Author Robert McLuhan examines the psychology and hidden purpose behind the modern skeptical movement pioneered by James Randi.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with the author of, Randi’s Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong, and Why It Matters, Robert McLuhan. During the interview Mr. McLuhan discusses the possible motivation of skeptics, “…we complain an awful lot about people like James Randi who apparently subvert what seems to be a perfectly good data and rather deceptively distort perceptions… but I think we have to start thinking beyond that and start thinking about what it is exactly that these guys are trying to protect? Is it a rational thing they’re doing? Perhaps I can make the point more succinctly in terms of psychokinesis, just imagine the effects of science declaring psychokinesis is real. If you really think this through you see we are in a very changed environment if we say human minds can interact with matter. That raises all sorts of very difficult implications.”
McLuhan continues, “If we think some people can hex other people, or interfere with the brakes when they’re driving — it doesn’t even have to be true — but if science says something like that is feasible and possible, it might happen, then what sort of situation are we in? I suspect, and I’m not sure if this is a conscious idea skeptics have… but I think what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is we have to think about the wider implications of psi endorsed and accepted by a central authority like science.”
Alex Tsakiris: Robert McLuhan is an Oxford-trained freelance journalist who’s authored Randy’s Prize: What Skeptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They’re Wrong, and Why it Matters. Robert, welcome to Skeptiko.
Robert McLuhan: Thanks, Alex; I’m glad to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m glad you’re here, too. Thanks for joining me. You’ve written an interesting book here that really goes way beyond James Randi and sets out the whole argument for paranormal effects like psi and near-death experience and so many of the things we’ve talked so much about here on Skeptiko.
So let’s start by talking about the argument that supports the claim for the paranormal and why the gravitational pull of orthodoxy, as you say, means that all those those claims might not matter anyway. What is the argument for the paranormal?
Robert McLuhan: What I was trying to say about the-I came up with this term, “rational gravity” and by that I meant the sort of pull of orthodoxy. It’s a psychological process. We’re used to the world working in certain ways. That’s our everyday reality.
When something comes along that doesn’t fit with that reality, then I suspect there’s a psychological process that kicks in in many cases, not in all. Some people will unconsciously find some way of resolving the dilemma posed by this apparent anomaly and in the process of doing that they will come up with all sorts of explanations.
Having arrived at explanations of what’s happened or what somebody has claimed, no matter how speculative it may be, they will feel that the whole matter has been resolved successfully and they don’t have to think about it anymore. I think that’s a process that one sees going on quite a lot in the skeptical community.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, because you think the evidence that you lay out in the book is actually quite strong, at least in some areas, right?
Robert McLuhan: I do, yes. But I think how one responds to it is very much a question of temperament. I mean, take something like telepathy, and personally I’m not particularly phased by the idea. It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t frighten me. I’m intrigued about it, curious about it, but I don’t automatically think something like that is impossible and could never happen.
I’d want to see evidence of it, but I think there are people who find something like that pretty difficult to deal with. That’s actually fair enough, when you think about people messing with your head. That’s the ultimate schizophrenic/paranoid nightmare. So of course some people are going to be upset by that and try and explain it away.
But ultimately I see this in the same terms as I see politics. I think people identify with different positions, different points of view, according to their temperaments, their background perhaps, the circumstances they’re in. All of these things shape their attitudes to political ideas, ideologies.
And at the bottom it’s a sense of ‘what kind of world do we want this to be? What kind of world do I want to live in? What is it that makes me feel comfortable?’ And then trying to make that world come about. I see the same process happening in this argument with psychic phenomena. Some people accept it and go with it; others resist it.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s so true. But I think most people would find that utterly unbelievable, remarkable, fantastic to even comprehend because we all walk into this thinking, “Hey, science doesn’t work like that. ” Oh, I know politics works like that but science doesn’t work like that. And that’s what I thought was one of the intriguing things about your book and about the approach. It almost starts at second base with this idea that skepticism is a part of science.
I had the most interesting interview a while back-I don’t know if you caught it-it was with Dr. Peter Bancel, the guy who’s worked on the Global Consciousness Project and he’s from France. He really changed my whole view on this thing when he said, “I don’t really see science as being about skepticism at all. Science is about asking questions and asking the best questions you can. If those questions happen to be skeptical in nature, fine, but it’s really not about skepticism.”
Skepticism is really about this idea like you were saying, winning votes in the court of public opinion and that’s somehow co-opted our notion that that is really what science is. So I wonder how that ties back to what you’re saying. Is science really about winning these political battles about what things really…?
Robert McLuhan: You listen to scientists talking and they say exactly that. They do say that this is a little secret and not many people outside the scientific community realize this. Actually science is a very messy business. In lots of cases it’s the people who shout loudest, the people who create the strongest lobbies-around the evidence obviously, but there is a big tug-of-war sort of free-for-all going in around all sorts of controversial subjects within science.
The outcome of that is obviously what’s important because eventually it settles down and the consensus is reached. It just happens in this case, rather uniquely I think, it’s not just a matter of science; it’s a matter of popular culture. That’s because psychic experiences actually originate with people. It’s a consciousness thing and I think that’s something that science finds rather difficult to deal with.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s a great point. I wonder if that’s the other little dirty secret in science or the part that isn’t publicly discussed, and that’s that science is totally immersed in our culture and in these culture war issues that keep rising to the surface. One of the things that really kind of gets to me is when we paper that over and say, “No, no. Science is above that. Science is different.”
Gosh, no. If anything, in every era you want to look at, whether you want to look at psychic phenomena or whether you want to look at climatology or anything. It is totally immersed in our culture. How do we get out of that to really get a better handle on what’s really going on here?
Robert McLuhan: I think that’s actually the skeptics’ big complaint. They come to the data looking for really hard-core results in black and white and such, as I understand it, one would find in physics and chemistry but there aren’t any sort of gray shades. Of course, psi as a result of consciousness is right at the other end of the spectrum. It’s at the end of an enormously complex chain of biological events and it’s very hard to pin down in that way.
I think it’s up to people like us to try and untangle these issues and present them clearly and as articulately as we can so that the public and scientists themselves who many not know very much about these issues can understand better and are at a better place to make a judgment.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about how you set out to do that in your book, Randi’s Prize.
Robert McLuhan: Well, this goes back quite a way now, because I started to write this book in the mid-90s and it came about because I was reading a lot of science books. It was only then that I really understood for the first time just how completely science appears to reject any idea of spirit, soul, of psychic communication, all these things. Things which I until that moment haven’t had any particular strong view on, but which I remained open-minded about.
I thought, “Well, hang on. These guys really know what they’re talking about, so this is something I ought to investigate.” So I started going to libraries, looking at books. I found the Society for Psychical Research, a huge collection of research going right back to the 1880s. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea that all this stuff was out there.
So I started a process of reading both sides, looking carefully at what the skeptics were saying and looking at the studies by the psychic researchers and trying to make some sense of it. And actually failing for the longest time. But after about two, two and a half years, it sort of started to become clear to me, simply by dint of hard work and hard study that skeptics really didn’t have a handle on it. They were actually coming to it with speculations rather than actual research.
Alex Tsakiris: The analogy that I drew in the last episode, and it really was similar to you in that after banging on it for the longest time, it kind of struck me-it’s really Apologetics. It’s really analogous to Christian Apologetics where they use logic and reason but you know where the story’s going to end. It’s like a child’s book.
Robert McLuhan: I hear you. I sometimes feel that way myself. Actually, at that time I really was taking the skeptics very seriously indeed. And it was very difficult for me because now it’s just going ding-dong, ding-dong. I’d read the skeptics and I’d think, “Oh, these guys really-yeah, of course it was a trick and that’s how he did it.” And then I’d read the research and I’d think, “Well hang on. There’s a little bit of detail here. It’s not quite as clear as all that.” And it was very difficult to come to a decision about it.
But having done it, I actually wrote the book. I did actually get a literary agent and he hawked it around. Nobody was interested so that was pretty much the end of that.
But when I thought about it, I thought, “Well, what I’ve done is I’ve written a study of psychic research, of parapsychology. But who cares? Parapsychology is not accepted as a serious scientific subject. That book will only ever appeal to people who know something about these issues. Probably my knowledge about it is not going to add very much to theirs. So really, I’ve been wasting my time.”
Then I thought, “Well, what is the job here? It’s to try to find some way of getting across the complexity of this problem to a wider public. To explain to them that the reason the paranormal is so controversial-and there are all sorts of reasons-to try to make them understand the psychological issues and the social issues as well as the scientific issues.”
Then I thought, “Well, really the best way to do this is to try and present it as my own journey, just to go back in time and write an account of how I compared the two sides together and make my thinking as transparent as possible so that people can see my reasoning. They can see why, first of all I thought the skeptics really had it nailed, and then I wasn’t so sure. And then finally I understood where the truth lay.” And I thought that if one could try to do that, then hopefully it might become a little bit clearer.
Alex Tsakiris: Did it become any clearer for you in terms of what the real journey is about? I think one of the most fascinating parts of the whole situation that we’re in with regard to this breakthrough science of consciousness and what it might mean, is the social phenomena.
It really isn’t about-and we both have been saying this during this interview from the very beginning-the deeper I get into it, the more and more I realize it’s really not about the data. It’s really not about the evidence. It’s really about all these other influences that are going on. Do you want to speak to that a little bit?
Robert McLuhan: I try to sum this up at the end of the book. I spent a little bit of time thinking about all the different issues. I was talking to a friend about all this stuff at quite an early stage and she just suddenly exclaimed, “But you know, Rob, if all this stuff is true why isn’t it known? Why don’t we accept it? Why don’t scientists say it’s all okay? It’s true? Surely the fact that science says it isn’t true must mean something.”
When I started to think about it, I realized there are very deep issues here. We touched on the psychology of it, and I do think that some people are resistant to it. I think there’s quite a lot of evidence in the literature about this. But if you look a bit further beyond this, you have to ask the question, “If it’s true, what kind of world are we living in? And how is that going to change our perceptions?”
Let’s take the example of Randi’s Prize. What would happen if James Randi suddenly popped up one day and said, “I’ve tested this person and guess what? He’s the real deal. There is such a thing as psychism.” Now actually, in parenthesis, I don’t think this would make the slightest difference. I think that skeptics would say, “Oh, that’s just James Randi. He’s lost it, poor chap.” I think they’d find all sorts of ways, as they always do, of explaining this away.
I think it would be a different matter if scientists as a body were to start talking about psi in prophetic terms and saying, “Yes, actually on consideration we do think there may be something happening here.” Now I’m not thinking about the effect on science which obviously would be quite dramatic. I’m thinking about the wider effect on society.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me interject something. One of the things that really sets me off is when folks say that the implications for science wouldn’t be that dramatic. Science would basically go on as it has before. I think that’s not only a naïve view but a view that gets to the social part of it that just we’re totally glossing over. Maybe that’s what you’re alluding to. I mean, Western culture as we know it is built on some ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the notion that consciousness survives death; that consciousness is separate from body.
Robert McLuhan: Exactly. It’s secularity if you think about it. I always think of this sort of seminal moment in 1660 when the Royal Society was founded. It was just a few scientists getting together. There was actually mayhem going on in the world outside, the most ghastly things, civil wars, most of them based around religion. This was a time when just a few clear-headed people came together and said, “Look, let’s put all this stuff aside and let’s see how the world really works. We’ll check our religion at the door and all those opinions. We won’t argue about that stuff.”
That to me was an extraordinary moment. It’s from that the enlightenment came about and the development of secular thinking. With it, of course, democracy and popular government. I think that we can’t really turn our backs on the idea that we have something very precious there.
Whether we’re religious or not there has to be a space where we all come together and say, “We have common goals, common ideas, and we’re not going to let our tribal religious ideas get in the way. We have to do that because otherwise we might not have democracy as we know it today.”
That’s why I think religion and politics do tie up very closely. And psi, of course, does have a rather strong religious implication, so if as they say, science would suddenly say, “Yes, we think psi is real,” then this rather opens the way to a survivalist interpretation. Suddenly we have science seemingly endorsing some form of religion. It’s a complicating factor in that it’s one kind of religion and not another.
Suddenly we’ve lost that secular space, that thing in common that we all had, that default position. And we’re now in a completely different situation. I think that looking forward 100 years maybe something like that might come about and that really would cause a revolution.
Alex Tsakiris: I was with you there for a minute, Robert, but I’m not quite sure what you’re really advocating there. We need to stay within the confines of the society and structure we’ve built in terms of our political structure and I’m also not quite sure what you mean that this idea of consciousness would favor a particular religion. Maybe you can expound on those two?
Robert McLuhan: Okay. These are difficult questions and as I said, I’ve touched on them in the book. It’s perhaps a little bit hard to get across in a couple of sentences. I think that psi shades into spiritualism. If you’re talking about mediums and if you’re investigating mediums and you say, “Yes, these guys have some ability to tap into other people’s minds and beyond that the possibility of tapping into the minds of dead people, then straightaway you’re starting to create a religious framework.
Spiritualism is a very particular ideology. It’s not easily harmonized with traditional Christianity. So you have a situation in which science having supported secularity now appears to be endorsing a form of spiritualism. I think this would raise pretty serious issues.
Alex Tsakiris: Agreed, but where I was going and what I really want to understand better about what you’re saying is that I think the way it fundamentally shifts Western society in general is as you were alluding to in the broad strokes of history there, we’re built on this idea of these separate states. We’re built on the idea that we are separate entities, of course, but we’re also built that we have these separate economic interests. We trade and we have this kind of tribal mentality.
If the science is as it appears, then we really have to rethink those at a very deep level. We are no longer that this separateness goes away. That’s one of the things we’d learn right away. So…
Robert McLuhan: You’re talking about separateness as individuals?
Alex Tsakiris: And separateness as tribal groups, as separate states. I think that’s just a small leap. I think the links between materialism and materialism are there, too, in terms of consumerism and what we consume versus and this idea. So I think these notions run very, very, very deep and yet we never really get to those conversations.
What I thought was so interesting and what I thought you were alluding to for a minute is that those are the conversations people really want to have. Do we want to make the decision, even if it is true? Do we want to follow the data there or is that way too unsettling and we don’t really want to go there? Right now it isn’t a conscious decision but maybe it should be a conscious decision.
Robert McLuhan: Exactly, I agree completely. I think that’s why it’s important to start talking about these things. I mean, you said start a conversation. That is absolutely my idea. I think there are things we need to talk about here because we complain an awful lot, don’t we, about people like James Randi and apparently in a sort of opportunistic way, subverting what seems to be a perfectly good data and rather sort of deceptively distorting perceptions and so on.
We complain about that a great deal but that’s been going on since 1880. I think we have to start thinking beyond that and start thinking about what it is exactly that these guys are trying to protect? Is that perhaps a rational thing that they’re doing?
Alex Tsakiris: What do you think?
Robert McLuhan: I think we’d have to take that into account, I really do. Just a very small thing I’d like to raise is I was talking about psi and religion and that’s a rather large subject to get into in this small space, but perhaps I can make the point more succinctly in terms of superstition, a sort of general entity. If you think about psychokinesis, just imagine the effects of science declaring psychokinesis is real. If you really think this through, you really have to see that we are in a very changed environment if we are starting to say that human minds can interact with matter. That raises all sorts of very difficult implications.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree. But I don’t think it comes anywhere near to the revolution that it takes to say that consciousness survives death. I mean, as soon as we say consciousness survives death I think everything pales in comparison. So we can move objects with our mind. Who cares? What is our mind? Where does our mind reside? What is “us?” Where have we…
Robert McLuhan: All right, sorry. I completely disagree about that because I’m not sure if you get the point because when we die, you’re absolutely right. That’s hugely important. There are huge implications for us as individuals. The fact is we don’t really know until we die whether that’s going to happen or not.
And it’s not actually making a huge difference to human society but it would make a huge difference to human society if we think that some people can hex other people, can cause-I think Stephen Braude has a good phrase here, “to cause a despised co-worker’s computer to crash, or to cause somebody a migraine.”
These are very small things but interfere with the brakes when they’re driving, that sort of thing. It doesn’t even have to be true. But if science says that something like that actually is feasible and possible, it might happen, then what sort of situation are we in? I suspect, and I’m not sure if this is a conscious idea that skeptics have, I don’t recall them talking about it particularly…
Alex Tsakiris: I think we are giving them way too much credit, but go ahead.
Robert McLuhan: Yeah, perhaps. I think that that’s something that sooner or later will have to come up, and yes we will have-I think what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is, Alex, we have to think about the wider implications of psi, or rather the wider implications of psi endorsed and accepted by a central authority like science.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I don’t want to go too far down this path because we already have. It’s fascinating but we could do five hours on this and most people would be not that interested. It seems to me that the crux of your argument is that we somehow need to hold the fabric of this society that we have together, which is fine. That’s a very interesting point.
But my point was that I think some of the science questions the fundamental underlying assumptions we have about why we would form a society the way that we have. It would challenge the whole notion of you were saying gee, society as we know it would fall apart. I think a logical stream that you could take in near-death experience science is to say, “We’ve totally got society wrong in how we’ve constructed it so a total reset on the reset button is something that we should start with, rather than say “How do we keep this little engine going that we already have?”
Robert McLuhan: I completely agree. Of course that is the adverse of what I’ve been saying. I think the way I’ve been talking is in the context of skeptical responses to paranormal claims. As I say, you talked about it lots of times here on Skeptiko. Skeptics do come up with all sorts of distortions which seem frankly unfair, but I think we’ve got to stop complaining about it and start thinking about things from the skeptic’s point of view. What is it that frightens them about it so much?
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s just a fascinating point. I’m so glad we went there. You mentioned James Randi again just a minute ago and I want to come back to James Randi. I know there are a lot of folks who are going to tune in to your book, flip it open, and expect to see a lot about James Randi. You don’t really have a lot about him in there.
But by the same token, I think he’s worth talking about in this context because he really is a fascinating character. He really is, by his own making, he’s really right in the middle of this whole thing we’re talking about. What’s your take on James Randi?
Robert McLuhan: James Randi is a difficult question. I did anticipate your remark and in fact, I have tried to pre-empt it a little by pointing out that the book isn’t really about James Randi. The title to me, Randi’s Prize, I just thought that was a cool image for the whole debate. I mean, Randi’s Prize in scientific circles actually means something and I just took it as a sort of an image for the controversy generally.
But there is another point to make here and that is actually I think a book about James Randi, would it be that interesting? I think it would be interesting to those of us who know quite a lot about the subject. Yeah, I think perhaps you could put a book together about James Randi’s adventures and his various interactions and all this. He’s a funny guy and you’d get all sorts of mileage out of that. But a book like that’s only really going to be interesting to people who know about James Randi. I’m not really interested in that. I’m not interested in preaching to the converted. I hope very much that people…
Alex Tsakiris: Hold it, Robert, because there’s a whole other angle here that really does get to the heart of what your book is about. That’s why skeptics believe what they do. I think we have to be very careful when we use the term “skeptic,” because as you alluded to earlier in that they’re kind of the advanced guard to society and the fabric of society that holds it together. That’s way a stretch for me but that’s where we were going before.
They are also the advanced guard, the bulldog on a chain, for science in general. So when I talk about skeptics I’m not talking about some group of weird guys who meet once a year in London and in Las Vegas. I think far from that. I think they are really front and center for mainstream science. They’re the guys who are out there, espousing these ideas so other people can take cover and say, “I don’t really have to deal with that stuff.” In that way, I think looking at James Randi and looking at the phenomenon of James Randi is central to what you’re talking about. So I do want to go there.
Robert McLuhan: I agree. And of course I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I haven’t written anything about James Randi. In fact, he features quite a lot in the book. Of course he does. He’s one of the main guys. But what I’m trying to do is put it in a larger context because if you’re going to understand James Randi you’ve got to understand the issues. It was really the issues that my book is about.
Alex Tsakiris: Here’s what you wrote to me in the email:
“My view of Randi is that he’s a conjurer doing whatever it takes to create illusions and opportunistically manipulating circumstances to his end. No question he makes stuff up.”
Now that’s what you said and that is the truth. That’s what the record says to anyone who looks at it.
Robert McLuhan: I’m fascinated by James Randi. It has to be said I am. He’s a phenomenon in all sorts of ways. But I think one of the things especially that I puzzled about for a long time is what it is that makes magicians in particular so extremely upset about paranormal claims. When I thought about this I sort of pushed it a bit and came up with some quite interesting conclusions.
Magicians and conjurers are always talking about how easy it is to deceive people. It’s all about deception, about distraction, and they will say, “That is half the conjurer’s art. Once you know how to distract people you can do all kinds of stuff.” It’s a fact that anybody can be distracted, can be deceived. That’s what makes stage magic possible. I just wondered whether this is something that magicians are actually doing.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, Robert. All that might have been true way back at the very beginning, at the earliest phases of how Randi and some of these other folks approached it, but we really can’t go there anymore. From the little quote of yours that I played, I think the part that is just plain out there that we have to address is that there is no question he makes stuff up, but the important point for our discussion here is that the people inside of his organization, very few people know that. People are surprised by that.
I’ll give you an example. This will take a minute, but a couple of weeks ago I published an episode of Skeptiko and I played an audio clip from a very old video done by Stanford Research Institute where they had done some ESP experiments with Uri Geller. These were pretty fantastic experiments by Targ and Putoff.
So I presented these and I put it out there and right away I got a response on my website saying, “Hey, you know what? You really missed the point here because all this stuff was debunked by Randi in his book, Flim-Flam!, and he debunked all these experiments.” Now what’s so fascinating is one of the main ways he debunked it is Randi claims that the cameraman for these experiments, a guy names Pressman, has come out and said, “These were faked. I didn’t shoot all this video,” therefore we can’t trust these experiments.
Well, someone finally went and investigated whether that claim is true and it is completely false. Targ and Puthoff said, “I have an affidavit from Pressman. He says he did record every bit of the video.” Then somebody finally called up Pressman and he said, “That’s an outrageous claim. It’s totally fabricated. Yes, all that video you see was shot by me.”
But here’s the point in all that-not that Randi lied. He did, but when you present that evidence, like I did to a skeptic, to a Randi-supporter, they’re impervious to it. They’re like, “Well, that doesn’t matter.” One of the things they say is, “Well, Randi’s done so many good things. Can’t we allow him a foul here or there?” I mean, that’s just the beginning of the list of misdeeds of James Randi. The interesting part from this aspect of where you’re handling this is what is it about the need among this group to so desperately believe?
It really is almost like a religious fervor that they get. Even when you present some really obvious stuff, they just can’t go there. They have to stand behind those six-foot images he has of himself at these conferences. There are some very cultish aspects to it. Not that there aren’t some very cultish aspects to other aspects of our society. Religion is certainly very cultish. How do we sort all that out in terms of what’s really going on?”
Robert McLuhan: As I said, I think it’s up to people like us to talk about these things and make them clear. I used to feel frustrated and irritated at the way that perfectly good data is-you know, the business about J.T. and Richard Wiseman and Rupert Sheldrake and the dog study, it’s really extraordinary how easy it is to debunk something without really knowing very much about it, and simply to change perceptions.
In a way I’m becoming more optimistic because I’m thinking that James Randi’s coming to the end of his career now. I’m not sure if we’re going to see his like again. I think he really grew out of a reaction in the late 1970s and early 1980s to a sort of uncritical enthusiasm about science and psychic research that came out of the ’60s with Uri Geller and so on. I think these guys, Randi, Paul Kurtz, the founder of CSICOP, the CSI now, these guys are coming to the end of their careers and I think they’ve had a good inning. I think they’ve had quite a lot of effect.
I think really it’s time for people like ourselves, there’s you, there’s Chris Carter, Michael Prescott, Greg Taylor of “The Daily Grail,” and other people as well, just quietly making these points. I think sooner or later we may achieve some critical mass and perhaps some scientists will start to say, “Yes, perhaps we should reconsider these things.”
Alex Tsakiris: Why? Why would that happen? I just don’t buy into that, Robert. That gets me really worked up. That seems to me dangerous thinking.
I mean, go back–you have some great cases in your book. Go back to the turn of the century. Was the evidence any less overwhelming? Were the researchers any less qualified to report on that evidence? I think we go back to the first quote that I mentioned. You know, “the gravitational pull of orthodoxy.” I think we make a big mistake if we underestimate the gravitational pull to keep things the way they are. And this idea to just characterize Randi as this goofy old man magician who’s going to pass away and then everything’s going to die down. No way.
Robert McLuhan: No, no, no. I’m sorry. Perhaps I didn’t mean anything quite that way. I think the point I’m making is that yes, there’s been a lot of evidence but I think if we rely on the science to try, without putting it in some sort of context, then we’ll never make any progress.
But if we can put it into context, if we can show the psychological factors in the way that the skeptical community behaves, as you’ve described, if we can put it in the context of social factors in terms of what kind of society it would be if psi were acknowledged to be real, then with the pressure we can start to see the outlines of the ideological war going on here.
Yes, now I am optimistic. Nobody’s trying to convince the skeptics. I think we’re making a big mistake if we think we can, by talking to them, change their minds. That’s not going to happen. This is why I say it’s politics. In the British House of Commons, the conservatives get up and yell at the labor on the other side. They’re shouting at each other. They’re not trying to convince each other; they’re trying to influence public opinion. I think that’s what we should be doing.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m not so sure. One of the things that I’ve found from doing Skeptiko is that there really are a lot of people in the middle. There really are folks who are in a process of trying to understand this information. You have another quote in your book about the vacancy of the New Age thinking and how it’s really intellectually vacant. I think we could also say that about a lot of religious thought that gets thrown around. It doesn’t have a lot of meat to it for someone who wants to approach the topic intellectually.
So I think there are a lot of folks that come into this in the same way that you did, and the skeptical message is very appealing because it buys into something they’ve already discovered-hey, there’s a lot of bunk out there that I have to sort through.
But I think there are a lot of people that are in that middle ground who are open to “Hey, you know what? This doesn’t quite ring true, either.” And as I alluded to, they’re surprised when they find out that Randi does make this stuff up, and that Randi is playing a game on them in the same way that religion is trying to play a game on them.
Robert McLuhan: But doesn’t that exactly reinforce my point? You’re banging your drum here as other people are. We’re making these points and we’re influencing their opinions. We’re helping them to see something that otherwise they might not.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Maybe I was reacting too much to the idea that we shouldn’t be arguing with the skeptics or we shouldn’t be-I think we need to have a certain respect for folks who are willing to engage in the first place on these topics. I think there’s a lot of room to engage with skeptics and to really find a way to talk about these things in a meaningful way. So this idea that we can’t convince a skeptic I think is not a starting point. It’s not a starting point for me and I just move away from that.
Robert McLuhan: I’m interested in this. Do you actually think you could change a skeptic’s mind?
Alex Tsakiris: I think everyone who is a “believer,”-I’m a believer-was once a skeptic.
Robert McLuhan: Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: So I think it’s kind of a tautology, of course. I don’t know if you or I can do it but I think there’s a process they go through. Certainly I don’t want to make it like it’s a-there are plenty of believers who are now skeptics, too. So it goes both ways.
Robert McLuhan: I was thinking more of the skeptic’s spokesman, the psi cop types. They’re not going to be persuaded, are they?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, we’ve both encountered that. We’ve all encountered that and at some point you do have to kind of disengage because it’s stuck in stupid and to carry on with it just puts you in the same mode.
One thing that I guess I’d pull back and ask about the James Randi phenomena, if you will, one of the things it seems to me that he has done–and it’s part of his appeal–are these ruthless attacks, personal attacks, on scientists who really are caught unsuspecting. When I first got into Skeptiko that’s one of the things that motivated me. I felt like it was really an unfair game.
I mean, here’s a guy who brought hard-ball dirty trick-style politics to science. If he gets credit he gets credit for doing that and having that really work. A lot of us really like that hard-ball dirty trick-style, even if we don’t admit we like it. We like it and we kind of admire people who can get ahead by any means.
But he really brought that to science and I think these folks are really caught unsuspecting. I know Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin, some of the people I first talked to and I highly respect, I think they were really unprepared for someone who would have that kind of approach.
Robert McLuhan: Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s always true. I think parapsychologists are shocked and taken aback when the skeptics charge. They can’t really believe that they’d make such extraordinary claims and exaggerations and distortions and so on. But there is an awful lot at stake here.
I mean, there’s a point here about Randi’s Prize I was happy trying to investigate and trying to work out what goes on there, and it suffers from a terrible lack of transparency. You can’t really see what’s going on. Randi just says, “Well, lots of people have applied and nobody’s got past the preliminaries.” Well, what does that really mean? It is a sort of a barrier and it’s very difficult to get past.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So where do you plan to go with the book and with your website as well? How is this going to evolve for you? I know it’s available.
Robert McLuhan: Yeah, it’s all about information. I talked about a lot of the research and I think one of the things that really has been missing from this argument is the data itself. Obviously that doesn’t apply so much to the modern parapsychology, but certainly some of the previous psychic research into ghosts and apparitions and mediums and poltergeists and all these sorts of things. I think it needs to be made more easily accessible, so it’s very important to me to try and move that along.
I’ve been talking to Society of Psychical Research and they’re going to make a lot of their interesting early articles by people like Frederick Myers and Hodgson available on their website for free so that hopefully people will be able to go on and download it. I’ll be providing links on my website. It’s about trying to start a conversation, but also sort of nudging people to check things out for themselves.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about how that’s working out for you on your website, Paranormalia.
Robert McLuhan: I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out but yeah, I find myself writing. I thought it was just going to be little posts and little comments but actually once I started writing, I got quite involved. They tend to be quite long essays, which is why I tend not to write as often as I’d like.
It’s been fascinating, actually, because I get a lot of comments and a lot of regulars turn up. We’ve had some really interesting debates there in the comments. In fact, I thought I might highlight some of them and just read them to see what’s being said. There are a few skeptics show up and very gamely make their points and they tend to get mobbed a bit by the regular visitors, but they stick to their guns. We do have some quite interesting discussions.
But one of the things that comes up there a lot and one of the things the regular visitors complain about when they’re trying to get skeptics’ attention is that the skeptics won’t engage with the research. They’re talking about things like for instance, we’re talking about mediums and we talk about Leonora Piper, and then a skeptic will come back with all sorts of explanations that he thinks we should take seriously.
When you say, “Actually we looked at these explanations and they don’t really stand up next to the data. How will you know unless you read it?” And this is a constant problem. So this is one of the things I want to do is try and make the data more easily accessible so that people really don’t have an excuse for not getting to grips with it.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s a very interesting book, Randi’s Prize, and I certainly wish you the best of luck with it, Robert. Thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Robert McLuhan: Thank you, Alex, I enjoyed it.