Chapter Four: Uncertain Science
This chapter deals with parapsychological experiments in general, rather than mediumship specifically, as the previous chapter. We are run quickly past a number of claims and rebuttals without dealing with any in detail.
Of the problems the most hard-hitting is probably the fact that experiments are not repeatable but unfortunately this huge problem does not get discussed but rather ignored. Perhaps McLuhan simply chose to believe assertions to the contrary?
He mentions the card-guessing experiments of JB Rhine, conducted in the 1930s, and tells us of Hubert Pearce, a theology student, who could consistently and repeatably demonstrate his ESP by scoring, on average, 33% hits where 20% was expected.
He also tells us of the Ganzfeld experiments, conducted in the 1980s onward, where, on average, people score 33% instead of 25%. The Ganzfeld is a method of creating a state of mild sensory deprivation which is supposed to enhance someone’s ability to receive extra-sensory information and thus to enable better scoring.
Curious, isn’t it? Decades pass during which parapsychologists develop a method to increase scoring but… The increase is worse than what was achieved at the time by using a “star subject”.
McLuhan tells us that card-guessing was abandoned because it was to boring, just sitting there calling out one guess after the other. In the Ganzfeld experiments, someone has to endure 20 minutes of sensory deprivation for a single guess. I am not sure how that relieves the problem.
I wonder if it may be one thing that distinguishes skeptics and believers, that skeptics have a higher need for internal consistency?
Bad statistics are a serious problem in parapsychology as they can create the impression of an effect where there is none. Naturally, not all criticisms are correct. McLuhan incorrectly generalizes rebuttals of some criticisms to mean that such criticisms as a whole are unwarranted. Looking at recent works like Bem’s Feeling the Future, it is obvious how misleading that is.
One thing that stood out to me is how McLuhan speaks with 2 voices. He generally makes an effort (or a show?) of considering both sides. Sometimes he even intimates that these argument affected him. Yet every so often a different attitude breaks through. Then he tells us why these arguments are made. Not because they are true or reasonable but only to create doubt.
The first controversy that is addressed in-depth is the “sense of being stared at”. Unfortunately this is not one I have studied and so I will not comment on it. I intend to do so at some time but not in the next few weeks.
The next controversy concerns Sheldrake’s psychic dogs. This has already been examined on this blog.
Someone who goes to the original articles and actually evaluates the data for himself should be able to see past Sheldrake’s wall of make-belief but McLuhan completely falls for his spin and retells it as such.
He is so faithful to that version that he even follow Sheldrake in making nasty attacks on a skeptic who had the bad judgement of taking the claims seriously enough to conduct his own investigation.
After this low of investigative effort comes a more extensive exploration of the Ganzfeld experiments. These are in many ways amongst the best parapsychology has to offer. Many other results shrivel to nothingness under scrutiny or are simply unrepeatable which means we have to take them on faith.
By comparison, this series of experiments is a shining example of methodological rigor and solidity. Some time I will make a post on why I don’t believe that there is no real effect there. I expect they will eventually end up like Rhine’s experiments in the 1930s. Never fully explained but simply abandoned.
McLuhan quotes the same skeptic praising these experiments who he had just a few pages earlier accused of trying to sabotage Sheldrake’s research. He seems completely oblivious of the inherent contradiction.
Finally, there comes the remote viewing experiments called the Stargate project, performed by the US government. Here things get more mixed. Eventually this was a debate between Ray Hyman(skeptic) and Jessica Utts(believer). McLuhan, of course, finds the believer convincing, never realizing the gaping holes in her arguments.