Dr Susan Blackmore has spoken at the latest TAM- The Amaz!ng Meeting conference, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVR-zcZBE2E. TAM has been running since 2003 and this year they had their fifteenth conference, subtitled Fighting the Fakers! See: http://www.amazingmeeting.com/. Blackmore has been a speaker at several of them in the past because she is one of the world’s most famous Skeptics; in fact for a while she was “rent-a-Skeptic”, to quote herself, always brought onto TV programmes and newspaper articles to present the Skeptical side of the argument with any media story, like Prof. Chris French does today. However she wasn’t always a Skeptic, in fact she began her career as a “true believer” in the paranormal and saw her parapsychological work as a quest to prove it. This was triggered by a very intense drug trip she experienced while a student at Oxford. However, after years of painstaking research she relates that she found no evidence at all for the paranormal and concluded that it does not exist. She therefore became a Skeptic and this of course led to a highly successful second career.
Her speech at this year’s TAM is one of the most interesting that she’s ever given because, after about 27 minutes, she reveals an event in her life that she’s only mentioned before once on stage, her 1979 project with Dr Carl Sargent. She assisted him in his experiments to find out if the Ganzfeld Method could produce proof of “psi”, supernatural mental abilities. This is where one person is placed in one room and a second person separated completely in another and one tries to communicate with the other telepathically. Sargent appeared to have produced some highly significant scientific results which captivated Blackmore and she sped up to Cambridge as fast as she could to observe in his laboratory. What Sargent had discovered seemed to be everything she’d dreamed of, however she quickly became suspicious that he was cheating. She writes about what happened on her personal website in this 1987 article from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, see: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Articles/JSPR%201987.htm (I don’t know why part of this article has been obliterated by overprinting). Blackmore’s writing style is very professional and cool-headed here; what is absent is the emotionally painful nature of the incident. She has only divulged the extent to which it traumatized her in a previous lecture at TAM London in 2010; unfortunately it was not filmed, but I was there in the audience: http://hpanwo.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/tam-london-2010.html. In fact Blackmore began weeping on stage during some parts of her lecture. She doesn’t go into all the details in this latest speech at TAM 2013, but she was in fact severely reprimanded by her supervisor for accusing Sargent of cheating. As she saw it, all she was doing was being intellectually honest and trying to expose scientific fraud; why should she be made out to be the bad guy? Sargent was never officially charged for his alleged misdemeanour and continued his career unchallenged; today he has left science altogether and designs role-playing fantasy games.
There’s nothing I despise more than an amateur psychologist (except perhaps a professional one), but if you will excuse me while I indulge myself in what I loathe and speculate that Susan Blackmore might have an axe to grind. If she does then it’s probably a just one, but it may well have beat the trail to her discovery of the Skeptic Movement. Some may find it strange that an individual with the kind of passionate certainty that she used to have could possibly change her mind and become a Skeptic, but it’s no surprise to me at all. In fact I’ve noticed that the people most likely to defect to Skepticism are the most zealous “true believers”, the most doctrinaire and the most chauvinistic towards opposing viewpoints. They either change into Skeppers or they drop off the scene altogether. Those who see things more holistically and introspectively, who feel more sympathy and tolerance for Skeptics, and are willing to listen to their counter-arguments, tend to be far more secure and stable in their ideas. This is because the fanatic is more likely to feel offence and betrayal when reality doesn’t match their narrow and conditional expectations. The same goes the other way round, I doubt not; one of the most intelligent and persuasive Christian critics of Richard Dawkins is Alister McGrath, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/richard-dawkins-enemies-of-reason.html. Yet he professes to have once been so staunch an atheist that he could not even bear to be in the company of anybody religious. Another interesting observation is that in her lecture Blackmore states how often she gets hate mail from non-Skeptics, yet when she was a “believer” no Skeptic was ever rude to her. How times have changed! See: http://hpanwo-tv.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/sally-morgan-skeptic-fail.html.