Monday, 25 April 2011

Why skeptics aren't worth the effort

When I first started reading Paranormality by Richard Wiseman, it was because of some comments made about it by Robert McLuhan in his blog, and then later in his book Randi's Prize. My original goal was to discover what McLuhan was talking about, but after I started reading, I very much wanted to respond to it directly with an article written for publication. Before I go too far into this subject, I would like readers to know that of the two books, Randi's Prize is far superior to Wiseman's offering, against any literary or academic criteria you should care to measure it. I do not say this lightly, or without reading both books thoroughly from cover to cover.

The reason I wanted to respond to Wiseman so strongly is that he is so wrong, so deceptive, and so ungallant that he needed to have his nose pulled. Quite frankly, that is what it came down to. One can only read so much deception and ignorance before wanting to apply some form of corrective measure. One could say that perhaps Wiseman simply doesn't know the subject very well, but if that is the case, why does he write about it so often? Indeed, why is he considered to be an expert in the field when his profound ignorance of source material shines forth like a full moon? More than that, why does he have a reputation for charm when this book is loaded with ungallant innuendo and low class character smears against people he cannot know much, if anything, about?

As I wrote earlier, I was inspired to write an article about this book for publication. However, I have decided to do something else instead. The reason is that Wiseman has already been fairly assessed in print by Chris Carter, Robert McLuhan, Rupert Sheldrake, and others. Instead, I will write a report based on one or more of my precognitive dreams or OBEs that should be sufficient in itself to put to the lie several claims made by Wiseman.

It is a bit difficult to let it go at that however, so for those who are curious, here are some comments about Paranomality:

This book has 7 official chapters, but ten major sections that could be called "chapters". Each follows a very similar pattern where Wiseman describes a type of paranormal phenomena, such as an out of body experience (OBE), ghosts, or prophecy. He then usually describes a real case. In the section on OBEs, he describes the "Maria's tennis shoe" case. After this, he creates an imaginary case that is supposed to reflect the attributes of a real example, except it doesn't, and besides, he has a real example sitting right there, untouched. If he does go back to the real example, and he doesn't do this much, it is to attack it with irrelevant or exceedingly weak justification. For the tennis shoe example, he describes how a couple of students went to the scene and came up with their own theories, none of which were relevant to the actual case. Michael Prescott does an excellent job of describing their pathetic effort here, on his blog.

In his chapter on what he calls "fortune-telling", but which includes various forms of clairvoyance, he relies entirely on the word of an anonymous source who is a self-confessed fraud. Because of this, Wiseman avoids discussing even one genuinely important case, such as the 20 year-long investigation of Leonora Piper by the Society for Psychical Research, and instead discusses cases known to be fraudulent. He doesn't even try to do the difficult work of looking at cases that have standing, or, as in the Maria's tennis shoes example, he relies on the flimsiest claims as justification for dismissing the case entirely.

Overall, it is clear that Wiseman either knows absolutely nothing about the history of parapsychology and its major cases, or that he is committed to deceiving his audience by misrepresenting parapsychology through calculated omission of material information.

I wondered while reading if he would ever break this pattern, but not once did he do so. He would introduce a topic, reference a single case that is an easy target because it either is unrelated to the subject, actually is admittedly fraudulent, or has been "proven" to be a fraud (however flimsy that proof might be) and then he goes on to discuss completely unrelated matters. In this way Wiseman consistently mistakes "magic tricks" for "paranormal", or, in more modern parlance, "psi". In other words, he cannot tell the difference between a magic trick and genuine psi. It may be that he hasn't tried very hard to detect such differences, or it could be that he is congenitally blinded to them. Either way, this single defect of his makes it possible to confuse clairvoyance with fortune-telling, an OBE with phantom limb sensations, and precognitive dreams with massive imaginary lotteries. These kinds of misunderstandings are fundamental to his inability to speak on this subject intelligently or with any authority.

He actually has a chapter entitled "Ghost-Hunting" that doesn't reference the word "poltergeist" once. He does talk about the famous Fox sisters, famous for being the inspiration for what became known as Spiritualism, but he doesn't describe any of the related events as possessing characteristics common to poltergeists. What the Fox sisters experienced was a classic, though extremely mild, example of poltergeist activity, yet Wiseman doesn't mention this at all, nor does he reference it anywhere else in his book. In a chapter on ghosts, this is an extremely serious omission. To dispense with the Fox sisters, he accepts that, after years of poverty Margaretta Fox was paid $1,500 (a considerable sum at the turn of the century) to confess and did so honestly. She later recanted, but to Wiseman this testimony purchased from a needy woman is all it takes to destroy everything that preceded it. As a scientist, he ought to know that at worst this might have suggested to him using a different example.

When I got to the chapter on precognitive dreams I was really hoping that Wiseman would have by then improved his method. It is the last chapter of the book, and the subject I know the most about, so I had been looking forward to it. Unfortunately, Wiseman proved to be every bit as incompetent here as elsewhere. I was, however, very impressed with how skillfully he hid his various inadequacies and lack of knowledge by the use of what might be called conjurer's tricks in writing. He would start to talk about something real as if he would carry the discussion to some sort of conclusion. Then, he would bring up some completely imaginary scenario that has nothing to do with the thing he started talking about and then he would move on as if his imagined scenario answered questions raised by the real case.

Another trick he used was to dismiss things without discussing them at all, as if he'd already dealt with the issue. A case in point is the Lindbergh kidnapping from the 1930's. Wiseman describes this episode, then tells of a newspaper appeal for precognitive dreams. This yields 1,300 responses. Of these, Wiseman notes that:
Only about 5 per cent of the responses suggested that the baby was dead, and only 4 of the responses mentioned that he was buried in a grave near some trees. In addition, none of them mentioned the ladder, extortion notes or ransom money.
After this statement, he concludes that precognitive dreams are not paranormal and then goes on to discuss other topics. He doesn't discuss even one of the four dreams that described where the dead baby was to be found, or any of the approximately 62 dreams that correctly stated that it was dead. Even if none of these dreams mentioned none of the three items Wiseman mentions, there is no rule that they would have to, nor is it clear from his statement that they didn't say anything else that was also correct, even if not on Wiseman's list.

He did the exact same thing when discussing dreams related to the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966. For this famous case, Wiseman chopped it into three sections spaced throughout the chapter. First, he describes the disaster and then the newspaper appeal for dreams related to it. From this request, 60 responses are sent in, 36 of which did not record the dream prior to the event. Wiseman then ignores the remaining 24 for a few pages while he allows readers to imagine that the first group of 36 have been dealt with. When he does get back to the 24 who put their dream in writing beforehand, or mentioned it to one or more witnesses, he has this to say:
But what of the other 23 cases in which people produced evidence that they had described their dream before the tragedy occurred, and where the dream did not seem to reflect their anxieties and concerns. To investigate, we need to move away from the science of sleep and into the heady world of statistics.
From here Wiseman talks about big numbers, odds and probability theory. He never discusses any of the facts related to those 24 dreams or the validity of their verifications. Every time Wiseman pulls this trick in the book, mentioning a subject then spinning around to discuss something else as if one is an explanation for the other, he never goes back to discuss any of the details of the case. They are plainly irrelevant to Wiseman. He has a theory to explain every one of the imaginary examples he creates, and he somehow has persuaded himself to believe that these imaginary examples are fair representations of the real examples he has at his disposal but doesn't use. It is like saying that houses collapse and so do pies, so when a pie is baked in an oven and the door opens, the building collapses. This is how bad his connections are. It is stunning that the man is taken seriously by anyone, and should be an embarrassment to any journal that publishes his work.

I looked up the original case history of the dreams related to this disaster, curious to see what Wiseman had left out. The first thing I noticed is this(Barker, 1967): "Out of the 76 letters I received, 60 required further investigation", but Wiseman states on pg 273 that "he received 60 letters". This contrasts with Barker's account. It is a small mistake, but he makes much larger ones elsewhere. The point is, how easy is it to fact-check something like this? Couldn't he have rewritten the sentence so that it would be true? Barker then provides a table of the 36 respondents he found to be the most credible, including information about the amount of time between the dream and the disaster, who confirmed the dream, the name and age of the witness, and a synopsis of the dream. In three examples, he provided longer accounts. There is a good deal of information here that Wiseman totally ignores, including this, for instance:
Case I. E.M.J., aged 10, was a pupil of Pantglas School and one of the victims of the Aberfan disaster. This tragic story was compiled by a local minister. It was then carefully read through by both parents and signed as correct in his presence.
'She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother..."Mummy, I'm not afraid to die." Her mother replied, "Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?" "No", she said, "But I shall be with Peter and June" (schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother, "Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night." Her mother answered gently, "Darling, I've no time now. Tell me again later." The child replied "No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!" The next day off to school went her daughter as happy as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other."
This kind of thing is easy enough for Wiseman to gloss over by talking about 45 million people in Britain available to have this dream, and that by chance it was this girl who happened also to have been buried in coal slurry along with almost every other person in the school, and just a day after her dream. Easy enough to dismiss also, the account of another woman who dreamed of one of the few people to be rescued from the disaster, a young boy, only to see that come to pass as well. These details are conspicuously absent from this book. For this reason and no other the book may fairly be deemed worthless. However, Wiseman goes a step farther.

Along with his lack of research, lack of knowledge, and lack of coherent examples, Wiseman frequently attempts to exercise wit. It is grating to read whenever he makes the attempt, and sometimes comes across as not just ghoulish, but quite undignified and crass. Here are some examples:

When each patient looked like they were just about to pop their clogs...
Baraduc's wife became seriously ill and clearly did not have long to live. Eager to make the most of the opportunity, Baraduc set up his photographic equipment and patiently waited for her to shuffle off her mortal coil.
Baraduc did what any loving father and dedicated scientist would have done--he snapped a picture of his son's lifeless body lying in its coffin...

It may be that the people Wiseman thus described were just as misguided and strange as he described them, but must he describe them so disrespectfully when it does nothing for the book, cannot be known for fact, and is clearly done out of his own sense of smug whimsy? This is another of the constants in the book: Wiseman consistently uses pejorative adjectives to describe people he does not respect, and positive adjectives for those he does respect. Why does he feel compelled to add these sarcastic jabs when a simple description of the goings-on should suffice to inform the reader? This is where Wiseman descends from being simply an incompetent to being a crass incompetent.



  1. interesting... thx for the details, Andy.


  2. Mr. P:

    I heard you on Skeptiko and read your book (after having bought it!). Needless to say, it was very provocative and easy to read. I've had some, for lack of a better phrase, psychic experiences ... sometimes in a dream and other times in waking moments ... but nowhere near as consistent or dramatic as yours ... but significant enough for me to never be as dense/resistant/obtuse as Wiseman. I think as has been said before, Wiseman is the type who wouldn't believe certain things even if those things are true.


  3. @Mobius:
    Agreed. What bothers me about Wiseman isn't the opinion he has, but what comes across as disingenuousness. Almost all of my friends are skeptics, but I have a hard time imagining any of them saying the kinds of things Wiseman does with a straight face. They know the limits of their knowledge.