First Person – Into the Unknown

New Scientist, 4 November 2000, p 55

At last, I’ve done it. I’ve thrown in the towel, kicked the habit and gone on the wagon. After thirty years, I have escaped from a fearsome addiction.

To be truthful, I’m not really sure I’ve gone cold turkey yet. Only last month I was at a psychical research conference. Only days ago, I emptied the last of those meticulously organised filing cabinets, fighting the little voice that warned: “Don’t do it, you might want to read that again” with a stronger one that urged: “You’ve given up!” as I threw paper after paper on ESP, psychokinesis, psychic pets, aromatherapy and haunted houses into the recycling sack. If cold turkey does strike, the dustbin men will have taken away my fix.

Come to think of it, I feel slightly sad. It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena – only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic.

So why didn’t I give up then? There are lots of bad reasons. Admitting you are wrong is always hard, even though it’s a skill every scientist needs to learn. And starting again as a baby in a new field is a daunting prospect. So is losing all the status and power of being an expert. I have to confess I enjoyed my hard-won knowledge. Yes, I have read Michael Faraday’s 1853 report on table tipping, and the first 1930s studies in parapsychology, and the latest arguments over meta-analysis of computer-controlled ESP experiments, not to mention the infamous Scole report (Feedback, New Scientist, 22 January). Should I feel obliged to keep using this knowledge if I can? No. Enough is enough. None of it ever gets anywhere. That’s a good enough reason for leaving.

But perhaps the real reason is that I am just too tired – and tired above all of working to maintain an open mind. I couldn’t dismiss all those extraordinary claims out of hand. After all, they might just be true, and if they were then swathes of science would have to be rewritten.

Another “psychic” turns up. I must devise more experiments, take these claims seriously. They fail – again. A man explains to me how alien abductors implanted something in his mouth. Tests show it’s just a filling, but it might have been…

No, I don’t have to think that way. And when the psychics and clairvoyants and New Agers shout at me, as they do: “The trouble with all you scientists is you don’t have an open mind”, I won’t be upset. I won’t argue. I won’t rush off and perform yet more experiments just in case. I’ll simply smile sweetly and say: “I don’t do that any more.”

For a more detailed account, including investigations into the bio-electric shield
and alien implants see :  

Blackmore,S.J. (2001)  Why I have given up.
In P. Kurtz (Ed) Skeptical Odysseys: Personal Accounts by the World’s Leading Paranormal Inquirers, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 85-94