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James Alcock

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Nationality  Canadian
Role  Columnist
Name  James Alcock

Spouse  Karen Hanley
Institutions  York University
Fields  Social psychology
James Alcock
Born  December 24, 1942 Central Butte, Saskatchewan
Alma mater  McGill University BSc (Honours Physics) McMaster University PhD
Notable awards  May 15, 2004 awarded CSICOP's In Praise of Reason Award
Books  Parapsychology, Science Or Magic?: A Psychological Perspective
Education  McMaster University, McGill University

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James E. Alcock (born 24 December 1942) is a Canadian educator. He has been a Professor of Psychology at York University (Canada) since 1973. Alcock is a noted critic of parapsychology and is a Fellow and Member of the Executive Council for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a member of the Editorial Board of The Skeptical Inquirer, and a frequent contributor to the magazine. He has also been a columnist for Humanist Perspectives Magazine. In 1999, a panel of skeptics named him among the two dozen most outstanding skeptics of the 20th century. In May 2004, CSICOP awarded Alcock CSI's highest honor, the In Praise of Reason Award. Alcock is also an amateur magician and is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.


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James Alcock was chosen as a fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association for making "a distinguished contribution to the advancement of the science or profession of psychology".


In his first television appearance in 1974, Alcock appeared on the TVOntario magazine show, The Education of Mike McManus, in Toronto. He sat on a panel discussing current paranormal research with a parapsychologist and a psychic healer. When asked if he was closed-minded to the possibility of psi, Alcock responded that there is no good research out there that would change his position. "The experiments that have been done... are filled with flaws... they just don't satisfy the canons of science. Until the parapsychologists can present evidence that satisfies the criteria of science there's nothing to investigate, there's no phenomenon there."

In 1976, Alcock attended the organizing conference at which the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal was founded and was invited to be a Fellow of CSICOP at that time. He was appointed to the Executive Council a few years later.

Alcock's 1981 book, "Parapsychology-Science Or Magic?: A Psychological Perspective," was instrumental in transforming Professor Chris French's skeptical understanding of paranormal events and explaining unusual experiences:

A long–time member of the Skeptic's Toolbox faculty, Alcock lectures at the 4-day workshop that teaches attendees critical thinking skills for their daily lives. Alcock told a Register-Guard reporter who attended the 2003 conference, "Science has many voices... We encourage people to listen to scientific evidence, but how (in the case of expert testimony in American courts) do we determine who to listen to?" And in the case of printed media, "There are lots of things published that are sheer nonsense." Learning to evaluate evidence is why workshops like the Toolbox are important.

In October 2004 Alcock spoke at the World Skeptics Congress in Italy. As a member of the executive council of CFI, he addressed the opening session of the 2012 6th World Skeptic Congress in Berlin. He outlined the history of the modern skeptical movement as begun by CSICOP in April 1976 in Buffalo, NY.

The San Francisco Chronicle asked Alcock to comment on EVP and ghost-hunter instruments. He suggested "several explanations for so-called voices from the dead. One theory is that the recording devices are picking up snatches of radio broadcasts. Another is called 'apophenia,' which means that people tend to perceive patterns even when there are none. If we play the same piece of tape over and over ... we maximize the opportunity for the perceptual apparatus in our brain to 'construct' voices that do not exist."

Robert Jahn

In a systematic review carried out by Alcock of all parapsychological research involving random event generators, several important methodological problems became evident, and these problems were of such a serious nature that one could not have any confidence in the results and conclusions of the various studies. Much of that research was carried out in the Princeton University Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory of Robert Jahn, then Dean of that university's Engineering faculty. In addition to these serious methodological concerns, Alcock determined that if one were to remove the data related to one particular participant, the results of the study were no longer statistically significant. Moreover, the fact that the participant was the individual who set up and oversaw the research for Dr. Jahn naturally rang alarm bells.

The null hypothesis

In 2003 Alcock published Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi, where he claimed that parapsychologists never seem to take seriously the possibility that psi does not exist. Because of that, they interpret null results as indicating only that they were unable to observe psi in a particular experiment, rather than taking it as support for the possibility that there is no psi. The failure to take the null hypothesis as a serious alternative to their psi hypotheses leads them to rely upon a number of arbitrary "effects" to excuse failures to find predicted effects, excuse the lack of consistency in outcomes, and to excuse failures to replicate.

Basic endemic problems in parapsychological research include: insufficient definition of the subject matter, total reliance on negative definitions of their phenomena (e.g.- psi is said to occur only when all known normal influences are ruled out); failure to produce a single phenomenon that can be independently replicated by neutral researchers; the invention of "effects" such as the psi-experimenter effect to explain away inconsistencies in the data and failures to achieve predicted outcomes; unfalsifiability of claims; unpredictability of effects; lack of progress in more than a century of formal research; methodological weaknesses; reliance on statistical procedures to determine when psi has supposedly occurred, even though statistical analysis does not in itself justify a claim that psi has occurred; and failure to jibe with other areas of science. Overall, he argues that there is nothing in parapsychological research that would lead parapsychologists to conclude that psi does not exist, and so, even if it does not, the search is likely to continue for a long time. "I continue to believe that parapsychology is, at bottom, motivated by belief in search of data, rather than data in search of explanation."

The Bem experiments

Media attention was directed toward Daryl Bem’s research paper Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect. Alcock responded with his paper Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair by stating, "Bem has reported data suggesting that individuals’ future experiences can influence their responses in the present. Careful scrutiny of his report reveals serious flaws in procedure and analysis, rendering this interpretation untenable."

After evaluating Daryl Bem's nine experiments, Alcock claimed to have found metaphorical "dirty test tubes", serious methodological flaws such as changing the procedures partway through the experiments and combining results of tests with different chances of significance. The amount of actual tests done is unknown and no explanation of how it was determined that participants had "settled down" after seeing erotic images was given. Alcock concludes that almost everything that could go wrong with these separate experiments did go wrong. Bem's response to Alcock's critique appeared online at the Skeptical Inquirer website and Alcock replied to these comments in a third article at the same website.

Personal life

Married to Karen Hanley. Son Erik Alcock is a professional musician/songwriter; two of his songs were included on Eminem's Recovery album, the best-selling album of 2010.


  • "We all have pockets of irrationality, and those pockets tend to be activated at times we're motivated by greed or fear."
  • Alcock interview in The LA Times states that the brain "is a complex data-processing system as subject to whim, memory and emotion as it is to reason." He equates it to "a machine that produces beliefs without any particular respect for what is real or true and what is not".
  • For The New York Times Alcock was asked why intelligent people believed in the paranormal, especially people in Hollywood. He responded "Most people are raised to live under two different belief systems: the rational, which governs most decisions in life, and the transcendental, which guides matters of spirituality and faith. Therefore for some people it is only a small leap to let their transcendental impulses creep into their daily affairs, especially when anxiety over career, finances or romance is involved. Faith, in whatever form it takes can provide great comfort, even a sense of empowerment. People who feel they have the stars on their side often feel an edge over mere mortals".
  • Selected publications

  • Alcock, James (1990). Science and Supernature: A Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879755482. 
  • Alcock, James (2005). Parapsychology, Science or Magic?: A Psychological Perspective. Pergamon Press. ISBN 0080257739. 
  • Alcock, James (2003). Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. Imprint Academic. ISBN 0907845487. 
  • Alcock, James; D.W. Carment; S.W. Sadava (2005). A Textbook of Social Psychology (6th ed.). Pearson Education Canada. ISBN 0-13-121741-0. 
  • Alcock, James; Sadava, Stan (2013). An Introduction to Social Psychology: Global Perspectives. Sage Publications. 
  • "Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?"
  • "In Praise of Ray Hyman"
  • "The Belief Engine"
  • References

    James Alcock Wikipedia