Sunday, 14 February 2010

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 3

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 3 - Autumn/Winter 1996

James Randi. The Supernatural A-Z: The Truth and the Lies, Headline, London, 1995, £19.99.

James Randi is well known as a sceptic and scourge of the paranormalists. It might therefore be with some trepidation that one would open a book by him purporting to cover the entire field of the ‘Supernatural’. One’s fears would be justified. This is a fat book, covering six hundred and sixty-six topics (cute) ranging in length from a few lines to several pages, but it certainly is not an encyclopaedia, and the subtitle gives away the real intention. Encyclopaedias are supposed to be even handed, whereas Randi is sure which is the truth and which are the lies. Such dogmatism seems more appropriate to a fundamentalist than someone who would have us believe that he is seeking knowledge.

As might be expected, Randi’s book is partial in its coverage, relying heavily on his previous work, and utilises the usual sceptical trick of mixing in all aspects of the allegedly paranormal, whether they be New Age, occult, pseudo-scientific or just plain barking, and making anything remotely scientific seem guilty by association. He lumps all his opponents together as believers, not acknowledging that many of them might prefer to examine the field subject by subject, assigning a level of probability to a particular phenomenon under consideration. They might even agree with many of his verdicts.

Unfortunately his emphasis on gullibility, fraud and delusion consigns all non-sceptics to the dustbin of belief, whatever their motives and however rigorous their examination of the evidence. Even qualified praise can seem mealy-mouthed, as when he says that “Ganzfeld techniques continue to hold promise for parapsychology”. Given the degree of irony throughout the book, and his stated opinion of parapsychology, this verdict seems to be damning with very faint praise indeed.

Some of the entries are selective, and the text is riddled with minor errors. An example of the former is the praise heaped on Sue Blackmore as a sceptic, to the extent that it mentions her affiliation to CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, but fails to record her membership of The Society for Psychical Research, of which until relatively recently she was a Council member. Geller and spoon bending keep cropping up like a tic, reflecting his and Randi’s once litigious relationship. East Anglian readers might be surprised to learn that since the destruction of Borley Rectory, paranormal events are still experienced at nearby “Borley Abbey.” Wiccans will be furious to read that the athame is used “to trace out the magic circle for invoking demons”. One error which could be intentional is the entry for bilocation, the ability to be in two places at once, which is printed twice.

The inadequacy of many of the entries gives this book the feel of a pot-boiler. I would not recommend that anybody buy it at full price, but if it is found remaindered, second-hand, or comes out in paperback, it would be worth acquiring to keep in the bathroom for the frequent amusement, and occasional edification, that it provides.

Black Dog Update

Readers of the last issue of However Improbable may recall that I suggested that supernaturally-derived Black Dogs no longer roam the countryside in the quantities that they were supposed once to have done. Well, I may have been premature in writing them off, because more recently I came across a couple of articles featuring encounters with these big beasts, one very close to home. It seems that they are still on people’s minds, even if as intangible as ever.

The first was in Eva magazine (24th April 1996). Paul Becker of Norwich had a dream in which he was walking through Ipswich town centre (it already sounds like a nightmare to me) when he was terrified by a “huge black dog with red eyes” which leaped on him, its face so close that he could feel its hot breath. Fortunately for Paul it promptly vanished when he woke up, otherwise it might have been a bit of a poser for the coroner. Paul will not be persuaded that he was having a dream, insisting that the dog was real. Further evidence to back him up was provided by his brother Bob two years later. He was telling Bob about the experience, when Bob stopped him, wrote something down, and asked Paul to continue with the story. When Paul had finished, Bob showed him what he had written: It was a description of the very same experience which had happened to a friend of Bob’s! Which supplies the answer to the riddle, “When is a friend-of -a-friend not a friend-of-a-friend?” Answer: “When he’s a pal of your brother’s”.

I also came across an article devoted to black dogs by Mark Chorvinsky in the December 1993 issue of Fate magazine. He acknowledges that black dogs have hitherto been regarded as a British phenomenon, and he discusses the Welsh corpse hound and the Moddey Dhoo of the Isle of Man, but he also looks at black dogs further afield. These include dogs in Polynesia, particularly Hawaii. He mentions a case where huge paw prints had been seen on an atoll, although no dogs had lived on it for centuries.

He also describes a pair of encounters in his home state of Maryland, one in which a gambler reformed after meeting a dog on his way home one night. The other is interesting because, although not a black dog in the sense of the large fierce beasts we have so far been considering, it features either a strange dog inside a house (which is unusual) when the occupant was fully awake, or it parallels Paul Becker’s experience - the details provided by Chorvinsky are tantalisingly unclear. One William Sterling, aged 77, a church official and allegedly a credible witness, was driving his buggy to see his girlfriend (presumably this was not a recent experience) when he met a “little dog”, which was pacing the buggy, running along between the wheels. To get rid of it he had to whip his horse up to outrun it, and when he arrived home it was not present. There is a slight discrepancy here because he was supposed to be going to see his girlfriend, but it does not alter the substance of the story.

On getting ready for bed, he saw the same dog, with red eyes and tongue, sitting at the top of the stairs. Its supernatural origin was made clear when he “picked up a stool right by his bed and threw it at the dog. The dog disappeared.” Getting ready for bed and seeing it at the top of the stairs implies somebody up and about, but if he picked up a stool by the bed, it suggests he was in it, and therefore perhaps had been asleep. That might mean that he had experienced sleep paralysis, which can involve realistic hallucinations (including the sense of something on one’s chest, not unlike Mr Becker’s encounter). If so, it is very interesting that both involved a dog rather than the more usual old hag or vague presence.

Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent. Are You Psychic?: Tests and Games to Measure your Powers. Prion, London, 1996, £5.99.

In the last issue of However Improbable, I reviewed Test Your Psychic Powers, by Sue Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis. Eysenck and Sargent’s book complements it well. TYPP covers more ground, and is concerned to get people think critically and develop their own experiments, but AYP? is more rigorous in the experiments it does describe, and provides fuller statistical tools to enable results to be assessed.

Starting with a short section on what psi is, Eysenck and Sargent go on to discuss the characteristics of a ‘psi star’, and provide several personality questionnaires which might correlate with psychic ability, before launching into the principles of testing people. Exercises are included to try to enhance psi processes, including techniques for relaxation and to enhance creativity.

Tests are graded in terms of difficulty. The easier ones can be used as warm-up exercises, to allow familiarity with the testing situation to develop, or can be used in their own right. The results of the more stringent ones can be viewed with increased confidence. Most of the experiments described do not require specialised equipment, not even Zener cards. Instead packs of ordinary playing cards, dice and magazine pictures or postcards can be used, so that testing is made as easy as possible on a low budget. The book concludes with a series of tests which can be posted to Sargent for a large-scale experiment the authors are conducting.

The few criticisms are minor. This is essentially a reprint of a book first published in the early ‘80s, and some of the references are dated. For example Honorton, mentioned in connection with the Ganzfeld as still being at Princeton, moved to Edinburgh to continue his research at the Koestler Chair until his death in 1992. The use of video clips in the Ganzfeld, which Honorton and his colleagues found gave better results than photographs is not mentioned. Eysenck and Sargent hope that Inglis will publish a successor to Natural and Supernatural, his history of psychical research up to 1914; Inglis published Science and Parascience, bringing the story up to 1939, as long ago as 1984. Targ and Puthoff’s book Mind-Reach is endorsed, although problems have been found in the protocols since its publication. Other minor quibbles are that the authors are perhaps over-impressed by the Victorian medium D.D. Home, some of the pages to which cross-references are made are wrong, presumably as a result of the new edition, and J.B. Rhine did not develop Zener cards (that honour goes to Dr Zener, although the cards were to be used in Rhine’s laboratory). These points do not detract from the value of the book.

AYP? is very reasonably priced, and will provide the basic techniques necessary to test with confidence. The statistical tables and formulae are especially useful. They are accessible to those with no specialised knowledge in this area, and give the experimenter greater precision in analysing their results than similar DIY books. With the usual caveat that those with no knowledge in science or experimentation might find that they get false positive results due to laxities in the set-up, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.


This summer I went with my family on holiday to northern England. Just before we left, my nine-year old daughter learned from her best friend, who lives in our village, that she was going to Scotland to see her grandmother at about the same time.

During a visit to Carlisle, we went into the railway station to see how far we would have to go down the line to cross the Ribblehead Viaduct. While standing at the enquiry point, I became aware that my daughter was talking to another little girl. It was her best friend, with mother and grandmother in tow. The chances of bumping into them so far away from home seemed remote, and we were all somewhat astonished.

Later that week we drove to Dumfries for the day. On our return home from our holiday, the first thing I did was retrieve the goldfish from our next door neighbour. She asked where we had been, and when I mentioned Dumfries she looked surprised and said that she and her husband were going there on holiday the following morning.

The only experience I have had similar to the one in Carlisle was when I was a college student and hitch-hiked to Greece with a friend. We were in Yugoslavia and had been dropped off away from the best route, and were walking to rejoin it. Suddenly we saw a couple standing by the side of the road. Approaching, we found that they were people we knew from our college. They too were hitching to Greece, and had been dropped off just hundreds of yards from us. Again, the chances of meeting them, or indeed anybody that either of us knew, and not even on the main Zagreb-Belgrade road, seemed vanishingly slim.

Given that it was unlikely that any of these episodes had a paranormal component, the inference is that one must be cautious in attributing such an explanation to an occurrence. Very unlikely events can occur just by chance, and however remarkable they seem, they have no significance. Investigators should be careful not to read more into a phenomenon than the situation warrants merely because it is unusual.

If everybody we know is taken into account, and the conditions of meeting are not specified in advance, there is a good chance that at some point we will meet one of them somewhere. If, as it is said, one could stand at Piccadilly Circus and eventually see everybody one knows, why should it be so surprising to meet one of them at Carlisle, or on a road in southern Europe?