Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say about the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters

By Watkins, Graham | The Journal of Parapsychology, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say about the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters


Watkins, Graham, The Journal of Parapsychology


Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters by Robert McLuhan. London: Troubador, 2010. Pp. 430. $17.99 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle). ISBN-10: 1848764944. ISBN13: 978-1848764941.

Readers of the Journal of Parapsychology' will not find very many of the studies and experiments mentioned in Randi's Prize: What Sceptics Say About the Paranormal, Why They Are Wrong and Why It Matters unfamiliar, and he does not even attempt to shed any sort of new light on them. As the title suggests, the focus is much more on the skeptics, what they do and why they behave as they do. Examples are taken from seance days to the modern era, from Harry Houdini to James Randi. The title is a little misleading, as one would expect that it would focus on Randi's famous "million dollar challenge" and it really does not. The focus instead is on the actions and psychology of the skeptics.

McLuhan presents himself at the outset as someone who knows very little about scientific parapsychology, someone who more or less accepts the "debunkings" of Randi and others. The viewpoint of the skeptic, which he notes that in general is the viewpoint of mainstream science, seems logical enough. But, as he explains in the introduction, he cannot help but note that apparent instances of psi are not at all rare, and he also finds himself wondering why the debate is, as he puts it, so "shrill," why Richard Dawkins refers to the paranormal as "bunk" and its advocates as "fakes and charlatans," why Randi uses terms like "woo-woo" and considers the study of it "farce and delusion." With this as background, McLuhan is startled when he begins to read the scientific literature of parapsychology; he is startled by the volume of it, by the numbers of incidents and experiments described, and by the level-headed and objective writings of the investigators and researchers themselves, who appear as serious as any other scientists in any other field--in other words, not even close to the descriptions of them presented by writers such as Dawkins and Randi.

Beginning in chapter 1, "Naughty Adolescent Syndrome," he discusses several well-known poltergeist cases--after expressing surprise that there is any current interest in such things. In particular he devotes considerable space to the Tina Resch case, which involved James Randi--and in which the defining event, at least as far as public perception was concerned, was a photograph of a telephone flying across and in front of a startled-looking Tina. Denied access to the house and to Tina, Randi persuaded the photographer to allow him to see a number of unpublished photos from the same series, and then he announced that Tina was in such a position that by yanking on the cord she conceivably could have caused the telephone to fly in the manner seen. Additionally, he notes, on at least one occasion Tina was observed to knock over a lamp and then feign surprise, an act she admitted to when confronted. McLuhan notes that this seems like an effective "debunking" to him, but when he pursues the matter further he finds that many more events were documented in this case by William Roll, a large number of which could not be explained by tricks as simple as yanking a phone cord or upsetting a lamp. These Randi ignores, preferring to "explain" only a few and suggesting that Roll was not a careful or competent observer. This sets something of a pattern for a large number of other skeptic vs. researcher accounts that McLuhan presents in detail as the book progresses.

Also in this chapter, McLuhan notes that many cases have been "solved" when the perpetrator confesses, but also notes that--with the notable exception of the Fox sisters, which he later discusses in some detail--the "confession" is often second or third hand and is not acknowledged by the supposed perpetrator, who at times vigorously denies there ever was such a confession. A notable example is to be found in the case of the Miami poltergeist. …

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