This is an important book. It deals with one of the most significant and enduring fault-lines in science and philosophy. For well over a century, there have been strongly divided opinions about the existence of psychic phenomena such as telepathy. The passions aroused by this argument are quite out of proportion to the phenomena under dispute. They stem from deeply held world-views and belief systems. They also raise fundamental questions about the nature of science itself. This debate, and the present state of parapsychology are brilliantly summarized in this book. Chris Carter puts his argument in a well-documented historical context, without which the present controversies make no sense.
The kind of skepticism Carter is writing about is not the normal healthy kind on which all science depends, but arises from a belief that the existence of psychic phenomena is impossible; they contradict the established principles of science, and if they were to exist they would overthrow science as we know it, causing chaos and confusion. Therefore anyone who produces positive evidence supporting their reality is guilty of error, wishful thinking, self-delusion or fraud. This belief makes the very investigation of psychic phenomena taboo and treats those who investigate them as charlatans or heretics.
Although some committed skeptics behave as if they are engaged in a holy war, in this debate there is no clear correlation with religious belief or lack of it. Among those who investigate psi phenomena are atheists, agnostics and followers of religious paths. But the ranks of committed skeptics also include religious believers, agnostics and atheists.
As Carter shows so convincingly in this book, the question of the reality of psi phenomena is not primarily about evidence, but about the interpretation of evidence; it is about frameworks of understanding, or what Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, called paradigms. I am sure Carter is right.
I have myself spent many years investigating unexplained phenomena such as telepathy in animals and in people. At first I naively believed that this was just a matter of doing properly controlled experiments and collecting evidence. I soon found that for committed skeptics this is not the issue. Some dismiss all the evidence out of hand, convinced in advance that it must be flawed or defective. Those who do look at the evidence have the intention of finding as many flaws as they can, but even if they can’t find them; they brush aside the evidence anyway, assuming that fatal errors will come to light later.
The most common tactic of committed skeptics is to try to prevent the evidence from being discussed in public at all. For example, in September 2006, I presented a paper on telephone telepathy at the Annual Festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Our controlled experiment had shown that people could, before answering the phone, correctly identify who was calling (from a choice of four people) over 40% of the time, when a success rate of 25% would be expected by chance alone. The following day, in The Times and other leading newspapers, several prominent British skeptics denounced the British Association for “lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal” by allowing this talk to take place. One of them, Professor Peter Atkins, a chemist at Oxford University, was quoted as saying, “There is no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan’s fantasy.” (The Times, September 6, 2006). Later the same day, he and I took part in a debate on BBC Radio. He dismissed all the evidence I presented as “playing with statistics”. I then asked him if he had actually looked at the evidence, and he replied, “No, but I would be very suspicious of it”.
As Carter shows, conflicts about frameworks of understanding are inherent within science itself. Since its beginnings in the sixteenth century, science grew through a series of rebellions against established worldviews. The Copernican revolution in astronomy was the first. The mechanistic revolution of the seventeenth century, with its dismissal of souls in nature, as previously taught in all the medieval universities, was another great rebellion. But what started as rebel movements in turn became the orthodoxies, propagated by scholars, and taught in universities. Subsequent revolutions, including the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, and the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics of the twentieth century again broke away from an older orthodoxy to become a new orthodoxy in turn.
There is a similar tension within the Christian religion, which provided the cultural background to the growth of Western science. Christianity itself began as a rebellion. Jesus rejected many of the standard tenets of the Jewish religion into which he was born. His life was one of rebellion against the established religious authorities, the scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and the elders. But the religion established in his name in its turn became orthodox, rejecting and persecuting heresies, only to be disturbed by further rebellions, most notably the Protestant Reformation. In the debate that Carter documents, the skeptics are the upholders of the established mechanistic order, and help maintain a taboo against “the paranormal”. They come in various kinds, and it would probably not be too difficult to find parallels to the chief priests and elders, concerned with political power and influence, and to the scribes and Pharisees, the zealous upholders of righteousness.
This struggle has a strong emotional charge in the context of western religious and intellectual history. But now, in the twenty-first century, there are many scientists of non-western origin, including those from India, China, Africa and the Islamic world. Western history is not their history, nor are the strong emotions aroused by psi phenomena ones with which they can easily identify. In most parts of the world, even including western industrial societies, most people take for granted the existence of telepathy and other psychic phenomena, and are surprised to discover that some people deny them so vehemently.
From my own experience of talking to scientists and giving seminars in scientific institutions, dogmatic skeptics are a minority within the scientific community. Many scientists are curious and open-minded, if only because they themselves or people they know well have had experiences that suggest the reality of psi phenomena. Nevertheless, almost all scientists are aware of the taboo, and the open-minded tend to keep their interests private, fearing scorn or ridicule if they discuss them openly with their colleagues.
I believe that for the majority of the scientific community, in spite of the appearances created by vociferous skeptics, what counts more than polemic is evidence. In the end, the question of whether or not psi phenomena occur, and how they might be explained, depends on evidence and on research.
No one knows how this debate will end or how long it will take for parapsychological investigations to become more widely known and accepted. No one knows how big a change they will make to science itself, or how far they will expand its framework. But the conditions are good, and an intensifying debate about the nature of consciousness makes the evidence from parapsychology more relevant than ever before.
This is one of the longest running debates in the history of science, but changes could soon come faster than most people think possible. Science and Psychic Phenomena is an invaluable guide to what is going on. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to be part of a scientific revolution in the making.