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Spooky Science: Debunking the Pseudoscience of the Afterlife, by John Grant

Publication Details: 
Sterling, ISBN-13: 978-1454916543
Publish date: 
October, 2015

In Spooky Science John Grant (Paul Barnett) examines a number of topics relating to life after death.  These include mediumship, hauntings, poltergeists, electronic-voice phenomena, the possible existence of the soul, out-of-body and near-death experiences and reincarnation.  The key to his approach is in the uncompromising subtitle: his core position is that definite support for the paranormal has not been forthcoming, but the will to believe helps to maintain conviction in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in a field beset by fakes and wishful thinking.  Psychical research to his mind has nothing in common with proper science and is doomed to failure.  He states:  ‘This is a wonderful defence mechanism for psychic research: Unless and until every single relevant report has been revealed as a farrago, the mantra runs, there’s no reason to believe that the supernatural is bunk’ (p. xv)

There are several problems with this assertion,  Leaving aside the issue of ‘the supernatural’ as a poor term for psychical research’s objects of study, Grant seems to not to have met any serious psychical researchers.  The areas which can be grouped under the umbrella of ‘the paranormal’, or even survival research, are not monolithic and individuals can have varying attitudes to different aspects according to their estimate of the evidential soundness or weakness of each.  Belief shouldn’t come into it (which is why the ‘sceptics versus believers’ characterisation is so unhelpful), and he appears to think that the psychical research community is somehow in denial about what is obviously rubbish, desperately holding on to whatever is as yet undebunked while the forces of rationalism whittle away their cherished but erroneous theories.  That the section the quotation comes from is titled ‘Why do we fall for it?’ indicates his attitude is that it is unlikely any report will escape the fate, if not now then later, of being described as a ‘farrago’ [of nonsense].

The major problem with this type of charge, and it is a common one, is that it assumes a lack of common sense on the part of the psychical researcher, able to hold on to some scrap of possibility only because the sceptics have not yet got round to exposing it for the fraud or error that it undoubtedly is.  Much of the criticism anyway comes from within the psychical research community (Grant mentions S. G. Soal as someone whose results have been exposed as ‘bogus’, and that is a very good example of an analysis by SPR researchers demonstrating his manipulation).  Yet the Soals of this world do not invalidate other areas of psychical research because they falsified results, just as a chemist or psychologist who fakes results does not thereby invalidate chemistry or psychology.

Despite the generally negative verdict on the subject, a section devoted to the SPR is actually fairly complimentary: ‘...the SPR is no dodgy fly-by-night organization populated solely by the credulous – although it has to be accepted that, over the decades, its membership has included plenty of the credulous among the skeptics…. It’s important to note that not all the promoters of the SPR and the various related societies were convinced that the paranormal actually existed; what they supported was research to find out whether or not it did.’ (pp. 22-3)  No examples of the credulous are provided and it would be informative to know whom Grant has in mind, but the final sentence still holds, as indicated by the SPR’s ‘no corporate opinions’ stance.

The conclusion – that it is dangerous to believe in one form of foolishness because it opens the door to belief in others (there’s that emphasis on belief again), a collective ‘brainrot’ as he puts it – reminds me of the assertion ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.’  Grant is as wrong as Émile Cammaerts was.  Our critical faculties do not automatically go out of the window simply because we choose to take such matters seriously.  It’s not a slippery slope to a new dark age of superstition and blind faith.  There are forces aplenty dragging us there at present, but I would not want to include psychical research, conducted along scientific lines, among them.  I feel a sense of déjà vu writing this because such accusations come up from time to time and are resistant to contrary views.  It seems there is a will be believe on the part of writers like Grant that is hard to overcome.

Spooky Science is one of a series on fringe science that Grant has compiled, hence he is not a specialist in the specific areas he covers.  Lack of depth in his research is apparent, and it also leads him to make the occasional error of fact.  The book essentially plays the old pseudosceptical trick of lumping together a load of topics with varying credibility and damning them by association.  Consequently it needs to be read with caution.  However, despite the clear bias it is still useful as it warns that it is easy to accept what we read without subjecting the evidence to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny; as with all such books, those interested in the subject should dig further and not assume that there is nothing more to be said.