Probing the Psychic

Martin Gardner. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. Prometheus Books, 1989.

James E. Alcock. Science and Supernature: A Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books, 1989.

Researchers into anomalous phenomena, such as parapsychologists, are quite unlike orthodox scientists. They consider it an achievement if they fail to find explanations for whatever they are investigating. When someone like Martin Gardner or James Alcock examines their data and experimental procedures and suggests possible explanations, they tend to get very upset.

Gardner's book is a new edition of one first published in 1981. It consists of a collection of articles and book reviews which deal mainly with parapsychology and pseudoscience. The book reviews are particularly entertaining, as they include angry letters from the authors, together with Gardner's replies. Gardner's main targets are slipshod parapsychology experiments and the garbage churned out in vast quantities by writers of gee-whiz books.

Many people like to argue that telepathy has been proved because experiments have been carried out using machines which generate random numbers and automatically record the scores. Gardner demonstrates that this is not so. For example, he examines some telepathy experiments carried out by Charles Tart, which were found to be flawed when it was discovered that the numbers produced by the machine were not random. This experiment involved the sender pressing a button to indicate to the receiver when a number had been chosen. Gardner pointed out that the sender could transmit information using a time-delay code. He also remarked that the proceedings had not been videotaped, so there was no way of knowing whether other methods of cheating, consciously or subconsciously, had been employed. The sender and receiver were in rooms only ten feet apart, leaving open the possibility of using auditory signalling (especially if the subjects had sharper hearing than the experimenter).

Gardner's helpful suggestions for tightening up experimental conditions to remove the possibility of cheating are never appreciated, though. It seems that such rigorous conditions have a remarkably inhibiting effect on the phenomena, and psychic people lose their powers. Gardner has also pointed out that parapsychologists hardly ever publish the results of those of their experiments which produce negative results. Some of them even refuse to allow statisticians and other experts to examine their raw data.

Among other topics discussed are some of the weird cults and fundamentalist sects which flourish in America and elsewhere, and the metalbending antics of Uri Geller. Gardner's humour makes the book highly readable. As he puts it in his introduction,'...when writing about extreme eccentricities of science, I have adopted H.L.Mencken's sage advice: one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms'.

Alcock's book is more academic in its approach. It covers much of the same ground as Gardner, giving detailed criticisms of psi experiments and pointing out their methodological and statistical flaws: In the first part of the book Alcock attempts to define what parapsychology is supposed to be about. Is it a search for the soul, a non-material entity which can act on matter? This part of the book, originally published as a separate article, drew replies from parapsychologists, many of whom denied being committed to the idea of mind-body dualism. Alcock admits that the metaphysical problems raised were rather more complex than he had realised. So we are left with no clear idea of what psychic research is supposed to be about.

What, then, does motivate psychic researchers, dabblers in the occult and pseudoscientists? Gardner suggests that decline in conventional religion is part of the answer. He notes that many people sceptical of parapsychology are committed Christians, whereas most of the believers in the subject seem to be atheists or agnostics. He has little to say about this question, though, being more concerned about matters of fact.

Both of these works are recommended as suitable antidotes, if you have recently been indulging in a diet of gee-whiz books. -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia 40, August 1991.

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