Explaining the paranormal
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).
Michael White is a science writer who has been struck by two things recently: the growing popularity of the paranormal and the corresponding unpopularity of science. The book reads like a collection of essays rather than a sustained argument but its central thesis seems to be that science matters and can illuminate the paranormal, usually disproving it in the process, although White admits to a fascination with the unexplained and to the hope that at least some "supernatural" ideas will ultimately be verified scientifically.
Some of the targets White chooses are pretty easy to hit. The first chapter deals with alleged alien abductions and he has little difficulty in showing that the evidence adduced for these is riddled with absurdities. Another chapter is on alchemy, which is hardly a live issue today. Not all the topics treated are connected with parapsychology, however: White includes a discussion of the chances that Earth will be hit by an asteroid, and concludes that the risk is real and not easy to counteract even with all the resources of modern technology. Among the other subjects dealt with are zombies in Haiti, astrology, miracles, gurus and cults, human cloning, extra-terrestrial life, ley lines and crop circles, and Atlantis. On the subject of extra-terrestrial life he tells us that "most scientists believe that life in the universe is plentiful and many would put money on the idea that our civilization is just one of many". This seems to me to be something of an overstatement.
For established skeptics the most interesting part will probably be the chapter on remote viewing. During the Cold War both the Russians and the Americans attempted to develop techniques for obtaining paranormal knowledge of what was happening in distant countries and even for influencing the minds of people at a distance. According to White, work of this kind is still going on in many states throughout the world and is also being actively pursued by some senior executives in large multinational companies. Details of this research are naturally not often made public, but more information is available about the performance of "psi detectives"— individuals, usually unpaid amateurs, who volunteer to help the police to find missing persons and solve murder cases. In at least some cases, White believes, the results have been impressive. A psychic called Nella Jones, for example, made a number of statements about the identity of the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, a notorious multiple murderer, and these were subsequently found to be correct when Peter Sutcliffe was convicted of the crimes, although the psychic's predictions did not actually lead to his capture. White seems prepared to countenance the idea that at least some remote viewing really does provide genuine paranormal information, though he points out that there is currently no plausible explanation for how this might work.
I suppose it is inevitable that, in the space available, the treatment of some of the topics is rather superficial. It is also possible to quibble about White's selections. One subject that is not included here, but I think should have been, is poltergeist phenomena. The evidence for these is certainly as good as that for remote viewing (see, for example, Poltergeists, by Alan Gauld and A.D. Cornell), and they are quite as difficult to explain. In summary, this is a rather idiosyncratic approach to the (mostly) unexplained. It will be chiefly of interest to readers who are just beginning to question popular uncritical accounts; established critics will know most of this already. Still, in the present atmosphere of near-universal credulity we should be grateful for any attempt to defend rationality; we don't see too many.
20 April 2003
%S Explaining the paranormal
%A Michael White
%G ISBN 0-684-85817-7
%P viii + 259 pp
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