71. Michael Schmicker, Best Evidence of PSI

Best Evidence ESP & Psi

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Guest: Michael Schmicker, Author of, Best Evidence: An Investigative Reporter’s Three-Year Quest to Uncover the Best Scientific Evidence for ESP, Psychokinesis, Mental Healing, Ghosts and Poltergeists, Dowsing, Mediums, Near Death Experiences, Reincarnation, and Other Impossible Phenomena That Refuse to Disappear

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Alex:    Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers and critics, I am your host Alex Tsakiris and today we have a great, delightful interview for me with Michael Schmicker the author of a couple of books that I am going to tell you about as we get into the interview – it´s pretty long, I am going to jump right in to it, here it goes.

We are joined today by the author of a couple of very interesting books that we are going to talk about, the first Best Evidence, an investigative reporter´s three year quest to uncover the best scientific evidence for ESP, pyschokinesis, ghosts, poltergeists, dousing, mediums, near death experience, reincarnations and other impossible phenomena that refuse to disappear. Quite a long title but one that really tells what the book is about, the other book we are going to talk about is The Gift, ESP, the extraordinary experiences of ordinary people – a book he co-authored with Doctor Sally Rhine Feather who is the daughter of J.B Rhine the founder of the famous Rhine Research Center at Duke. So if all that is a way of introduction Mike Schmicker welcome to Skeptiko.

Michael:    Thanks very much Alex, I appreciate it, I think it is important people hear about these things, and to think about them.

Alex:    Well great, I am really glad that one you agreed to the interview, and then two that you directed me to your second book The Gift about ESP because it really fits into the topic I want to talk about and also in the email that you sent me I saw that you acknowledged that I had just spoken with Mike Tymn about his book on the spiritualist movement on the turn of the century and I just think the work that you have done fits in really nicely as a bookend to that. The general theme is to dispel this idea that I think I had in my head and a lot of folks had in their head because it just gets repeated over and over again as this kind as skeptical mantra that there is 100 years of nothing that parapsychology has produced, and I guess I have to admit that I, to a certain extent, brought in to that a little bit myself and through your books and through Mike Tymn´s book, and also through a very great book called Extraordinary Knowing I think I have educated myself a little bit and that was really the basis of, what I hope will become the basis of our conversation today.

Michael:    That comment from skeptics regarding 100 years of nothing? — I have to laugh. What we really have is100 years of ignorance and 100 years of intellectual dishonesty from skeptics. Sometimes it’s forgivable ignorance, when someone doesn’t have the time to learn more. Other times it is deliberate. I am constantly stunned  by skeptics who, when they hear that I have done some research in this area, will offer up the “100 years of nothing” comment . I always respond with what I think is a fair question: ‘What have you read?’  I mean,  I wouldn´t dare enter into a discussion with astronomers, and make pronounces about black holes, or the big bang, or anything like that without having read the literature. Yet most skeptics and scientists have read nothing in the field of  parapsychology and scientific anomalies reasearch.. When you make pronouncements based on blatant ignorance, like so may of them do, I consider that deliberate, prideful stupidity.

Alex:    You know Mike I am really glad that you put it that plainly and that bluntly, because I have to say, and I am all for a dialogue with open minded skeptics and people in mainstream science who don’t have the same view as I do, but I really don´t like when we soft pedal the state of affairs. And I think you used two words that are really good there, I mean stunned is really no other way to describe the situation that is going on, and I think also that prideful stupid is another good comment and I would just add to that to the folks that have been on this show, Michael Schermer, James Alcock – two of the people that were regarded very highly within the skeptical community have made just that claim on this show. So just to bring it down to specifics so folks don´t think we are talking in abstract terms about people saying this 100 years of nothing thing, this is a repeated, like I say it is a mantra of the skeptical community and the mainstream science who kind of likes to play that game too, and what I think we can do here, and I hope we can do is may be show how some of the work that you have done, and bring some of this research that´s really been out there, been done by all the right people was very, very highly regarded at the time has never really been refuted and is just as you say, all fallen into the crevices of science history, but for a scholar, for someone who has some kind of scholarly credentials they should be knowledgeable with this stuff – I can plead to being a little bit ignorant of it, but when I look to the folks who are supposed to know I can´t really explain why they don´t know.

Michael:   What I tell people is ‘Look, I didn’t start out in parapsychology, I was a journalist by background, mostly business journalism, along with some investigative journalism, and reporting during the Vietnam war in Asia’ – and the point is this  –when I set out to look at a range of paranormal claims, they’re listed in the subtitle of my book Best Evidence, I spent three years researching — it wasn’t full time, obviously I had other jobs to do, but I read hundreds and hundreds of books and monographs and studies and looked at both sides of things, I read the Skeptical Enquirer along with all the Journal of Parapsychology articles.  My point is this: I don´t mind if you come to me and you say ‘Where is the evidence?’ – That´s a fair question, but if somebody from the scientific field, or a skeptic, comes to me and says ‘There is 100 years of nothing here’ my answer is what I consider a scientifically justifiable retort ‘What´s your basis for saying that? Have you read anything? Do you know who Charles Honorton is? Have you ever heard of the U.S. Government’s Star Gate program? Have you ever heard of the Princeton Engineering and Anomalies Research Laboratory? Do you know anything about Ian Stevenson and his work at the University of Virginia? Do you know anything about the research of Dr. J.B Rhine at Duke University?’ If you look through my book “Best Evidence”, those 285 or so pages, they represent three years of research and summarize hundreds and hundreds of articles and studies. So my only request, my demand, I make to people who want to talk about the paranormal with me – is this: I want to know how much you have read first. I don’t want to be insulted by ignorance. If I tried to talk to an astrophysicist about black holes, in about two minutes he is going to say ‘I am wasting my time, you don´t even know the basics’. Well, the same goes for paranormal research.

Alex:    Well said, and you know what I thought we might do in the little bit of time that we have is compress it down and I want to look at a brief, a relatively brief period in history. I want to look at the end of the William James era, and then I want to look at the beginning of the J.B Rhine era, if you will, eras were the wrong word there, but their work and the reason I want to do so, just like when I spoke with Mike Tymn on the last episode, I have to admit that what was in the back of my mind as someone like you that has come to the parapsychology field not with any preconceived notions, and without a deep scientific background, but I just had this idea in the back of my head that they were really spiritualist at the turn of the century, and they were kind of all fakes, and Houdini kind of debunked it all, and there was nothing real there – and that was just ignorance on my part and I knew that there was probably a mix of some real and some not, but it is only when someone really deconstructs the whole thing that you see what a different picture really emerges from that. So here is where I thought we might pick it up, let´s start with William James, and I think what I didn´t know and I think a lot of folks didn’t know is they think of William James and they know that he had some influential writings on the intersection of science and spirituality, but I think what a lot of people don´t know is what a leading, huge figure he was of his tome and still is a main pillar in the field of psychology, so can we start may be at the very end of his life and when he had brought together a tremendous amount of interest in parapsychology and what the stage was like at that point?

Michael:    First of all, I think that James was interesting as a scientist because he had an open mind. One of the things which opened  James up to parapsychology and the “paranormal” was that he found a medium he called his “white crow”, and her name was Leonora Piper. What he meant by that was that the easiest way to prove all crows are not black is to find one white crow. Likewise,, the easiest way to prove that the paranormal exists is to prove the existence of one paranormal phenomenon. From that point on you are trying to understand it; you’ve moved beyond the question of if it exists. He and the intellectual giants of that period realized that science had gotten itself into a box, a dead-end box, Science rejected  miracles –religious, supernatural explanations – in favor of  “natural” explanations . But a” natural” explanation depends on how you define reality, what is the world made of and how it operates. And unfortunately during James’ time, science, instead of letting evidence be the final determiner of what is real, made an unproven, unfalsifiable philosophy the standard of what is real– the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is not science, it´s a philosophy. And what James was trying to do, was trying to say, is: ‘Look, maybe reality is more than Newtoniam mechanics and crude matter. I think that was his genius, and I think that is what we are coming back around to in the 21st century, particularly with reality being redefined by quantum physics. So one thing was he tried to bridge a gap, he tried to get science out of a dead-end unsuccessfully.

When we go on to J.B Rhine´s era, Rhine tried to work within the current philosophy of science at that time, which required laboratory experiments to prove the reality of something. We know that  reality can’t  always be captured or contained by laboratory conditions, but he was smart enough to say ‘Look, if we are going to gain any ground with the scientific establishment, we have to accept their rules’ and that´s what he did, he tested ESP in the  laboratory, using their own rules and scientific protocolsl. And he did deminstrate that ESP is real under the rules of the game which science set. I think that was his great contribution to parapsychology. Unfortunately, focusing only on aboratory testing of ESP  is ultimately a dead-end, ESP happens outside the laboratory. That’s where we should be examining it – how it works in real life. Even parapsychology as a concept is a dead-end. ESP is not parapsychology; it’s simply psychology. We are not talking about something paranormal, we are talking about something normal.

Alex:        Right, you know what I think I am totally with you on that, but I am going to bring you back here for a minute, and I want to narrow or focus on a couple of things in particular you were just talking about with J.B Rhine – because one of the things I have found on Skeptiko in my dialogues with skeptic, which in the most part has been great, and has been a real give and take, and the one thing I hear from skeptics is ‘Show me the evidence’, and a lot of times, like we may be just ranted about at the beginning, they might not be as aware of the evidence, and they might not have done their work on the side of that equation of show me the evidence, but I want to honor that ‘Show me the evidence’ and I want to go back and narrow the focus on some of J.B Rhine´s work, and the part I would add that I´ve found interesting about the William James biography is he has really got things going in his direction when at the time that he is passing, I mean he writes the principles of psychology in 1890, and that is it – everyone is at his feet, he is the guy, and he gets the American Society for Physical Research, and he has absolutely the cream of the crop of intellectuals at the time and he is getting the standing ovations, and everyone is listening to him, and there are the centers, but then as so often happens when he dies it kind of gets past and it gets past to Freud, and then it gets past to B.F Skinner who is a behaviorist, and is also at Harvard, and now the world has changed again, and everyone rocks back into that comfort of materialism that you just talked about. What I thought was interesting about Rhine when I read up on him is he starts out as a debunker, he starts out as a skeptic, and his first contribution, real contribution that gets, McDougal, even gets his attention, is that he finds this very famous medium in Boston, Marjory and goes for a séance and goes and sits down and say ‘I don´t think she is real, and I think if you apply careful science standards to evaluating her she doesn’t pass the test’.

Michael:    Rhine was wrestling obviously with the life after death question, and that is the 800 lb gorilla in the room today.

Alex:    Absolutely right.

Michael:    That really lies at the heart of the debate over the paranormal – some of these  phenomena suggest there is survival of consciousness, that we are not just coarse physical matter, and religion and science have battled about this from the beginning. Rhine originally had heard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speak about Spiritualism and mediums, but when he went to the Marjory Crandon séance he realized there were many ways mediums could commit fraud, so the best thing is to start with something less controversial, ESP, to test this claim in the   laboratory. In terms of laboratory ESP experiments, a couple stand out from an evidence point of view. They are described in Rhine´s books, so anybody who is looking for the reports can look at them. Among the best were the Pierce-Pratt series of ESP tests…

Alex:    Right, Mike would you take a few minutes and really take us through those? because I think it is fascinating stuff, and again, back to the point of you want evidence, let´s take one little piece there – because it is pretty compelling work I think.

Michael:    I don´t have all the details in front of me, but basically Rhine had identified two individuals at the Duke University Campus. He separated them in two different buildings and he had them do card tests – somebody would flip over a card in one room and the other person in a room 100 yards away, would write down what he thought that card was. Afterwards Rhine used statistics, which Science accepts,to see if chance was the explanation for their success. And the two subjects in the Pierce-Pratt series did have tremendous success…

Alex:    I actually have the figures right in front of me Mike, and yes the success was unbelievable and they did almost 2,000 trials and he scored above chance 20 billion to 1, and at one point he got 25 in a row correct, something like a trillion to one against chance, or some unbelievable number.

Michael:   If you accept the rules of the game that science put out, and Rhine did, you have to do many, many tests – one round of successes could simply be an anomaly, that would never happen again. Science requires repeatability in laboratory experiments and what Rhine did was continually do this ESP testing for over several decades.  His goal was to build up enough evidence that under accepted science rules would rule out chance, luck, as an explanation of the results. I think that clearly by 1940 he had. Each time a skeptic came back and said, ‘You know, there may be sensory leakage here, you know maybe you inadventently cued the person being tested for ESP,  maybe he heard something, or may be he saw something, or may be he peaked, or may be the cards were not random, or may be…’ — you know you can raise a million questions about the design of  an  experiment, and what Rhine did, to his credit, for 20 or 30 years he continually refined and tightened the protocols – the scientific rules on how to conduct an experiment. And in the end he established its existence. I believe most honest, fair viewers of the evidence would agree. I think that was his gift to scientific anomalies research  — he used their rules and played their game.. After Rhine came a new set of ESP tests which were probably more important, the Charles Honorton tests; do you want me to go over them?

Alex:    Yes please let´s go over this, the only thing I was going to add about the Pierce-Pratt experiments and all the skeptical criticism that came, and the tightening of the protocols – I have experienced some of that in the little experiment that we´ve got into with the medium work that we have done, and I just think so much of the criticism is complete nonsense and I think that we´ve done this other side, the parapsychology, the sci-side it really hasn´t done as good a job as they can in doing the PR work to say ‘If you believe these other things exist then show how they exist’ – and I think show how the sensory leakage could happen conceivably in that way – because what I see a lot from the skeptics when you talk about it, and I have never been a big fan of, originally and I guess that´s my motivation for this show, is I always saw the J.B Rhine work, because he did take normal people, he wasn´t looking for the white crow, which I find more compelling and because he had taken the soul out of it – you mentioned just a minute ago and I agreed with you that continuation of consciousness is really the issue and all these other issues are kind of side shows, so I think I was always rather dismissive of this research and that´s why I want to bring it on the forefront, because when I dug into it I saw something different – I saw a guy who had come out of a long exposure, and a lot of frustration with this spiritualism and the consciousness continuation, and said no let´s take it down and let´s make it really airtight laboratory, and what I see is when he did he got darn good results, he got great results and he just was fighting against such a tide of criticism and I don´t see how any of the criticism, some of it, but the wide majority, the vast majority of the criticism was really unwarranted and just wasn´t done in the way that scientific criticism is normally done, where someone says ‘Gee, that´s great, let´s see if it really works, let´s roll up our sleeves and work together and see if we can do it’ – what I saw was a lot of debunking, which is so typical of the materialistic skeptical kind of side that says ‘Hey, let me find anything I can to throw at this to cast some doubt on it so I can be dismissive of it’.

Michael:    Well I think that´s a great point Alex. ‘It´s not enough to say theoretically something happened, some cheating or problem happened.  Show me the evidence it did. Otherwise it gets ridiculous.  “Maybe Rhine deliberately lied about his results”, or “maybe  the test subject lied,” or “maybe the tests results were manipulated,” or “maybe Pratt snuck into the laboratory in the middle of the night and fixed the cards, or arranged a peep hole, or had an accomplice outside,” and on and on. .If this type of extreme skepticism were ever applied to the thousands of research results produced by universities in other scientific fields, modern research it would grind to a halt.

Alex:    Exactly

Michael:    You get to the point where you say ‘Please, stop’ — if you have some evidence bring it out, but let´s not be ridiculous. The worst of Rhine´s critics were that way. The best, the honest ones, simply said ‘Tighten your protocols up’ and they helped Rhine produce better science. But to get back to the Charles Honorton tests, Ray Hyman is a leading skeptic, fairly honest, a member of CSICOP, the debunkers association now called CSI, but he’s relatively open-minded and he and Charles Honorton created an airtight series of protocols to test ESP, and Hyman said ‘If you do your ESP tests under these rules and you get positive results then you have got something’  And that is exactly what happened. They’re called the Hyman-Honorton tests and if you look them up on the web, or in any parapsychology books. You had a leading skeptic saying `I am going to tell you how to test for ESP` and then Charles Honorton responding `If I do it this way, and this is as tight as you can make it, and I get positive results will you say that chance is not an explanation for ESP?` and he agreed. And in the end Hyman had to admit that chance can´t explain what happened.  Those tests were extremely important in terms of evidence. They built on Rhine´s research because the protocols were exceptionally good.

Alex:    Right, and I think there is two things about that, because one of the things I always hear skeptics say is ‘Yes, but as we tighten the protocol the effect size got smaller and smaller, and that therefore there is some sign of trend to it not being any real effect, but some kind of statistical anomaly’ – and I think that to me is just another version of the same story of ‘Well then you have to prove that’, and I think also Dean Radin in his book summarizes that quite nicely and does some new statistical analysis.

Michael:    Oh yes, he´s excellent, all his books are excellent.

Alex:    And shows that when you have the millions and millions of trials that you do at this point if you take anyone´s data you still have a hugely significant result, but I think that also waters down the effect that some of this earlier research that we really can´t dismiss out of hand just because there was this supposed claim that could be made that there could potentially be some sensory leakage – so I think that is actually really probably much better than it is normally reported, because I think we keep taking this fallback position and accepting all the skeptical challenges and saying ‘Ok, we will throw this out, throw this out, throw this out’ – and we wind up with still a very solid case but then they are like ‘Oh yes, but look your effect size is going down further and further as you go’.

Michael:    I think at a certain point it’s not worth trying to convince skeptics, Alex. I don´t think you will convince a scientist with the will not to believe. You will never, ever convince diehard skeptics — debunkers I would call them; you just have to wait for them to die off . And that is why I think the movement has moved away from Rhine´s tests and Honorton´s tests, and laboratory stuff like that. People are moving into consciousness research — that is going to be the next big area of study. Researchers are saying to diehard debunkers, ‘Sorry, see you later, we are going to move on.’ I agree with this; I just don´t think it is worth continuing a discussion. If what we have at this point in terms of evidence can´t convinc3e you there is something anomalous there then, I´m sorry, we’re moving on.

Alex:    You know I completely understand your point Mike, I take a slightly different tact and that is that I agree with you the entrenched, closed minded skeptics are not going to wake up tomorrow and see the light anymore than fundamentalists, religious people be them Christian, or Islamic or whatever are going to turn back on their doctrine… we just had an interesting show with Christina science writer about that and reached the same point – that is human nature. The point I guess see slightly differently is I think we need to hold science accountable, science is a method it is not a position, and this position of materialism that is becoming to dominate and is totally closed to looking at the evidence, I think we really need to put those people on the spot and I think the only way to do that is with new research that keeps pushing the boundaries and keeps hammering at these taboo topics, and really puts them right out in there face, and in that respect I think ESP research, although it is not the most compelling to me and it doesn´t really get my motor going, I’m all for that as long as you realize that what you are really doing is trying to put it in the face of all the people who, in the scientific community, refuse to even accept the methods of science and are corrupting the process by not doing that.

Michael:   I am happy to let history decide who is right, I am very, very confident that history is going to show that all of the paranormal phenomena I cover in “Best Evidence” are real. They may be quirky, they may be unpredictable, they may not be controllable or always repeatable in the lab, but they are real; and eventually we will accept them as real.  But can I add something?

Alex:    Certainly, yes.

Michael:  Besides that 100 years of ignorance on the part of skeptics, I think there has also been 100 years of intellectual dishonesty — intellectual dishonesty by established science as well as intellectual dishonesty by individual skeptics. Point one: I think it is intellectually dishonest to insist that a repeatable lab experiment is gthe only definition of reality.  Life exists outside the laboratory, reality exists outside the laboratory.   Point  two: it’s intellectually dishonest to automatically brand  “paranormal phenomena as extraordinary., Who decides what is extraordinary? On what basis? It’s only extraordinary if like most scientists you believe in materialism, —  but that’s not science, that’s philosophy. ? I don´t think that claiming a poltergeist exists is anymore extraordinary than claiming meteors exist. I don´t think you need extraordinary proof for ESP or poltergeists, you just need solid proof..

Alex:    I would just interject one point, I totally agree with you in the other part of that extraordinary that strikes me is let´s measure that from common accepted experience that people report, and I think you would then have to really support that claim that it is extraordinary – take near death experience where our best scientific evidence suggests that 10 – 15% of people who suffer a heart attack are experiencing that and extrapolate that over the world´s population and you have millions and millions of people who have had this experience. The extraordinary claim is to claim that they are not experiencing this, and it is the same with the poltergeist.

Michael:    Exactly, I just think it is intellectually dishonest to call these things extraordinary, they are not – they may be quirky, they may be unpredictable, they may happen only 15% of the time. But if only 15% of people report diabetes. we don´t doubt the existence of diabetes. Now for one more instance of intellectually dishonesty — the use of Occam’s razor by skeptics.  You are familiar with it, right? The simplest explanation is probably the right explanation. Well, it cuts both ways, If a million people report a ghost, Occam’s razor says that ghosts probably exist. Same with survival of consciousness, life after death.  Based on the evidence we have —  ghosts, death bed visions, near death experiences, good mediumship cases, the  historical reports we have from all cultures and times – Occam’s razor says consciousness does survive death. We don´t know all the details, the evidence doesn´t exclusively support any specific religion or theology, but I think that the survival of consciousness, given Occam’s razor, if you look at all the data, yes we survive. What we don´t know is for how long, or in what state.  But let me finish my point about intellectual dishonesty. The dishonesty of individual skeptics. . I don´t know if you are familiar with a website call skepticalinvestigations.org, They do a job on the Amazing Randi. People put Randi up as an honest skeptic, but you read Skeptical Investigations’ expose of  him and you cringe — the intellectual dishonesty is stunning.

Alex:    No, I think it is well deserved, and particularly the point of Occam’s razor and parsimony, and certainly we don´t want to resort to parsimony as our only explanation, and a lot of people will point out that´s what is really holding back the continuation of consciousness, moving forward is an underlined theory, but as you point out at some point you have to deal with the evidence and say ‘We don´t have a theory for this explanation, but when we look at the data it is really the only reasonable explanation that we have’ – and I particularly see that in the near death experience research which probably has the tightest scientific backing to support the claim that this is an experience that is really happening, and that it is really happening during this period, that is shouldn´t be happening if the materialistic view of the brain mind union is really correct. We really have no reason to not accept that consciousness somehow, in some way we don´t fully understand, survives our bodily death.

Michael:    I don´t think the near death experience alone proves the case for the survival of conscious but it certainly, as Ian Stevenson would say, is suggestive of it.  And I think collectively if you look at out-of-body experiences and the data on that; if you look at deathbed visions, and the data on that; if you look at the mediumship of Eileen Garrett and other credible mediums, — when you look at all these streams oif evidence, then under the most parsimonious view of this thing, based on the evidence, you have to say that consciousness has the ability to operate outside the boundaries of space and time. Is it proven? No, but if I were a betting man and I looked at all the evidence, I would bet it does survive.

Alex:    I would too, and I´d bet on the fact that we sure as heck need a lot more research and there really is no way to explain how there is this gap, how there is this gap between the public interest and the science that is supposed to serve that public and the only way to explain that gap is this paradigm that we have got ourselves into, and we have created this taboo that really doesn´t make any sense when you pull the sheet back and say ‘Why?, Why again are we so afraid to address these fundamental issues that everyone really cares about from the moment they have any intellectual power at all?’ – It´s among the first questions they ask ‘Hey, what happens to me after I die?’ and ‘Where was I before I was born?’ The fact that we can dodge these fundamental questions is again to use your word at the beginning, it´s stunning.

Michael:   I am a big fan of science. It has produced great benefits for humanity.  The problem is when science spouts philosophy instead of evidence. Really, who is fighting here? It’s atheistic scientists and fundamentalist religious believers. The rest of us are left out in the cold. I say follow the evidence. Don’t give me your atheistic belief or your religious belief. Just give me evidence, evaluated fairly and objectively, without prejudice or philosophy.

Alex:    Well Mike, may be that is the perfect way to end it then, because that is something we say repeatedly on this show is follow the data, follow the evidence, and you even have the book titles for it, The Best Evidence, so that´s well done on your part. Thanks so much for joining us today, and I hope that we can call on you again in the future and may be continue this conversation because I think there are so many other things we can talk about.

Michael:    No problem Alex, and thanks so much for having me on

Alex:    Thanks again to Mike for joining me today, if you would like more information about his book visit the Skeptiko website where we have a link and the show notes, that´s www.skeptiko.com – there you will also find links to all our previous shows, as well as an email link to me, a link to our forums, and a couple of other things you might find interesting, so check it out. So that is going to about do it for today, take care and until next time bye for now.