What a very strange “President’s Letter” is in Issue 77 of the Paranormal Review published by the Society of Psychical Research (Winter 2016). I read and re-read it trying to make heads or tales out of Dr. Poynton’s meaning and assertions. He seems to despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy “pathological” scientists and skeptics would just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.
Fortunately, you can view the letter here (scroll down a bit past the editorial). Take a read and see what you think.
130 years ago, the first SPR President Sidgwick lamented why people did not accept psychic evidence. He asserted that more and better evidence must be needed to convince them, and he and his esteemed colleagues must go get it. Today’s President Poynton’s view remains that the ‘mass of evidence is enormous” in support of psi, yet those annoying debunkers debunk – he specifically mentions Wikipedia and skeptical publications. I have read the latest and greatest compendium on parapsychology and viewed the data and conclusions presented there. Not everyone agrees on that “mass of evidence” but they sure do demonize the Skeptical approach.
Poynton calls such inquiry and doubt “scientific credulity” and labels it “cognitive pathology”. Its deep roots need to be killed, he says, and that will happen only when the old guard dies. Those are some very strong words for a field that remains desperate to hold on to any remaining credibility 130 years later. Yet, Poynton blames the outside world (critics who aren’t convinced by the evidence, and Wikipedia editors).
Could it be that the Skeptics are hitting a nerve? Or are we dogmatists? I say the former since the track records for extraordinary claims like dowsing, psychic powers, astrology, alien visitation, Creationism, faith healing, etc. are getting nothing but worse. I think we’re right to be doubtful these claims are true. Science progresses. These fields of study do not. Not even after centuries!
Critical thinkers in the know about mainstream health claims are familiar with the difference between evidence-based medicine and science-based medicine. Evidence-based studies can support usefulness of chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture and other alternative treatments. But the mechanism for these remains non-existence and pre-scientific – magical thinking, so to speak. More importantly, the studies have not been robust and convincing. Other explanations apply; not the ones proponents of alternative treatments espouse. Applying scientific reasoning to the empirical results allows us to take a deeper look into why these claims remain problematic and why we should be very cautious about accepting the claims at face value. This same rationale applies to why the scientific community generally is unaccepting of psi. It isn’t making sense.
Poynton wishes to hang EVERYTHING on empirical evidence (which he seems to equate to raw observations of seeing and hearing). He never mentions controls, alternative explanations and faulty studies and conclusions. He even states that it’s a mistake to consider reason above observations. Citing Kant on ghosts, he ridicules Kant’s sentiment that “even if real ghosts exist, a rational person must still not believe in them, because it corrupts all use of reason”. Much of the content here seems to be from Poynton’s 2015 book “Science, Mysticism and Psychical Research”. It sounds exactly like the common argument from psi proponents to reject materialism and “change the rules” of science because it’s not giving us the answers we want. I guess I need to read up on my Kant (who was a scathing critic of Swedenborg, a founding father of spiritualism).
Poynton projects very clearly in this essay that BELIEF should be the default, not disbelief. Where on earth would it have gotten us if we embraced the Enlightenment as “pathology”? Weird. I don’t get it. Parapsychology proponents are perplexing. Explanatory comments welcomed.