Robert McLuhan: Randi’s prize

An ancient rhetorical truth is that it is easier to get an audience to agree with something if they have already agreed with other things. It does not have to be big things, or important things, or even significant things. The mere act of having once nodded in agreement is a gateway drug, as it were, to keep nodding. Part of it is momentum – if a, then b, then probably c too, given the trajectory. Another part is the sheer fact that the orator has been agreeable thus far, thus having had time to establish themselves as someone who knows what they are talking about. Even if the things agreed upon are the rhetorical equivalent of small talk, the dynamic is much more favorable than if the orator went all in for the main points right from the get go. The audience has become familiar to the voice talking, and rhetorically that goes a long way.

One needs to keep this point in mind whilst reading Randi’s prize. Both in order to understand why the book is structured the way it is – it takes quite a long time to actually get talking about the titular prize – and in order to be aware that there comes a point where the book trades in its early merits for future favors. The painstaking historical account given in the early chapters do not, strictly speaking, inform the claims made later on. Yet, upon reading, an uncritical reader might find themselves nodding along out of sheer habit.

Before delving deeper, it might be prudent to specify just what Randi’s titular prize is. Its official title, the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, gives us a hint both as to the amount of money involved, and to what manner of activities are involved in winning it. The challenge was, to phrase it in its simplest form, to prove under scientifically controlled experimental conditions, agreed upon in writing beforehand, that something paranormal is going on. The ‘something paranormal’ could, by virtue of the vastly varying nature of paranormal claims made historically and at present, be any of a long list of things, from dowsing to mediumship to remote sensing. The exact nature of the scientific tests of these proclaimed paranormal abilities would naturally vary depending on which ability were to be tested. The general gist of it was that if the science bore out, then the prize money would follow.

It has to be said that this is a rather rational bet on the part of James Randi. Things that are outside the scope of modern science are (by definition) not prone to be tested under scientifically controlled experimental conditions (lest they had already been thusly tested, and become part of regular science). Claims of paranormal or supernatural activity are thus always-already outside the scope of scientific testing, which means that the likelihood of someone showing up with something that actually works is as close to zero as any human being would rationally factor in. There is a theoretical possibility that it might happen, but mathematically speaking winning the lottery would be more likely.

Here, we bump into an important dividing line. On the one side, we find those who claim that supernatural things are not real, which means they can not be demonstrated experimentally. On the other side, we find those who claim that supernatural things are real, and that the fact they can not be tested experimentally is a fault on the part of science. The author of this blog post leans toward the former (cf the anomaly on astrology), whilst McLuhan (no relation) leans towards the latter.

The early chapters outline the history of paranormal activity in 19th and early 20th century British and American context. They provide an interesting and informative introduction to the cultural practices of séances, table-turning and the consultation of mediums. They also make a point of correcting various accounts made by sceptics (of which Randi is one) about these very same cultural practices. Again and again, it is shown that sceptics got the historical facts wrong, and could have made their cases better had they but bothered to do their homework, rather than just dismiss the whole thing as mere nonsense. The rhetorical trajectory of proving sceptics wrong again and again is firmly established during these chapters, with many examples and at great length.

Here, it should be noted that there is a historical record of paranormal activity throughout time, and that it is important to keep it straight. The book does a great job of taking sceptics to task and demand that they apply the same attention to detail when discussing paranormal activity as when they do actual science. Being wrong in the name of being right is not a good look, and should not be among the virtues cultivated by those proclaiming to love science.

However – and here our introductory remarks on the rhetorical efficacy of small agreements come into play – the book then leverages these inconsistencies on the part of sceptics into a positive argument for the existence of telepathy and remote sensing. If we agree that the sceptics were wrong on these historically documented facts, the thrust of argumentation goes, then we might probably also agree that they are wrong too when they say that telepathy is impossible. After all, they do have a track record of being wrong – there were in fact whole chapters devoted to how wrong they were.

The philosophically appropriate objection to this line of reasoning is that someone being wrong about something does not mean the opposite is correct. Indeed, someone being wrong about one thing does not even mean they are automatically wrong about another thing. It does not follow from sceptics being wrong about séance culture that they are wrong about telepathy – moreover, even if they are, proving this would not constitute proof of telepathy as an actually existing thing. The momentum of rhetorical prowess does not hold sway on these things.

The irony is that if this book had limited itself to correcting the historical record, it would be a nice addition to the collections of esoteric books found in unexpected places (you know the ones). However, since it posits itself as a polemic against sceptics in general (and the titular James Randi in particular), it most likely will not find its way to those whose historical understanding needs amending, nor will it (since the titular prize was terminated in 2015) be anything but a historical, rhetorical and discursive anomaly.

Robert McLuhan: Randi’s prize