Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: The Skeptic's Guide to the Parnormal

Since the magazines I wrote reviews for have both closed recently (to my dismay, since I appreciated the writing opportunities, the free books, and the quality reading material), I'm going to do the occasional book review here with, of course, a less formal style than I use in publication.

My first target: The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly

Having wanted to read it for some time and having an avid interest in all things unusual, I was eager to see Kelly's point of view on questions I'd pondered for some time. I was, unfortunately, seriously disappointed.

In part, I think, my disappointment arose from my perhaps irrational expectation of a high level of scholarship from anything labeled The Skeptic's Guide. I read skeptic material often and am usually quite impressed but experience the occasional disappointment, as was the case with my reaction to Alexander Nussbaum's article on the views of Orthodox Jews in Skeptic: The Magazine. Again, this is probably linked to my irrationally high expectations regarding skeptic material or in the case of the Nussbaum article, my irrational high expectations regarding Michael Shermer, whom I deeply respect despite differences in our views.

The scholarship and argumentation in Kelly's book, however, was so shoddy that I begin to wonder if the title "skeptic" is used now solely as a selling point rather than as a sign of commitment to intellectual rigor.

First, Kelly seemed to pick the easiest targets, the obvious frauds and silly conspiracy theories that so readily present themselves, while ignoring some of the more difficult questions. It's easy to identify the sources of strange noises that disturb us in the night. It's harder to explain the admittedly anecdotal evidence presented by multiple people witnessing the same phenomena at different times, such as the repeated reports of the sounds of gunfire at Gettysburg.

I, personally, have been discombobulated by reports from friends of the skeptic and atheist bent who have reported seeing things they could not explain while fully awake and completely sober. More disturbing still is when they have reported seeing things that have been independently reported to me by other people. One friend's home was allegedly "haunted" by a man who would reportedly walk up the back stairs and disappear. I ignored the story, one commonly heard in my hometown of New Orleans, until an atheist friend reported seeing the man and was so obviously disturbed by it.

Second, Kelly often fell victim to a host of logical fallacies that seriously weakened her authority in my humble opinion. For instance, it was common for Kelly to point out that some person or other must have been a fraud because he/she sold or attempted to sell an "alien abduction" story to some newspaper. The problem with this is not solely it's evocation of the appeal to motive fallacy but also the fact that it conflicts with my training and experience as a journalist.

Most people are, unfortunately, more familiar with the practices of tabloid journalism than with the real thing. Having heard so frequently of the large sums handed over by the Enquirer or Daily World News, people begin to think that it's common practice for journalists to pay for a good story. That is not the case. Reputable journalists simply don't pay regardless of the value of the information. This isn't because we think someone will necessarily lie to us for cash, but because it is unethical by the standards of journalism. A lot of journalists can tell you stories of the very true information or much desired interview that was offered to them for "the right price" which they declined based on ethical considerations.

Third, Kelly made a bit to much use of shoddy evidence and questionable assertions.

The government can't keep a conspiracy, she insisted, because so many people would know about it somone would be bound to leak it. Unfortunately, that has many errors, including the fact that top secret information is accessible to only a few and the fact that the military specifically (which is implicated in the so-called "alien conspiracy")is extraordinarily good at keeping secrets. In fact, when the Army broke the Soviet code in the 1940's, even the president was not informed! The public was kept in the dark about this secret code breaking project for decades, even though the information gained showed that some high-ranking government officials may have been spying for the Soviets. Scan the reams of declassified information released through Freedom of Information Act requests and you'll find a variety of very BIG secrets kept by our government for decades.

This guy who was reported missing for five days then showed up with an abduction story? Well, he failed a lie detector test. Anyone who remotely merits the title of skeptic would know that lie detector tests are pseudoscientific hogwash. A variety of physiological and psychological problems can cause false results. That's why lie detector tests are not admissible in courts of law and why they're piss-poor evidence to use in any argument.

Even though I agreed with many if not all of Kelly's conclusions, I couldn't ignore the poor argumentation and evidence she used to come to those conclusions. I'm hoping someone out there takes the hard questions of the paranormal seriously enough to do some real scholarship on the matter. I'm also hoping that the proposensity for seeking easy explanations (hallucination, mistaken assumptions, and fraud)will give way to a consideration of the possibility that people are seeing something very real that may not be what they think it is and may have a very natural explanation.

(I'd like to tip my hat to skeptic and former paranormal researcher, Rob,for his argument that "ghosts" may be quantum intrusions. An interesting idea, indeed, and one well worth examining.)

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. I've met Lynne Kelly and will send her a link to your review. Cheers.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the problems I've always had with Paranormal Research in general is that more often or not, the results and obeservations are very subjective, and seldom reproduceable. While it disturbs me that many claims of the paranormal are dismissed by mainstream science on this alone, it's just something that anyone in the field has to simply deal with... perhaps the scientific method needs to be adjusted a bit for our fledgling science?

10:41 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Rob,

I highly recommend you read Paul Feyerabend's work. He has some extremely interesting ideas about "anarchistic" science and the limitations of rigid scientific methodology.

I disagree with some of his conclusions. He tends to go a bit too far at times, I think. But nonetheless, he's well worth reading.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous dan from ideasandhowtheyspread.com said...

Weird Science by Michael White might be a better skeptic book for you. I read it and it was very good.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Dan. I'm going to have to check that out.

8:09 AM  

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