“Extraordinary people, ordinary evidence”

Here’s just something for the archives. I rarely write book reviews nowadays (although I often get invited to do so), partly because they can become extremely time-consuming. After all, to be fair to the book’s authors or editors, you do need to actually read the book in question before reviewing it (a principle that, as far as I can tell, does not command universal adherence). Of course if the book is terrific, then that’s no problem; you’d be glad to read it anyway whether or not you were invited to write a review. But if the book is poor, then things become uncomfortable; reading it to completion and then writing the review can be extremely tedious indeed.

In addition, the act of book reviewing is fraught with petards with which a reviewer can easily be hoisted. A poorly written book review invites ridicule: any criticisms of the book in question will look extremely tenuous if the criticisms are themselves ineptly rendered. And an attempt to challenge an author’s argument will look risibly self-indulgent (if not arrogant) if it is itself poorly founded. These risks, coupled with the plain fact that scholarly book reviews tend to be seen as having a low academic value these days (probably because they are refereed so cursorily, if at all, by editors before going to press), mean that I am rarely tempted to accept an invitation.

Occasionally though, I take the plunge. Last year, I was invited to review a book on psychics for the American Psychological Association’s Review of Books, PsycCRITIQUES. The book, Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People, edited by Stanley Krippner (a professor of psychology at Saybrook University in San Francisco) and Harris L. Friedman (a “research professor” at the University of Florida in Gainesville, although I couldn’t find him on their website), was published by Praeger.

  • My review is posted online here.

As you will see, my review was not entirely positive. It duly attracted a degree of attention. Firstly, it was covered (favourably) on the journal’s own blog. Then the parapsychology community became involved. The book’s editors contacted the editors of PsycCRITIQUES and demanded a right to reply. PsycCRITIQUES agreed to this, but only on the basis that I be invited to pen a reply to their reply.

  • Friedman and Krippner’s reply to my review is here.
  • My reply to their reply is here.

Finally, just this month, my review was cited again (prompting me to write this blog post), this time in no less a venue than the Editorial of the esteemed Journal of Parapsychology. The Editorial was written by Etzel Cardeña, a Professor of Psychology at Lund University in Sweden. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, I can’t link the full text here. (However, the journal’s website is here, while readers with library [e.g., university] subscriptions to the journal should be able to view the contents via their supplier [often ProQuest Science Journals or Wilson Omnifile FT]).

  • The full reference is: Cardeña, E. (2011). Guest editorial: On wolverines and epistemological totalitarianism. Journal of Parapsychology, 75 (1), 3-14.

[UPDATE 16/8/11: The text of the Cardeña editorial is currently posted here]

Cardeña is a big fish in the parapsychology world, having previously held the Presidencies of the Parapsychological Association and of Division 30 (Hypnosis) of the American Psychological Association. His guest editorial purports to consider the term “skeptic“, although he notably abstains from anything as refined as a mere dictionary definition or philosophical treatise. Instead, he adopts an approach not unfamiliar to seven-year-olds: namely, the listing of a series of attributes beginning with the letters “s”, “k”, “e”, “p”, “t”, “i”, and “c”. I’m serious.

So let’s play along. According to Cardeña, the person who calls him- or herself a “skeptic” is simplistic and knowledge-adverse [sic], ensures that other perspectives cannot be considered, is pejorative toward antagonists, aims to terrify others (!), holds inconsistent standards, and uses circular reasoning. You see what he did there? (But Cardeña is not against all skeptics. Some skeptics are good. He gives the example of editors who publish pseudoscientific articles in respectable journals. They are good skeptics because their skepticism is directed toward mainstream academia and the bulk of prevailing empirical evidence gathered to date. A bit like climate-change skeptics. Or holocaust deniers.)

For the record, Cardeña’s comments on me are as follows:

Consider a recent review of a book on neurobiological aspects of people claiming psi abilities. In it, Hughes (2010) chastises the authors for “casting aspersions” on “useful science” yet has no problem in stating that psi phenomena “do not exist in a way that can be seen, heard, felt, witnessed, or recorded by a disinterested observer [Cardeña’s emphasis],” failing to follow his own advice about aspersions.

He also writes that the authors need to “acquire higher standards of epistemology,” yet has no compunction in citing a meta-analysis of psi research (Milton & Wiseman, 1999) while failing to mention both the criticisms against various aspects of that study (Bem, Palmer, & Broughton, 2001) and a more comprehensive and recent meta-analysis (Storm, Tressoldi, & Di Risio, 2010)…

…One point on which I agree with Hughes, though, is that some authors writing on parapsychology, spirituality, or similar topics are inconsistent in decrying mainstream science and the scientific method while at the same time using, admiring, and quoting scientific research data that may be interpreted as supporting their ideology.

Very quickly, the first point falls because the quotation offered is factual rather than slanderous — psi phenomena cannot be verified by disinterested observers — and so therefore is not an aspersion. If Cardeña could offer even one example where a disinterested observer has verified a psi phenomenon, then this would be more effective than simply stating that my criticism is an aspersion. (In fact, erroneously accusing me of casting aspersions is itself an aspersion, meaning that Cardeña is one-seventh of the way to being a skeptic himself.) The second point falls because criticisms of methodology, such as they might be, are not criticisms of epistemology. Methodology and epistemology are two utterly different things. And the third point? Well, the third point stands. But then that’s the one that Cardeña actually agrees with me on.

Incidentally, the third point is also the one I presented as the core argument of my original review, the point that the book’s own editors felt moved to object to. But Cardeña doesn’t mention this. Perhaps he is holding “inconsistent standards” in a deliberate attempt to “terrify” me.

It didn’t work.

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