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Michael Shermer in the Skeptic's Cage

by Matthew Cromer


A Review of the Debate

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On January 23 the Coast to Coast AM show, hosted by George Noory held its first "skeptic's cage debate" between skeptic Dr. Michael Shermer and three scientists engaged in psi research. You can access the entire debate here (fee required).


The debate began with hour 2 of Coast to Coast. The first researcher introduced was Dr. Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona. Schwartz received an impressive introduction which mentioned his 400 published research papers and 11 books edited. Schwartz began his long career with conventional research into psychiatry and psychology, but almost ten years ago began to conduct research into professional mediumship and whether mediums are able to contact the dead. Here's Schwartz introducing this research:


I began this work, certainly as a questioner. . . I had been raised to believe "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" - case closed. As a scientist my job is to explore phenomena and design experiments as carefully as possible and then let the data speak. Over the past now almost ten years, the research has just continued to reveal positive findings under ever more stringent conditions that could not be explained by the conventional ways of approaching this including what is called cold reading or warm reading or hot reading or rater bias or experimenter error or any of the things that any good scientist would want to remove.


Shermer replied that the evidence for mediumship is:


. . .pretty slim and fraught with experimental design problems. . . the lack of any kind of viable theory that would explain how our neural memories are downloaded into some other platform that lasts longer than the protein meat that we're are made out of, our DNA patterns, our memories, how do they get passed on, there is no good theory for how it would work even if the data were there to support it which in my opinion it isn't.


Schwartz retorted that Shermer hadn't even read the research he was criticizing:


First of all it would be nice if Michael was actually up to date with regard to the research. . . In this kind of research we handle that concern of yours very explicitly, meaning who does the rating. The way this is done which is absolutely definitive is that the sitter. . is not present at the time the reading is done. At a later point in time the sitter is given two readings, one is their reading and the other is a control reading, meaning it is a reading of somebody else. And they have to rate each item and they're doing it blindly, because they don't know which is theirs and which is the control [reading]. And under those circumstances whatever bias a given rater might have they're going to apply it equally to their reading and the control reading. And if under those circumstances the degree of accuracy is scored significantly higher when it's for their reading than when it's the control reading. . . it eliminates all of the concerns of the subjectivity which has been of course a legitimate question to ask. And this kind of research - by the way- has not only been done in our laboratory, it's also been done independently in Scotland with very similar results. So when you look at the actual experiments that have been done, it addresses Michael's concern and quite effectively.


Then Noory asked Schwartz how he could ever convince Michael Shermer of the validity of his research. Schwartz responds vigorously:


Well in order to convince someone like Michael he'd have to first of all actually read the experiments, and when he would make a comment like he just did, he would base it actually on knowledge as opposed to merely opinion. . . If he was basing it on actually knowing the experiments and experimental designs, he wouldn't make the statements that he makes.


Shermer was forced to admit he was not up to date with Schwartz's latest research, then stated that he would like to come to Schwartz's lab and watch the experiments being done so he can make sure this is not a repeat of the recent cloning fraud. Schwartz responds with an invitation to come observe and look at the raw data.

Next Shermer brought his trump card to the table:


What I'd really like to see from your superstar psychics is . . . tell us where Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried . . . [and] where is Osama?


Interestingly enough, we did get to hear both Schwartz and Shermer agree wholeheartedly about something. George Noory played an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and asked Schwartz and Shermer what they thought of it. In this case, both Shermer and Schwartz agreed: they did not know anything about the conditions the tape was recorded, people tend to hear patterns in random noise, and so it doesn't prove anything.

The next hour brought Dr. Russell Targ to the debate. Dr. Targ was introduced as a pioneer in laser research and later ESP research and remote viewing with the government at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). Russell began by talking about those discontinued government programs right out of the gate:


I've done laser work all my life as well. . . It's very hard to get three years continuous funding to do anything. If you had three years funding to put lasers on airplanes [to detect windshear], you've done something really fantastic. The fact that we had more than 20 years continuous support from the government is actually a paranormal event by itself.


Targ then began to describe some of the more notable successes during his government psi work:


One of the most remarkable ones that I've seen. . . One of our great psychics was a retired police commissioner named Pat Price. . . This was the time when the heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from the city of Berkeley [by the Symbionese Liberation Army]. A day after the kidnapping the police in Berkeley had no idea what to do, they were still looking for Symbia on the map. . . They had heard about our work and came to the director of Stanford Research Institute and said "do you think these psychic guys working for the CIA can help us"?. . .

Price said "I want to see a mug book, I want to see the usual subjects". . . Price was turning the pages, and he went through about a dozen pages, fifty different groups of four pictures, then he put his finger on one of these pictures and said "that's the man.". . . We read the name under it, and it was Donald DeFreeze, known as Cinque. That was the first anyone had ever heard of him, and Price had pulled the name right out of the air in front of us. . .


Targ then recalled how Pat Price had then described the exact location of the getaway car, which the Berkeley police then found with spent cartridges matching bullets found at the Hearst apartment crime scene.

Noory queried Shermer's opinion of this story. Instead of addressing the question, Shermer repeated a skeptic mantra from the previous hour: "Well, I'll tell you what would be astounding is if Russell and his remote viewers could tell us where Osama Bin Laden is."

Targ responds to the taunt coolly: "I think it's more useful for Michael to talk about the things we have done rather than the infinite number of things that we have not done.". He went on to describe how his team precisely located the kidnapped general Dozier in Italy and guided the US military to a downed Soviet bomber with nuclear bombs on it intact a feat that so impressed President Jimmy Carter that he accidentally revealed the code name of the psychic spy program at a press conference.

Shermer then accused Targ of only reporting hits and ignoring misses. Targ responded with a story of an experiment testing six neophyte army officers being trained as remote viewers: Six trials for each officer, six officers, thirty six trials, half first-place matches, with odds of less than 1 in a million by chance.

Shermer's responded again with his main objection to psychic phenomena: "Where's Jimmy Hoffa, where's Osama?"

The final segment brought Dr. Dean Radin to the debate to discuss his work performing parapsychology experiments and his meta-analyses of psi research.

In the opening segment, Dr. Radin introduced how he came to become involved with parapsychology research. After reading the work of Dr. Helmut Schmidt on mental effects on random number generators, Radin decided to try and replicate these results. He found to his great surprise that he was able to replicate them. Then George Noory asked Radin about the Global Consciousness Project. Radin outlined the basics of the program, describing the network of more than sixty random number generators, and that a pattern of deviations from expected randomness seems to occur at the time of events of worldwide attention and significance, such as major earthquakes and the September 11th attacks.

Shermer's response was entirely predictable by this point:


This really sounds absurd, sorry. . . Ridiculous. . . Tell us where Osama Bin Laden is. Not after the fact, post-hoc data analysis.


Radin replied that Shermer was misinformed:


The analyses we use are pre-planned hypotheses. We're not looking for interesting patterns in data.


Later on, the two sparred over the question of why skeptics do not accept the results of parapsychology experiments:


With quantum mechanics despite the fact that it's hard to understand and really weird. . . it's true and everybody accepts it. . . the data is so overwhelming. . . they have the data and you don't.


Radin's response:


You're equating a physics experiment against a psychological experiment. As you're probably well aware there are very few psychological experiments which will give you an arbritrary level of probability. . .You're dealing with a hyper-complex system. . . When you look at the meta-analyses, it's amazing that you do get overall very strong effects."


The whole quantum question came up again when Radin mentioned quantum entanglement as a possible model or mechanism for telepathy. Shermer replied that neurons in brain are much too large to show quantum effects.

Radin responded that the determining factor in neural activity was found in nano-sized microchannels within the synaptic cleft, where individual sodium and potassium ions can determine nerve responses, and that those ions absolutely are of the right scale to respond to quantum fluctuations.

The bottom line of the debate? Somebody should locate Bin Laden using remote viewing, or at least find Jimmy Hoffa's unmarked grave. Then parapsychologists can count on convincing Michael Shermer of the reality of psi phenomena. In that case perhaps the next skeptic debate will even feature a skeptic who actually bothers to read the research they are attacking.

More on this website about Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer's viewpoints are available online at the Skeptic website.
Dr. Schwartz's research on mediums is outlined at the VERITAS site.
You can read more about Dr. Targ's work on remote viewing at ESPResearch.com.
And Dr. Radin's website is at DeanRadin.com

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