Robert McLuhan, who blogs at http://paranormalia.com/, wrote this book to debunk and expose sceptics of the paranormal. The title focuses on James Randi’s famous Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, an offer I’ve followed for quite some time. This book had nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon, so I thought it would be a good counterbalance to Derren Brown’s excellent and entertaining _Tricks of the Mind_, which I had just finished. Based on the title and good reviews, I hoped _Randi’s Prize_ would carefully document living people with proven paranormal abilities who had been cheated out of Randi’s prize by technicalities.
Unfortunately, when I was about a third done with the book, I realized the author was building a tenuous case based mostly on credulous reinterpretations of old anecdotes. The latter part did a better job of awakening hope that children’s stories of past-lives could be factual. Checking references and evaluating the quality of evidence failed to convince me that McLuhan’s belief in Psi and criticisms of sceptics are based on more than emotion-based opinion.
_Randi’s Prize_ is an interesting tour through the history of spirit mediums and psychics, particularly some of the big names of the 1800′s. McLuhan does a fair job of discussing some instances of fraud and trickery, but I found myself filling in missing pieces through Wikipedia and other web searches. I can agree with McLuhan that some sceptics have dismissed some claims of paranormal occurrences without reading many source materials, but I feel McLuhan has generalized this into a “Straw Man” argument to discount sceptics as a group and claim that sceptical “faithless-based” dogma is what has prevented Psi phenomena from being accepted as scientifically verified.
I’ll cover specific examples from this book in a minute, but first would like to address some of my background and more about Randi’s Prize. I have Master’s Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and approached this profession through a genuine interest in esoteric and spiritual topics combined with more standard studies in nutrition, mycology, and botany. As a child of the 1970′s, I was favorably exposed to paranormal ideas such as Uri Geller, telekinesis and telepathy through Star Wars’ Force, and eternal life through ritual drinking of magic “blood” far before I learned of the scientific method and sceptical criticism. In late high school I diverged from Christianity due to bigoted fundamentalist beliefs being pushed on me, but then looked to other religions and cultures for spiritual insight. Zen philosophy, divination, and Aldous Huxley’s writings encouraged me to regard mainstream science and medicine as willfully blinded to the larger world of mysticism and spiritual healing. This led me to serious study of Tarot, Qabalah, Taoism, Buddhism, Magick, Psychedelic Spirituality, astral travel, remote viewing, muscle testing, iridology, Yoga, flower essences, and more. None of these were initially approached with cautious scepticism. I was very willing to believe and experience. Indeed, I had some powerful experiences, particularly with meditation. I chose to become an acupuncturist and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to complete my degree and get a medical license. I spent considerable time in other countries studying with highly regarded teachers. I even received extra certification in hypnosis and two different styles of Qi Gong which include external energy healing. Over time I began to read more sceptical literature and reevaluated some of the claims, teachings, and beliefs I had accepted as possible or useful.
As the internet has grown, it has become far easier to look for good quality research on the history and science of even the most outlandish claims. Realizing that my core path has been to discover the useful truths about nature, I see that some early Taoists were also on that path but it is most alive in modern science. Time and again through history, accurate observations of the natural world became sidetracked into symbolic dogmas and folk religions. Scientific scepticism has bravely fought against entrenched religious beliefs to build the more accurate model of the universe we take for granted today. Far from controlling the cultural discourse, sceptics are still a demonized minority in a world full of superstition and spurious religiosity.
Nowhere in _Randi’s Prize: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they are wrong and why it matters_ does McLuhan talk in depth about good research design or propose a particular skill or person he thinks should win Randi’s million dollar challenge. McLuhan laments that Randi isn’t tracking down and researching paranormal claims and proclaiming that he is a believer in Psi. The basic premise of the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is that anyone who claims psychic abilities can apply for the prize by describing their claim and proposing a test that will prove it is real. James Randi spent decades actively searching out and challenging psychics with the bait of his prize, and I have not seen any convincing arguments that he has unfairly cheated any deserving psychic out of it. The burden of proof is understandably on the person who makes the extraordinary claim. McLuhan seems to miss this point, which leaves the impression that he chose the title of the book just for the attention it brings, not for truly meaningful criticism of Randi’s Prize.
Anyone who sincerely believes they have paranormal abilities should study good research design and work to prove or disprove their extraordinary skills. If just one external energy healer can reliably detect a human energy field in a double-blind study accepted into a peer-reviewed science journal, it will make history and open much of the world up to energy healing. As Emily Rosa showed and I have written about more, decent research design for this type of claim is neither difficult nor expensive, and energy healers don’t need to wait for Randi’s blessing or a large grant to build a convincing case for their skills. When talking about this with energy healing proponents, they often use the excuse that money contaminates the spiritual intent of energy healers. Given that there are dozens of energy healers and schools selling courses, books, treatments, and certifications in energy healing techniques such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Qi Gong, etc., this type of feeble excuse only demonstrates a stronger will to believe than interest in truth. With so many psychics and religions regarding James Randi as a horrible, evil person, taking his million dollars to further their own cause would seem like a top goal. The best way to do this would be to first document paranormal abilities in a scientific way independently of Randi’s Prize, then seek the prize money in a high-profile way which would expose Randi’s Prize as a fraud if it was denied due to some technicality.
This is the approach I have proposed in my simple protocols to test muscle testing and the detection of human energy fields. I offer $500, publicity, my help in designing and writing up research for publication, and splitting Randi’s million dollars for someone who can reliably tell where a hand is or psychically discriminate between Vitamin C and MSG in glass vials. My applied kinesiology challenge is now the #1 Google hit for ‘muscle testing kit’ and yet no one has shown any interest or even claimed to be able to do this. This is despite the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of acupuncturists, chiropractors, and naturopaths use these methods to prescribe and sell medications in their clinics. Dozens of courses and kits are sold to promote applied kinesiology. Three times, I’ve contacted the chiropractor in Portland, Oregon who runs Muscle Testing Doctor and sells courses in Applied Kinesology. I offered to come to his office and give him $500 and free publicity, etc. if he can pass my simple test. I’ve received no response.
My similar External Qi Gong Research challenge is the 2nd Google hit for “External Qi Gong Research.” The comments on that post show the responses so far. With both of these challenges, if someone shows they have these skills, I have tremendous things to gain. Not only could I increase my clinical practice through once again believing in these modalities, but I would become part of medical/scientific history by being the first to rigorously document these abilities as real. I would then either get to split one million dollars and win the respect and admiration of skeptics and psychics alike, or expose the Randi Prize as fraud (to the glee of psychics and energy healers everywhere), as my plan would have the results already well-documented and published in a peer-reviewed journal before applying for the Randi Prize. The only way this would turn out poorly for me is if I allow myself to be duped, in which case I would lose $500, much time, and would have an embarrassing public failure when better scientists exposed how I had been deceived.
Getting back to McLuhan’s book on _Randi’s Prize_, he doesn’t propose any sort of real challenge or study design which he thinks would win the prize in a fair trial. Let’s look at what he does do and where he chooses to believe in the paranormal.
The first chapter is titled “Naughty Adolescent Syndrome” and deals with poltergeist phenomenon. Poltergeists are invoked as an explanation for things which apparently move on their own, generally in directions other than down. Often, these telekinetic phenomenon are associated with troubled teenagers, and in many cases they have been exposed and reprimanded appropriately, ending the broken dishes and flying lamps. However, in cases where the parents had a stronger belief in spirits and demons than in the mischievous potential of their children, this phenomenon has sometimes taken on a supernatural explanation leading to fear and media attention. While there have been a few poltergeist cases where fraud was not discovered, this does not prove a supernatural entity. Successful fraud is a much more likely explanation.
McLuhan covers much of this, but then starts to build a case for why he thinks poltergeists may be a real paranormal phenomenon:
What chiefly puzzled me as I thought about the naughty child explanation was how these children could achieve the extraordinary effects described in the eyewitness reports. I didn’t rule it out, of course, I simply couldn’t visualize how it could be done… (McLuhan, Kindle Version Loc 386)
The Columbus affair is discussed, which was a debunking Randi participated in. The teenage Tina was caught on hidden video cameras waiting until she was unobserved, then pulling a lamp towards her and faking terror. When confronted with the evidence, she admitted having done this (McLuhan later notes Tina had run from an attempted beating by her adoptive father John when these events started). Nevertheless, some investigators remained convinced that a ghost was responsible. McLuhan notes “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. (McLuhan, Loc. 421)” Here we have foreshadowing of McLuhan’s slippery slope: Video evidence and admission of trickery by Tina still leave him thinking that some of the flying objects could have been due to a real ghost.
A few more cases are discussed with explanations such as horse hairs arranged to pull things off shelves and the Fox sisters’ famous spirit-rappings from the mid-1800s, which were exposed in multiple ways and eventually were confessed to in print as the aging sisters fought alcoholism and guilty conscience for fuelling the fire of the Spiritualist movement which swept the nation when they had just wanted to scare their gullible mother for a bit. McLuhan isn’t convinced of all explanations, and begins his criticism of sceptical conclusions:
Yet there was something here that didn’t seems quite right to me, and it kept drawing me back. 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 for days and weeks on end. This isn’t an effect one expects to result from mere children’s pranks. And as I said before, I often wondered how these children managed to create such convincing illusions and remain undetected. (McLuhan, Loc. 499)
Before drawing his conclusions in this chapter, another “poltergeist” event from 1772 is described. In this, the maid confessed to a clergyman to having used wires and threads to pull plates off shelves, thrown eggs at the cat and claimed a ghost did it, and mixed chemicals in a bucket to make it bubble over. Her employers had been convinced that a ghost was at work, and only when the clergyman’s version was published did the confession come to light. McLuhan writes:
Parapsychologists argued that the events as described would be difficult even for the best magician alive to stage when surrounded by people who were on the lookout for tricks. That would be my first reaction too, but Christopher disagrees: he thinks it would be difficult, yes, but not impossible…
At first I was persuaded by the magician’s smooth assurance. He is the expert after all, and what he describes is his professional modus operandi. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. This business of attaching horsehairs to objects sounds rather difficult: Would the maid have wrapped the hairs right round and tied knots to keep them in place? Just how long were they? Or did she use glue? you’d think it would require some time and absolute privacy to prepare such things unobserved. But to create the mayhem that is here described she would have had to be Wonder Woman, repeating the process in a blink of an eye, many times over… And if the young maid had really been the cause of destruction on such a scale, would this not have been perfectly obvious? (McLuhan, Loc. 748)
This is the point in the book where McLuhan lost my openness to trusting he had built a convincing argument. Going back to 1772 and reinterpreting a case which has a plausible explanation as an example of how modern sceptics are closed-minded to the paranormal does not strengthen his credibility. Of course, we know next to nothing about the relationships in the maid’s life. Was she abused by her employers? Did she have a lover, perhaps who was being an accomplice? Were her employers nearsighted? Extremely superstitious? I found studying magic tricks and buying some of the secret tools of the magic trade to be a rewarding investment in my investigations. McLuhan displays very poor knowledge of the magician’s craft and will not have his speculations taken seriously by anyone who has made a reasonable investigation into the tricks of the trade.
McLuhan shows he’s aware of the fence of credibility, and squarely puts himself on the side opposite magicians:
In my efforts to make sense of all of this, rejecting the magician’s explanation was a fateful step. I felt I had crossed some sort of Rubicon that in the sceptic’s eyes marked me off forever as a credulous person, clearly bedazzled by the paranormal’s destructive power. But it seemed to me that if anyone is being credulous here, it’s the magician himself.
This is perhaps a provocative view to take about someone who considers himself a clear-thinking critic, and I don’t mean to be disparaging. But as I gained the confidence to think for myself, I found evidence of complacency on the part of so-called sceptics stacking up. Explanations of paranormal claims don’t have to be coherent, I learned, as long as they restore normality. The idea that a young servant girl might choose to spend her limited leisure time and meagre wages procuring a chemical that would make the liquid bubble in her employer’s bucket, along with all the other curious conjuring tricks, helps resolve an awkward problem but leaves appalling new ones in its wake: What was her motive? Why go to such lengths? How did she acquire the skills to do all this without being observed? In any other circumstances it’s hard to think that the girl would entertain such bizarre notions for a minute. Yet here it seems the alternative is so unthinkable that just about any idea will do, no matter how intrinsically implausible it may be in itself. How is it possible not to be sceptical about the sceptic’s view?
At this point, I should have stopped reading and moved on to a book with more sensible arguments. But instead, I read every word of this book so I could not be accused of being closed-minded to his arguments for the existence of paranormal phenomenon. I also hoped his reasoning and facts would improve through the course of the book.
It seems unnecessary to answer his questions about this maid from just before the American Revolution, but as apparently not everyone can come up with rational answers, I’ll put some out there. I’ve already suggested her motive could have been revenge for abuse. A maid is generally expected to work hard while her employers are doing more leisurely activities or profitable work. This certainly leads to plenty of unobserved time in most instances. McLuhan questions why she would spend her wages on chemicals without apparently considering that the employer is generally the provider of cleaning chemicals. Vinegar and baking soda make a fine bubbling mess, and are cheap and available today. Assuming she was being paid by the hour or day, the more unobserved time she spent setting up tricks that required her efforts to clean up, the more entertaining and enriching her life was. For McLuhan to use such trivial questions to be sceptical of a non-paranormal explanation for this event from over 200 years ago as a key argument for the existence of ghosts shows that he made a fateful step towards credulity here.
McLuhan soon shows more naiveté in section 12, “How do the children do it?” Notice how he projects his own good relationship with his children onto the Fox sisters, from a home with alcoholic parents who had separated and gotten back together:
Now let’s consider the question I raised earlier: Why are the children in such cases expressing their frustrations by carrying out complex conjuring tricks, and how do they manage to perform them without either being seen to practise beforehand, or being discovered in the act?
It was the strange case of the Fox sisters that particularly puzzled me. As I researched this topic I was haunted by the image of two little girls playing a joke on their mum. From whatever angle I looked at it, and mo matter how hard I tried, I could not reconcile Maggie’s confessional statements with the contemporary witness testimony. I wondered how a children’s game could have caused such consternation. How could little girls bouncing apples and cracking their toe joints induce the adults around them to behave like idiots? How could people be fooled so easily and so long by something so simple?
When I visualized my own young children playing a joke like this I always imagined them eventually coming clean–’Look Dad! It was us all along, bumping these apples on the floor!’ –and collapsing in fits of giggles. The pay-off of a prank, surely, is the opportunity to laugh at the victim’s expense. There’s nothing funny about concealing the trick well past the point where it’s distressing your parents, especially when this is likely to affect the children themselves…
My impression is that the sceptics are not particularly concerned by all this. 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’ve read quite a bit more about the Fox sisters and the history of Spiritualism and spirit-rapping. It’s a fascinating story and worth reading up on. There is a good chapter in _The Occult in America_ by Kerr and Crow with more details about the Fox sisters and their eventual confessions. There were three of them involved, and it was Leah who made the other two stay silent with threats. The idea that three girls in a troubled house wouldn’t have had hours each day and night to practice, devise new gimmicks, giggle about their successes, all while watching out for their parents coming down the hall shows some pretty willful ignorance on McLuhan’s part. He repeats this theme several times as one of his core arguments for the existence of poltergeists:
If you think about it, it shouldn’t take a master conjurer to catch out teenagers playing tricks, unless you believe–as I personally do not–that adolescent children can acquire overnight the skills of a master conjurer. (McLuhan, Loc. 978)
It’s nice to know what McLuhan doesn’t belive in. McLuhan doesn’t think children and women (Yes! See below for more on the gender theme) can easily fool a normal adult (by which I suspect he means a man). His repeated insistence that the child would need to instantly develop advanced magic skills to fool a parent is one of the weakest arguments I’ve seen for the existence of ghosts. He spends valuable time questioning the confessions of the Fox sisters, which makes me think that he couldn’t find many detailed poltergeist cases where there hadn’t been admissions of trickery. In any case, written reports from the 1700s and 1800s shouldn’t convince any mildly sceptical person today to firmly believe in ghosts, and definitely won’t win the Randi Prize.
Chapter Two is titled “Eusapia Palladino and the Phantom Narrative.” I didn’t know Palladino by name, but had heard of some of the spirit medium tricks she used in the late 1800′s and early 20th century when she was active. A basic review of some tricks is in her Wikipedia entry. One key trick was that she would have a gentleman on each side, and have each put a hand on her hand and foot on her foot. With a firm shoe, she could wiggle her foot out of it and use her dexterous toes to move the table, ring a bell, etc.. The men would swear that it couldn’t be her, as they clearly had her hands and feet covered.
If naming his chapter after a century-old documented fraud isn’t enough, Uri Geller features heavily here as well, and not as an example of a disproven cheat. After sketching through more generalized history and criticism, McLuhan repeats his case-building for belief in the paranormal:
With poltergeist claims it’s surprising to find children skilled at conjuring tricks. Here it’s odd to find convincing magic tricks being done by women. ['women' is in italics in the original, here I've made it normal to retain McLuhan's emphasis. --KO] Conjuring is one of the few professions where women are under-represented compared with men: they were only recently admitted to the Magic Circle where they are still in a small minority [I suspect most women could point to a few other professions where women are still under-represented! --KO]. I can just about imagine that performers like Home and Geller might entertain people with close-up magic. But it was intriguing to find women like Eusapia Palladino doing similar things, and some of them apparently with the same degree of dexterity. (McLuhan, Loc. 1271)
Indeed, Chapter 2 has increased the argument for paranormal phenomenon from “I don’t believe children could trick me” to include “I don’t believe women could or would do convincing magic tricks.” To make the matter worse in regards to Eusapia Palladino, some critics thought she had an accomplice. McLuhan writes:
Rather handily for his argument, her husband was a circus conjuror by profession and would have been an obvious candidate. (McLuhan, Loc. 1659)
Keep in mind that _Randi’s Prize_ is not a sceptical book showing why we shouldn’t believe in paranormal claims, but an attempt to make an argument for why sceptics are wrong to dismiss supernatural phenomenon as reasonable explanations for poltergeists, spirit mediums, psychics, and the like. Palladino was caught cheating multiple times with known methods and was married to a circus conjuror, yet McLuhan still uses her as an example of a medium who may have actually been in command of otherworldly spirits that moved tables, blew curtains, and played floating instruments.
McLuhan doesn’t spend all of his time in the 1700s and 1800s. In regards to modern laboratory parapsychology, here is a revealing passage:
On the other hand, parapsychologists arguably invite criticism by continuing to show interest in high-profile psychics. There’s much less of this now than in the 1960s and 1970s, partly because there seem to be fewer people like Uri Geller around, but also because parapsychologists are wary of being burned by scandals. A notorious case was James Randi’s ‘Project Alpha’ hoax, which was targeted at the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research, a new foundation set up in 1979 at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. One of the experimenters’ first projects was to study the so-called ‘Geller children’ who seemed able to emulate Geller’s metal-bending feats. Randi wrote with some sensible suggestions, which the experimenters ignored. They were shamed when it was publicly revealed that the only two subjects who were consistently successful had been conjurors planted by Randi, thus exposing them as incompetent.
Project Alpha is worth reading about. Randi had written to the lab with 11 suggestions on avoiding being tricked (drawn partly from how Uri Geller apparently fooled the Stanford Research Institute) and the 2 young magicians had also agreed to answer all questions honestly, such as “are you faking it?” After almost 2 years of fooling the researchers with sleight-of-hand tricks, Randi leaked stories that they were plants. This showed beyond a doubt that well-funded parapsychologists in labs may be fooled by teenagers even when they have a direct warning from a noted skeptic. Note how McLuhan seems to regard Geller as being a genuine psychic and only defines Randi’s magicians as hoaxers and scandals. A review of Geller’s “scientific testing” will show why relying on him as evidence of try Psi is unlikely to win over sceptics. This recent example should go to show why written accounts from the 1800s cannot be counted as objective evidence of absence of trickery.
Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments with telepathic dogs and the sense of being stared at are also mentioned. I’ve been reading more about Sheldrake lately and will probably devote a whole post to him at some point. Sheldrake has more published telepathy research than anyone else I’m aware of, I don’t find any of it to be that convincing in its methodology or findings. Here’s an example which found 26.7% positive hits when 25% were expected by chance. Given the normal 5% expected variance for determining significance, this is entirely unconvincing. I’ve read quite a bit about the “psychic parrot” and found the criticisms of Sheldrake’s methodology to be very justified. Ultimately, if dogs and parrots have telepathic abilities, I would expect it to be stronger within their own species and even more developed in animals such as whales and elephants. Given that whales and elephants have highly advanced sonic abilities to communicate at long distances where telepathy would at least in theory be superior, the lack of good evidence once again throws more doubt on the methodology of parapsychologists than the scepticism of critics.
I’m going to cut my review short here, as I feel like I’d be beating a dead ghost to go on in much more detail. The section on Ian Stevenson’s past-life stories was interesting and I can see how someone could choose to believe some of those stories. When a Western author/professor goes to India and pays a translator to find people with convincing past-life stories they would like to share, he is very likely to succeed (i.e. in a poor country with strong beliefs in reincarnation, many people would be motivated to get the attention and potential money involved in talking to a relatively wealthy foreign professor). I’d be willing to believe in reincarnation if a suitable controlled test could be designed. Until then, a collection of anecdotes will remain just that.
So much of this book is stories of stories of stories, many of them more than 100 years old. I would have liked to had my scepticism more challenged by meaningful material. Instead, it has been strengthened by getting a glimpse inside the head of an author desperate to present his belief in the paranormal as more sensible than the sceptical demand for good evidence. I’d almost recommend reading this book as an exercise in critical thinking and an introduction to historical anecdotes for further study, but instead recommend Derren Brown’s _Tricks of the Mind_. It is far more entertaining and contains many useful memory techniques, instruction in magic tricks, and well-reasoned principles of sceptical thinking.