Back from hiatus

As you can see I took a time out from this blog for half a year now and never delivered the promised Ganzfeld series. It’s tedious and unrewarding work and I simply had better things to do. Hopefully I’ll bring things home in the next couple of months. Even though I have no idea who really cares I feel a sense of duty to finish what I started.

Randi’s Prize
What I won’t finish is the chapter by chapter review of Randi’s Prize by Robert McLuhan. It simply doesn’t work. He cites a lot of research and it is really this research that should be addressed rather than McLuhan’s take on it. The basic errors he himself makes are already pointed out in the reviews of the first few chapters.

Next up will be my take on the current hoopla about the failed replication of one of Bem’s experiments. Stay tuned.


Randi’s Prize: Answering Chapter 4

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.

In-Depth Controversy

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.

Randi’s Prize: Answering Chapter 3

Chapter Three:  Communicators

With this chapter, things get at once more and less interesting. It is less interesting because we no longer deal with movie style magic. No more psychokinetic kids and ectoplasmic ghosts. Instead we get something even more juicy: laboratory experiments.
Alright, that’s not quite as exciting. But if you want to get to the bottom of things it is very, very interesting.

The key to the past
It is said (especially by geologists) that ‘the present is the key to the past’. It is assumed by the historical sciences that the laws of nature that we observe today are the same that operated in the past. This assumption seems to hold up well, judging from what we learn from distant (and thus old) starlight or from the convergence of different radiometric dating methods.
The assumption essentially follows from Occam’s razor but that it works is really the important point.
Much has been written on this issue. Especially in response and in opposition to the efforts of creationists to inject religious dogma into scientific inquiry. I’m not going there now.

There is also another reason for the assumption that is based on the constraints imposed by the scientific method. Science can only study the testable. It is an essential characteristic of science that claims are judged by experiment.
If mediumship (or other psychic powers) are shown to be active in the past, then science will assume it operated in the past. Arguments that explain certain recorded events in terms of these “new” laws of nature will be credited. The reverse will never stand up.

Back to the book
What this chapter deals are mental mediums. Unlike the physical mediums of the previous chapter these don’t produce effects like straight from a Ghostbusters movie but only purport to communicate with the spirit world. They only talk.

The first example we are given, at great length, is Leonora Piper. A so-called trance medium from the second half of the 19th century. McLuhan has succeeded in rousing my curiosity as to Piper’s accomplishments but it a historical case will never be acceptable, scientific proof.
He cites example after example of her amazing feats and then more examples by Osborne Leonard. Then also the Edgar Vandy case.

He frequently points to a piece and transcript and argues that it doesn’t look like cold reading. Yet, all his bibliography offers on cold reading is a single chapter in The Elusive Quarry by Ray Hyman. For the curious it includes this article.
That’s awfully little to speak with authority on the subject.
By the way, my personal recommendation would have been Ian Roland’s The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, for the dry wit. It’s a much more entertaining read than Hyman’s academic prose.

He points out that these mediums were never caught in fraud which seems a rather curious argument. A sleight-of-hand conjurer can easily be caught in his trick. A cold reader only talks. She can only be shown to have made statements that look like cold reading. McLuhan points out that this is true for the mediums he mentions but apparently doesn’t consider it significant.
Of course, it is reasonable to focus on the more interesting instances. A true psychic should still be expected to use some cold reading (maybe unconsciously), just like any hot reader will make use of these techniques.
But how do we know that these tidbits were gained paranormally rather than conventionally?
For one, the mediums were sometimes trailed by detectives to catch them in any information gathering. Without success. Yet, it should be immediately obvious that catching someone gathering information is vastly more difficult than catching someone using a conjuring trick right before one’s eyes.
The possibility that they picked up information just by the way, in chats or such, is discounted on the grounds that the researchers were well-respected and surely would not have made the mistake of enabling this.
As I am quite familiar with the antics of contemporary mediumship researchers I find this appeal to authority more than doubtful. That aside, even if psi exists, it must be rare to encounter it so strongly as in these mediums. Is that a counter argument against Piper and the others having been real?
If improbability is not an argument against paranormality, then why is it an argument against normality?

The Fundamental Error
MyLuhan shows one proposition to be improbable and then concludes that another, also improbable proposition must be true. That has been McLuhan’s fundamental mistake from the start. I have pointed it out from many angles. It is one thing to show an idea to be unlikely and quite another to show that this idea is less likely than another. Besides, who says that the right idea isn’t one that no-one thought of?

The consequential application of his erroneous reasoning leads McLuhan to the only possible conclusion: It is proven that these mediums were real.
By McLuhan’s logic, only travelling back in time to find a satisfying, conclusive explanation for each of the mediums’ apparent paranormal deeds can undo this proof.

Conversely, bringing science, even out-spoken skeptics, round to McLuhan’s opinion would be much easier. Just show mediumship to work today.

Modern Mediumship Research
This modern research consists of the work done by Gary Schwartz. Not mentioned in the book is the quite extensive work by Robertson and Roy, perhaps because it was not available to McLuhan at the time of printing.
I will need to write a few posts on the current state of mediumship research at some point.

For now we are focused on Randi’s Prize. McLuhan gives an outline of Schwartz’ experiments and also of the criticisms. The whole thing is related in a he said/she said style that remains sterile. One does not get the sense that he actually engaged the material on a deeper level.
Eventually he does gives some credence to the critics but still finds that “these experiments give a strong suggestions” of psi. Given how abysmally horrible Schwartz’ research was, I find such a conclusion mind-boggling. What went wrong there? I don’t know.

I will not go into more detail here, dear reader. Please await the up-coming series on modern mediumship research.

Randi’s Prize: Answering Chapter 2

Chapter Two: Eusapia Palladino and the Phantom Narrative

In this chapter we get an overview of spiritualism at the end of nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century. Back then séances were all the rage. Mediums like Eusapia Palladino produced ghosts made from ectoplasm and performed real magic.

McLuhan compares these to contemporary charlatans like Uri Geller. They must be conjurers of genius, he concludes from their effect on the audiences. He forgets that not everyone was impressed by Geller, and those who were, were impressed by his psychic abilities rather than his magic skills. What sets people like Geller apart from other conjurers is his cunning ability to manipulate people and the media. Look at how he used naive people like Targ and Puthoff to further his reputation. That may require genius of a sort but it most of all requires ruthlessness.

We are treated to a number of descriptions of miraculous events that took place in the séance room. In many ways it is a repeat of chapter 1. He is incredulous that so many people sober people could be fooled. Same old, same old…

We also learn of skeptical magicians who find themselves stumped and even endorse paranormal explanations. McLuhan doesn’t understand why skeptics ignore such admissions but only retell explanations. The reason is simple, of course. Because explanations are interesting and ignorance is not.
Many people devote themselves to the study of physics where they learn the explanations for a variety of phenomena, such as gravity. No one is interested in a list of people who do not know these explanations.

Eusapia Palladino features big in the chapter as the title implies. We learn that she is caught “cheating” frequently. However, one team of scientists sticks it out with her nonetheless. They figured that she is only using trickery sometimes and at other times not.

Palladino herself seemed aware of this. She explained – and it seemed to be confirmed by observation – that psychokinetic effects occurred during her trance state by a process of will. The initial channel for the will would be physical: if you or I want to lift something we grasp it with our hands and raise it up, and this was a natural impulse in her also. It was by checking this impulse, allegedly, that the psychokinesis could be unlocked. For this reason she is recorded shouting ‘Controllo!’ at moments when she felt the energy building, to ensure that she was properly held and did not release it by reaching out to perform an action manually.

Amazing. And the evidence seems to confirm it even!

Of course, how could it not? They can’t catch her every time. Their very persistence ensures that they must be fooled and yet it is this very persistence that impresses McLuhan. People who caught her cheating and gave up on her were just being shoddy debunkers.

In this chapter McLuhan also develops his concept of “rational gravity” and  the “phantom narrative”.

Rational gravity, people’s tendency to gravitate towards rational explanations, is certainly a real phenomenon. The reason is quite simply that it works, oohing and aahing over mysteries not so much. He also suggests that stories change over time to become more compatible with rational explanations. I’m pretty sure that happens but I cannot understand why McLuhan fails to see that this works in both directions.

Richard Hodgson and Davey staged a fake séance in 1887. That the séance was fake was unknown to the sitters who duly took notes of the proceedings. The descriptions of the happenings were so inaccurate as to prompt this conclusion:

…the account of a trick by a person ignorant of the method used in its
production will involve a misdescription of its fundamental conditions…so
marked that no clue is afforded the student for the actual explanation.

Richard Hodgson, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 9, 360,

Practically this means that some happenings will be literally inexplicable not because they were paranormal but simply because the account is garbled.
McLuhan cites work done by Hodgson and Davey but clearly fails to realize the implication.

The phantom narrative is what McLuhan calls attempts of skeptics to explain what went on in some séances, that is how the tricks were performed. McLuhan does not find these speculations convincing. No problem, after all they are just speculations. We don’t have a time machine, we can’t go back.
The problem is that he takes his doubts about these speculations as evidence for the paranormal. Either, there is a perfectly convincing and satisfying normal explanation or the event is evidence for the paranormal.
Showing how one explanation falls short is meritorious but it does nothing to show that another explanation is right.
What’s worse is that at least since Hodgson and Davey, we have a mechanism that explains the inexplicable. Even if nothing paranormal happened, there can still be accounts of this that are inexplicable!

In the end McLuhan mentions the possibility that modern technologies like infra-red cameras might settle the matter. Yet he has doubts, according to him it is a question of reconciling ourselves with the idea of psychokinesis.
I found this curious because it suggests that McLuhan is unaware that infra-red videos of séances have been made and also that modern physical mediums generally disallow that.

One example would be psychologist Kenneth Batcheldor who filmed himself with some students while they rocked a table in pitch darkness. McLuhan quotes Batcheldor’s claim that during one séance the table levitated for 9 seconds. The filmed séances show nothing of the sort. See for yourself:

There are 3 more parts, go to youtube to watch them
Why would I believe that these people rock the table with their minds, or via some spirit, rather than with their hands? I guess I am just not reconciled with the idea of psychokinesis.

Another example that I want to mention is the scandal that took place at camp chesterfield. There’s a bit of footage of that to be found, too.

I guess McLuhan would say that just because people clearly have their hands on a table, they might still be using their minds to actually move it. He would probably also say that just because infra-red videos of sèances do nothing but uncover trickery, does not mean there aren’t real cases, too.
Both would be true. Of course, the logical impossibility of proving a negative isn’t actually evidence for anything either.

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.

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.