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In Praise of Ray Hyman

Article

James Alcock

Volume 28.2, March / April 2004

The following remarks about Ray Hyman were delivered by York University psychology professor and CSICOP Executive Council member James Alcock in presenting Hyman the In Praise of Reason Award, CSICOP’s highest honor, at the Saturday night awards banquet at the CSICOP Albuquerque conference "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias” Oct. 23-26, 2003.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario-admittedly an unlikely one:

Well, so far, this is not that different from what we have seen before perhaps, but now, suppose the following:

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal is not amused by this news.

CSICOP and its supporters protest loudly, and finally we are informed by the Security Council that we may send an emissary-one person only-who will be allowed to evaluate the supporting research and to test the psychic directly, and then present his or her findings and conclusions directly to that world body.

Well, this is pretty important stuff-much more important than the usual CSICOP work. After all, if, as we suspect, this man is a phony, there is the likelihood of tremendous harm being done to the cause of world peace if he is allowed to mess about in these seemingly intractable conflicts.

Let’s not quibble about the likelihood of such a scenario, but let’s focus instead on what qualities we would want our emissary to possess in such a case. I've made a list:

  1. Since scientific evidence has been adduced to support claims of the psychic’s powers, our emissary should be a scientist, preferably a social scientist, someone who knows how to conduct and evaluate research involving human subjects; someone who knows how to detect flaws and biases in such experiments.
  2. We need an expert in statistics, since statistical analysis was part of the scientific support offered for the psychic’s powers.
  3. We need an expert in the psychology of belief and deception, someone who knows all about how people can both deceive and be deceived.
  4. We need someone with sound academic credentials, for credibility is going to be a very important if our emissary is to have an influence on the Security Council.
  5. We need someone with expert knowledge of magic and mentalism, for if the psychic is using the magician/mentalist’s craft, only someone experienced and knowledgeable in this craft will be able to detect this. As the saying goes, it takes a thief to catch a thief.
  6. We need someone who is experienced in evaluating supposed psychics and the research adduced in their support. Without such experience, even a very good social scientist may overlook important sources of error and bias.
  7. We need someone who has a track record for fairness, someone who has gained the respect of skeptics and believers alike, so that our emissary will not be seen as some sort of hit man for CSICOP and skepticism.
  8. We need a good communicator. It is not enough just to be able to show that the psychic is not really psychic at all. We need someone who can cogently present the skeptical case in such a way as to have an impact on the members of the Security Council.
  9. We need someone who does not antagonize others, someone whose personality and charm will ease the sting of whatever critical commentary he or she has to offer to the Security Council.

Well, that’s quite a list, and one that is almost impossible to fill, one might think.

I know of only one person in the entire world-and believe me, I am not exaggerating here; I really mean it-who measures up to all these criteria. And he is in our midst tonight.

Let me tell you about Ray Hyman:

Ray Hyman clearly meets all the criteria in my list. I can think of no other individual in the entire world who could do the same. The In Praise of Reason Award is CSICOP’s highest honor, and is given to those rare individuals who have made truly outstanding contributions to the promotion of science and the defense of reason. Previous recipients include such stellar scientists and communicators as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, and our own outstanding editor, Ken Frazier.

Tonight, I take great personal pride in being able to present, on behalf of CSICOP, the In Praise of Reason Award to my friend and colleague Ray Hyman, from whom I-and I am sure all of us-continue to learn so much.

Congratulations, Ray.

James Alcock

James E. Alcock is professor of psychology, Glendon College, York University, Toronto.