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Good review of evidence, weak review of explanations
on August 4, 2001
This is an interesting and well-written book and well worth reading for the "best evidence" it offers. It is certainly not just a credulous account, it does a very credible job of bringing some fascinating phenomena into the light. But I had to lower my rating a bit because I also found it very weak in its reasoning, conclusions, and scholarship, in its seemingly implied rhetorical purpose of putting the best evidence into rational or even scientific perspective.
The author seriously researched the evidence, and once he concluded that there was reasonable evidence for *something real* behind of the more seemingly unlikely phenomena, he seems to have made up his mind that the believers were right and the skeptics were simply being unreasonable. Clearly, this natural and very human leap of faith does not itself make this a balanced treatment, the author simply takes the side of the underdog, the psychic believer, and becomes a rational advocate in their behalf.
This is a reasonable thing to do, but the tone of the book misleads the reader into thinking this is a balanced treatment, or even a scientific one.
It is a very fair book in the sense that he considers the best evidence for things that seem impossible without rejecting them out of hand, which is laudable. But in doing so, he missed most of the important technical issues raised about each of the points of evidence. It isn't any more "open-minded" to reject skeptical explanations and interpretations out of hand than to reject credulous ones. The author takes a balanced tone, but does not produce a balanced treatment, indeed he sometimes bends over backwards to avoid seriously confronting the implications of the evidence he competently and clearly reviews. Some of the explanations just don't work. To his credit, he does point this out in places, but it doesn't make as strong an impression as the inference that the various "impossible" phenomena are actually real. The subtlety is lost on the reader.
In particular, the author does a very credible job presenting the _evidence_ for anomalous phenomena. I will agree with the other reviewers that far. But where he fails is that his scholarship is virtually non-existent. This may at first blush sound picky, but the reason this is an important criticism to the authors conclusions is that he takes almost no notice at all of the contextual factors in building theories for understanding the evidence. The intellectual history of the theories is missing. The evidence supposedly stands on its own, a very naive view of how science works.
In other words, his contribution here is to give us good evidence of something that really isn't all that hard to believe, that people have experienced and reported some seemingly inexplicable things. He is right that people who reject such reports out of hand simply out of surface implausibility would be cynics rather than reasoned skeptics. But he misses the nut ... because he doesn't review the whole issue of why one explanation is better than another. He often makes an intuitive but unscientific leap from something like "there is no way I can explain this experience" to "it must be a ghost !".
Evidence without context leaves us to simply apply arbitrarily selected theories, which is the greatest sin of weak parapsychology research. Good evidence of anomalies of information and energy transfer is not neccessarily also evidence for ghosts, reincarnation, or other elaborate supernatural beliefs. That's where the missing scholarship would have strengthened this book's message tremendously, and helped the author be more fair to the "debunkers" he glibly dismisses.
Logically, the fact that information or energy can be transmitted in some way that is not explained by one model obviously doesn't automatically mean that a spiritualist or supernatural model of similar anomalies is true.
One principle missed by the author provides an example. Information acquired in one sense at one time in one way can and is easily transformed by the brain into a completely different sense and a completely different form, at another time, which is amazing but not supernatural. People may detect illness in others by smell for example, and translate it to an "aura." Finding the diagnosis to be accurate wouldn't mean that the aura reading should be taken at face value as an electromagnetic reading of the spritual body.
Another similar case. The author sometimes talks about "mind" influencing "body," a scientific anachronism (since we now have evidence that is not reasonable disputable in neuroscience that the body embodies the mind). The phenomena of "mind over body," as remarkable as they can be, are more accurately considered phenomena of the body influencing itself in ways previously not known or not understood. Viewing them as influence of a non-corporeal spirit on a corporeal body is almost certainly archaic, and certainly unscientific. But the best evidence ?? The author does a very good job with the evidence, but misses the boat in the modes of explanation for that evidence, a subtle but crucial point for eventual understanding of the real phenomena behind the reported experiences.
I suppose I would give this book 4 stars if I weren't so disappointed by the missed opportunity here to do a really first rate job presenting the case for experimental parapsychology, which I think is often a worthwhile pursuit. But because of the lack of cultural or scientific context for the ideas, I have to give it 3, for a very good discussion of reports of anomalies but a failure to make anything of them. If we take this best evidence seriously , there are either more things in our natural world than we currently understand, or that there really is a supernatural world beyond our own. But we still have no idea even how to tell the one possibility from the other, other than making a metaphysical assumption. The author did the job of a good journalist, but not the job of a writer of exceptional books.