In Search of the Paranormal

James Randi

Boxtree, London, 1991

This book is based on a 1991 Granada Television series, and is worth reading even for those, like me, who missed the broadcasts. It covers a fair range of pursuits and practices, and is illustrated here and there with drawings and photographs, including a nice snap of some ectoplasm, which you don't see so much of these days.

Given the rampant popularity of faith healing, graphology, astrology and whatnot, it would be a good thing if this series were repeated (about once every 6 weeks, until the message sinks in). The great virtue of the programmes, as explained by Randi, is the careful and fair way in which tests of psychic abilities were set up. This is the key to the whole business, after all: the question of how belief in these phenomena can be justified or questioned.

There is a routine shiftiness about tests. If a psychic practitioner submits his skills to a test and passes the test, this is taken to demonstrate that he has psychic powers. If his results are poor, the level of discourse suddenly shifts, and now it is a matter of the restrictiveness of scientific objectification, or the rigidity of reductionism, or the blinkered arrogance of Western empiricism. And so on.

A good example of Randi's tests is that carried out on what is called Applied Kinesiology, which, when it is described, one may suspect is some kind of caricature invented by Randi or the producers. Someone invented it, but not necessarily Soozie Holbeche, who demonstrated its powers on TV.

Hold a test substance in one hand, stretch your other arm out sideways. Soozie presses down on the outstretched hand, feeling the resistance, then repeats this while you hold a different substance, a "good" or a "bad" one. Good substances (certain crystals, unsurprisingly) give strength, so it's harder to depress the arm; bad substances make it easier.

One of 5 bags contained a "good" crystal, and they were randomly put in a larger bag, to be taken out and held by a subject for detection by Soozie. This is the key:

"The chance of being able to find the correct item by guessing alone was one in five, or 20%. But Soozie had said that she'd be finding it from its 'good vibrations' compared with the 'bad' vibrations of the other control substance, which we told her were very 'bad' materials indeed. She was not working, so she claimed, just by chance, and since she had demonstrated that she was able to detect the crystal with 100% accuracy when she knew where it was, she should now have been able to achieve that same accuracy." (p.25)

Well, she picked the rat poison, and fared no better on subsequent tests. But because of the framework of the test, whereby she had accepted the initial conditions, she couldn't resort to the shifty comeback mentioned above. This dodge was attempted by a failed dowser in another programme:

"Mr Thompson objected that the studio conditions had been 'artificial', but I reminded him that his baseline demonstrations had shown that he had failed only when he did not know the location of the zinc ore. And, in an informal demonstration in the hallway outside the studio before the taping, Mr Thompson had shown definitively that his dowsing stick worked when he knew where the ore was. True to the dowsers' tradition, Clive would have none of my explanation." (p.45)

There is a dowser's discussion list on the internet which you can join as long as you don't say anything critical, in which case you will be removed. Imagine how much they would make of Randi's show if Mr Thompson had triumphed.



Paul Taylor 2001