Sgerbic [CC BY-SA]

This past week the man who is the self-described skeptic of all things paranormal died. James Randi has made his stock in trade seeking to debunk psychics and anyone who made claims of psychic abilities. Unfortunately, there are those who have sought to hoodwink the public for just such reasons in the field of the paranormal. However, this itself does not mean that the field of psychical research is somehow invalid or that psi ability does not exist. To say that someone who sought to defraud the public in this arena means that the whole field is itself suspect is a broad leap in the wrong direction. Just a few weeks ago there was a flap about a scientific researcher who, as it turned out, had falsified his data in a study. This though didn’t suddenly shake our confidence in science as a whole or put an end to our inquiry into how the world works.

Randi, though, has gone one further in his quest; he has used language that shows that he finds any notion or mention of the paranormal to be hogwash. This is very different than saying that you think it is unlikely but that you remain open to anything being possible. The difference between these two approaches is the difference between honest inquiry and bias. One seeks the facts and the other isn’t really interested in knowing them.

I first saw Randi during my college days when he came to speak at my college in the 1980’s. While on the one hand he has been able to uncover hoaxes in the past, something very interesting took hold in the man that drove him on a crusade to paint the world with a broad brush of skepticism. He took his debunking to a whole new level through his work with CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and later with his foundation JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation). I will note that CSICOP untethered itself from Randi after a time because of his level of zeal in seeking to debunk instead of honestly inquiring.

Randi famously set up a million dollar prize for anyone who could provide proof of the paranormal. This became a skeptics rallying cry of sorts where Randi was able to say how no one to date had ever been able to claim the prize. It seems reasonable on the surface, but what most people don’t know is how unscientific his prize was. The prize and its particulars denied important scientific principles that are regularly employed in the study of any phenomenon, be they atomic structures in physics or how glutamine is processed in the body of deer in winter habitats near the arctic ranges in North America. The prize was disingenuous from the start, it turns out. More on this in a moment.

What Randi did was to use his prize as a way of bolstering his belief in the absence of psi phenomenon and to forward his own agenda about the field as a whole. Randi was able, in his own mind, to lay the issue to rest because, after all, no one who had sought to claim his prize had ever been able to do so. Randi used this fact to great advantage, but he did us all a great disservice in the process.

The protocols that every individual seeking to prove their abilities to his august board of inquisitors required that each participant had to agree to a test that required 100% accuracy in results. Randi, who has been questioned about this fact in the past, has explained that he has every right to require this as part of efforts at claiming the prize money. He has explained that what he was after was undeniable proof, and his requirement would require every person coming to him to provide that level of proof.

In science, in any effort to create tests which are repeated many times in the process of gathering data about any kind of phenomenon, it is universally understood that in our world we have something that we know commonly as variability. This is a principle that is a cornerstone element in science and in the gathering of data.

A simple illumination of this principle of the scientific method is contained within a talk that my high school Chemistry teacher gave to us when we began our study in his class.

My teacher explained to us that when studying anything in the world, we gather data and then we examine and study that data for clues that often help us to understand the phenomenon being studied. He described an example of a canon placed before a flat plain of grass with no rocks and carefully tilled ground in order to make the ground consistent in density throughout so the falling canon balls would land in a more or less consistent way, a level playing field if you will.

This canon would have both canon balls and charges to propel a hundred carefully milled balls forward onto the grassy flat plain in front of it. Great care was taken to make sure that every ball was precisely the same size and weight. Further, the charges would have been carefully weighed out and made from a single batch of gunpowder. Every charge was packed in precisely the same manner as the one before it and the canon balls were shot from the canon and where the balls landed were noted as the way that they rolled or did not roll.

Our Chemistry teacher went on to explain that the researchers would then measure where each ball landed, noting their location by placing their location on a graph to better see or relate to the data collected.

Our teacher said that what normally happens is there would be a trend line that would show that most canon balls would have landed within a few feet of one another. Others would be further away from this trend line, and a few would appear to be errant because of how far they would fall away from the norm. All of the results were considered important because even the errant canon balls had something to say about the use of a canon and the process employed.

Our instructor on that day made a graph on the chalk board and showed how these canon balls and their placement would appear on that graph. This graph looked a bit like a shotgun blast aimed at a large paper target. You would see a center where most of the pellets from the shotgun landed, but there would always be a kind of “scattershot” effect that would happen too. In fact, he said, this was expected. The important thing, he went on to explain, were the trend lines and what those trends revealed. There would always be variability in results.

Most students in science and math fields are required to study statistics in order to be better at gathering and studying data sets. What we know is that some things that we study fall precisely on the average or median but we also know that there are those data points that do not. This is a common issue in every branch of science. What Randi has required in seeking to challenge all comers is the equivalent of expecting all of the canon balls shot across our field to all land one atop the other in a neat pile, the neater the better. I think you can see the problem here. While Randi could require this of his participants, after all it is his money, it still does not make what he did scientific.

It bears mentioning that Randi is a magician who used his knowledge of illusion to crack how some people may have been duping the public with fraudulent displays of paranormal ability using illusions in order to appear psychic in some way. Randi has taken this avocation to an extreme with his prize and has done something that has corrupted the very meaning of honest scientific inquiry. Most people, however, don’t know how his prize has little to do with science and has everything to do with propaganda. While those who remain in the skeptical camp will feel bolstered by what Randi has done, it does all of us here a great disservice in the interest of science. What Randi has done was to push an agenda that many others of like mind and belief glom onto and call their own. Truth dies in such places, however.

While Randi has been involved in examining claims of the paranormal, he actually has no scientific credentials, and while some might forgive him for how he has set up his prize, Randi in his life was on a crusade to deny the existence of phenomenon that some scientists have sought to study in a scientifically efficacious manner in order to better understand the world that we live in.

There is a lot on offer here in such honest and open study because it could help us to understand the very nature of consciousness as well as reality and how our universe works. If we can prove with a reasonable degree of certainty that something like nonlocality in consciousness exists, for example, it could help us to revise the notion that materialistic science has had where, in the words of James Alfred Whitehead, “the atoms blindly run.” Such a discovery would have far reaching implications in our understanding of a host of issues having everything to do with how our world works. We wont get there as long as there is this staunch resistance to such a possibility, however. We must forever remain open and ready to explore what today might appear as unlikely, as it often does occur.

I will remind my readers that it was as recently as 1920 that astronomers considered that the Milky Way was the only structure like it in the cosmos. At that time, we had no proof that there were any galaxies beyond our own. Since scientists remained open to the idea that there might be more to our cosmos than what their current experiments and observations revealed to them at the time, they went on to develop more powerful methods for peering into the cosmos. A direct result of this openness and curiosity was that they found that the universe was in fact littered with structures just like our own Milky Way. What appeared to be stars one moment became gallaxies which were composed of billions of stars.

Well before the 1920’s, for example, there were people who believed that the earth was flat. We know now that this is not true and the reason why we know that they are not is because scientists pushed beyond the limits of technology and belief in order to test and observe what could be new possibilities.

Like Randi, there are those who still believe that the earth is flat and that we never went to the moon. In fact, these people will go to extraordinary lengths to try and dismiss any evidence to the contrary. While we might chuckle at people who still believe that the world is flat, if you have enough of these people, their presence and influence in the world can have a powerful dampening effect on true scientific inquiry.

I will add my own observations here for your consideration. During my life I have had numerous instances of precognition which happened under very specific circumstances and were repeated many times over four decades. I was able to see how dreams that I had on a semiregular basis had an uncanny habit of coming true. These were not vague scenarios but were filled with very specific sets of details. The result of these regular experiences was that it piqued my curiosity about how it might be that we could be able under certain circumstances know events before they happened. I also had later in life experiences related to what is commonly called remote viewing in which I was able to view a target that was located 1500 miles from my location, one in which I knew nothing about, and had never visited nor was told anything about. In this particular case, I began getting vivid impressions of the home of someone that was part of an online forum that I was a member of some years ago. When I decided to approach the person if she would like to participate in a little experiment to see how accurate my impressions were, she was willing to engage with me. What I found was that of the 24 distinct details that I saw, I got all but two correct. The remaining two were partially correct. I went on to do several more experiments of this same type with other people whose homes I knew nothing about and had never been there in person (and neither did these people talk about their homes online—I wanted to do this blind). In those cases, I had between an 80 and 90 percent accuracy rate of details described.

To let you know the level of detail that was involved in the case of my first remote viewing experience, I was able to see that I had to turn left out of an elevator into a hallway with charcoal grey carpet which had small strands of red, blue, gold, and green in it. I was able to see that the hallway had sconces on the wall with no overhead lighting and that the sconces were “V” shaped. I saw the color of paint on the walls of the hallway. I was able to determine which door in the hallway led to this person’s apartment. I described the layout of the apartment accurately including the size of windows and the type of window (an old casement style) which were painted black along the frame. I was able to see where the bedrooms were located, including the bathroom as well as which bedroom was being used and a bedroom that looked like it had been used in the past but was now being used as an office (it had a bedframe still in the bedroom). These were not vague details, but very specific ones.

This level of detail was emblematic of my remote viewing experiments at the time, and I think that what I was able to see was that whatever this was that I was able to do, it did not involve my five senses. It hinted also at the nonlocal nature of consciousness as well, which points also to the possibility that what we think of as consciousness is not dependent on the physical body and it’s five senses.

Where skeptics come in at this point is that they will often say, “Perhaps you had read of descriptions that these people published in the online community that you forgot about but still retained in memory and used as the substance of your remote viewing exercises.” The truth in all cases was that I knew nothing about the homes of each of the three people who I attempted to remote view. The first person was herself very private and had not said anything about her home. In the case of one person, I didn’t know where this person even lived in the country. I in fact chose targets after the first initial experience that I knew nothing about. It was, to my mind, worth the investigation. Results like these become statistically significant when they are being done blind without any access to prior information.

I will add that for many skeptics that I have known, they often report that they haven’t had any paranormal things happen to them. When further questioned, they will most often deny that their lack of personal experience has anything to do with this at all. This I think is telling and may be at the very root of their skepticism. While this is understandable as a human trait, it doesn’t exactly get us to where we need to be when it comes to understanding something more fully.

This isn’t really skepticism in this case, it is instead a belief based on limited experience that is taken up as a truth and then acts as a lens through which many skeptics view the world. Even when faced with proof to the contrary, they are just unable to go there: “I see that the world looks flat, basically, and even though others have taken photos from space, I do not believe those photos to be true or even real….they must have been faked somehow.” Thus the skeptic folds his or her arms and rests easy in what they believe to be the truth.

I will note that there are people today who still believe that the earth is flat when this has been proven demonstrably false. For my part, I have sought to conduct my own investigations with at least something resembling the scientific method. Sadly, this is where Randi has fallen down in his quest for all things skeptical.

Skepticism is important, however, because without it you can fall for an unacknowledged belief that something is a certain way when it may in fact not be. In the case of Randi and others like him, it is belief masquerading as skepticism. This is what is termed cynical skepticism, and whenever you see this in operation you will find denial and hurdle after hurdle built into the belief systems of people who remain unmoved. For myself, I do not care whether a person is cynically skeptical. I do, however, care when that cynical view is pressed onto the world stage in a manner where it is used to breed more believers instead of investigating the subject honestly and with integrity.

The difference for me is that I didn’t grow up believing in precognition or remote viewing. I came to it through direct experience and explored it in an open minded way. These were things that happened to me and I had no idea what was behind them at the time. Only after decades of these experiences did I begin to form the idea that there might be something to all of this. Am I believer? I don’t have that luxury, and I now know the pitfalls that exist in such a way of conducting my life. I am open, however, but this is not the same as holding a belief in an unconscious way. I have always asked since I was young why believe when you can know? One option involves no real inquiry while the other demands it.

To put a finer point on what Randi has done, take this quote from Skeptical About Skeptics site which you can find HERE:

“Randi is not afraid to attack scientists who take an interest in subjects such as telepathy; for instance, Brian Josephson, a Professor of Physics at Cambridge University. In 2001, on a BBC Radio program about Josephson’s interest in possible connections between quantum physics and consciousness, Randi said, “I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many aspects for them to turn to something like quantum physics.” Josephson has a Nobel Prize in quantum physics. Randi has no scientific credentials.”

On his own website, Randi, through his foundation called JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), he describes and explains the process required when seeking to be tested for his million dollar prize. This is taken from Michael Prescott’s Blog because the details of the prize have, after Randi’s death, been taken down. What this one section does, though, is to provide the reader with the flavor of much of the document (emphasis added). In section 2.3…

There are some claims that are far too implausible to warrant any serious examination, such as the “Breatharian” claims in which the applicant states that he can survive without food or water. Science conclusively tells us all we need to know about such matters, and the JREF feels no obligation to engage applicants in such delusions….

Later, in his own FAQ Randi says this about something that I have just mentioned (emphasis added):

Of course, when confronted with a particularly incredible claim like “remote viewing” (the current version of “clairvoyance”) we can easily stop short and ask ourselves just why we are involved with such obvious nonsense.

Obvious indeed. That is itself not a good enough reason to dismiss something out of hand. There is a lot that was out of hand when it came to Randi and his views, sadly. And yet, many will tout him as the defender of skeptics everywhere. His belief is surrounded by a mote of bluff and bluster which only looks on the surface as common sense. I ask: whose sense are we talking about?

Finally, and perhaps most damning is Rupert Sheldrake’s own experience with Randi:

It is obvious that I do not seek to praise Randi, but to bury him. Let’s let his story rest in the dust as we take up eager and open minds with an adherence to results and statistical analysis as the way forward.

Lastly, I leave you with a TED talk by Russel Targ, a noted psi researcher who did work with the C.I.A. in remote viewing programs over many years. It bears mentioning that the board members of TED chose to censure Targ’s talk by banning his video from their platform. We soldier on.