Radical Perceptions

Bob Couttie. Forbidden Knowledge: The Paranormal Paradox. Lutterworth Press, 1988.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: this is probably the worst proof-read professionally published book I have ever come across. There seems to be a major bug in Lutterworth’s typesetting program. It is a tribute to the author that it did not disturb my enjoyment of the book too much, although one or two sentences are scrambled beyond meaning.

Bob Couttie once did conjuring tricks on radio, an act which seems quite enough of a paranormal paradox in itself. Like many stage magicians, including James ‘the Amusing’ Randi, he finds himself drawing broadly sceptical conclusions about the who gamut of paranormal phenomena. This book, based on a radio series, looks at such topics and personalities as Uri Geller, Doris Stokes, astrology and dowsing. His is not too impressed with any of these, and the first part of his book provides a critical demolition of some familiar subjects. Much of this will be familiar to Magonia readers, particularly some of the early psychic research exposes, on which I think he spends too much time.

However this is all treated in a refreshing manner - Couttie manages to avoid the smartass cynicism that mars so much of CSICOP’s output. I feel that the author’s scepticism is the result of a painful process of disillusionment rather than an arbitrarily adopted pose. When he discovers Geller faking an effect his reaction is disappointment rather than triumphal glee.

It is the third part of the book, ‘Towards an Anthropology of the Paranormal’, that I think will be of most interest to Magonia readers. He comes to the very Magonian conclusion that perhaps the most important thing about the paranormal is not whether it is ‘true’ of ‘false’ - a hundred years of experiments have not convinced the doubters or defeated the believers, nor does it seem likely that the next hundred will - but what it means in social terms. Perhaps the kernel of the book is in the short, three page, chapter, ‘Madness, Mystics and Shamans’ in which he offers a social context for paranormal phenomena. In the following chapter, ‘The Evidence of Experience’ he discusses what Peter Rogerson has termed ‘radical misperception’, and concludes with a sentence that could be Magonia’s credo:

“Just as it has been by and large a failure of parapsychology that it has not examined the social context of the psychic and psychic experience, so it would also be a failure if one looked at the social context without considering the individual’s experiences and the nature of perception”

An important and entertaining book. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 29, April 1988.

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