Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Academic freedom and supernatural occurrences by Stephen Braude

I'm usually a little skeptical of folks who press the "lack of academic freedom" button too much, especially when they're doing apologetics. Very often, this appeal is meant to cover up the need to form good, cogent arguments. When people invoke the lack of academic freedom (for theism or Islam-friendly ideas) these days, they sometimes see it as a means to absolve themselves from the responsibility of forming good arguments. Of course, lack of academic freedom is just one part of the issue. You can't blithely rest your entire case on that one sociological phenomenon and move on with life.

That said, the academia's naturalistic leanings are pretty much beyond doubt. I've noticed this in the course of my modest ventures in the evolution-creation debate. A problem in dealing with that, however, is that claims of suppression of academic freedom are most often anecdotal, and therefore very difficult to verify. In his book on paleontology titled Buried Alive, creationist Jack Cuozzo details how his entire family was chased down by international security forces for the "crime" of being a creationist while studying fossil hominids with advanced technological equipments (with permission from the authorities). I definitely sympathize with his ordeal, but there's no way of knowing what percentage of that story is factual. Same goes for Marvin Lubenow's Bones of Contentions book, where he knocks mainstream paleontology for not being "transparent" enough. Michael Cremo wrote a 1000-page book (Forbidden Archaeology) jam-packed with examples of ignored fossil and taphonomic finds from before an "orthodoxy" on human evolution was established in the academia, making the basic point that there's a tremendous amount of data-sifting in paleontology. These are issues that need to be looked into, but also not very easy to verify. For those who haven't seen it already, I recommend this very well-made movie on the topic as well.

So in a recent book I have been reading by philosopher Stephen Braude whom I've referenced earlier in my blog, I've found the most lucid and compelling presentation for the case for academic data suppression against any idea adverse to Naturalism. The issue in question happens to be parapsychology- which entails the idea that reality can't be completely described as an interplay of matter and energy in the way theoretical physics postulates them. It may also entail that libertarian freedom is real, there are such things as enduring personal identities and consciousness (i.e. soul), there are agents other than human beings in the world, and that there is a life after death. Huge can of worms for sure. The academic suppression is all the more "expected".

I think it's worth quoting Braude's entire relevant discussion (in the latter half of the book's preface) in full. I know for a fact my blog's readership don't mind length when good material is involved (and forgive the messy formatting in some places):

I began looking carefully at parapsychological research in 1976, five years into my career as a professional philosopher. In the three decades since then, I’ve lost my innocence about academic freedom, and I’ve learned a good bit about human nature. And I can tell you, it’s been a real eye-opener to see how my colleagues treated me once I started down this path.

Initially, my philosophical research was at the intersection of the philosophy of language, the philosophy of time, and logic. I published a number of respectable technical articles in several of the most prestigious professional journals (easily enough to get me tenure), and I’d begun to form alliances and friendships with some of the major figures working in my areas of philosophy. But once I declared my interest in investigating the issues and data of parapsychology, my professional status and relationships underwent a rapid and profound transformation. It didn’t matter that I had no ax to grind (one way or the other) about the outcome of my investigation. Several years earlier I had witnessed an impressive and apparently paranormal occurrence,3 and I felt professionally and morally obligated, with the freedom allegedly provided by tenure, to confront the matter and try to understand what had happened. Moreover, I knew that some thoughtful and very important philosophers (most notably, William James, Charles S. Peirce, Henry Sidgwick, C. J. Ducasse, C. D. Broad, H. H. Price) had found parapsychological research an area worth examining. And I thought it would be not simply interesting but important to see what the fuss was all about, and to consider whether the material merited even deeper study. For some this turned out to be enough to brand me as a crackpot, and it became
even worse when I decided that, in fact, there was something here worth sinking my philosophical teeth into.

I certainly don’t regret having chosen to pursue this line of research, and I’m actually grateful for what I’ve learned about my academic colleagues. The situation I confronted is a bit like what happens in divorces (another matter in which I’ve had some experience). Because divorces are stressful for many besides the couple in question, they provide opportunities to discover previously hidden aspects of a person’s character, and as a result, you quickly gain a fresh perspective about friends and acquaintances. The insights may be painful, but it’s usually better to be clear about such things. Here, too, I had quite a few revelations. Some philosophers I expected to be open-minded and intellectually honest instead behaved with surprising rigidity and cowardice. I clearly knew the evidence and issues much better than they did, but they condescendingly pretended to know this material well enough to ridicule my interest in it. And suddenly I found that I was no longer welcome in certain professional conversations, as if these philosophers’ former confidence in my intellectual ability had been a complete mistake. My surprise over this treatment shows just how naïve I was. I had really thought that as philosophers—as people presumably devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and truth—my colleagues would actually be willing to admit their ignorance and be curious to learn more. I genuinely believed they’d be excited to discover that certain relevant bits of received wisdom might be mistaken.

Fortunately, at least some revelations were more encouraging. Several philosophers whom I thought would be inflexible or disinterested surprised
me with their honesty, courage, and open-mindedness. And some reactions I’ve never fully understood. One famous philosopher (I won’t say who) said to me, “Well if someone has to do this I’m glad it’s you.” I think that was meant as a compliment, but it’s obviously open to multiple interpretations.

This all started thirty years ago, and since then I’ve become somewhat marginalized for pursuing my interest in the paranormal. I’m sure that
wouldn’t have happened if I had assumed the role of steadfast debunker. History has shown that’s a very safe activity, professionally; in fact, it’s something academics can easily exploit in order to gain prominence in their field, and for which they needn’t even do their homework. (It also enabled one formerly and deservedly obscure, but now notorious, magician to achieve a remarkably unwarranted degree of fame and respect.) And although I believe I understand how intellectual cowardice and dishonesty can take root, it still amazes me that when I so much as raise the subject of parapsychology to my academic colleagues, I often find nothing but stiff body language, sarcasm, and (perhaps most surprising of all) sometimes even outrage. Not exactly the way you’d expect truth-seekers to respond to serious and thoughtful empirical and philosophical investigation. In fact, it seems plainly to be a fear response.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so often dishonest. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when academics and scientists don’t want to look carefully and fearlessly at the data of parapsychology, they often lapse quickly into various disgraceful behaviors. For example, some try to dismiss all the evidence by generalizing from the obviously weakest cases, a ploy they’d be quick to detect and condemn if it had been used against them. In fact, philosophers educate and warn students about that disreputable strategy in virtually every class in logic or critical thinking.

Moreover, some promote their skepticism about parapsychology with a confidence that’s wildly disproportionate to their command of the data.
That’s what I find so striking about the sarcasm I frequently encounter. Arguably, sarcasm is not an admirable personality trait, and perhaps it’s seldom an appropriate conversational response. In any case, when it’s used to dismiss a person’s informed interest in parapsychology, it could only be warranted if its user had the knowledge to back it up. In that situation, sarcasm is always employed with a presumption of authority. But in fact, those who sarcastically dismiss parapsychology typically know little, if anything, about the field. They haven’t carefully studied the data or issues for themselves. Even more remarkably, they know they lack this knowledge.
They know their opinions, no matter how strongly held, have no authority behind them.

That’s why, when people passionately and arrogantly tell me how weak the parapsychological evidence is (especially the non-laboratory evidence),
it’s very easy to make them look foolish by demanding that they demonstrate their command of the data. Simply insist that they describe in detail
the cases that matter—not the ones easiest to dismiss; insist that they explain why those cases are thought to be so good, and then insist that they explain exactly why that opinion is wrong. This is a very effective way to study the varieties of human discomfort.

It’s not that I expect others to agree with my views simply because I’ve done the research and considered the issues, and they haven’t. I’d be satisfied with a little curiosity and honest humility. When my interlocutors are aware that they haven’t studied the evidence, a more admirable response would be something like, “I was under the impression that this evidence was flawed, because . . . Do you disagree? If so, why?” Tellingly, I’m most likely to encounter that sort of modest response from other philosophers only when I interview candidates for faculty openings in our department. Those people are in no position to engage in the posturing and dishonest bluffing they’ll likely lapse into once they’re comfortably ensconced in a job.

Of course, not everyone in the academy fits this gloomy picture. A few others have also done serious research into the paranormal, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. And (like me) some of them chose to break ranks only after getting tenure. Others have simply refrained from open condemnation, while privately admitting to me their interest in what I’m doing. Some of those have even confided their own apparent encounters with the paranormal, and they’ve made those admissions while conceding that their experiences seem to be paranormal and that they’re at a loss to explain them away. I’ve actually had quite a few conversations of that sort, and for some reason, most of the reported experiences are of apparitions. I think it’s significant and revealing that these scientists and scholars will admit their experiences to me, but not to their other colleagues. I believe it shows just how cutthroat the academic community can be. Even senior and prominent members of that community recognize that their reputations hang tenuously on remaining conspicuously within the mainstream. They realize they’d be treated with the same ignorant and cowardly disdain and dishonesty I’ve faced for the past several decades.

I’ve had similar experiences with mental health professionals, including MAs, PhDs, and MDs. I’ve come to know quite a few members of that
community since writing my book on multiple personality. Once it became known that I’d done extensive and open-minded research in parapsychology,
many started confiding to me apparent psychic episodes involving their patients. They also made it very clear that these conversations needed
to remain confidential. And that wasn’t because they were protecting therapist/patient confidentiality. (In fact, nothing they said to me revealed the identity of their patients.) Rather, they were simply unwilling to risk possible ridicule and ostracism by revealing their experiences to their colleagues. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a great shame. These researchers are missing a potentially valuable opportunity to compare notes and possibly discover illuminating patterns in the data. I suppose to some extent I can do that for them, based on the information they’ve provided. But this is a job that should be undertaken by a mental health professional, someone who understands more deeply than I the subtleties and dynamics of clinical encounters.

Predictably, faculty and researchers aren’t the only ones targeted for what should be seen as a laudable expression of intellectual curiosity. Students also pay a price. I hear this frequently from young audience members at invited talks and in unsolicited letters and e-mails. In fact, many of my students have told me that their mentors (usually in the psychology department) threatened them with reprisals, or at least lavished on them the sort of ridicule I’ve often encountered, simply because they declared their intention to take my seminar in philosophy and parapsychology. However, most of those students merely wanted the opportunity to study the material and make up their own minds about it. I know this; I taught them and saw how critical and curious they could be, and how most didn’t enter the class with their minds made up one way or the other about what was going on.

Perhaps it will be helpful to consider how the type of intellectual dishonesty I’ve been discussing plays out in detail, in a real case. In February 1985 I was invited to give a talk and appear on a television program at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport. Both my talk and the subject of the program were titled “Taking Mediumship Seriously,” and both focused on the issues I raised in The Limits of Influence, which I was then in the process of completing, and which was published the following year. That book, and my presentations in Brockport, dealt with the evidence for the dramatic forms of physical mediumship that flourished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even more generally, I wanted to defend the search for parapsychological evidence outside the lab and also explode the myths concerning the relative merits of strictly experimental work. So I wanted to show not only that eyewitness testimony is much better than it’s typically made out to be, but that some older cases from the heyday of spiritualism are (contrary to the received wisdom) spectacularly
good and important.

So my hosts at SUNY Brockport were offering me two opportunities to present my opinions on these topics, and I was told that on the TV program
I’d be asked to defend those views against challenges from a skeptic. That was fine with me. I was accustomed to fielding questions from (sometimes hostile) audience members during talks on the subject. I was confident about the positions I was taking, and after more than five years of immersion in the material and issues, I felt I knew the subject probably as well as anybody on the planet. However, I naïvely expected that my critic and I would engage in a relatively high-level dialogue, of the sort that I’d had already with several of my friends in the parapsychological community. In fact, I’d been told that the matters under discussion were among my critic’s special interests. At the very least, I expected him to be well-informed.

I appeared on the television program with two members of the SUNY Brockport philosophy department. One served mainly as host, and evidently
he had no views on the matter he was eager to promote. In fact, throughout my visit he displayed a commendably careful and inquisitive open mind. The other participant turned out to be the department’s self-styled debunker, who was there ready to discount everything he apparently felt I stood for. There’s no need to mention this person’s name (we can call him M. G.). The important thing is that he provided a classic, and not even remotely sophisticated, example of the sort of resistance and dishonesty I’ve encountered many times since. The show was videotaped, and I’ve often played the tape for my students. I’m pleased to say they’ve usually been appalled by this philosopher’s attempts not only to evade the issues, but to dismiss the mediumistic evidence with an authority I demonstrated he clearly lacked, and which he must have known that he lacked. In fact, by the time my students viewed the tape, they knew the evidence better than my critic did, and they understood easily how M. G. tried to conceal his ignorance, and how he intentionally and repeatedly reverted to disreputable straw man arguments: generalizing from irrelevant or weak cases, and ignoring precisely those reports to which the usual skeptical objections don’t apply. (Reproducing our dialogue verbatim would undoubtedly be instructive, but it would also take us too far afield. For now, a paraphrase will have to do.)

It was really a remarkable, and embarrassingly transparent, performance. M. G. began by repeating a familiar skeptical refrain: that mediumistic
evidence was all collected under poor conditions of observation, with the phenomena under complete control of the medium, and reported by credulous observers with no expertise in legerdemain. I quickly cited a case (Crookes’s accordion-in-a-cage test, described in chapter 2) to which those concerns didn’t apply, and shortly thereafter I was able to add a few others (also described in chapter 2). Oddly, however, M. G. kept reiterating his initial criticism regarding the quality of the evidence. And he tried dismissing all the evidence at once by saying the reports were nothing but hearsay. I realized immediately that he didn’t know how much of the best evidence was first-person testimony written immediately after séances or dictated to a nearby stenographer as phenomena happened. I assumed M. G. wouldn’t have been so foolish as to think (or claim) that first-person testimony counted as hearsay, because then all testimony would have counted as unacceptable from his point of
view. I never found the opportunity to see if M. G. held a double standard, by asking him whether his reservations about testimony applied equally to skeptical reports that the phenomena in question didn’t happen. But I did ask him if he’d ever read the source material for the cases I had cited, and he admitted he hadn’t and that his information about the mediums in question had been taken entirely from the literature attempting to debunk the evidence. So M. G. admitted, and certainly demonstrated, that he had no clue why anyone would have doubted the accounts as presented in the debunking literature.

But since it was clear that M. G. couldn’t then challenge me authoritatively on the best documented and most scrupulously investigated cases,
the ones I had argued mattered and were most difficult to explain away, over and over he tried to shift attention away from those cases. Repeatedly, he mentioned examples of mediums who’d been caught cheating, or to particular investigations of the better mediums which had been poorly controlled or which were otherwise unimpressive. In response, I conceded again and again that many hundreds of fraudulent mediums had been exposed and that many séances had been conducted for convinced spiritualists with no attempt made to control for fraud. Furthermore, I insisted that this was why, in order to decide whether mediumistic psychokinesis was genuine, it was important to look at the strongest cases, precisely those in which fraud or malobservation are least likely. Naturally, these would be studies conducted under good controls and conditions of observation, with critical and experienced observers, and with reported phenomena of a magnitude that couldn’t be accounted for either in terms of existing technology or sleight of hand. But M. G. ignored this, and in addition to once again citing weak and irrelevant cases, he also retreated to marginally relevant generalities about the age of the material and the impossibility of ever being certain how a mediumistic
trick might have been performed. In response to that last gambit, I tried to keep M. G. on track. I kept trying to force him to demonstrate how
his concerns applied to any of the obviously strongest cases. But since he didn’t know the specifics of any good cases, M. G. returned to his original skeptical mantra: that mediumistic evidence was all gathered under poor conditions, etc. Of course, that was a position whose inadequacies we had already discussed.

I remember vividly what passed through my mind as I sat, with uncharacteristic patience, listening to M. G. as he reintroduced the same feeble
and irrelevant objections whose flaws I had already exposed. M. G. had trouble looking at me as he spoke; he was stumbling over his words and
clearly grasping for something substantial to say. It became clear to me that he had already exhausted the skeptical weapons in his arsenal and that he was unprepared for a knowledgeable debate. So as the program progressed and M. G. kept repeating his handful of stock objections, I felt that he only disgraced himself further. M. G. was digging himself into an increasingly deep hole by allowing me to remind viewers—over and over—how little he knew about the material. Ironically, his attempts to appear authoritative were having precisely the opposite effect.

What amazes me most about this exchange is that my critic was ready to appear in a public forum, knowing that his performance would be recorded
for posterity. Although M. G. must have known he had only a cursory and one-sided acquaintance with the evidence, he was ready to flaunt his ignorance on television and go head-to-head with someone who very likely knew much more about the subject than he did. To me, it was a remarkable
display of hubris and stupidity, and I have to think it was motivated largely by M. G.’s firmly held belief, or deep fear, that my views represented or entailed a worldview that was dangerously irrational, signaling a reversion to a primitive and magical form of thinking that needed to be resisted at all costs. If I’m right about this, then M. G. was at least correct about the implications of my position. As I see it, there is something fundamentally correct about allegedly magical thinking and reputedly outmoded animistic conceptions of the world (for more on this see The Limits of Influence). But my critic’s response to me was anything but scholarly or admirable. Ironically, in fact, it exemplified a form of irrationalism and dishonesty that’s at least as repugnant as anything he was trying to combat.

1 comment:

  1. Salam Alaykum,

    To be honest, I only skimmed through the above, but from what I have heard this is the rule even in 'Islamic Academia' in 'Prestigious Universities' as well: That is, you are going to get nowhere until you hold the belief that Islam is ultimately a "collection of fairy tales" and then the openings may perhaps start to appear for your research, but until then 'Good Luck' as they say.

    [I think it is also related to my previous comment in your previous article, that the theme of extreme naturalism runs pretty much throughout the study of history as well, thus in the case of Islam the ruling assumption is that claims of miracles are 'lies' one way or the other, since naturalism has no space for such things.]

    Wa Salam

    ReplyDelete