 1981, although discussions of it did exist in the literatures of psychical research and parapsychology. In fact, in parapsychology, cryptomnesia is an important causal explanation that must be treated and ruled out, if possible, whenever a claim such as death-bed visions, precognitive dreams, drop-in communicators, mediumistic phenomena and so are made. Sceptics, however, rarely, if ever, cite references published in the literatures of psychical research or parapsychology, a fact which is probably the source of their tendency to grossly underestimate our understanding of the phenomena. This is particularly unfortunate in this case, because a number of studies existed in our literature before 1979 that were more relevant to and supportive of his point than Alcock’s own anecdote (Berendt, 1970; McHarg, 1978; Nisbet, 1975; and Stevenson, 1970). A number of treatments of crymptomnesia as a possible causal factor in ostensibly paranormal experiences have been published since as well (e.g., McHarg, 1983; Stevenson, 1983; and Venn, 1986). As for the psychological literature, a search in the American Psychological Association’s database PsychInfo turns up 135 references which touch on forgotten memory and were published before Alcock wrote his book. At least some of this literature (e.g., Calef, 1972; Lubursky, 1967) would have been useful in a more scientific contextualisation of the Bock anecdote, which, had Alcock chosen to do it, would have rendered the Bock anecdote acceptable as part of a wider rhetorical strategy to support his argument.
5. A death-bed vision experience is one in which the dying patient seems to see a panorama they take to be the afterlife, or to talk to deceased persons or religious figures who, they apparently assume, have come to take them to the afterlife.
6. I am using the term “rhetorical” here in the sense of a strategic use of argument, or specific rhetorical device which by its use is intended to add to the persuasive weight of the document. I am not using the term in the sense of “empty rhetoric” or in any other pejorative way. That is, I am following the approach to rhetoric and its uses that was reinstated with such publications as A New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969/1971) and taken to such fruitful analytic ends when turned towards scientific writing in publications along the lines of Rhetoric of Science (Gross, 1990).
7. In defense of Alcock’s reliance on his friend as a trusted informant, J. Carson Bock (1954, 1961, 1975) has published articles which indicate a serious and scholarly interest in therapeutic issues. In scientific writing, it is usual, however, to establish the credibility of one’s informants in some manner, citations of published work being preferable. In this instance, Alcock also chose not to provide any positive evidence that Bock is an informant who deserves our confidence, other than the fact that Alcock chose to cite him.
8. Whether serious scientists should be building a research program based solely on the simplistic claims of the media -and then touting their results in equally simplistic press releases or in presentations or published reports that rely heavily on the unqualified language of certitude which is more appropriate to journalism than to science – is a topic to which an entire paper could be devoted.
9. In their defense, the Wiseman team were attempting to impose such controls on the data stream as to be able to infer with reasonable certainty whether or not the dog’s behaviour had a normal or a potentially paranormal cause. However, a great deal of behavioural data was discarded, and Sheldrake (Sheldrake, 1999) isn’t the only person who has argued that the analytical method the Wiseman team chose misrepresented the meaning of the actual data collected (Radin, 2001, p. 237).
10. One must ask whether it is ever reasonable in science to claim to have found positive proof or disproof on the basis of four simple experiments. This is an especially important question to ask when the experiments being touted as having settled a debate were not embedded in a wider research program designed to test the underlying scientific question, and when the results of the experiments in question directly contradict results from a series of other experiments that were embedded in such a wider program.
11. The Wiseman team’s unwillingness to rely on anything that has not been previously published, even when details are readily available through normal collegial contacts, is a strategy that is not only limiting to their scientific practice but unjustified. Nowhere is it written that unpublished material may not be used, nor that personal communication, apprenticeship with other scientists, or consultation with relevant experimenters is beyond the pale in science practice. In fact to dig beneath the published record is not only normal behavior in mainstream science but sometimes absolutely essential to replication attempts (e.g., Collins, 1974; 1975). Departing from normal science practice is not a meaningless act and it is legitimate to ask what it signals in this case: is this a pragmatic strategy that can be justified substantively or does it signal that the Wiseman team’s foray into this particular scientific terrain was merely an exercise in debunking.
12. Whether it is ever defensible to characterise a media event as a “formal experiment” in a scientific sense when the journalistic agenda is so completely different from the scientific one is a topic for a different paper.
13. Whether the literature of the psychology of deception goes far enough in investigating the psychological needs, motivations, personality traits and states is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that behavior that is viewed as “normal” by magicians can seen exceedingly pathological to the rest of us.
14. For example the anti-norm of organized skepticism is “organized dogmatism”, an attribute which often characterizes both the “true disbeliever” and the “true believer” alike (Zingrone, 2001, pp. 8-9).
15. I must add here that I have not made specific studies of the work of either Blackmore or French. Their inclusion in this sentence should not be construed that I have uncovered flaws in their work that I am not detailing here. They only appear here because they are working sceptics/critics as Wiseman is.
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