DEBATING PSYCHIC EXPERIENCE: HUMAN POTENTIAL OR HUMAN ILLUSION? edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010. $44.95 (hardback). Pp. 236. ISBN 978-0-31339-261-0
Whatever your prior view of the debate over psi, this book is an absolute requirement if you wish to be kept updated. The current status of differing views on scientific arguments for and against the existence of psychic phenomena is debated in this volume. The only risk is that it is easy to choose whom to believe and thereby find your own personal biases confirmed. On the other hand, should you be open-minded and hoping for a resolution, you may at first be disappointed with the stagnation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the seeds for synthesis are actually there, although hard to find. Debates are actually not the best way of encouraging progress in a controversial subject. Inevitably, even without our biases, it is the most persuasive and eloquent debaters who are deemed the winners, whereas in this case the only winner should be science. It becomes then this reviewer’s difficult task to try to bring fairness back to the forefront, but ultimately in a case like this impartiality is an ambitious goal. Even so, I prefer to think that I share the attitude of most serious researchers in this area: If I am being fooled, I want the critic to tell me how.
The book contains chapters written by some of the most vocal experts in this field. Dean Radin and Chris Carter are the proponents presenting the case for psi having now been established, while the critics Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, and Christopher French take the opposing view. I am going to allow my own bias to immediately discount the chapter by Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic, on the grounds that it is not science; rather, it is based mainly on his personal experiences with tarot readings, accompanied by tales provided to him by the maverick English journalist Jon Ronsson (producer of the film The Men Who Stare at Goats). The chapter does fulfill a function—as a shop-window example of what the proponents in the book complain about: arrogance, in this case assuming psychical researchers know nothing about cold reading.
I shall not attempt a summary and evaluation of each chapter, because this is more than adequately provided by the editors in the form of their own introduction. Instead, I will look at the main issues per se. Harvard psychiatrist Ruth Richards provides a fair-minded introduction to the topic, after which the major contributors present their cases. The contributors then all come back for round two, rebuttals in which they evaluate their opponents’ chapters. Finally, epilogues are provided by the critic Richard Wiseman, the proponent Stephan Schwartz, and the editors themselves.
The confrontation gets heated and personal at times. Frustrated at the lack of appreciation for the enormous effort they expend to fulfill the critic’s demands with the limited support available, the proponents begin to see the critics as outmoded die-hard believers in materialism. They are seen as being left behind by recent developments in quantum physics and consciousness studies. Consequently, several of the proponents label the critics now as “psi deniers,” in much the same class as consciousness deniers and climate change deniers. Whatever one thinks about this labeling, it needs to be said that while much has been written on the psychology of belief in the paranormal, very little is known about the opposing polarized disbelief. Even if it causes some offence, it is therefore of value that Carter contributes a section of his chapter under the rubric Psychology of the Dogmatic Critic (p. 96).
And offence it does cause. Hyman claims he has always, in his role as a member of the Committee for Scientific Inquiry and through his papers in the Skeptical Inquirer, made a distinction between his treatment of parapsychology and other paranormal claims, recognizing that the former are based on scientific procedures. He is clearly offended by the allegations of unfair treatment made particularly by Carter and Schwartz. Likewise, Alcock recoils against this treatment as “ad hominem attacks” and “reviling the messenger.”