Randi’s Prize by Robert McLuhan

At the beginning of this year (2011) I obtained an e-book edition of Randi’s Prize from the author who was so kind as to perform a give away for new year.

The sub-title is: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters.

The first half of the book relates supposedly paranormal incidences and experiments, both from the point of view of skeptics and believers interspersed with the authors thoughts. As you can guess from the sub-title, the author almost invariably sides with the believers.

The second half of the book deals more with the question of how people can be so wrong, why the paranormal is not accepted, what would happen if it was accepted and related musings. This is mostly opinion. I found that part self-indulgent, boring and hard to get through.

Nevertheless I quite enjoyed the first half. I think it offers a great insight into the reasoning of someone who is seemingly sane and does not have first-hand psychic experiences and still comes to belief. The underlying arguments are, to me, transparently fallacious but they are also, judging from my online debating, common.

Skeptical writers often focus on coming up with explanations for supposedly inexplicable incidents. This is sensible, for these incidents are posed as riddles and an answer is demanded. Yet such answers fail to address the underlying errors in reasoning, chief among them the non sequitur: Unexplained equals explainable only after a scientific revolution that vindicates age-old superstitions.

I fear that even some skeptics fail to realize how broadly wrong the underlying reasoning is. What’s worse is that this failure leads to unrealistic expectations among believers.

I will write a series taking on McLuhan’s book in detail. I will not give any detailed normal explanations of the supposedly paranormal. That would be pointless, especially since McLuhan himself does a good job of summarizing skeptical objections. I will merely point out the false conclusions.

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1 Comment

  1. RabbitDawg said,

    April 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Although I am at odds with you on this topic, as I think Robert McLuhan did an excellent job, I appreciate your thoughtful civility in these posts. Too often, skeptical arguments are – dare I use a McLuhan term? – fraught – with insulting phrasing, catty jibes and outright ad hominem descriptions. You make a respectable, as well as respectful case.

    I believe that one of the points that Robert made was that paranormal events legitimately take place, but when the person under investigation gets pressured to ‘perform’ over time, they often seek to keep the momentum going by resorting to conjuring, especially when their newfound source of income depends on it. Often, it is a source of status and income that they otherwise could never hope to have.

    In the case of the Fox sisters, I wish Robert had made the case a bit stronger by delving more into the discovery of the body of the murdered peddler that was found in the family basement, after it was discovered by the sisters pointing out the location via communication with the spirit. Or maybe, if we want to get New Agey about it, it was some accessing of an Akashic record kind of thing. Heck, I don’t know. But then apparently neither does anyone else.
    Early on in the Fox sisters saga, there were a lot of unexplained events that inexplicably got past several hundred grown men and women. I find it hard to believe that three little country girls could have made the beds, walls, and various objects shake violently and act strangely without having the mechanism quickly discovered. They were not exactly magicians at the James Randi level, for cryin’ out loud:-)

    The fact is, Robert McLuhan represents a saner, more rational approach to the paranormal along the lines of Chris Carter, Rupert Sheldrake, Dean Radin, Ian Stevenson, Bruce Greyson, Alex Tsakiris et. al. He avoids the woowoo trash that composes at least 95% of the stuff out there, and asks that we (skeptics and believers) calmly, soberly and seriously look at the unexplained data and events, and at least recognize them as that – unexplained. Then maybe we can rationally investigate them, and accept the outcome, no matter where the data leads us. Right now, we waste too much time and money throwing dogma-based printed and verbal spears at each other.


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