Will Storr’s new book The Heretics is not widely available in the United States, but after reading about it online, I decided to order a copy from a UK bookstore, the Book Depository (via Amazon Marketplace). It came yesterday, and naturally I started off by reading the parts that interested me most – Storr's ruthless demolition of Holocaust denier David Irving, who has been discussed previously on this blog (see the comments thread at the link), and his investigation of parapsychology and its skeptics.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the book, at least as far as parapsychology was concerned, because I figured I had already read the juiciest quotes. And I guess I had, but nevertheless I found the book’s treatment of this subject exquisitely fair, doggedly persistent, and exceptionally well-informed. It is probably the best short examination of all sides of the psi controversy – paranormal researchers, professional skeptics, loopy true believers, and honestly befuddled laymen – that I’ve seen.
I had intended to excerpt the best parts, but after a while I discovered that this was a hopeless undertaking because it consists of pretty much nothing except “best parts.” The colorful little tags I was inserting to mark significant passages began to bristle like a peacock's plumage. Since I can hardly quote the entire two chapters (60 pages) covering parapsychology and skepticism, I’ll just give you some highlights. I really do recommend tracking down a copy of this book, and I hope it becomes more readily available in the USA before long.
First we have some surprisingly acerbic comments from the usually mild-mannered Rupert Sheldrake. Here’s Sheldrake on his longtime bête noire Richard Wiseman:
“Wiseman's a stage magician. A conjurer. A skilled deceiver … He's a huge asset to the materialist movement. He's their hitman.” [p. 318]
Sheldrake on James Randi:
“Randi is a liar,” says Sheldrake. “He's a man of very doubtful character indeed – a rude, aggressive, dogmatic Skeptic who knows nothing about science. He's taken seriously by people like Dawkins – they worship him – because they see themselves as engaged in a war against unreason and religion. And if you're in a war, you want to have thugs on your side.” [p. 319]
Storr, by the way, always capitalizes the words Skeptic and Skeptical, a neat way to subtly convey the quasi-religious overtones of the organized debunking movement. I may start doing this myself.
After talking to Sheldrake, Storr next pays a call on Richard Wiseman, but comes away less than impressed, noting:
Wiseman's career as a celebrity Skeptic is predicated on there being no such thing as paranormal phenomena. He admits to never having had any “interest in investigating if it’s true because I’ve always thought it isn’t”. [p. 325]
Fascinated by Sheldrake’s characterization of Randi as a liar, Storr goes to considerable lengths to track down documents that might settle the issue one way or the other. This quest leads him first to Guy Lyon Playfair, who is initially not able to produce an old affidavit disputing Randi’s account of experiments performed with Uri Geller many years ago. He proceeds to an encounter with Veronica Keen, widow of respected afterlife researcher Montague Keen. This vignette serves, I’m afraid, as comic relief, as the voluble Mrs. Keen instructs Storr on postmortem materializations, mystical portals, Egyptian pyramids, and the Illuminati. The episode comes to an unfunny close when Mrs. Keen is quoted as implying that afterlife researcher Gary Schwartz is a member of the Illuminati, because “he’s a Jew and a scientist.” (Full disclosure: I’ve had a couple of telephone conversations with Mrs. Keen, and while I found her to be charming and friendly, she is decidedly not someone I would seek out for a sophisticated, critical interpretation of psychic phenomena, nor would I put much credence in her characterization of any particular individual.)
Honestly, Storr could have been forgiven for abandoning his interest in parapsychology at that point and concluding that the skeptics must surely be right. To his great credit, he persists in getting to the bottom of things. Along the way he presents a clear and well-thought-out explication of the so-called “hard problem” of neuroscience – the emergence of consciousness from matter – and discovers a paper trail that serves to discredit at least some of Wiseman’s and Randi’s claims. In Wiseman’s case, he had insisted to Storr that he began his experiments with the so-called “psychic terrier” Jaytee (a dog who knew when his owner would be coming home) at the same time as Sheldrake himself. Sheldrake, on the other hand, said he began the experiment’s months before Wiseman got involved, and that, indeed, Wiseman actually borrowed some of Sheldrake’s equipment. Storr writes:
Later I find a paper co-written by Wiseman in “reply” to some of Sheldrake's criticisms. It confirms that Sheldrake “kindly invited [Wiseman] to conduct his own investigations of Jaytee”, and that they took place thirteen months after Sheldrake's experiments began.
I decide to look up the Schmidt meta-analysis that Wiseman talked about, which he said excluded Sheldrake's work because “it's just not good enough quality”. I am surprised to find it concludes that there is a “small but significant effect” of the sense of being stared at. But I am more surprised yet when Sheldrake tells me that he was excluded from it, not because his work was deemed sloppy, but because it is an analysis of experiments that separated starer from staree using CCTV – something that Sheldrake has never done. [p. 324]
The old affidavit regarding the Uri Geller tests also turns up, courtesy of Guy Lyon Playfair. It does indeed contradict Randi’s account in his book Flim-Flam. Somewhat flummoxed by all this, Storr is no longer quite sure what to believe. He points out:
Sheldrake defended himself easily against many of Wiseman’s attacks. It was the opposite experience from that which I had been led to expect. [p. 330]
Seeking an independent opinion, Storr contacts brain researcher David Eagleman, whose nuanced position struck me as a great relief from both the intransigence of Richard Wiseman and the credulity of Mrs. Keen. Eagleman is quoted as saying:
“But it is perfectly possible that materialism will not be a solution and that our science is too young to recognize something else that’s going on. So I think it’s appropriate to have some intellectual humility and skepticism about whether our current physics and biology are sufficient.… I wouldn’t want to get quoted saying that I support Sheldrake’s theories, because I’m not familiar with them,” he says. “But I’m a supporter of people proposing wacky ideas because every single major advance started off as a wacky idea. We are at a very young point in our science right now. We need ideas. What doesn’t make sense is to pretend that we know the answers and to act as if we’re certain that materialism is going to bring us all the way home, because we have no guarantee of that.” [p. 329]
This brings Storr to the climax of his investigation – an interview with the Amazing One himself, the redoubtable James Randi. First he recounts Randi’s biography, a suspiciously hagiographic account that contains more than a few inconsistencies. Obviously a bit doubtful, Storr nonetheless reports with a straight face that Randi, having been granted permission to leave school because he was just too smart to learn anything from his teachers, managed by the age of 12 to teach himself “geography, history, astronomy, calculus, psychology, science, mathematics and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.” [p. 334] Many more spectacular accomplishments in the fields of escapology, skepticism, and science are duly recounted. Summing up, Storr tells us:
He is a record-breaking, toaster-inventing, hieroglyphics-reading, jail-cell-escaping, helicopter-dangling, crook-baiting, doctor-defying, fear-baiting certified genius. No wonder they call him amazing. [p. 337]
We are, however, given grounds to doubt at least some of these impressive claims. Storr observes: “It is common for Skeptics to claim that they are truly open-minded, even when their behavior suggests that they are anything but. James Randi, though, takes this phenomenon to a fascinating new level.” [p. 337] And he mentions a 1974 Toronto Sun news clipping about a conspicuous failure on Randi’s part. As excerpted by Storr, the clipping reads:
“Randi – The Houdini Who Didn’t. The Amazing Randi, magician by trade, almost died of embarrassment yesterday – not to mention a lack of oxygen – while bound and locked in The Sun’s office safe. The world-famous magician was pulled unconscious from the safe nine minutes and thirty five seconds after he entered it while horrified staffers looked on … Suddenly from inside, came the shout: “Oh, oh … Help me … Get a drill … Hurry it up …” [p. 346]
In any event, it is clear that Storr is not quite sold on Randi’s reputation (among skeptics) as a man of sterling honesty and dazzling intellect. The most he will say about Randi is that he is “a clever man who is often right, but who has a certain element to his personality, which leads him to overstate ... And sometimes lie. Get carried away.” Randi, hearing this characterization, answers surprisingly enough, “Oh, I agree. No question of that. I don’t know whether the lies are conscious lies all the time … But there can be untruths.” [p. 368]
Randi’s interview with Storr is marked by obvious inconsistencies. Here’s Randi talking about his relationship with his father. In this quote, I’ve added italics to emphasize the contradictions.
“I didn’t really speak to my father at all. We only spoke seriously twice in our lives. I remember both of them almost word for word.”
“What were they?”
“I don’t recall one of them.”
“Can you tell me about the other one?”
“It was about sex, as a matter of fact. He had doubts about my sexuality. He tried to have a talk about it and I fluffed it all off and got out of it somehow. I don’t remember the exact defense. But it was awkward,” he says with a nod. “It was awkward.” [p. 361]
As you can see, Randi goes from “remember[ing] both of them almost word for word” to not recalling one of them at all and apparently having only a hazy recollection of the other one. Immediately after this passage, Storr writes:
He claims that he didn’t take any exams at school, and then a little later says that he did. (It is not the only time he seems to abruptly contradict himself. At one point he manages to do so within the same sentence: “I didn’t go to grade school at all, I went to the first few grades of grade school.”) [p. 361]
Storr rather aggressively confronts Randi about an old controversy in which he allegedly said that a supporter of Uri Geller had shot himself after Randi debunked Geller. The person in question actually died of natural causes. Randi has always said that his remarks, which appeared in the Japanese press, were mistranslated. But Storr has found a 1986 article in an English-language paper, the Toronto Star, quoting Randi as saying the same thing: “One scientist, a metallurgist, wrote a paper backing Geller’s claims that he could bend metal. The scientist shot himself after I showed him how the key bending trick was done.” Randi attempts to get out of this by claiming that the Canadian journalist misquoted him, and that what he really said was “that is what we call shooting yourself in the foot”.
He has offered this explanation in the past – but that time, it was for the Japanese quote.
“So it was just a coincidence that the same error happened in Toronto and Japan?” I say.
“Yes,” he replies. “But it happened.” [pp. 362-363]
Storr proceeds to the notorious incident in which Randi dismissed Sheldrake’s dog experiments by claiming he had performed similar experiments that disproved Sheldrake’s thesis. In the ensuing controversy, Randi eventually had to back down to the extent of saying that the experiments were purely informal and that the data (which he had previously offered to share) had been lost.
In the interview, Randi at first hedges on the question of whether he said he had performed experiments:
“I must admit to you that I don’t recall having said that these tests were even done. But I’m willing to see the evidence for it.”
“I have these emails.”
When I ask for a second time what prompted him to do these tests, his memory stages a sudden recovery. “Curiosity,” he says. “I’m an experimenter.” He remembers the name of the dog and its breed and that the experiment was “very informal. I napped most of the time.”
When I press him about his treatment of Sheldrake, he insists that he didn’t lie because when he made the offer to send the information, the data hadn’t yet been lost. But he says that they were swept away in Hurricane Wilma, which happened in 2005 – four years before he stated that the data was available. And in the email, he tells Sheldrake a different story still – that the flood took place in 1998. [p. 364]
Then there is the dispute that Randi had with Gary Schwartz, in which Randi said he had assembled four experts, among them Stanley Krippner, to serve as neutral investigators of Schwartz’s claims. When an associate of Schwartz, Pam Blizzard, publicly stated that Krippner had never agreed to play such a role, Randi angrily attacked her on his website. Yet it turned out that Blizzard was right, as Krippner himself confirmed to Storr. Storr zeroes in on this altercation.
“You called this woman a liar,” I say. “But you were the one who was telling the lie.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’d have to look over the whole sequence.”
“Might you have been telling a lie?”
He turns a little on his seat.
“I’m not denying it,” he says. “I’m not denying it.” [p. 365]
No doubt feeling badgered by this point, Randi loses his composure when yet another controversy is breached – the famous episode in which a team of Greek homeopaths led by George Vithoulkas spent years arranging to participate in the Million Dollar Challenge, only to have Randi change the terms of the agreement at the last minute, making it impossible for the Greeks to continue. Storr confronts Randi:
“You agreed with his protocol, he waved the pilot study and you told him the test could go ahead.”
“But he didn’t sign the document,” he says. “They backed out when they would not fill out the form.”
“But you and your team had already agreed to the protocol,” I say.
Suddenly, Randi is furious.
“We agreed with the protocol, yes!” he shouts. “Okay! Now you sign the document and we’ll go ahead with it. But he will not sign the document.”
“They were ready to go, and you wrote to them and said everything was starting from scratch.”
“I decided to tell them that until we received the application forms signed they were not applicants.”
“Why do you need a signature on a document after five years, just when everything was ready to go?”
“I needed it! That’s the rules! Vithoulkas says he’s too important to do it.”
“That’s not what he saying.”
“Oh,” he says, sarcastically. “That’s not what he’s saying.” [pp. 365-366]
Randi concedes that he can see why the Greek homeopath would be angry, given the years of effort that went into the project. Storr asks:
“So why did you change your mind at the last minute, just when they were ready to go?”
“He won’t sign the f—-ing document! Will you get that through your skull? He wants out of it and that’s the way he’ll get out of it. When Vithoulkas signs the document we will go ahead with the test as agreed. End of discussion. I will not talk about it any more.” [p. 366]
Hoping to shift to safer ground, Storr brings up some comments Randi made about drug legalization – specifically, that he would be fine with drug users killing themselves with overdoses so as to weed them out of the population. Storr expects Randi to distance himself from his remarks, but instead Randi doubles down on his position, leading Storr to say:
“These are quite extreme views.” ...
“I don’t think so.”
“But it’s social Darwinism.”
“The survival of the fittest, yes,” he says, approvingly. “The strong survive.”
“But this is the foundation of fascism.”
“Oh yes, yes,” he says, perfectly satisfied. “It could be inferred that way, yes. I think people should be allowed to do themselves in.” [p. 367]
Interestingly, once this part of the interview became publicly known, Randi tried to mitigate his position by saying that he was unfamiliar with social Darwinism and its history. (This from someone who taught himself “geography, history, astronomy, calculus, psychology, science, mathematics and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics” by age 12!) Yet in the remarks quoted above, he does seem reasonably familiar with the term and its political implications.
To me, however, the most telling part of the interview comes at the end of Storr’s account. He writes: “During our conversation, I asked Randi if he has ever, in his life, changed his position on anything due to an examination of the evidence.” The question prompted a long, thoughtful silence and then a rather weak admission that Randi had been wrong about how some magic tricks were performed. Storr pressed:
“So you’ve never been wrong about anything significant?”
“In regard to the Skeptical movement and my work…” There was another stretched and chewing pause. He conferred with his partner, to see if he had any ideas. “No. Nothing occurs to me at the moment.” [p. 368]