Journeys to the borderlands--skeptics, deniers, and nonlocality.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Schwartz, Stephan A.
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Journal of Parapsychology Publisher: Parapsychology Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Parapsychology Press ISSN: 0022-3387
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 76 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable - and Couldn't (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Volk, Steve
Accession Number: 299638708
Full Text: FRINGE-OLOGY: How I TRIED TO EXPLAIN AWAY THE UNEXPLAINABLE--AND COULDN'T by Steve Volk. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Pp. 321. $25.99 (hardcover). ISBN-978-0-06-185771-3.

Steve Volk's book Fringe-ology falls into a small genre of work that might be described as picaresque skeptic nonfiction. The hallmark of these works is the skeptic's saga, his passage through a strange and anomalous world of exotic characters, uncertain claims, spurious assertions, and the siren call of an experience that may change your life forever. These books must not be mistaken for the denierist literature of fundamentalist materialists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or the late Christopher Hitchens--who may now have changed his views. Those are essentially materialist polemics in which conclusions support premises with almost no data in between, and what is admitted is only that which confirms the paradigm. The point of the denierist is not to change. One of the hallmarks of deniers is their sense of righteousness about their commitment to the existing paradigm.

Deniers, a self-defined group, many of whom give their careers over to it, and Denierism itself, constitute the Night's Watch. They will die in place defending a paradigm under assault from data the paradigm can no longer subsume. Right now in the USA we have three big denier movements--anti-climate change, anti-evolution, and anti-nonlocal consciousness. Each has proven itself a detriment to the science it purports to serve, and a philosophical position that is failing. I predict denier books will have long-term meaning only to historians and philosophers of science, because they represent quintessential Kuhnian crisis behavior in print.

Denier literature in all three areas--evolution, climate change, and nonlocal consciousness--however passionately argued, and elegantly worded, has begun to seem antiquated and out of touch. Consciousness denier arguments, particularly, have not changed in decades. That's because nothing outside of the denier paradigm can be added, and yet so much of the leading edge research in each of these three areas is now, in Kuhnian terms, anomalous.

Here is pure denier-speak concerning nonlocal consciousness from physicist Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University, who makes the materialist point very explicitly. Speaking of a recent ESP presentiment study conducted by Cornell University psychology professor Daryl Bem, he said, "If any of [Bem's] claims were true, then all of the bases underlying contemporary science would be toppled, and we would have to rethink everything about the nature of the universe" (Hofstadter, 2011).

How is one to reconcile Hofstadter's words with the published sentiments of some of the greatest figures in his own field, many Nobel laureates, whose thinking contradicts his own? And why doesn't he seem to be aware of them? Is this a kind of studied willful ignorance?

Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, the area most of interest in consciousness research, noted in an interview published in The Observer of 25 January 1931: "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness" (Planck, 1931).

For Wolfgang Pauli, it was very straightforward, "It is my personal opinion that in the science of the future reality will neither be 'psychic' nor 'physical' but somehow both and somehow neither" (Pais & Pauli, 2000).

Physicist Henry Margenau puts it this way, "Strangely, it does not seem possible to find the scientific laws or principles violated by the existence of [psi phenomena]. We can find contradictions between [their occurrence] and our culturally accepted view of reality, but not--as many of us have believed--between [their occurrence] and the scientific laws that have been so laboriously developed" (Margenau, 1987).

Nor do deniers register the thinking of people such as Arizona State astrophysicist Paul Davies, "It is no longer a secret that inherited notions of matter and the material world have not been able to sustain the revolutionary developments of twentieth-century physics and biology" (Davies & Gregersen, 2010).

Davies proposes information as the foundation of reality, a view with which I am in agreement. I think that is what parapsychological data have been telling us for decades. Seth Lloyd, a computer scientist at MIT, has been developing this model, "by treating quantum events as 'quantum bits,' or qubits, as the way whereby the universe 'registers itself.'" The Daily Galaxy, a science blog, describes it very well:

Lloyd proposes that information is a quantifiable physical value, as much as mass or motion--that any physical system--a river, you, the universe--is a quantum mechanical computer. Lloyd has calculated that "a computer made up of all the energy in the entire known universe (that is, within the visible 'horizon' of forty-two billion light years) can store about 10^92 bits of information and can perform 10^105 computations/second."

The universe itself is a quantum computer, Lloyd says, and it has made a mind-boggling 10^122 computations since the Big Bang (for that part of the universe within the "horizon"). (Daily Galaxy, 2012)

And physics is just one discipline where denier thinking seems archaic. One might also consider this from biologist Michael Garfield: "Life is a molecular process; molecular processes operate according to the quantum playbook; therefore, life is a quantum process" (Garfield, 2012).

I could go on for pages citing research I think supports nonlocality of consciousness in disciplines other than parapsychology, and that, in itself, seems to me notable. Papers cite mostly research in their own field. That means a new paradigm is emerging in multiple disciplines, each with enough research to create a literature for citation, with few references outside its bounds.

But let me return to Bem, whose work was the reason for Hofstadter's outburst. The attacks on Bem, his presentiment research, and his response to the criticism of it, an exchange going on as I write this, perfectly encapsulates another point about the denier movement which Volk, to his credit, remarks on: the inferiority of the denier criticisms when compared to the work they are criticizing.

Volk in his second chapter--written before the Bem attacks were launched or he might have used Bem--speaks at length about the Gauquelin-astrology-CSICOP mess, about which I will say more below. To give what Volk is trying to do additional context, and to show that Gauquelin is not a singleton, let's look a bit closer at the Bem controversy and how the deniers treated it. Then it will be easy to see that the two cases represent the same kind of denier behavior, and the same inferior quality of the criticism compared to the work it criticizes.

In what must surely be a contender for the worst gaffe in science criticism in recent publication, University of Amsterdam mathematical psychologist Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, and his team, attacked Bem just as the Gauquelins were attacked, through his statistical analysis. In the Bem case, the critique was based on Bayesian analysis techniques, and the Wagenmakers team particularly relied on the research of University of California Irvine Department of Statistics mathematician, and acknowledged Bayesian authority, Wesley Johnson (Wagenmakers,Wetzels, Borsboom, & van der Maas, 2012). The Wagenmakers et al. paper elicited a published commentary from Bem, with Johnson as coauthor, along with Jessica Utts, also in the UC Irvine department. The crux of the Bem, Johnson, Utts response: the denier arguments were based on an inaccurate and inappropriate interpretation of Johnson's work (Bem, Utts, & Johnson, 2011). Oops!

What makes this even more bizarre is that Utts was the center of an earlier denier crash and burn. She was the person chosen by the American Research Institutes (AIR), along with denier Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, to assess the remote viewing research funded by the government. The U.S. Congress had tasked AIR to make this assessment, which resulted in the famous AIR report in 1995. In it, leading denier Hyman was forced to concede:

I want to state that we agree on many [other] points. We both agree that the experiments [being assessed] were free of the methodological weaknesses that plagued the early ... research. We also agree that the ... experiments appear to be free of the more obvious and better known flaws that can invalidate the results of parapsychological investigations. We agree that the effect sizes reported... are too large and consistent to be dismissed as statistical flukes. (Hyman, 1995)

If I were a denier and had decided Bem was wrong and I should take him on in a very public way, I would begin by doing a little "oppo" research, so I had some sense about what I was getting into. I'd go out and find three or four disinterested experts in my line of attack and have them try to tear my critique apart. Before I stepped out on the public stage I would make sure I knew what I was talking about. Bem is not, after all, an overheated graduate student with a crazy idea, but a research psychologist with a national reputation built on decades of excellence that is clearly reflected in his published work. It would give me pause that his paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal historically notably unfriendly to his paper's topic. You might do something similar. But that is not what the deniers in the Bem controversy did. I mention this because it seems odd to me, and it seemed so to Volk as well, and that is one of the best things I liked about his book. Throughout his work the reader can see him weigh ethical lapses, and general mediocrity in both the researcher and skeptic communities. He clearly has little use for what sociologist Trevor Pinch calls "scientific vigilantes." How Volk deals with the authenticity of skepticism and denierism is part of what drives Fringe-ology.

What distinguishes skeptics from deniers is the former's willingness to evolve, and the latter's intransigence. It is this human element of growth that makes books like Volk's interesting, and there is a long and honorable trail of them centered on the change in science and the transformation of the author's own thinking as he confronts evidence. Books such as this one are expressions of the cultural zeitgeist at a given point in time. For a book like this to get into print, a whole chain of affirmative decisions assessing the marketability of such a project had to have been made. It is a kind of polling process. Although science is about peer-reviewed papers and not books, it is books like Fringe-ology that can exert cultural influence. Think what James Gleick's Chaos did to bring a once obscure and recondite area of mathematics, Chaos Theory, into public awareness (Gleick, 1995). These works represent way stations in a transforming worldview, so placing Volk's book in its historical context seems to me important. Here are a few other examples in this genre, deliberately quite different, as well as something about their effect on science's culture and paradigm.

Alexandra David-Neel. David-Neel's (1927) book My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City is an early and wonderfully romantic example of such a transformation. The events of extraordinary human functioning David-Neel witnessed not only changed her from a rationalist Europeanist to something between a cultural anthropologist and a mystic. She gave us some of our first accounts of preindustrial cultures that emphasized psychophysical control, untouched by the West. She was derided at the rime for, among other things, her field observations of monks sitting in meditation outdoors in the Himalayan winter covered with wet strips of fabric that they somehow dried by generating heat. Decades later, Harvard physician Herbert Benson, with an assist from the Dalai Lama, who got the cooperation of the monks, did a study of g Tum-mo yoga, the discipline Neel had observed a century earlier, and published a paper in Nature that confirmed her observations (Benson, 1982). The high adventure of her transformation from a logical young French woman to a researcher of extraordinary human experience influenced an entire generation of scholars to look to the East when thinking about extraordinary human functioning.

Carlos Castaneda. One of the most public and perhaps the most impactful skeptic transformation stories is that of Carlos Castaneda. Let me quote myself from a paper written at the time:

In 1963-64, Castaneda, then a graduate student in UCLA's Anthropology Department pursuing a traditional program, was having trouble (D. Price-Williams, personal communication, February 7, 2000); it culminated with his dropping out of his program. While away from his studies be pursued a contact with a Yaqui shaman he called, Don Juan Matus. In 1967, Castaneda sent to the University of California Press in Berkeley a manuscript which he represented as his experiences with Don Juan. The Teachings of Don Juan would become the first in a series that he would add to until his death (Castaneda, 1968). Highly controversial from the beginning, Teachings was still deemed academically respectable enough for the University Press to publish it and that, in turn, was enough to get Castaneda re-admitted to the UCLA department (Price-Williams, 2000). No one anticipated that the book would become a huge commercial success, and begin a controversy in anthropology that would transform not only him, but his discipline.

While still doing his UCLA program, on the strength of his first book, Castaneda was picked up by one of the most prestigious publishers in New York, Simon and Schuster which, in 1971, published his second book, A Separate Reality (Castaneda, 1971). He was by then--with the exception of Margaret Mead--arguably the only anthropologist in America whose name was known to the general public. Fame, wealth, and an eccentric and very deliberate commitment to remain physically anonymous--no pictures, no interviews--put him on a different plane than his colleagues. However, within anthropology, his celebrity, considering his junior status, as well as the premise of his work, made other anthropologists' teeth grind.

Within a year Castaneda had completed a third manuscript, which he submitted to his UCLA department as his doctoral dissertation. Although unorthodox in form and content, like the earlier books it was a memoir narrative, it was accepted. In 1972, Simon and Schuster published a version of the dissertation as The Journey to Ixtlan (Castaneda, 1972). Like its predecessors, it too became an international best seller which further enflamed the passionate feelings Castaneda now excited every time anthropologists got together and discussed their field. The argument was fueled without question by envy and its cousin disdain: "In 1973 Castaneda received a Ph.D. in anthropology for interviewing a mystical old Mexican..." was the way one critic began (De Mille, 1980). But the conflict went far beyond academic sociology. Castaneda challenged a fundamental consensus in anthropology: how anthropology should study indigenous cultures.

His narratives of his interactions with the Yaqui shaman argued that one could not understand the shamanic world view without becoming a shaman. No informant could ever convey this, because so much of it was experiential, and nonlocal. More fundamentally yet, all the Castaneda writings proposed the idea that non-technological peoples were not primitive, and were as capable of insight as their technological counterparts; albeit in different areas of human functioning. Deeper yet, his writings espoused a worldview that anthropology had not seriously considered: that an aspect of human consciousness genuinely exists that is independent of time and space, and it is susceptible to varying degrees of volitional control. This came with a corollary: there is an interconnection between all life forms from the most primitive to the most complex which must be understood if the universal impulse humans feel towards the spiritual component of their lives is to properly mature. What had been categorized in anthropology as "magical thinking" was suddenly proposed as a valid perspective that the discipline must master to fulfill its self-defined task of understanding human beings and their cultures. (Schwartz, 2012)

Today Castaneda's insight is a recognized standard.

Michael Crichton. Crichton's (1988) book Travels is a third example that comes to mind. Crichton trained as a physician, although he never practiced after obtaining his M.D. He was notably brilliant and successful at everything he turned his mind to--including becoming a remarkably gifted remote viewer, who, once he learned the protocol, used his skills in aid of his futurist novels. Travels recounts his initial medically trained skepticism, the stops along his way, the experiences he had, and how he came to accept and to seek to understand the nonlocal aspect of consciousness. It was because of this that Michael and I came to be friends, and that he became a remote viewer in a series of my experiments at the Mobius lab. Here are data from his session as a viewer in the Seaview study, a survey to locate previously unknown shipwrecks on or below the sea floor along the Grand Bahamas Banks (Schwartz & De Mattei, 1988, 1989). Figures 1A and 1B below show the 19th century wreck site of the American brig Leander, which was located using remote viewing data provided by Michael Crichton and others. The image on the left is the site as originally seen. The image on the right is what emerged after several feet of sand and grasses had been removed. The site represents a tare example on the Bahamas Banks of a shipwreck that is still intact, probably because the ship sank while riding at anchor. During his remote viewing session, after making his accurate location, Crichton described ship's timbers that would be found beneath the sand stacked like "railroad ties."


Damien Broderick. Damien Broderick's (2007) book Outside the Gates of Science: Why It's Time for the Paranormal to Come in From the Cold is the final book I'll mention. Broderick is a well-known Australian writer, living in the US. Like Crichton, much of his work lies in novels about the future. He holds a PhD in literary studies based on a dissertation relating to the comparative semiotics of scientific, literary, and science fictional textuality. More than any of the other picaresque skeptics, the actual science of the nonlocal has engaged his interest and, almost uniquely he tracks down in great detail the evidence for and against the stories he recounts. Steve Volk's Fringe-ology falls somewhere between Crichton and Broderick, sharing qualities of each.

We don't yet have the historical perspective we do with David-Neel and Castaneda, but I suspect in the future both Broderick and Volk will be seen as authors who covered a leading edge that became a new paradigm.

Skeptic books, precisely because the good ones are expressed in a clear author's voice, give the reader an immediacy that an arm's length academic narrative rarely does. Volk is good at this. He has the clear-eyed skepticism of a city reporter with decades of experience writing about urban life for the daily and monthly press--particularly crime, cops, courts, and politics. All fields where mendacity and duplicity abound. He makes the point throughout the book that he is trying to view everything as a reporter. It is clear he feels safe on that ground, because it is the one he knows, and I think he made a good decision in stating who he is, not once but repeatedly.

He traces his own interest, both his skepticism and his curiosity, to a ghost story out of his youth and home. It is one of the first of many good stories threading through Fringe-ology's narrative like warm currants in a scone. Volk has an excellent reporter's eye for the humanizing detail that brings a story to life. He has dug out little human details many readers will not know. I do wish, though, he had gone just a bit deeper on the data side, and checked his facts just a little closer. Early in the book he recounts the CSICOP-Gauquelin-astrology-starbaby controversy to describe his negative assessment of professional deniers. The problem is that he is not correct in some of its facts, and the chronology is confused and, most importantly, Volk does not seem to really get the true perfidy of CSICOP (Schwartz, 2010).

Here is how it all began: In 1975 astronomer Dennis Rawlins, already famous for debunking the claims of polar explorers Richard Byrd and Robert Peary and demonstrating that Roald Amundsen was the first man to reach either pole, decided to join a team headed by philosopher Paul Kurtz (the founder of CSICOP) to launch a frontal attack against presumptive "planetary influences" on human behavior reported by the French investigators psychologist Michel and his wife (at the time) and research partner Francoise Gauquelin. What makes the attack interesting in the skeptic-denier context Volk is discussing, was that the Gauquelins were skeptics. They had their own reservations about astrology; indeed, they would go on to dismiss, on the basis of their research data, many claims of Western astrology. Michel Gauquelin would later write a book debunking traditional Western astrology's planetary effects that was published by Prometheus Books, which was founded by Kurtz (Gauquelin, 1979). Gauquelin earlier had written an article critical of astrology for The Humanist, a magazine edited by Kurtz (Gauquelin, 1978). Even so, exactly because they were rigorous scientists, the Gauquelins reported identifying small but statistically significant relationships between some planetary positions at the time of birth, most notably the position of Mars in a natal chart, and later athletic prowess (Gauquelin, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1978). It was not a huge effect but to many CSICOP members, it was intolerable, and thus began a very nasty science denier gutter fight that clearly illustrates the difference between a skeptic and a denier.

New Zealand psychologist Richard Kammann, who would be one of three members to resign from CSICOP as a result of these events, would write in an exegetic essay on the Gauquelin affair:

When the whole record is examined over five years, there is almost no instance in which merit wins out over self-serving bias ... The bottom line is that an apology is owed the Gauquelins for the mistreatment of their data, and the aspersions cast on their authenticity. (Kammann, 1982)

But my main criticism of Volk's account, and this is true elsewhere in the book as well, is that if he had gone just a bit deeper the value of critical elements in the story would have changed. He would have discovered the excellent work of German researcher Suitbert Ertel who, decades after the CSICOP knife fight, went through the data and confirmed for the fourth time, finally and forever, that the Gauquelins' claims are correct--if odd (Ertel, 1998, 1999). In the context in which Volk presents his account of these events, knowing this would place the story in a very different light for the reader.

Volk's chapter seven, "The Open Mind," illustrates another variant of this. The narrative arc of the chapter is a deft profile of University of Pennsylvania radiologist Andrew Newberg, whose work in a new discipline, neurotheology (studies of the relationship of brain function and spiritual experience), is capturing increasing attention in neuroscience. It is a great profile.

When he gets to talking about the research literature, however, Volk gets a little wobbly. He says, "The amount of scientific research into the neurological effects of prayer and meditation is still small, but it is growing quickly" (p. 196). First, therapeutic intention/prayer research and meditation studies are two different vectors of research, albeit with some tangency. And since 2006, as a search in any index will show, papers in the peer-reviewed literature abound. To be an insightful skeptic, precision helps. Broderick, for instance, is much more attentive to detail than Volk.

Fringe-ology and Broderick's Gates of Science also share what some might see as a fault. They lump together things we now know ought not to be grouped in that way. UFOlogy, serious or absurd, has little to say to nonlocal consciousness research. But they are often lumped together, along with Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, as staples of reality TV and pop science. Some critics might say the author of a serious skeptic book should know better. But I don't think that's what's going on here, and I don't think that criticism is justified. Fringe-ology, even more than Gares of Science, is a saga. As Volk bounced down the pool table, directed by the force of his intention, these are the balls he bumped into along the way, each contact altering his view of the world. Taken that way Fringe-ology is a wonderful trip.

Of the most interesting chapters, his third one, "Out of Our Heads? Off With Their Heads," has particularly stayed with me. The narrative arch is built around anesthesiologist Stuart Hammeroff at the University of Arizona Medical Center, microtubules, Hammeroff's friendship with Roger Penrose at Oxford, and how Volk learned about all this, in the course of which he encountered several other models of consciousness. One gets the sense it was an exhilarating if bumpy trip.

My first takeaway from Volk's Fringe-ology is this: It was an interesting read that left me with a kind of wry recognition that our research is so much more subtle, deep, and persuasive than books like Fringe-ology represent. Nonlocal consciousness science is so much more now than just parapsychology, and the old ESP protocols. Second is a realization that these books tell us where the zeitgeist is about these matters--where our culture stands. Volk and the culture seem to be standing in midstream heading across.


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