A New Case of Scientific Serendipity?

Diogenes, Jr. (Marcello Truzzi)

Then a philosophy graduate student and frequent contributor to skeptical publications, Jim Lippard last year discovered an astonishing series of dozens of "coincidences" between excerpts in the writings of a prominent skeptic and psychologist, Robert A. Baker, and numerous earlier writers (Lippard, 1994). Similar remarkable instances of what some might call "synchronicities" of language were unearthed and later displayed by psychologist Terence Hines in his review of one of Baker's books (Hines, 1995).

These dozens of striking similarities might, to a naive observer, at first appear to be instances of plagiarism. Lippard refers to it as "scholarly impropriety" and Hines's review seems to imply the same. Closer inspection, however, reveals difficulties with this most uncharitable explanation. Confronted with what to some may seem indisputable evidence, Baker has categorically denied any plagiarism (Baker, 1995). Since Professor Baker is a highly respected debunker of fraud and hucksterism, such an accusation against him borders on the quite unthinkable. In addition, Lippard himself tells us that Baker's innocence is supported by the opinions and evaluations of some other prominent skeptics, including some leaders in the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Since, like Baker, these are all honorable men, the probability that Baker might have engaged in plagiarism surely approaches near zero. What, then, might be an acceptable alternative explanation?

On first consideration, one might suggest these curious matters could result from cryptomnesia, the unconscious use of materials stored in memory but outside of normal awareness. This is an explanation skeptics have frequently used to account for many seemingly paranormal phenomena, ranging from the memories of the supposedly reincarnated (e.g., Bridey Murphy) to the speaking of apparently never learned foreign languages by those in trance. Alas, however, this conventional explanation, too, must be discarded. Robert Baker has himself written much about cryptomnesia and some even regard him as a principal authority on that subject. Yet, he apparently rejects this as an explanation. What, then, might be a viable alternative?

Here we have indisputable instances of remarkable similarities in the writings of Prof. Baker and earlier writers. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, we seem to have it here. None contest the data, the effects. The issue then becomes our interpretation of the causes that may be involved. And if we accept that this is truly an extraordinary vent, we may need to invoke an extraordinary explanation. The key to our conundrum may be found in the memorable wisdom of Sherlock Holmes who pointed out (in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Given the logical restrictions demonstrated above, we seem to have only one alternative: If Baker is the originator of these parallel writings, then those who preceded him must be the copiers. And since it would be ludicrous to accuse these similarly honorable earlier writers of plagiarism, their copyings must be cases of precognitive cryptomnesia, an unconscious "borrowing" of words from the future. Here we have a previously unknown (and perhaps even previously unconceived) phenomenon, one that should prove quite acceptable to proper skeptics since such an interpretation has never yet been among the silly claims of parapsychology. In fact, the likely rejection of this bold hypothesis by credulous parapsychologists (who might foolishly scoff at its promulgation) surely must itself reflect positively upon the soundness of this hypothesis.


Baker, Robert A., "Robert A. Baker Responds" [to Hines 1995], Skeptical Inquirer, 19 (4), 45-46.

Hines, Terence (1995), "A Failed Look at Memory and Perceptions," Skeptical Inquirer, 19 (4), 44-45.

Lippard, Jim (1994). "Scholarly Impropriety in the Work of Robert A. Baker," document of June 22, initially privately distributed and later placed on Internet on June 17, 1995.