Saturday, 23 April 2011

Our dear Mr. Wiseman

Thanks to a Skeptiko podcast about the book "Randi's Prize" by Robert McLuhan (an excellent book), I was made aware of Professor Richard Wiseman's latest effort, "Paranormality". There was some publicity about this book, and there was an exchange about it between McLuhan and Wiseman. This made good sense because Wiseman does run afoul of many of the problems Skeptics create for themselves as identified by McLuhan. The biggest of these is that skeptics either have no working knowledge of parapsychology, even those who profess to be parapsychologists, or they are so deeply in denial about what they know that there is no way to distinguish between that and a true lack of knowledge. This, at least, is the impression I came away with after reading McLuhan's book.

I responded to McLuhan by email because of some things Wiseman had said about precognitive dreams that McLuhan wrote about on his blog. My point was that Wiseman didn't know the subject very well, or he'd be aware, vividly so, that his explanations were completely divorced from reality. Due to this interaction and my growing curiosity about Wiseman's book, I decided to buy a copy when I was next in London, to see if there was anything to it. I had read that Wiseman was an affable man, courtly even, and honest (this last from the librarian at London's Society for Psychical Research), so I wondered if his book could possibly reconcile this reputation for personal integrity with the things he had written.

I was particularly interested in what he would have to say about a series of events involving some experiments by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, designed to test ESP in animals. The reason I was curious is that I had read some material by Wiseman and Sheldrake on the matter and it looked very much as if he had done something dishonest in the test. He might be in the clear as far as making deliberate lies is concerned, but I wanted to be sure, because that is what it looked like. He replicated Sheldrake's experiment, got even better results than Sheldrake did, though with a much smaller sample, and then claimed the opposite. He made a big deal about the failure of those experiments, the idea of animal ESP, and Rupert Sheldrake. He did all this despite his research producing the same kind of results Sheldrake had. Was he lying, dissembling, or in some other way being dishonest with his many readers?

So I got his book and have been going through it carefully. He mentions the Sheldrake incident immediately, but doesn't mention Sheldrake at all in the body of the text. There is a link to Sheldrake all the way at the end of the book in the end notes, but the impression one gets reading Wiseman's account is that Sheldrake wasn't involved (he was), he got negative results (he didn't) and that there was no controversy (there is, though this is acknowledged much later in the book in a section most people will never read.) He was clever how he wrote it though. If one didn't know the back story, it is very easy to accept Wiseman's account as true. As it stands, in a way it is. It is like saying of a plane that it landed and the pilot is eager to get home to be with his family when one means that it has crashed, killing everyone aboard except the captain. Wiseman leaves out so much that I find it difficult to credit him with honesty in the sense that he is far from being forthcoming with his information. It is not the kind of thing one can get away with in most academic writing. This book however, is popular non-fiction, so he is not held to the same standard.

All of this matters little compared to the pervasive sneer he maintains throughout the book. In perhaps its most insidious touch, he writes that a magician's goal is to "...make you misperceive what is happening inches from your nose, prevent you from thinking about certain solutions to tricks, and persuade you to misremember what has happened right in front of your eyes" and then he proceeds to do this very thing in chapter after chapter of his book. He accomplishes this by consistently using positive adjectives to describe skeptics, negative ones for everyone else, avoidance of real-world data on the subjects he discusses, and heavy use of imaginary situations which he then takes apart as if they are a fair representation of the real thing--but they are not. In this way he applies peer-pressure to his readers to gain your confidence, keeps your eyes focused on solutions to the wrong problems to keep you from thinking of the right ones, and then applies this to your own psi experiences (if you've ever had any) as if his explanations should have any currency with you. That he can be so bald as this and get away with it is quite amazing.

My overall impression though, is that for all his accolades, his position, and his many fans, Dr. Richard Wiseman knows very little about parapsychology, is not familiar with the literature, does not understand the literature if he is familiar with some part of it, and has no scruples when it comes to making witticisms at the expense of people who disagree with him or who are, as he sees it, among the vast horde of psychic charlatans. For this reason I find it very difficult to accept characterizations I have read and heard that he is indeed a gentleman. Perhaps one needs to know the man--but then perhaps the man needs to know a bit more as well. As it is, if this book is any indication, he simply hasn't got the qualifications to tackle this subject.



  1. I saw the link to your blog in one of your posts on Skeptiko. I'm glad you put it there,'cause you have an excellent, intelligent piece of work here. I have it bookmarked.

    Also, regarding one of your Skeptiko posts, I look forward to seeing how your paper about Mr. Wiseman's methods is accepted once you submit it "to the kind of journals that normally publish Wiseman's material". Will honest, rational discussion have a fair public hearing? We'll see...good luck :-)

  2. @RabbitDawg: Thanks, I am curious also how it will go. I am hoping that my book will give me enough of a foundation to get something like that published. It wouldn't be a problem in a non-skeptic journal, though some of these parapsychology journals either have higher standards than the ones that let these poorly researched skeptical items in, or they have a better class of researcher writing for them.

    Also thanks for saying you like the blog. I don't get very many comments, so sometimes I've let weeks go by without writing anything. The encouragement helps a lot.

    I really want to write a follow up book to Dreamer, but have to deal with my PhD first.


  3. "I don't get very many comments".

    From what I've seen, the comment section of most blogs is often used to debate and criticize. Looking back at your post history, most of what you have to say is based on personal experience, and would be awkward to attack. You'll know you're hitting the 'Big Time' when you start getting blasted with both barrels.
    Somehow though, I get the feeling that you will be able to handle, probably even relish the opportunity :-)

  4. LOL. Dr. Robert van de Castle (a prominent dream researcher) told me this would happen eventually because of the challenging content in my book, but it probably isn't well-known enough to draw that kind of attention yet.