Monday, 2 September 2013

Extra Sensory: The Science and Pseudoscience of Telepathy and Other Powers of the Mind, by Brian Clegg

Reading Brian Clegg’s book I felt there was some sleight of hand going on.  He poses as a true sceptic rather than a pseudo-sceptic, the latter being the sort that won’t look at the evidence because it’s all nonsense, but it is obvious on which side of the fence he is going to come down; the reference to pseudoscience in the subtitle gives the game away.  Yet because his stance is that of the disinterested investigator willing to examine the issue from all sides, stressing repeatedly that psychic abilities should not be dismissed out of hand, his verdict is supposed to carry more weight than if he had adopted a partisan standpoint from the outset.  Unfortunately, one of his major criticisms of parapsychologists is cherry-picking, choosing the best results and discarding those not favourable to their hypothesis, and he seems to have done some of that himself.  The casual reader will obtain a very selective view of the field from his book.

It is important to stress that he is not addressing the entire field of psychical research.  As the subtitle suggests, he is investigating alleged “powers of the mind”: telepathy, clairvoyance/remote viewing, psychokinesis (which he consistently calls telekinesis for some reason, though he does not advance any reason for adopting the older usage) and precognition.  Then he takes a close look at the work of J. B. Rhine; the psychic cold war between the USA and USSR, including the Stargate project (naturally referencing The Men Who Stare at Goats); the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab; and Uri Geller and spoon bending.  Clegg does not address survival issues, though he does mention cold reading, and the problem evaluating the Scole sittings because of the spirits’ refusal to allow infrared during séances.  There is nothing on apparitions or poltergeists, the latter not even in terms of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis – a living individual being the agent – as a possible cause (he would doubtless argue that if there are problems influencing dice, psychokinesis is not likely to work on heavier objects over longer distances).  Even with this focus it is a lot of ground to cover, and Clegg tends not to analyse any of the phenomena he examines in depth.

The root of the problem with the book is that Clegg does not have a parapsychology background but is a popular science writer.  That means he has not immersed himself in the literature, and selectively chooses what he needs to support a point; James Randi in particular looms large as the model of a scientific investigator.  Clegg’s references are embedded in the endnotes, which helps to disguise the limited range of primary sources he has consulted.  While much of what he says is pertinent and should be taken on board by researchers, you feel repeatedly that you are only getting part of the story.  This may be for space reasons, but anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the literature will start to wonder if he is keen to skate over details that might muddy his narrative.  For example, the chapter on PEAR relies on the project’s website and a 2005 article by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. There is no mention of their books Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World (2009) and Consciousness and the Source of Reality: The PEAR Odyssey (2011), which would seem to be essential to a reliable scrutiny of their work.  Clegg’s dismissal would carry a lot more weight if it had been based on deeper reading.

There is a selective approach in other chapters too.  He makes great play of the telepathy experiments conducted by the early Society for Psychical Research with George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn. (Incidentally anyone looking for the SPR under ‘S’ in the index will be disappointed – as sometimes happens with books published in the United States it is listed under ‘B’ as the ‘British Society for Psychical Research’, an organisation that does not exist, presumably to distinguish it from the American Society for Psychical Research, which does – just about.)  Clegg has taken his information on the Smith-Blackburn trials from C E M Hansel’s sceptical 1966 book ESP: A Scientific Evaluation without attribution, though he does cite Hansel’s book later when discussing J. B Rhine’s laboratory.  The only reference Clegg provides to the Smith-Blackburn trials is an article Blackburn wrote much later for the Daily News, 1 September 1911, a reference to which is included in Hansel, though it was only one of a number of articles Blackburn wrote for both the Daily News and previously for John Bull.  The News article is reprinted in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research – though there is no evidence that Clegg has consulted the SPR’s literature because if he had he would have seen the various responses it provoked, including from Smith himself – as well as in Paul Kurtz’s A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology.  Clegg does not indicate, and possibly does not appreciate, that Blackburn was an unreliable witness with his own agenda.  Further, Clegg does not, as Hansel does not, address the SPR experiments in which Smith was involved after Blackburn’s departure, reported in exhausting detail in its Proceedings.  Clegg would probably have found this series similarly flawed, but to reach a balanced conclusion on the early SPR’s experiments they need to be taken into account.  Unless that is, Clegg merely wished to provide sufficient evidence to support an opinion he had already reached.

There is a chapter on Uri Geller that recounts the well-worn story of his spoon-bending career.  Just to rub in how credulous investigators can be we have a section on the sad business of the mini-Gellers investigated by John Taylor, as recounted in his book Superminds (1975), though not anything about the book Taylor wrote after his change of heart, Science and the Supernatural (1980).  But while we can nod sagely at the ridiculousness of anybody believing that Geller bends spoon and forks using anything other than a bit of manual dexterity, what about that 18mm chrome vanadium combination Snap-On spanner that Geller is said to have bent at the Silverstone Grand Prix in 1998?  To do that required somewhat more force than Geller would have been able to muster with thumb and forefinger.  Admittedly he could have hidden a pre-bent spanner in his underpants and made a switch at an opportune moment, or perhaps achieved the effect with the assistance of a confederate, on the assumption that mechanics wouldn’t necessarily recognise every single spanner they own.  But this is of a different order to manipulating table cutlery, and Clegg should have included it in his account.

He also polarises the issue of reliability into psi proponents vs sceptics, drawing heavily on people like Randi, Hansel and Martin Gardner, though curiously not Richard Wiseman or Chris French, as if they are the guardians of truth against the gullibility of parapsychologists.  That parapsychologists have been gullible is not in doubt, as Clegg is quick to note, but he fails to add that often accusations of fraud come from within the field itself.  In particular he mentions Walter J Levy and Samuel Soal.  Levy was exposed not by a crusading sceptic but by fellow researchers.  Betty Markwick uncovered cheating by Soal, yet Clegg does not mention that she is the longstanding Hon Statistical Advisor of the SPR.  And Clegg’s source for his description of Markwick’s analysis of Soal’s data?  Not her seminal paper ‘The Soal-Goldney Experiments with Basil Shackleton: New Evidence of Data Manipulation’, in the SPR’s Proceedings, but Randi’s Flim-Flam.

Extra Sensory is clearly written, albeit with more on quantum physics than seems strictly necessary for the discussion of possible mechanisms for telepathy.  Clegg covers the principles of the scientific approach, always worth hearing, and the dangers of relying on anecdotal evidence.  His verdict on the banality of much of what passes for parapsychology is sadly true, though his final words seem curious: “It’s time to switch off the life support for parapsychology in its present form and get the researchers to bite the bullet and go for the real thing.”  It was news to me that parapsychology was on life support at the present time and it will probably come as a surprise to practising parapsychologists as well.  He is right though to be wary of experiments that produce only tiny statistical effects that could be attributed to normal causes in both equipment and statistical analyses, because the results are so often ambiguous and unrepresentative of how psi is supposed to work in the real world.  It is also a sad fact of the field that promising avenues of research have a tendency to peter out, often after becoming mired in controversy.

However, while acknowledging that there are methodological problems in parapsychology, it needs to be borne in mind that Clegg is not the open-minded sceptic that he claims to be, and he draws on only a small part of the findings that have accumulated.  Teasingly he keeps the possibility of telepathy open, but rather damned by the grudging “There is some evidence that has not been proved worthless” (“not yet anyway”, he might have added).  The rest of it can, in his opinion, be written off as tainted by issues of coincidence, poor experimental procedure, statistical noise, misperception and selective memory, and of course fraud.  One wonders what grounds for optimism he has for thinking that there might be something in it that is still worth investigation.