Randi’s Prize: Answering Chapter 1


Chapter 1 deals with Poltergeist cases. It starts out by retelling some cases that were soundly debunked by various skeptics, including the infamous James Randi. These are related with hardly a counter argument and are so damning towards any idea of paranormal involvement that I actually checked the cover to make sure I was reading the right book.

The conclusion seems inescapable that poltergeist cases are usually caused by a troubled teen out for mischief.

It seems impossible that anyone who acknowledges the work of skeptics on these cases as valid and valuable would go on  to argue for their paranormality. And yet McLuhan does exactly that.

Here’s how McLuhan puts his misgivings:

Yet there was something here that didn’t seem quite right to me, and it kept drawing me back. If you read the literature on the subject you’ll find that poltergeist incidents tend to be extraordinarily fraught. The people involved are overcome with panic and confusion, not just for a few hours but for days and weeks on end. This isn’t an effect one expects to result from mere children’s pranks. And as I said before, I often wondered how these children managed to create such convincing illusions and remain undetected.

The fallacy which we see here twice in a paragraph is a common one and sometimes called by the unwieldy name of the fallacy of the transposed conditional. Nevermind the name.

I wouldn’t either expect a child’s prank to spook a normal person so thoroughly. But there’s another thing I wouldn’t expect: To hear from it.

We only hear of those cases where some people got really spooked. Is it possible that some pranks could do that? In my opinion yes. Either the child may be gifted with an ability to play with people’s expectations, or the victims may be especially prone to seeing some paranormal influence, or maybe everyone just wants to get into the news and does more to promote the case then to find some solution. Whatever the individual circumstances are, the exceptional cases are the only ones we hear about.

This fallacy is central to the chapter and indeed the book.

He just can’t believe why normal children would do this or that they could do it at all. He is right in his disbelief but normal children just don’t get involved in poltergeist cases either.

There’s another problem with what he says. He says the children remained undetected and yet he has just related several cases in which they were caught red-handed. Oh, and what he calls children are all teenagers, one as old as nineteen.

He has more arguments:

There are a large number of similar cases which suggests a distinct natural phenomenon. I could agree with that but I would have to point out that the cases also suggest a distinct natural cause: The troubled teen.

And, of course, he mentions cases where no trickery was found. Unfortunately we already know that sometimes people hoax others. Should we really assume that every hoaxer is found out? If so then perhaps we should also count unsolved crimes as poltergeist cases.

Some parapsychologists compound the problem by insisting that some cases are “real” even when someone was found hoaxing. It is normal, they say, that people under pressure should use trickery to produce the phenomena that previously happened spontaneously and paranormally.

McLuhan comes closest to addressing this by pointing out that believing investigators expose some cases as hoaxes. This means we should assume that they know what they are doing. If someone can uncover one hoax, he must be able to uncover them all. It’s just like with police detectives. If a detective can solve one case, he or she is  able to solve all cases or else it must be alien abduction, right?

Skeptical investigators, meanwhile, deal with too few cases. The more cases someone investigates, the more credible they are. This may seem sensible, practice makes perfect. But who else than a believer will devote so much of their lives to this? To the skeptic this is just an endless parade of dysfunctional families. Dragging them into a paranormal investigation is not just a waste of time, it is downright unethical. What they need is a social worker.

Eventually, it will be the truest of believers, the downright delusional, who investigate most cases.

McLuhan does his best to raise doubts about the “normal explanation” and some of his arguments have merit. If we knew that hauntings were “for real” and had only been looking at cases to find which were probably real and which faked then they might even have had a point. But, as it is, we don’t know that. That is what these cases were supposed to establish.

One has to give McLuhan credit. He sees that the cases are not convincing by their nature. Where he fails is in taking the unremarkable as evidence.


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