Commentary‎ > ‎

Parapsychology and the Skeptics, Review

Parapsychology and the Skeptics

Review by Michael Schmicker
Journal of Scientific Exploration (2009)

Chris Carter’s slim volume is a slam-dunk future classic in the field of parapsychology.  In it he asks, then
answers, three simple, straightforward, questions:
     Q. Is there conclusive experimental evidence for psi? Absolutely.
     Q. Would the existence of psi contradict established science?  Classical science, yes; modern science, no.
     Q. Is parapsychology a science? Definitely.

I got a personal kick out of the quote Carter chose to introduce his discussion of the evidence for psi, offered
up in 1995 by psi-cop physicist Victor Stenger: “Psychic phenomena have failed to be verified after 150 years of
attempts involving thousands of independent experiments. After all this time, we can safely assume they do
not exist.”

Ironically, Stenger’s head-scratching pronouncement was delivered the same year the U.S. government  finally
disclosed its secret 20-year, $20 million psychic spying program; the American Institutes for Research final
report on the Department of Defense’s Stargate program concluded that its ESP laboratory experiments were
statistically significant; and CSICOP hero Ray Hyman  publicly stated “the case for psychic functioning seems
better than it ever has been,” admitting that “I do not have a ready explanation for these observed effects.” By
1995, we already had replications by four independent labs in both Europe and the U.S. of Honorton’s game-
changing autoganzfeld experiments. Six years earlier, the respected academic journal Foundation of Physics
had published an analysis by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of over 800 PK studies conducted between 1959
and 1987 which concluded the odds against its positive results being due to chance were more than one trillion
to one.  You can only shake your head in wonder. “There is little point in continuing with more replication
studies,” Carter concludes. His advice to parapsychologists? Move on. Stop wasting time rebutting die-hard

I actually met the good professor once. Stenger taught at the University of Hawaii, my alma mater. I had just
joined the SSE and Dr. Peter Sturrock was visiting UH, giving an invited talk on campus to a small group of us
rookie scientific explorers. I only recall two things from that evening – the erudition and graciousness of Dr.
Sturrock, and the sour querulousness of Dr. Stenger, who also attended. He appeared affronted that the
university had lent its facilities for a meeting of kooks, and argued incessantly and unpleasantly.

Classical science may have no room for psi, but we no longer live in the 17th century. The rules have changed
in psi’s favor. Carter’s concise discussion of Newtonian vs. Quantum Physics, and the ontological implications
of each for psi claims, is the finest brief I’ve ever read on this hard-to-explain topic.  Psi is preposterous under
the “laws” of the former; it’s possible, even probable (cf. de Beauregard ) under the latter, Stenger

Carter lays out six assumptions of classical science that conflict with the existence of psi – determinism,
observer independence, localism, reductionism, upward causation exclusively, and the philosophy of
materialism. Then in twenty incisive pages, he describes the topsy-turvy effect new discoveries in quantum
physics – “the most battle tested theory in science,”  but largely undigested by most scientists – have on each
of those previously reasonable assumptions. Among the most damaging: quantum mechanics replaces the
deterministic universe with a probabilistic universe and gives a prime role to the observer; further, it forces
classical physics to deal with the experimentally demonstrated fact of quantum non-locality – action at a
distance, with no signal required to transmit information. Consciousness studies, meanwhile, are also
undermining the philosophical foundation of dogmatic skepticism. Carter notes the “dwindling number of pure
materialists that still deny the existence of consciousness,” and explores the merits of the two hypotheses
currently contending to replace materialism. Both mentalism and dualism acknowledge that mind can exert a
causal influence on matter, which “removes the last barrier skeptics can raise about the scientific legitimacy of

Carter doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Throughout the book, he highlights some egregious examples of intellectual
dishonesty, willful ignorance, double standards, fuzzy thinking and goal post-moving by well-known skeptics
and debunkers unwilling or unable to play fair (visit for more horror stories).
James Randi, Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman, Martin Gardner, and Ray Hyman all take it on the chin;
Michael Shermer earns a passing cuff. In his chapter on the current, impoverished state of skepticism, Carter
quotes Hyman’s baffling assertion, “Only parapsychology, among the fields of inquiry claiming scientific
status, lacks a cumulative database.”  This despite J.B. Rhine’s landmark 1940 publication summarizing 60 years
of quantitative ESP studies dating back to 1882; Honorton’s meta-analysis of 42 ganzfeld studies conducted
over eight years between 1974-1981; and Radin and Nelson’s meta-analysis of 28 years of PK studies,
mentioned above. (Scolds Carter: “Meta-analysis is by definition the analysis of cumulative experiments.”) To
put it kindly, Hyman looks ridiculous. As John Beloff says, “Skepticism is not necessarily a badge of tough-
mindedness; it may equally be a sign of intellectual cowardice.”

Is parapsychology a science? Let’s retire this question. Besides having a cumulative database,
parapsychology has generated theories that entail falsifiable predictions -- Karl Popper’s criterion for scientific
status. They include both physical theories based on quantum mechanics (physicist Evan Harris Walker’s
theory stars in Carter’s book); and psychological theories dealing with states of mind associated with psi
experiences (as examples, Carter cites Rex Stanford’s psi-mediated instrumental response, and Charles
Honorton’s “noise-reduction” model.)

Carter ends his tour-de-force by revisiting David Hume’s argument: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of
nature.” Skeptics wave this as a talisman to ward off scientific anomalies that threaten their scientific
fundamentalism. Carter points out that it rests on two assumptions: first, that the “laws of nature” are known to
be correct and complete; and second, that the existence of psi would necessarily conflict with them. The first is
obviously wrong, given three centuries of paradigm-busting, scientific revolution since then, most recently by
Einstein and Bohr. The second is correct, in the sense that psi does conflict with Hume’s 18th century science.
But as Carter drives home in his book, “the laws of nature as Hume understood them are now long obsolete,
and so is his skeptical argument.”

My money is on the psi cops ending up in the dustbin of history.