Radin D. (2021) On pathological skepticism. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik (Journal of Anomalistics), 21(1), 118–155.
DOI: 10.23793 / zfa.2021.118
Comments to Edgar Wunder: The Skeptics Syndrome and Timm Grams: Skeptic Encounters Skeptical Movement
At a conference at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s, I presented the results of a meta-analysis of hundreds of published experiments investigating the intentional influence of streams of random bits produced by truly random number generators (Radin & Nelson, 1989). In my talk, I concluded that the data indicated the presence of a genuine mind-matter interaction anomaly. Afterwards, I was stopped in the hallway by philosopher Paul Kurtz, founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Kurtz was visibly angry. He asked how I reached that conclusion. I explained that the meta-analysis was based on the same statistical methods commonly used in many disciplines to estimate effect sizes and to judge whether effects are repeatable. The results, in my assessment, were clear.
Kurtz was irate because he felt that my conclusion might add support to the idea that psychokinetic (PK) abilities were genuine, and that my academic affiliation (Princeton University at the time) might be influential in promoting that idea. I was perplexed by Kurtz’s emotional response to my talk because I was simply reporting an analysis of an intriguing set of experiments. I was not on a mission to promote PK. Later, I realized that unlike me, Kurtz was on a mission to shape and defend the “purity” of science, which in his view could not possibly include PK. His reaction was like an allergic response to an ideological contaminant (Ritter & Preston, 2011).
My interaction with Kurtz helped shape my opinion of CSICOP, and over the years I found few reasons to revise my initial impression. As described in Wunder’s and Grams’ articles in this issue of the journal, the stated goals of professional skeptical organizations are laudable, but that is not what some of these organizations actually do.
I have since encountered many others like Kurtz, who are only capable of understanding positive evidence for psi as either flaws or fraud. To give another example, Barry Beyerstein was a prominent skeptic and psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. In 2000, we were panelists on a television show called Closer to Truth, and the topic was parapsychology. Beyerstein said that he ran hundreds of psi tests on students in his classes, and he never saw any evidence for psi. I asked if he kept records of the actual results, because never obtaining a statistically significant effect (at p < 0.05) after conducting hundreds of tests is in itself statistically very unlikely. So, he changed his story. Now it was not that he never got a significant result, but rather that he got the chance expected number of significant results. So, I asked again, did he keep records? He replied, no. Then I said, how can you be so sure that there was no psi in these tests if you did not evaluate the cumulative results? For that he had no answer, because he was already confident that he knew the “right answer.”