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The House of Skeptics Serves Psi (And Crow)

Ben Radford

January 18, 2013

Science & Psychic Phenomena book cover

Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics, by Chris Carter. 2012 (reprint from 2007), Inner Traditions Press. $18.95.

A few months ago I got a press release for a book titled Science & Psychic Phenomena, described as “Chris Carter’s new book that takes on the skeptics and wins.” Being both a prominent skeptic and fan of The X-Files, I was eager to see some meaty refutation of skeptical positions on psi and psychic phenomena.

I was disappointed on both counts. First, this Chris Carter was someone I’d never heard of who had written one other book I’d also never heard of, on near-death experience. Second, his book had little in the way of real, evidence-based arguments and evidence. It was instead populated with mistakes; ad hominem attacks; recycled, long-refuted criticisms of skeptics; and straw man arguments.

So who is this Chris Carter? Carter has a background (and degrees) in economics and philosophy. Not psychology, which might help him understand cognitive processes involved in both deception and self-deception regarding psi issues. Not statistics, which might help him understand the complex number-crunching involved in interpreting mountains of experimental data. Not experimental research design, which might help him spot design flaws in various psi experiments. Nor does Carter have any apparent knowledge of or training in any hard sciences—and certainly nothing that would qualify him to launch into the extended discussion of quantum physics that he does. More on this later.

This would not necessarily be a problem, except that Carter presents himself as an expert in physics. Many skeptics do not have advanced degrees in the hard sciences, as Carter correctly notes. I do not, nor do Joe Nickell, Richard Wiseman, Jim Alcock, James Randi, Ray Hyman, Massimo Polidoro, Jim Underdown, and many others. (It should be noted that researchers such as Hyman and Alcock are indeed well-qualified to conduct statistical analyses of psi experiments.)

As I read through Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics, a quote from L. Sprague de Camp about the works of Erich von Daniken came to mind. De Camp wrote that Von Daniken's books are “solid masses of misstatements, errors, and wild guesses presented as facts, unsupported by anything remotely resembling scientific data.” Though desiring to refute Von Daniken’s arguments, de Camp realized that a thorough analysis would “take years of my time; and, if I were mad enough to write it, who would read it?”

Addressing all of Carter’s mistakes and arguments would take far more time and effort than I can devote, but a representative sample of the problems with the book will offer insights into the book’s level of scholarship and analysis.

Carter on Skeptics and Skepticism

The book’s subtitle claims that it described the “House of Skeptics” (presumably an arbitrary reference to Edgar Allan Poe), and what does Carter know about skeptics? Apparently not much.

The boners come fast and early, so let’s dig in. On page 28 Carter states that “CSICOP [here Carter uses an outdated acronym; CSICOP hasn’t existed since 2006—before the first edition of his book came out—a mistake that appears in both the 2007 and the 2012 editions as Carter alternates arbitrarily between the two. This is, at the very least, sloppy editing] has engaged in only one case of scientific investigation,” that of Michel Gauquelin’s astrology claims in the 1970s. Carter repeats this claim on page 42 when he refers to CSI as an “organization [that] no longer performs any research of its own.”

What’s wrong here? Well, Carter’s claim that CSI has conducted only one investigation in the past and does not presently conduct investigations is simply incorrect. It’s an astoundingly ill-informed claim to make, since virtually every issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, the official journal of CSI, contains investigations conducted by CSI fellows, members, and affiliates. Don’t take my word for it: anyone walking into a library or bookstore (or searching online) can immediately see that Carter is wrong.

CSI and Skeptical Inquirer have published so many investigations and research articles it’s hard to know where to begin citing them; here are a few published in six months of 2012 alone: David Thomas on 9/11 thermite claims (July/August 2012); Robert Sheaffer on a UFO seen over Denver in March 2012 (July/August 2012); Robert Bartholomew and Dr. Steve Novella on a mass hysteria case in Le Roy, New York (July/August 2012); Massimo Polidoro on a weeping religious icon in Italy (January/February 2012); Robert Sheaffer on a UFO photo taken in Belgium and touted in Leslie Kean’s 2011 bestselling book (January/February 2012); Benjamin Radford on a UFO videotaped over the London Olympics (November/December 2012); Massimo Polidoro on a curse associated with a famous painting (January/February 2012); Benjamin Radford on a Siberian video alleged to show a woolly mammoth (May/June 2012); Joe Nickell on the alien abduction in Pascagoula, Mississippi (May/June 2012); and so on. There are dozens more, from Daryl Bem’s psychic claims (mentioned elsewhere) to chupacabras, ghosts, psychic detectives, and countless other topics.

Even a cursory glance at CSI’s Wikipedia page mentions several investigations, including the 2004 CSI investigation and experiment of a Russian girl who claimed to have X-ray eyes. How much research can Carter have done if he’s completely unaware of the many dozens of scientific investigations conducted under the auspices of CSI?

Carter is correct in only the strictest technical and legal senses that CSI (as an organization) doesn’t conduct research and investigations—though its employees and others do, and the organization publishes that research. In the same way, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (as an organizational entity) doesn’t conduct medical research into disease, its employees (doctors and investigators) do. The police force (as an organization) doesn’t investigate arrest and criminals, its employees (police and detectives) do. The Postal Service (as an organization) does not gather, transport, and deliver the mail; its drivers and postal workers (many of them independent contractors) do. And so on.

Carter’s statement is at best misleading and at worst intentionally deceptive, like a child who pushes his brother to the floor and then honestly tells their angry mother “I didn’t touch him” because there was no actual physical skin contact between the two. That Carter—a trained philosopher, after all—would resort to such grade-school semantic hairsplitting contortions to assert that no research is done by CSI is revealing.

Carter quotes veteran CSI critic George Hansen as stating that “In keeping with CSICOP’s one-sided approach, ‘SI’ [Skeptical Inquirer] has given scant attention to papers in well-known, orthodox scientific journals that present evidence for psi” (p. 36). Once again Carter demonstrates a glaring ignorance of his subject, and one that can be easily fact-checked. Instead of “scant attention,” Skeptical Inquirer has devoted considerable resources and coverage to psi research, including that of Gary Schwartz by Ray Hyman (“How Not To Test Mediums: Critiquing the Afterlife Experiments” the cover article in the January/February 2003 issue); on Gary Schwartz by Harriett Hall (March/April 2008); James Alcock on Daryl Bem’s 2011 psi experiments (March/April 2011); Ray Hyman on Daryl Bem’s 2011 psi experiments (March/April 2011); Amir Raz on psi research (July/August 2008), Ray Hyman on psi research (July/August 2008), and others. CSI investigates a wide variety of claims (from astrology to UFOs to ghosts to alternative medicine and hundreds of other subjects), and there are finite issues with finite pages. Psi research has been covered just as much, if not more than, other topics. It’s unfortunate that Carter apparently didn’t fact-check some of these easily-verified claims, and readers can be forgiven for wondering just how good his scholarship is in the rest of the book.

Many of Carter’s “hard-hitting” criticisms are merely non-sequiturs, such as that “The proportion of magicians in CSI is much higher than in the general population” (p. 38). It’s not clear where he got that factoid (he offers no data or statistics), nor is it clear what the relevance is of such a statement even if it was true. The list of CSI Fellows appears on the inside front cover of every issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine (which Carter has apparently never bothered to pick up); it lists about 100 Fellows, six of whom are listed as (or, to the best of my knowledge, have experience as) practicing magicians. The other 94% are psychologists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, linguists, researchers, science writers, medical doctors, etc. Even if the 6% of people who have some experience in magic somehow controlled the agenda for CSI (which they don’t), they would be greatly outnumbered by vast majority of members who are psychologists, doctors, science writers, and physical scientists.

Ironically, Carter seems unaware that George Hansen, who he quotes extensively and from whom he cribs many decades-old complaints against skeptics, is himself a magician and a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. If you’re going to ridicule magicians’ involvement in psi research, it is unwise to quote them in support of your claims about psi.

Carter predictably attacks James Randi’s famous $1 million challenge, claiming that the testing is nothing “but a publicity stunt.” Why? Carter offers various reason, such as that “Randi himself acts as policeman, judge, and jury” (p. 123). Actually, this is completely inaccurate: Randi helps design the tests (which the claimants help design and agree to), but he does not act as a judge; instead, a third-party person or panel agreed to by both the claimant and Randi is chosen, and Randi may not even be on the premises when the test is done. Often, in fact there is no real “judge” at all, but instead a set number of successes that everyone agrees must be met. For example if a person claims they can correctly predict random numbers in a drawing, either they can do it at a rate higher than chance, or they cannot; there is no possibility for biased judging by Randi (or anyone else) because there is nothing to “judge.”

Carter compounds this basic error with another statement; see if you can follow his logic: “Randi also insists on a ‘preliminary test’ before the real test, and he has never let anyone past the preliminary stage” (p. 124). Observant readers may catch Carter’s mistakes, but in case you didn’t here’s two issues. First—apparently unbeknownst to Carter—Randi does not conduct the preliminary tests; that is done at the local or regional level by trained skeptical or CSI-affiliated investigators such as the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Los Angeles. Randi may or may not be consulted in designing the preliminary tests, but he doesn’t conduct them and otherwise has little or nothing to do with them.

Second, the claim that he “has never let anyone past the preliminary stage” is non-sensical: A person with genuine psychic (or other paranormal powers) cannot be prevented from passing the test in any way, by Randi or anyone else. If a psychic claims to be able to accurately dowse water, or predict numbers ahead of a random-number generator, either they can do it or they can’t. A person who correctly predicts random events far above chance (and does it on videocamera, as per protocol) cannot be prevented from demonstrating their abilities, any more than a psychic can be “stopped” from predicting tomorrow’s headlines.

These mistakes betray a fundamental misunderstanding by Carter not only of skeptical claims and procedures, but skepticism in general. This might be excusable in a slapdash blog by someone with little knowledge just touching on the subject, but when an author with two Oxford University degrees writes a 300-page book largely claiming to address skeptical arguments, this is troubling.

Carter on Psi Skeptics

Broadening the scope a bit beyond CSI and James Randi, Carter insists that much of the reason that psychic powers have not been proven is that scientists are unaware of the research, or refuse to take it seriously because “Clearly many scientists find the claims of parapsychology disturbing.” Carter repeatedly states that scientists and skeptics are unwilling to examine well-run research for psi, largely because if psychic powers were proven it would challenge their dogmatic scientism worldview: “if a person’s a priori conviction is that the existence of psi phenomena would render most of modern science obsolete, then almost any normal explanation, no matter how improbable or convoluted, will be preferable to an explanation involving psi” (p. 198).

This is a very common charge leveled against skeptics and scientists: that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon (psychic abilities, ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, etc.) because it would destroy their worldview. Skeptics and scientists, they say, are deeply personally and professional invested in defending the scientific status quo.

But is this really true? Do scientists ignore and dismiss claims and evidence that challenges dominant scientific ideas? Let’s examine a recent example of how scientists and skeptics have responded to published research about psi.

A study published in 2011 in a scientific journal claimed to have found strong evidence for the existence of psychic powers such as ESP. The paper, written by Cornell professor Daryl J. Bem, was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and quickly made headlines around the world for its implication: that psychic powers had been scientifically proven.

Replication is of course the hallmark of valid scientific research—if the findings are true and accurate, they should be able to be replicated by others. Otherwise the results may simply be due to normal and expected statistical variations and errors. If other experimenters cannot get the same result using the same techniques, it’s usually a sign that the original study was flawed in one or more ways.

Bem’s claim of evidence for ESP wasn’t ridiculed or ignored; instead it was taken seriously and tested by scientific researchers. The experiment was replicated, and failed. A team of researchers (including Professor Chris French, Stuart Ritchie and Professor Richard Wiseman) collaborated to accurately replicate Bem’s final experiment, and found no evidence for precognition. Their results were published in the journal PLoS ONE. Bem—contradicting Carter’s suggestion that skeptics set out to discredit his work or refused to look at it—acknowledged that the findings did not support his claims and wrote that the researchers had “made a competent, good-faith effort to replicate the results of one of my experiments on precognition.”

The following year a second group of scientists replicated Bem’s experiments, and once again found no evidence for ESP. The article, “Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi,” by Jeff Galak, Robyn LeBoeuf, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons, was published inThe Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and is available on the web page of the Social Science Research Network.

Another clear example disproving Carter’s claim occurred in 2011 when physicists reported to have recorded faster than light neutrinos, which if true would violate the fundamental laws of physics. What was the reaction from the scientific community to the news? They didn’t ignore the results, hoping the inconvenient truth would go away. They didn’t brand the scientists liars or hoaxers; they didn’t shout, “Burn the witch, this is heresy and cannot be true!”

Instead, they did what all scientists do when confronted with such anomalous evidence: They took a closer look at the experiment to make sure the results were valid and tried to replicate the research. It later turned out that the anomaly was caused by at least two measurement errors, possibly including a loose cable. The experiment was flawed. The scientists were not skeptical because accepting that Einstein was wrong about something would lead to a nervous breakdown, or that their whole classical physics worldview would crumble beneath them, or that they would have to accept that science doesn’t know everything. They were skeptical because it contradicted previous research. The evidence for psychic powers, like the evidence for anything else, stands or falls on its own merits. There’s no reason in the world that scientists would fear the unknown, or be afraid to learn more about the world we live in.

Carter on Psi Research & Physics

In several places even Carter is forced to admit that the evidence for psychic powers is weak, stating for example that “the overall hit rate so far seem fairly consistent at around 33 percent, when 25 percent is expected by chance. This corresponds with a hit about every third session, when chance would predict one out of four. This may not seem very impressive...” (p. 103) and indeed it isn’t.

Carter basically blames scientists and skeptics for not accepting the low level of evidence offered for psychic ability, and admits that current physics basically says that psi doesn't exist. One example: “Despite what... skeptics claim... it should be clear now that the existence of psi is consistent with the new metaphysics of science” (p. 198). What is he talking about? What's this “new metaphysics of science” he’s referring to? Quantum physics, which he knows nothing about, and which he (and people like Deepak Chopra) love to cite and reference because it sounds mysterious and paranormal. Unlike Carter, I don’t claim to understand quantum physics, but the real, actual physicists I’ve spoken to break out laughing at this crap. Nobel-prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Man, who certainly knows something about quantum mechanics, has dismissed claims about psi and physics as rubbish.

Unlike Carter, no skeptics are claiming that quantum physics supports the existence of psi. In science, as in law and logic, the burden of proof is on the claimant: the person making a claim has the burden of proving it. It is not skeptics’ responsibility to prove that psychic powers, ghosts, or Bigfoot don’t exist, as it is impossible to disprove a universal negative. If Carter wishes to posit that quantum physics provides a plausible mechanism for psi, then it is his responsibility to show that, and he clearly fails to do so. Unable to muster a significant number of modern, working physicists to support his claim that psi exists (and that its roots lie in quantum physics), Carter is reduced to cherry-picking a handful of generally noncommittal quotes from scientists throughout history.

In a few especially revealing examples, Carter quotes physicists such as Nobel laureate Brian Josephson and Olivier Costa de Beauregard making statements that seem open to the possibility of physics supporting psi. However a quick look at the references reveals that those quotes date back to the mid-1970s. It seems very curious indeed that Carter must dig back nearly 40 years to find quotes that (at least superficially) support his theories. Were there no present-day working scientists familiar with advances in physics since Gerald Ford’s presidency who Carter could find to bolster his claims?

Carter spends pages and pages discussing determinism and differing philosophies of science (his background is in philosophy, after all), and explaining why he believes that the old scientific paradigms are outdated and inadequate. Fair enough; so if our modern understanding of physics is wrong (though it seems to work pretty well so far), then how does psi work? Carter doesn’t have an answer. What’s the explanation for how psi could work? Carter doesn’t have an answer. What published, peer-reviewed studies (in quantum physics or anywhere else) show the mechanism by which psi operates? Again, Carter doesn’t have an answer. All he offers is a shrug, and bold self-assured predictions that one day quantum physics will figure it out.

Carter finds himself in a seemingly untenable, semi-paradoxical position of trying to discredit classical physics while at the same time referencing research based on that same model in support of his claims. Carter can’t totally dismiss and disregard our current models of physics, since the psi-positive studies he cites and references were conducted using that model (as far as I know, research conducted by people like Rupert Sheldrake, Daryl Bem, Robert Jahn, Charles Honorton, and others involved classical, not quantum, physics).

Or, to use another obvious example, Uri Geller’s spoon-bending and other alleged psychokinesis-related phenomena did not occur on a “quantum level.” The spoons were actually, physically bent—not at the subatomic level but here in the real-world realm of classical physics. Carter tries to claim that the unknown mechanism by which psi operates is (or might be) found in quantum physics, but even if that were true it would not invalidate classical physics as outmoded, nor explain away the fact that there is an inverse correlation between how strong a given psi experiment’s controls are and how large an effect it finds.

I assume that in his areas of knowledge and expertise, economics and philosophy, Carter knows what he’s talking about. Unfortunately in Science and Psychic Phenomena, he is adrift with little or no understanding of statistics, physics, or even psychology. Unable to marshal strong evidence in support of psychic powers and forced to acknowledge that “psi is certainly incompatible with the old scientific view” (p. 198), Carter is reduced to a lukewarm and topsy-turvy assertion that “nothing in quantum mechanics forbids psi phenomena” (p. 228). Carter is fervently hoping that his readers don’t realize that even if this is true (and despite his labored efforts to assure us that he understands the quantum physics he’s talking about), not ruling something out is quite different than supporting it. In the real world, just because we don’t rule something out as defying the laws of physics doesn’t mean we say it’s true—or even that there’s any evidence for it at all. Nothing in modern physics forbids Abraham Lincoln from still being alive and enjoying a hedonistic life in Paris, or thousands of Bigfoot and giant alligators from living in New York City sewers. Theoretically possible? Sure. Any good evidence for it? Nope.

My favorite part of the book is chapter 13, in which Carter complains bitterly that mainstream scientists reject the (otherwise obviously true) reality of psi for several reasons: 1) ignorance of the evidence for psi; 2) fear of ridicule by CSICOP [sic]; 3) “adherence to outmoded metaphysics of science”; and 4) inability to explain psi within accepted theories of biology and psychology. Yes, the blame resides everywhere except with the psi researchers.

Conclusion

There are many other mistakes I could touch on, but just because Carter includes them in his book doesn’t obligate me to spend my time enumerating and correcting them. The fact that many of Carter’s basic claims (for example about skeptics’ closed-mindedness and refusal to address psi research) have been refuted by prominent psi researcher Daryl Bem—whom Carter himself references at length—should be a red flag that at least some of the book’s information and arguments are outdated and on shaky ground.

Despite its factual errors and many flawed arguments, Science & Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics is an interesting book, if for no other reason than that it provides insight into the mindset of many psi proponents. The fact that several prominent people, including Larry Dossey, Rupert Sheldrake, Jessica Utts, and Dean Radin—several of them smart people who should know better—have endorsed Carter’s book as some sort of masterful discrediting of skepticism is revealing. If this book truly is the best attack that proponents of psi can muster—mottled as it is with poor scholarship, logical errors, and obvious factual mistakes—then the house of skeptics is on firmer ground than anyone imagined.

 

Full disclosure: I am a Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and deputy editor of the organization’s official journal, Skeptical Inquirer. To some people this may invalidate my critique, while to others it makes my critique more valid since I happen to be familiar with many of the claims and issues in Carter’s book. At any rate, as readers will see, many of the problem in Carter’s book are matters of fact, not opinion, and anyone—skeptic or believer—can research the accuracy of the statements made herein.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.