There are thousands of books about the paranormal, but few of them approach the subject as judiciously as Randi's Prize, by Robert McLuhan.
Though the title suggests that the main focus will be James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, the book actually ranges much more widely, as McLuhan examines skeptical responses to such reported phenomena as poltergeists, apparitions, telepathy, mediumship, near-death experiences, and children's memories of past lives. In each case he shows that the skeptical explanation, while superficially persuasive, falls short when subjected to close analysis. His conclusion is that most skeptics do not really engage with the material they are critiquing; in their rush to explain it away, they tend to fasten on the first non-paranormal interpretation they can think of, even if it does not fit all the facts or is grossly implausible in its own right. McLuhan describes this tendency as "rational gravity" - the pull exerted by the "rational," mechanistic worldview that instinctively rejects anomalous phenomena.
What I appreciated above all about Randi's Prize was the care shown by McLuhan in approaching these controversial claims. This is not one of those books that take all paranormal accounts at face value. Quite the opposite. Throughout the book, McLuhan details his struggle to determine the truth about cases that have been subject to starkly different interpretations by skeptics on one hand and parapsychologists on the other. In this respect, the book reminded me of Sittings with Eusapia Palladino, by Everard Feilding, which documented the gradual change in attitude on the part of Feilding and other investigators at the famous Naples séances. Fittingly, the first item that McLuhan has made available in his new archive of original paranormal literature is Feilding's report on the Naples investigation.
A good example of McLuhan's cautious approach is found in his treatment of the celebrated Tina Resch poltergeist case early in the book. First he provides a brief summary similar to what we would read in any standard skeptical account:
[Paul] Kurtz mentions an episode that occurred in Columbus, Ohio in 1984. In March of that year stories started appearing in the local press about strange goings on in the home of the Resch family, which some speculated were caused by a poltergeist. Eventually a press photographer snapped the spook in action, and the photo was syndicated around the world -- causing a sensation. In reality, Kurtz says, the effects were being caused by the family's fourteen-year-old foster child, Tina, as James Randi discovered when he went to investigate.
A few pages later he returns to the case and presents the skeptical side in more detail, pointing out that when Randi appeared in Columbus, the Resch family would not let him into their house. To debunk the story, Randi examined the famous newspaper photo and some unpublished frames, concluding that Tina could have faked the effect captured on film. He also viewed a videotape that clearly showed Tina simulating some of the subsequent "phenomena." Unaware that the camera was still running, Tina, in Randi's words, "reached up and pulled a table-lamp toward herself, simultaneously jumping away, letting out a series of bleating noises, and feigning, quite effectively, a reaction of stark terror." Furthermore, Randi found that the reporters covering the case were unimpressed with it, and he cast doubt on the capabilities of the parapsychologist, William Roll, who investigated and vouched for the claims.
McLuhan observes, "All this struck me as effective debunking. It didn't demonstrate beyond doubt that the Columbus affair was a hoax, but it did weaken any sense I might have had that the incident was paranormal."
But he doesn't end there. As he read many other accounts of poltergeist incidents, McLuhan couldn't help noticing repetitive patterns. The Columbus case was not an isolated episode; it fit into a larger framework, an ongoing series of similar events reported throughout history. He notes:
Despite their decidedly odd character, the claims are quite uniform. When Gauld and Cornell analyzed their five hundred cases [in their 1979 book Poltergeists] they found that nearly half began with noises that were described as raps or 'knockings' or sometimes as loud thumps or thuds or 'bangings'. The descriptions suggested that they often occurred after dark, often close to someone who was sleeping, although they were sometimes also heard in daylight hours.
He gives specific examples, one from the mid-19th century and three from the mid- to late-20th century, noting that "these examples make up only about three per cent of Gauld and Cornell's data."
Then there was the psychological context. McLuhan writes:
If you read the literature on the subject you'll find that poltergeist incidents tend to be extraordinarily fraught. The people involved are overcome with panic and confusion, not just for a few hours but four days and weeks on end. This isn't an effect one expects to result from your children's pranks. And ... I often wondered how these children managed to create such convincing illusions and remain undetected.... When it comes to the anomalous movement of objects, it's striking how insistent witnesses are that no one present was responsible. They could see no link between the disturbance and any human action -- and it completely spooked them.
Again he gives specific examples.
Returning to the Columbus case, he tells us, "There is a quantity of suggestive detail in the investigators' accounts that creates a rather different picture from the one provided by skeptics.... Immediately prior to the incidents Tina had been in growing conflict with her adoptive parents, particularly with her father John." Strange incidents with digital clock radios soon followed. Although Tina's parents initially suspected her of tricking them, they eventually found that the phenomena continued even when Tina could not possibly be at fault.
The accumulated effect of reading [various poltergeist accounts] was to create in my mind the sense of a very distinct natural phenomenon, one which is widely (if infrequently) reported and quite unlike any other feature of human experience, yet which can be identified by the same group of curious features.
It was with this thought in mind that I started to review Randi's debunking in a different light. I realized that his article didn't get to grips with the goings on in Columbus in any depth; his approach was mostly centred on a single detail -- that is the photograph.... If you think about it, an image that claims to show psychokinesis in action is a moot object: there is nothing it could depict that could not easily be faked....
So Randi was simply adding substance to what many people would suspect anyway. But by doing so, and in such detail, he created the illusion that he had penetrated the whole mystery, despite the fact that he had not observed any of the claimed effects at first hand or interviewed any of the main witnesses....
Then there's Randi's off-repeated insistence that witnesses jump to conclusions: I did not feel this was really confirmed in the research literature. People who experience these disturbances, I found, tend to react exactly as one might expect -- and probably as you or I would. They don't instantly imagine that something paranormal is occurring; on the contrary, they start by assuming that a trick is being played, and, if a child seems to have something to do with it, treat him or her as the likely culprit.
Professional investigators also do the obvious things -- like taking up the floorboards to see if the noises have some concealed source, or setting traps that might reveal hoaxing by family members. As I say, in some cases they decide that trickery is probably the whole cause; in others they suspect it has a genuine basis, but subsequent trickery by the child makes that conclusion difficult to insist on. In other cases, the force of repeated observations at close quarters compels them to drop the idea of trickery altogether and look for something else. In short, they show what most people would consider to be proper judiciousness, discrimination and caution....
My impression is that the sceptics are not particularly concerned by [the psychological dimensions of the cases]. Nor do they seem bothered about the level of conjuring skill that their scenarios require -- something which I have to say has left me more than somewhat sceptical. I don't mean just the skill needed to achieve the effects that witnesses describe, but also the fact that the children seem to acquire such skills without ever giving anything away. I could accept that an emotionally confused girl like Tina Resch might want to attract attention, but it was a stretch to imagine that a person in her state of mind could spend months clandestinely preparing for her venture by learning how to make furniture come alive, let alone put this into effect without being detected.
He goes on to observe that the professional skeptics, in approaching poltergeist cases, generally cite only "a single contemporary investigator -- William Roll" and mostly refer to a handful of popularized incidents -- "Amityville and Borley, neither of which parapsychologists take very seriously, and which in any case are not really typical; Columbus and Seaford, which were dealt with respectively by Randi and [Milbourne] Christopher but ineffectually, as neither of them gained access to the houses involved, or interviewed the main witnesses, or observed any of the phenomena in question; and various incidents in Christopher's clutch of press cuttings, which give too little information to draw any reliable conclusions from." He writes:
The skeptics say they can't be expected to check out the truth of every claim.... Most people would consider this to be a perfectly fair argument. But they will be less impressed when they discover that debunking skeptics have made little attempt to investigate any such incidents. The implications the critics artfully convey is false: there is no independent body of cases that they have examined at first hand and satisfactorily explained in non-paranormal terms.
I might add that one argument sometimes made by skeptics to discredit Tina is that, later on, as a young adult, she got into trouble with the law. The implication they draw is that she was never trustworthy to begin with. But it would be at least equally valid to point out that the focal figures in most poltergeist cases are troubled adolescents, who of course are not unlikely to grow into troubled adults.
Coverage of poltergeists takes up only a small part of Randi's Prize. The book is crowded with specific cases in a variety of areas, examined in detail. For instance, in the second chapter, McLuhan looks at an argument made by British skeptic Richard Wiseman, who has claimed that Eusapia Palladino could have been assisted by an accomplice who entered the locked seance room through a trapdoor. McLuhan writes:
Much later, when I had spent some time reading and thinking about Palladino, I returned for another look [at the skeptical argument], and it was only then that I grasped how cheeky Wiseman was being. As his critics pointed out, Palladino was tested many times in many different situations and [Wiseman's suggested] modus operandi could not apply to all of them (in the south of France she was tested successfully in the open air). One would think that a method that involves clambering through a hole in the wall a few feet away from three investigators on the look-out for tricks, concealed merely by a flimsy curtain, is hard to sustain. In any case, the report [of Palladino's sittings in Naples] mentions three occasions when the investigators looked behind the curtain, which would at once have given the game away.... On one occasion the phenomena continued after the sitting had ended, when they had turned up the lights and pulled back the curtain.
Here, looking at the case in detail doesn't merely weaken the skeptical explanation; it demolishes it. But skeptics like Wiseman seem to count on the fact that most of their readers are unfamiliar with the details, leaving them free to offer facile interpretations that reassure their audience, even while ignoring bothersome facts that they themselves must be aware of.
All told, Randi's Prize is a brisk, bracing look at this continuing controversy, exhaustively researched and offering 48 pages of endnotes and a 28-page bibliography. It's a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in parapsychology and its critics.
What's more, the author is currently giving away free copies of the e-book to anyone who asks! I don't know how long this promotion will last, so if you're interested in the book, you'll never have a better time to get a copy. And I think readers of this blog will find it highly worthwhile.
Just don't expect a detailed treatment of the Million Dollar Challenge. Robert McLuhan has bigger fish to fry.