Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Books: They want to believe.

When I first saw Poltergeist, I don't remember thinking it odd that the family in the haunted home would have no problem finding a parapsychology department ready to launch an investigation into the events at their home. Colleges and universities were big places full of smart people who spent all there time proving things and the like, so it made sense that you could just go to your nearest institution of higher learning and say, "Hey, anybody wanna see a ghost?"

Seeing The Haunting and Hell House and others did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that ghost hunting was a relatively typical scholarly pursuit for the academic set. In fact, because I rarely saw representatives from the considerably more common but less cinema-friendly specializations, it's probably fair to say that you would have had a harder time convincing me that somebody was a film studies scholar ("You watch movies? But everybody watches movies. You're pulling my leg.") than you would have had convincing me that somebody studied demonic possessions.

The most important illusion shattered by Stacy Horn's Unbelievable, a new fusion of J. B. Rhine bio and discursive history of American parapsychology from the early Twentieth Century to now, is the belief that a small army of dedicated paranormal researchers waits ready to set up shop in your crib at the slightest sign of supernatural shenanigans. The problem isn't that there are no paranormal researchers out there, but rather that they can afford to be picky. In a chapter dedicated to reproducing letters written to Rhine's Department of Parapsychology at Duke University, Horn drives home the fact that there is never any shortage of Americans who believe that the are the witnesses or victims of some force from beyond the purview of traditional science. Hauntings, people with ESP, aliens, prophetic dreamers, near death experiences, infants that make noises like barnyard animals – the oddest thing about people with unusual stories is how incredibly common such people seem to be. A virtual army of haunted and troubled souls kept Rhine, as well as his confederates and rivals in the field of parapsychology, busy for nearly 80 years.

There are two main threads to Horn's book. The first focuses on the life and times of Joseph Banks Rhine, the essential man of American parapsychology. A doctorate in botany, Rhine was put on the path to becoming the America's foremost expert on weirdness when he enrolled for a one-year psychology course in Harvard. Thrilled by the possibility of extra sensory perception, Rhine became famous for his work with Zener cards – those "cirle, square, bunch of wavy lines" cards you see in movies like Ghostbusters. Rhine became the George Washington of psychic research with the 1934 publication of Extra Sensory Perception, a stats heavy presentation of the results of several thousand ESP tests. Rhine and his team would become the face of psychic research well into the 1970s. The odd stories of Rhine's life, including efforts by the United States government and companies like IBM to harness Rhine's research, makes for interesting, if occasionally disheartening reading; but Rhine himself, as presented by Horn, is a draw in his own right. Pugnacious and stubborn, Rhine was determined to prove the existence of psychic phenomenon, a drive that could blind him to his own assumptions and biases. At the same time, however, he was capable of extreme skepticism and innately cautious about the possibility of such phenomenon. In fact, Rhine's increasing isolation from a loony fringe that he was largely responsible for creating plays out like an odd cautionary tale with Frankenstein-esque undertones.

The second thread, woven through Rhine's story, is a meandering overview of parapsychology as a whole, including stops at some of America's most famous, or infamous, "paranormal" events. We get séances with William James (this book would make an excellent bookend to Deborah Blum's The Ghost Hunters), spiritualist-busting crusade of Houdini, the story of the demonic possession the inspired The Exorcist, the Amity haunting, and a dozen other cases. Some of the stories are perplexing, others are hilarious, but they are all entertaining. Horn introduces readers to true believers and cranks, diligent researchers and frauds, and while she's a true believer herself, she doesn't hesitate to point out when a mystery has a readily available, non-supernatural explanation at hand. Still, Horn's arguments for the existence ESP and other features of the supernatural world might be so objectionable to some that the pleasures of this tour will be lost on them. This need not be the case. I didn't come away from the book believing in ESP, past lives, ghosts, or what have you, and I still thoroughly enjoyed Horn's wonderfully writing.

Which brings us to the second, and more important, illusion shattered in Unbelievable. This illusion involves the limits of scientific knowledge. Not the old chestnut that there are "more things on heaven and earth," but rather about the glamour of legitimacy the trappings of science can cast over even the most doomed intellectual endeavors. Unintentionally, Horn's written a strange sort of intellectual tragedy about bright people who are convinced that science is on their side, even when they again and again run into unrepeatable results, lack of evidence, strong counter evidence, and other factors that are science's way of telling the researcher that they are wrong. Again and again, researchers evoke metaphorical arguments (because Thing X reminds one of so-called "spooky action from a distance," which is proven, then Thing X must be true too), arguments based on authority (much is made of the fact that Einstein was open to the possibility of psychic phenomena, though he never studied the issue and the topic fell well outside his area of expertise), or demand special consideration for their evidence. The worst example of this last form of pseudo-scientific thinking is when, confronted with data they cannot reproduce, theorists of ESP or whatever other phenomena advance theories about why reproducibility doesn't apply to the phenomena being examined Such is the case with ESP researchers who theorized that emotional states – too mercurial and finely grained to ever be perfectly reproducible – have a profound effect on psychic ability. As innocuous as that claim may be, it is an attempt bow out of the obligations of reproducibility and places the studied phenomenon on the same level as miracles. "It happened, but you'll have to take my word for it." The quixotic efforts of these researchers haven't brought anybody any closer to understanding these alleged psychic phenomena. They've only demonstrated how smart, even brilliant, people can prove unequal to the task of subjecting desires, prejudices, ambitions, and emotional needs to the rigors of scientific investigation. And it's that tragic lack of self-knowledge that, perhaps even more than the self-limiting nature of scientific inquiry, marks the bound of scientific knowledge.


Sasquatchan said...

"saaayy. You're really good at this. How would you like to come by my apartment for dinner tonight and we perform some additional experiments ?"

(too bad IMDB doesn't have the exact quote, so that's from memory..)

CRwM said...

"The purpose of science is to serve mankind. But you seem to regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!"

spacejack said...

I just want to know if testing negative reinforcement on ESP ability is scientifically valid.

Sasquatchan said...

"It looks like some wavy lines"
No, sorry. BZZZTT!
(kid spits gum out)..



"You know, you don't act like a scientist. More like a game show host"

Brian said...

Excellent piece.

The absolute necessity for "falsifiability" seems lost on psi advocates and researchers. Bring it up and their eyes glaze over. But there's no proof without it.