Robert McLuhan of the Paranormalia blog has announced that his book Randi’s Prize will be released on November 1. The book will discuss the evidence for psychic functioning, and the part that skeptics have played in shaping scientific opinion about such things as telepathy, psychics, ghosts and near-death experiences:
Scepticism is a natural and healthy response to paranormal claims. We can’t take at face value the notion that some ‘psychics’, or people with so-called psychic ability, can read minds, tell the future, or converse with the spirits of the dead, or for that matter that there is such a thing as the spirit world. These claims are antithetical to the materialist paradigm, and at the very least need to be thoroughly investigated.
So sceptics like Randi – along with others whose views I discuss in the book: Richard Wiseman, Susan Blackmore, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, David Marks, C.E.M. Hansel, etc – have a role to play. But it’s wrong for sceptical scientists to imagine that these are the experts. They aren’t; they’re the fleas on the back of the elephant. The real experts are the parapsychologists who carry out experiments and field research.
Actually some sceptics do carry out investigations and even offer some original thinking – Susan Blackmore on out-of-body and near-death experiences, for instance. But their main concern, Blackmore included, is to dissuade their audience from taking psychic claims seriously. Polemicists like Randi consider abuse to be an appropriate response. I happen to think that empirical investigation, patient and painstaking, is a better way to understand these things than laughing and pointing and calling it ‘woo-woo’.
Looked at from a historical perspective there is something really interesting going on here. To me it’s as though the sceptics are patrolling the frontiers of the materialist paradigm, beating back the superstitious hordes. There’s only a handful of them, the so-called ‘specialists’ who understand enough about parapsychology to sound knowledgeable to their audience, and create a plausible case against it. But if scientific materialism is to survive, these people have to be right.
…I should mention, though, that it’s not primarily about James Randi – I just thought the prize thing would make a cool title. I’m sure there is a book to be written about him, but it would be a different sort of book, and would probably only interest those people who already understand the issues. Mine, by contrast, is mainly concerned to try to explain the challenges posed by psychic research to those who know little about it, and its implications.
By the way, if you’re looking for something a little more targeted towards Randi’s actual prize, make sure you read my article “The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge“.