Monday, October 18, 2010

TAM London first Speaker: Susan Blackmore

The first speaker (after introductions by Richard Wiseman and James Randi) was Susan Blackmore.

Sue was a firm believer in the paranormal for much of her life.  In her talk, she explained that she had an interest in woo from an early age, was drawn into it further by the paranormal societies abounding when she started university and particularly by a certain long-haired second year who seemed to sweeten the deal.  During this period she had a profound out-of-body experience which she understates as ‘life-changing’.  It sounds like an incredible experience and it’s hardly surprising that it convinced Sue of the reality of the paranormal.  Can any of us say for certain we’d have reacted differently?

After graduation, Sue got a place on a parapsychology PhD – no mean feat in those days – and later worked as a parapsychologist for many years.  The rest of the talk was about her journey from committed believer to skeptic.  She spoke in detail about how disbelief was always around the next corner and there were a lot of corners. 

But she does herself a gross disservice here.  It took a long time to let go of her beliefs, but it happened in the end because she went about parapsychology in an effectively skeptical and scientific way.  She didn’t fool herself.  She constructed elegant and well-designed experiments and was honest about the results.  She didn’t allow herself room to wriggle out of the results and she even debunked a respected fellow parapsychologist who she caught cheating (or at least, someone in that lab seemed to be cheating). 

She went systematically across the whole field eliminating claim after claim and then finally realised that the reason she wasn’t finding anything is that there’s nothing there.  Her only mistake was to begin with belief: if her experiences had been different, she might have started with disbelief and had a very different career.  But then she might not have had such great stories to tell.

Sue ended her talk on a very personal note.  She’s angry about those years she sees as wasted, banging her head against a wall that wasn’t there.  She explained that she recently spoke about those years in public for the first time and broke down in uncontrollable anger shortly afterwards.  I sympathise.  But judging by her talk, she has a lot less to be angry about than she thinks.

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