Paul Kurtz (editor)


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

Prometheus is a firm that specializes in publishing sceptical books, and this one is no exception. Altogether there are 27 contributors, including Kurtz himself, who is a philosopher and chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). At least two of these, Eric Dingwall and Susan Blackmore, are disillusioned former parapsychologists,

The first section is a historical overview. As might be expected, there is a detailed account, by Ray Hyman, of the discrediting of S.G. Soal's research. Soal was a mathematician who carried out research in ESP for five years before the second world war. He obtained dramatically positive results, but it now appears that he almost certainly faked his figures. The fraud question, not surprisingly, is a prominent theme in the book, and in fact the longest section, with 10 contributors, focuses on this. It is followed by a section entitled: "Parapsychology: Science or Pseudoscience?". The authors in this part all conclude that the answer to this question is "pseudoscience"; a recurrent complaint is that there is no coherent body of theory to explain the alleged phenomena. The final section includes a good discussion of near-death experiences by Gerd H. Hovelmann.

This book is certainly calculated to annoy believers in ESP, who probably won't read it anyway. Even the uncommitted reader may find the tone irritating at times, for the sceptic is always liable to fall into the trap of smugness and not all the contributors manage to resist it completely. The book does contain a section called "Parapsychologists reply", but this isn't as much of a concession as you might think, for only one of the three contributors is an unreserved believer in the reality of paranormal phenomena. This is John Beloff, an academic psychologist, who defends his position in part by citing the case of the nineteenth-century physical medium Eusapia Palladino—a choice which, he admits, may seem surprising. Of the two other contributors in this section, Douglas M. Stokes thinks the ESP question is still uncertain and more research is needed, while Susan Blackmore was formerly a researcher in parapsychology but was unable to find any evidence for ESP and has now concluded that the whole enterprise needs to be radically rethought. What all this amounts to is that the book is well described by its title: its real purpose is to provide ammunition for disbelievers in the paranormal rather than to offer a balanced discussion of the question it addresses.

%T A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology
%A Paul Kurtz (ed)
%I Prometheus
%C Buffalo, New York
%D 1985
%G ISBN 0 87975 300 5
%P xxvii + 727 pp
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