Parapsychology and the Skeptics: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP. By Chris Carter (Sterlinghouse Publisher, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA, 2007). 218 pp, index incl. + forward (by Rupert Sheldrake) and Introduction
Reviewed by Paul H. Smith, Ph.D.
There are many books supporting and explaining extra-sensory perception (ESP). And there are a goodly number written to debunk ESP. But there are almost none to debunk the debunking of ESP. Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and Skeptics is one of those rare ones that exist exclusively to take on the skeptics of ESP. To the great fortune of those of us interested in ESP in general and remote viewing in particular, the book also does a pretty good job of what it was written to do.
The book sets the tone early with philosopher David Hume. Hume’s venerable argument against miracles goes something like this: nature is such that it is infinitely more likely that someone making a claim for a miracle violating natural law is either a fraud or seriously misled, than that a real miracle could possibly happen. By replacing “miracles” with “anomalous phenomena,” Carter shows us that in spirit, if not literally, Hume was the father of modern ESP skeptics. As Parapsychology and Skeptics unfolds, we are treated to a short history of how we got where we are in terms of skepticism and debunkers, followed by a brief survey of important skeptics – from the reasonable and fair minded, such as the late Marcello Truzzi (a friendly advisor to IRVA before his passing a few years ago) to the irascible, such as James Randi.
Along the way we get an accounting of the biased-tinged history of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP – recently renamed “Committee for Skeptical Inquiry” – because, after all, CSICOP almost never investigated anything, as Carter points out). Included in this is a useful discussion of the early Gauquelin scandal, where CSICOP’s one major investigation of paranormal claims (the so-called “Mars Effect”) actually confirmed the paranormal claim being made, a fact which they quickly covered up and then were caught lying about.
The three-chapter introductory section is rounded out by an overview of the historical evidence for ESP. In the last few paragraphs we find a discussion of the distinction between anecdotal and experimental evidence. Including this was a nice touch, though it could have done with being a bit more thorough in explaining why the difference matters, as this is often a point that lay persons get hung up on.
The remainder of the book is divided into three sections. The first deals with the evidence for psi – both ESP and psychokinesis (PK), beginning with an early history of psi research, including a mention of the 1882 founding of the Society for Psychical Research but focusing mostly on J.B. Rhine’s breakthrough work. This is not just an historical account. Carter also introduces some of the hot-button issues associated with parapsychological research and how some of them were resolved, as well as controversies that still come up in skeptic-vs.-ESP debates. Short chapters on psychokinesis and telepathy follow, and then a longer one on the Ganzfeld research (considered by many the best scientific evidence for psi) and the skeptical attacks on it. This material is of particular value for those interested in remote viewing, not only because the Ganzfeld protocol is the closest discussed in the book to remote viewing research, but because many in the RV community are unfamiliar with the way the skeptics assaulted the Ganzfeld research, yet many of the same debunking strategies have been – and still often are – applied to remote viewing as well.
This first section culminates in Chapter 8, an examination of the research done by skeptics on psi phenomena (especially ESP). Here there is not much to choose from, since few such doubters have ever undertaken such research. Carter focuses on the two most prominent ones – Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman. (Wiseman recently did a remote viewing outbounder experiment using the online networking tool “Twitter” as a communications medium. See IRVA’s statement on Wiseman’s experiment here: http://www.irva.org/news/20090607-twitterex.html )
Ironically, Carter’s investigation uncovered the fact that both Blackmore’s and Wiseman’s research has on occasion demonstrated a psi effect, yet they fail to acknowledge it. This chapter closes with a short but pithy treatment of James “the Amazing” Randi and the widely touted million-dollar prize he promises to award to anyone demonstrating a real psychic effect. Carter cites instances where Randi side-stepped testing a claim when it looked like such a claim might succeed.
Section 2 of Parapsychology and the Skeptics explores the question of whether the fact of psi’s existence would really present a contradiction to modern science. His main thesis ties in with that of other notable parapsychologists such as Dean Radin and Ed May, that ultimately a physical explanation – usually involving the nether reaches of quantum mechanics – will eventually unite psi theory with the rest of science. I myself am growing increasingly dubious that this will turn out to be the real answer to psi comes from, but be that as it may, Carter does a handy job of exploring the issues, discussing the research and theory-base that grounds the quantum-psi viewpoint, and laying out for the non-specialist a reasonably clear and comprehensible account. In the process, he helpfully entertains various questions, such as what consciousness is, how mind-body interaction might be explained, and whether we can have free will if precognition is real.
The final section of the book argues the question of whether parapsychology should count as a science. Carter juxtaposes the philosophy of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn to show first that science isn’t nearly as rigidly defined and delineated as members of the public and actual scientists alike often mistakenly believe. The argument then proceeds to demonstrate that, according to the theory-generation and falsification standards advocated by Popper (which are widely accepted as hallmarks of true science), parapsychology meets that criteria. It therefore should count as a science, and therefore is excluded from the circle of legitimate science only by the biases of those in authority – presumably because they feel threatened by its implications for their own pet theories or world views.
Parapsychology and Skeptics closes with a return to Hume’s dictum about the impossibility of miracles, refuting Hume’s argument by showing the philosopher based his position on a now-antiquated notion of what science is really like.
For those interested in remote viewing, there is one main failing in the book – Carter does not even mention RV research in his discussion. Since RV has often been described as a major revolution in parapsychology research, its absence among these pages seems a little surprising. I can only suspect that because so much of the RV research was done behind the wall of government secrecy, only recently to see the light of day, Carter may have felt there was too little hard research to go on – or that what was available was too controversial.
Regardless, the book is still valuable for us in the remote viewing community, whether to learn more about these issues ourselves, to become better armed when confronting skeptics. Or maybe even to pass on to our skeptical friends themselves to help them with their education.
Click here for a review of the updated version of this book, titled Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics.