Playfair on Good Skeptics & Bad Skeptics

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Part 1: Good Skeptic Ian Wilson on Nostradamus

G. Playfair

Quote:To make sense of the Nostradamian muddle calls for the skills of a proper historian who approaches the subject with an open mind and knows how to separate wheat from chaff after trawling through the available primary sources. Ian Wilson, an Oxford graduate in Modern History, has done this very convincingly in his Nostradamus – The Evidence (2002). He makes his position clear in his Preface:

Quote:“Books about Nostradamus are mostly written by so-called ‘Nostradamians’ convinced that [he] had a genuine prophetic gift. Or by born-again sceptics like James Randi utterly determined to rubbish that idea. I belong to neither camp.”

Quote:Wilson has little time for much of the Nostradamian dunghill which is a pile of misquotations, false associations, unwarranted assumptions and wild speculations, yet he also gives Randi’s venture into historical and literary criticism, The Mask of Nostradamus (1990) fairly short shrift. For example, Randi’s claim, on the basis of an anonymous article he supposedly found in the New York Public Library, that no copy of the 1555 Prophecies exists, is ‘blown to smithereens’ by the fact that at least two copies have survived, in libraries in Vienna and Albi.
A photo of the title page of the Albi copy on page 81 of Wilson’s book settles that argument.

Wilson gives other examples of how Randi’s ‘supposedly myth-busting’ book introduced ‘myths entirely of his own making’.

He also gives examples of well-sourced ‘golden kernel’ prophecies that unquestionably did come true, such as those of the death of King Henri II in a jousting contest, the Great Fire of London (1666) and perhaps most persuasively of all, those contained in the lengthy and detailed horoscope that Nostradamus did for mining magnate Hans Rosenberger. Wilson rates this as ‘uncannily accurate’ even down to such details as his prediction that his client’s miners would meet a ghost in the mine which would scare them stiff which, Rosenberger confirmed, indeed they did. 

This is sceptical investigation as it should be...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

Quick interlude, posted this critique [by Prescott] of Randi's challenge previously - fits what Playfair is saying about bad skepticism.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

(This post was last modified: 2021-02-18, 01:19 AM by Sciborg_S_Patel.)
Good Skeptic Peter Lamont on D. D. Home

G. Playfair

Quote:The medium’s most outspoken critics, on the other hand, frequently based their denunciations on second- or even third-hand allegations, having had no first-hand experience of their own. Dickens, for example, regularly denounced Home as an impostor, yet when invited to attend a seance, replied that ‘personal inquiry on my part is out of the question’. As for Michael Faraday, he agreed to attend one, but only on his conditions. He had to be provided in advance with ‘a programme’, apparently assuming that Home knew exactly what effects he was going to demonstrate and in what order, and if their ‘delusive character were established and exposed… would he help me expose it?’ Moreover, ‘if the effects are miracles, does he admit the utterly contemptible character of them?’ (Faraday, it should be remembered, was a member of the extreme fundamentalist Christian Sandemanian sect, to whom anything associated with Spiritualism was blasphemy). How closed-minded can you get?

Quote:As a member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh and a past president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle, Lamont is better qualified than any of his predecessors to answer the question: was Home an exceptional medium or an equally exceptional magician? He must have been one or the other, or perhaps a combination of both. Lamont’s summing-up in his final chapter (p. 261) is admirably concise and pertinent:

Quote:“What are we to make of Daniel Dunglas Home? He might have been a charlatan, but how can we be sure? We might begin by arguing that he must have been a charlatan, since his feats contravene the laws of physics. But that would be to place theory before evidence, and as theories are themselves based upon evidence, they must always be open to revision in the light of new and conflicting evidence.”

Lamont is of course entitled to his own opinion, and to his credit he saves this for his Notes (p. 276) where he admits that ‘my belief… is that Home was a charlatan whose feats have never been adequately explained’, adding that ‘I might be wrong’. This is honest and constructive scepticism at its best – Lamont, unlike a good many of his fellow sceptics, is prepared to question his own scepticism.
The First Psychic should be required reading for parapsychology students as an example of how to do primary source-based research into controversial subjects, allowing the evidence to speak for itself and not letting one’s personal beliefs influence the way it is presented.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

Part 3: Bad Skeptics Theodore Dalrymple and Damian Thompson

G. Playfair

Quote:Many regarded Koestler’s subsequent obsessions [including parapsychology] as symptoms of a mind that had lost its way. In his will he endowed a chair in parapsychology at Edinburgh University. He regarded telepathy and clairvoyance as established facts largely because of the now discredited experiments of J.B.Rhine at Duke University. He began to collect examples of startling coincidences as if they could tell us something about noncausal relations between events. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before him, he seemed to the public to have travelled from serious authorship to spiritualist crankdom.’

Let’s deal with the factual errors first:

1. Koestler did not leave anything to Edinburgh University. He left his entire estate to, in his words, ‘parapsychology alone’, and his executors had much difficulty in finding a university who would accept the money and the conditions.

2. He was interested in psi long before he met Rhine, and had a very thorough knowledge of the subject, as can be seen in the forty-page chapter An ABC of ESP in his book The Roots of Coincidence. He had also experienced it himself (see below).

3. The only experiments in Rhine’s department at Duke that have been reliably discredited were those of W.J.Levy, which were discredited very publicly and promptly by Rhine himself after Levy had been caught cheating by his colleagues.

Now for the spin-doctoring. Koestler became interested in coincidences (as were Jung and Nobel laureate physicist Wolfgang Pauli) because of personal experience of it in an incident involving the author Thomas Mann. (For the details, see the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, October 1984). Such ‘synchronicities’ could indeed tell us something about what Jung and Pauli called ‘an acausal connecting principle’, something 21st century quantum theorists seem quite willing to admit as a possibility. Even if there should turn out to be no such thing, is that a good reason not to record evidence suggesting that there may be?

As for those ‘many’ who thought Koestler’s mind had lost his way, who were they? Could we have some names? Within days of the author’s death I interviewed several of his closest friends including Brian Inglis, Renée Haynes and Ruth West, none of whom thought anything of the kind. Indeed the latter, who saw him a few days before he died, found his mind as sound as ever. Finally, to suggest that the resolutely agnostic Koestler, with his lifelong interest in science and extensive knowledge of it, was any kind of ‘spiritualist crank’ (again, who of ‘the public’ until now ever suggested anything of the kind?) is a wholly unjustified insult to one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century.

More bad skepticism from an author who should know better, Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, in his lively crank-bashing book Counterknowledge...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

Part 4 is a criticism of Melanie Phillips' comment on parapsychology, mostly general remarks and political stuff with this one gold nugget (IMO anyway) of interest ->

Quote:As for parapsychology, this, in case she doesn’t know, is the scientific study of phenomena related to the human mind that await explanation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science does know this, which is why it accepted the affiliation of the Parapsychological Association back in 1969. The Anglican church doesn’t seem to have any problem with the subject either. The Bishop of London, no less, is one of the patrons of the Churches’ Fellowship for Spiritual and Psychic Studies, which publishes a quarterly journal entitled The Christian Parapsychologist. Those involved, one assumes, believe both in God and in the validity of research in parapsychology, as have such recent members of the Society for Psychical Research as an archdeacon, a Unitarian minister, and a warden of a synagogue.

Part 5 gets us back into detailed assessments of Rhine's work and attempted debunking ->

Bad Skeptics Attempt to Deconstruct J. B. Rhine

Quote:Let’s set the record straight. For a start, it is true that Rhine originally graduated in botany, but he switched to psychology early on and by the time Jung and Pauli wrote The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (1952), Rhine had more than twenty years’ experience of research in parapsychology, a field in which he was recognised around the world as a leading authority. Gilder’s readers are led to believe that Rhine based his findings on just seventy-four runs through the deck of Zener cards whereas by 1940 there had been more than a million of them, overall results being statistically significant.

Proper research into the Lady Wonder episode would have told her that Rhine was well aware of the possibility that the horse might have been picking up clues from her trainer’s gestures...

Quote:...For example, Dean Radin’s meta-analyses of a vast amount of published research material on telepathy, clairvoyance and PK vanish down the plughole because they include ‘an experiment that psychologist Susan Blackmore exposed as clear fraud’. (Which she didn’t. As she told me herself at the time of her splat with Carl Sargent, she discovered evidence in his lab that could be seen as consistent with a fraud scenario, though she never proved anything or exposed anybody). Gary Schwartz’s testing of mediums such as Sally Morgan meets the same fate, since his research methods have been alleged by Professor Wiseman to be ‘flawed’ (as have Wiseman’s own on more than one occasion)...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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