This was one of those accidental finds on Amazon, the online equivalent of wandering aimlessly around a bookstore. I searched for something quite different, and was tossed a ragbag of unrelated stuff. One was quite interesting, but the reviews mentioned that McLuhan's book was much better. It was cheaper, too, and that was that.
This book is a discussion, not about the paranormal itself, but rather about the determined sceptics who devote their time and energy to debunking it. McLuhan admits that he started off as a sceptic himself, although surely a healthy disbelief in such seeming absurdities as poltergeists, reincarnation, ghostly hallucinations, psychic mediums and the like would be the default position for anyone with a rational mind. At first, he accepted that the evidence for paranormal activity must be flawed, and believed the categorical statements of the debunkers that it was all invented or (at best) misinterpreted.
But when he began to delve more deeply he discovered that there was a vast database of evidence, much of it consistent and surprisingly robust. The debunkers, by contrast, used a variety of methods to undermine its credibility. They quibbled over statistics and methodology, proposed that those experiencing paranormal events were rogues and charlatans, were scathing about serious researchers, and occasionally invoked explanations for some incidents that were even less plausible than the paranormal.
None of this will convince a sceptic that paranormal powers actually exist, nor will believers be deterred. Even those who are initially open minded will probably not be induced to settle on one side or the other by this book. If anything, it suggests that there is bad science and irrational behaviour on both sides of the argument. There are weaknesses in McLuhan's argument, too - debunking the debunkers, however satisfying, does not make paranormality any more plausible. He also fails to enquire too deeply about the cultural differences in paranormal experiences (although he does address the issue as regards reincarnation).
But what this book really underscores is the great unease we feel when faced with apparently inexplicable events. Far from being credulous and gullible, most people are deeply uncomfortable about such things, keeping their own experiences secret sometimes for years, and this allows the sceptics to prevail, while believers and even honest, open minded researchers are seen as crackpots.
I have no idea whether 'psi' (paranormal power) really exists, or whether human consciousness can survive death. Perhaps we will never be able to prove these things one way or the other. But this thoughtful book is happily free of the hyperbole which often accompanies the subject. It sets itself a fairly narrow target, but it addresses it in painstaking detail, in a clear, calm and readable style. Four stars. [First written July 2011]