A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)




part three

Radin calls chapter two of The Conscious Universe, “Experience.” The most important point made by Radin in this chapter is that there are serious problems with anecdotes as evidence. Two of the main problems concern memory and eyewitness testimony (p. 32). Memory “is much more fallible than most people think,” says Radin. And eyewitness testimony “is easily distorted.”

However, there are two profound mistakes made by Radin in this chapter. First, he indicates his bias by ignoring two categories of explanation for alleged psi experiences: hoaxes/frauds and coincidence. Second, he doesn't' discuss the affective, cognitive, or perceptual biases that hinder our ability to properly evaluate our own experiences until after the chapter on experience and after all the data for psi has been presented. Discussing these problems before discussing the evaluation of anecdotes and scientific experiments is essential to properly understanding both.

According to Radin, when confronted with an experience that appears paranormal there are three possibilities: it is genuinely paranormal; there is a psychological explanation; or there is a physical explanation (p. 23). He will ignore throughout his book the many hoaxes and frauds that dot the landscape in the history of psi research. He will also disregard the probability that many experiences that appear paranormal are just coincidences.

Radin waits until chapter 14, to consider in detail the perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases that can affect the interpretation of personal experiences and scientific experiments. That is, he doesn't discuss these problems until after he has presented the data for psi and immediately after a chapter lambasting those who are skeptical of the scientific studies he has reviewed. The suggestion he makes in a not so subtle way is that all the biases he discusses in chapter 14 apply to the skeptics he has ridiculed in chapter 13. Apparently, these biases are not a big problem for the wonderful scientists who think their work proves the existence of psi.

He provides a great deal of detail when recounting vivid anecdotes for the paranormal, but he dismisses in one sentence the many problems with memory, perception, and testimony that lead people to misunderstand and misinterpret their own experiences. These perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases should not be taken so lightly. As Jim Alcock notes: “our brains and nervous systems … produce beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true….” (Alcock 1995). Many psychologists agree with Alcock that “in general we yearn to reduce anxiety” and that we hold many beliefs primarily because they satisfy some need and reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance. We easily perceive whether something supports our beliefs, but it is difficult to perceive things that disconfirm or falsify our beliefs. As Shelly Taylor argues in Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (1989), “fallacious beliefs can often be even more functional than those based on the truth.”

We are not born critical thinkers and even if trained to think critically, we often turn off our “critical thinking unit” when dealing with beliefs that seem essential to satisfying our needs. We are not intuitively gifted at grasping when associated events might truly be causally related. Most of us are innumerate and grossly overestimate the odds of events occurring. In short, most of us are not good either at making probability judgments or in understanding what significance, if any, we should give to probabilities.* We’ve evolved to make causal associations quickly and this serves us well most of the time, but sometimes we jump the gun and see cause-effect relationships where there are none. Even when we know there is no causal relationship between two things that occur contiguously in space or sequentially in time, we may still believe the two didn’t happen by coincidence and are related in some unknown way.

We’ve evolved to see patterns and this too serves us well most of the time, but often we miss patterns that are there. Even more often, however, we see patterns, significance,  or meaning where there is none.

We give disproportionate credence to our interpretations of experiences that have a strong emotional component. We are heavily influenced by the suggestions and opinions of others, especially those of people we admire and respect. The brain itself is “capable of generating wonderful and fantastic perceptual experiences for which we are rarely prepared” (Alcock 1995). And memory isn’t just fallible, it is “a constructive process rather than a literal rendering of past experience” and thus “memories are subject to serious biases and distortions” (ibid.). Memories, including inaccurate memories, can bias our perception.

Thus, It would be worthwhile to consider each of the following before discussing poignant anecdotes and scientific studies of the paranormal:

Each of these is addressed in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. I won’t repeat what I have written there. Suffice it to say that there are numerous reasons besides a fallible memory and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony for not taking anecdotes at face value.

further reading

Evaluating Personal Experience by Robert Todd Carroll

hidden persuaders (from The Skeptic's Dictionary)

end of part three 

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