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Three book reviews by Brian Josephson

These reviews were published originally in the
Times Higher Education Supplement, issue of Dec. 15th. 1995.
(c) Times Supplements 1995

SOUL SEARCHING BY NICHOLAS HUMPHREY Chatto and Windus, 244 pp, £18.99 ISBN 0 7011 5963 4 Published 23 November 1995   (note: in the U.S., the above book is published by Basic Books (HarperCollins)), under the title LEAPS OF FAITH).
Thorsons/HarperCollins, 166 pp, £14.99
ISBN 0 7225 3262 8
Published 23 October 1995
  THE MEDIUM, THE MYSTIC AND THE PHYSICIST BY LAWRENCE LESHAN, Ph.D. Penguin/Arkana, 299 pp., £8.99 ISBN 0 14 019499 1 Published 26 October 1995

Lofty Ideals

Lofty Ideals (picture inspired by the original front cover of Soul Searching)

Nicholas Humphrey
's Soul Searching: Human Nature and Supernatural Belief claims to be a "devastating critique" of the paranormal. The author's reputation as a psychologist, his racy style, and the superficially attractive nature of some of his arguments may lead those who do not examine the book too carefully to believe that the awkward subject of the paranormal has been disposed of. However, critical examination of the arguments reveals this not to be the case.   An apparently strong argument is one that asserts that paranormal powers are being tested all the time in experiments on normal abilities: "In
literally thousands of experiments [psychologists] have established that
there really are sensory stimuli that people cannot see, cannot hear ...",
and which therefore have "incidentally, but nonetheless conclusively,
shown that ESP [extra-sensory perception] does not occur".
The argument is a spurious one. Supposing I do have ESP abilities and
someone shows me smaller and smaller letters and keeps asking if I can
still recognise them. Will my ESP abilities result in my going on
indefinitely reporting that I can see the letters? Clearly not, any more
than if a person were helping me by shouting out to me what the letters
The argument would be more valid if applied to experiments such as those
where a person is asked to guess what pattern is being displayed when that
pattern is made fainter and fainter, since ESP abilities might be expected
to increase the probability that a person makes a correct guess. But here
the problem is that as this is a statistical effect it will not show up
in a definitive way unless large amounts of data are taken. Unless the
situation is analysed properly we just cannot say from the absence of a
determinable statistical effect that no influence from ESP is there.
Humphrey unwittingly makes this very point when he alludes to a survey of
300 students designed to discover if they were aware of the current phase
of the moon that yielded only chance results: "Such ignorance ... would
seem remarkable by any standards. But if ESP is a reality it ought surely
to be considered doubly remarkable." If in such an experiment a sample
size of 300 is insufficient to demonstrate the fact that there are some
people who know reliably the phase of the moon, why should anything at all
be inferred from the fact that it did not reveal clairvoyant knowledge of
the phase of the moon by some people either?
Another section of the book deals with arguments dignified by the name The
Argument of Unwarranted Design: "if a phenomenon shows signs of being
unduly restricted in its form and manner of occurrence, so that our theory
of its underlying cause provides us with no principled reason why it
should take just the peculiar form it does, then we should suspect that
the true cause of the phenomenon lies elsewhere". The argument might
equally be called The Argument of Unreasonable Constraints, which Humphrey
applies by deeming it unreasonable, and hence suspicious, that a person
could perform one kind of psychical skill effectively but not another. But
why should it be unreasonable? Humphrey writes books on psychology but
not on physics; should we then think that suspicious, or ascribe it merely
to his having practised activities relevant to the one skill but not to
another, a kind of explanation surely equally applicable to the area of
psychical skills?
Further along in the book we come to arguments against psi which claim to
be of a purely logical character, though in fact (the original fallacious
argument published in Darwin College Magazine having been laid to rest and
superseded here by a different one) they are in essence assertions of the unimaginability of mechanisms for particular manifestations of psi. It
is suggested for example that since two different people's thoughts are
encoded by neuronal firing patterns in such individual ways there is no
imaginable mechanism by which two such people could communicate their
thoughts to each other by ESP. The invalidity of this argument is
demonstrated by the fact that people can to some extent communicate with
each other by gestures even if they have never met before and do not
know each other's languages. It simply is not the case that the complex
patterns of neural activity are not translatable into a common code.
The awkward matter of the experimental evidence in favour of psi is dealt
with by means of what appears to be sleight-of-hand, suggesting that the
author has profited well from his association with members of the Magic
Circle. Experiments are divided into two kinds, those with "no independent
confirmation", and those where the results "might possibly have been due
to something other than ESP". The former category he "leave[s] on one
side for the moment" (exactly where it is dealt with is not made clear),
and the latter is disposed of by reference to a single case, relating to
an experiment by Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton designed to test for ESP
abilities using the "ganzfeld" technique. Analyses by Richard Wiseman and
colleagues showed that, in principle, if the ESP sender shouted his
approval every time he heard through his headphones that the receiver had
said something related to the target, the experimenter could have faintly
heard the sound and unconsciously cued the receiver. Humphrey focuses on
this possibility, but does not mention the fact that Wiseman et al. did
a statistical analysis and concluded that the idea that the possible sound
leakage helped the receiver get the correct answer was not supported by
the data. He equally fails to mention that statistical analysis of
experiments on psychic phenomena designed to test the hypothesis that
design faults have been the cause of successful results have not supported
that idea.
In a recent article, statistician Jessica Utts commented that there seems
at this time little point in doing experiments designed solely to prove
the existence of psi, since if the critics do not accept the present
evidence it is hard to imagine what one can realistically do further that
would lead to them becoming convinced in the future. This book seems to
illustrate the point very well.
Where not engaged in trying to show that belief in paranormal events is
mistaken, Humphrey has some interesting ideas, and the book can be
recommended as a comprehensive analysis of the factors that lead people to
believe in things for which there is no real evidence. It is tempting, of
course, to point out that these analyses might very well be applied to the
sceptics instead.

More deserving the appellation "devastating critique" is Michel Schiff's The Memory of Water: Homeopathy and the Battle of Ideas in the New Science. Technical in places but in general explained in such a way as
to be accessible to the general reader, it details the struggles that new
ideas in science have had and are still having to get a hearing, faced as
they are with the variety of means, normally used in an unexceptionable
manner, that editors, referees and review panels, and so on have at their
disposal to prevent work that they consider unsatisfactory from being
published or funded. The general directions of the author's critique may
be indicated by a selection of his headings: "it is impossible a priori,
hence it never happened", "debunking as a substitute for scientific
arguments", "censorship as part of the normal scientific process", "mock
attempts to duplicate an experiment", and "A scientific exploration gets
paralysed by the burden of proof".
As a historical example, Schiff cites the case of the Hungarian
obstetrician Ignazius Semmelweis, who 20 years before the discovery of
bacteria by Pasteur showed that deaths from puerperal fever could be
reduced if the doctors were to wash their hands with antiseptic before
attending their patients and was ridiculed for his proposals, and as a
current parallel the suppression of evidence gained by Schiff's colleague
Jacques Benveniste that particular kinds of saline solution might have
adverse effects on patients in whom it was injected.
Much of the discussion relates to Benveniste's work on homeopathy and the
"memory of water", which expressions, the author observes in his
introduction, are "capable of turning a peaceful and intelligent person
into a violently irrational one". Benveniste's in vitro experiments on
homeopathically prepared samples met with a hostile response from Nature and its referees when he submitted the work for publication there, but since they could not point to any errors in it the Editor eventually agreed to publication under the curious condition that after publication
Benveniste would allow a team of investigators to carry out investigations
at his laboratory. Schiff lists a number of errors that he claims are
present in the published investigators' report, as also in published
reports of failure to confirm the Benveniste results by other scientists.
Publication of a successful replication by Benveniste was refused on the
basis of a referee's report which, according to Schiff, contained
elementary mistakes such as confusing error and variance (i.e. error
Psychologist Lawrence LeShan's The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist has been republished by Penguin Arkana after being out of print for a number of years. In it, LeShan describes his attempts to answer the question "what is the nature of the paranormal?". Like Schiff, LeShan observes how he repeatedly encountered an attitude describable as "I have made up my mind; don't bother me with the facts." He decided to concentrate on the question "how does the world look to the psychic?", and found there were universal regularities in their experience. For example, while in ordinary reality distance between two entities separates them so they can communicate only through an intervening medium, for the psychic two objects are part of a unity and distance cannot separate them, especially when there is love between the two entities.   The author then decided to test the concepts he had arrived at by trying to teach himself the ability to heal psychically. Using symbols appropriate to the situation and other means he attempted to put himself into a state where he would understand the clairvoyant reality and "know" that the individual he was attempting to heal was not just an embodied being but also one that like himself existed in all of space and time. He felt that his successes at healing in this way were frequent and impressive enough to justify this as a method of exploring this alternative state. The theory could also be used to teach others both healing and clairvoyance skills. Later on in the book LeShan discusses matters such as the by now familiar parallels between mystical accounts of reality and those of twentieth-century physics.   The Clairvoyant Reality as disclosed by this book is, from conventional points of view, strongly counterintuitive. We may need to appreciate this reality properly in order to make progress in understanding it. The original publication of this book made less of an impression than it might have done, possibly because it offered no very clear avenues for research. The situation has perhaps by now changed, making the republication of the book a potential catalyst for new scientific progress.   Prof. Brian D. Josephson Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge   home page