Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dispatches from the war against psychical research

The mainstream media aren't just biased against conservative politics. They are fiercely at war against the study of phenomena that operate outside the laws of mechanistic physics and standard views of psychology. Avoiding knowledge and reasoned argument, the media just try to dissolve the subject in ridicule.

No newspaper writer would dream of letting slip the tiniest word of criticism about voodoo in Africa or head hunting in New Guinea — after all, those are Other Peoples' Beliefs, and who are we to judge, etc. But the knives are out for psychical research, which has only attracted some of the finest scientific minds from the late 19th century till today. William James, for instance.

Consider two reviews of the recently published book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum.

Ghost hunters

The jihad against psychical research knows no ideology (other than scientific materialism, the belief that nothing exists except what can be perceived by the senses or measuring instruments); the two reviews in question appeared, respectively, in The New York Times, the house organ of the Liberal Establishment, and The New York Sun, a conservative paper.

Of the two, the review by Patricia Cohen in the Times is the stupidest (link requires registration). She uses the comic book term "supernatural" where serious researchers say "paranormal." She says that Alfred Russel Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolutionary natural selection contemporaneously with but independently of Darwin, and Nobel Prize winning scientist Charles Richet, were drawn to mediumship because of "
the death of a loved one; behind their lofty scientific and moral motives was also the very human desire to reconnect with a lost love."

Everyone who loses someone dear to them wishes they could re-establish communication. But Cohen's implication that grief caused two first-class men of science to lose their marbles over spiritualism is insulting to their intellects.

She goes on:
Ms. Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, can tell a good ghost story, and there were many during this unsettled period of industrialization and urbanization when belief in the occult swept through America. All that’s missing in the tales of dead apparitions, moving furniture and sudden revelations of tightly held secrets is the “Twilight Zone” theme song.
Yet after traipsing from Bombay to Boston, through hundreds of candle-lit séance rooms with their elaborate “spirit cabinets,” where glowing apparitions would appear and objects fly, what the ghost hunters mostly found was fraud.
No doubt Cohen figured that winking remark about the "Twilight Zone" theme song would draw chuckles from her fellow urban sophisticates, as it probably will. But if she understood anything about psychical research, which she doesn't despite having just (presumably) read a book about it, she would know that mediumship has nothing to do with ghosts — nor, for that matter, do "flying objects."

She calls the co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research "
[Sidgwick's] student Fred Myers," as though Frederic or F.W.H. Myers (I've never ever seen him called "Fred") was a moony adolescent rather than, as he was, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a classical scholar. Myers's book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death is still in print 103 years after its publication.

She throws in some dollar-store Freudianism and the inevitable New York Times-ish feminist twist with a comment about "the often erotically charged atmosphere of séances presided over mostly by women with few career options in that high-buttoned era." (Aww, go on, Pat — just say it, William James is a dead white male.)

Rebecca Goldstein's review in The New York Sun is not, unlike Cohen's, overtly sneering. Here and there she seems almost open-minded. But Goldstein, too, can't quite stop her prejudices from affecting the tone of her article. Blum, she says, "
doesn't mean to suggest that her analysis explains how minds of a Jamesian caliber could be deluded into believing in the supernatural, because she is not prepared to say they were deluded." Like Cohen, and perhaps taking her cue from the book's title, Goldstein writes as if James and his colleagues were primarily interested in ghosts rather than mediumship.

Most professional mediums, she writes,
were shady performance artists, resorting to such helpful aids to "materializations" as trap doors, wired shoes, and muslin dipped in glow-in-the-dark phosphorus. The psychical researchers had the unpleasant task of probing and palpating not just experience, but the body of the medium, of keeping a firm grip on hands and legs to keep them from levitating tables and messing with the curtains.
True enough. At the time when spiritualism was a widespread fad and there was a gullible public to feed on, fake mediums abounded. But it was psychical researchers who exposed many of them.

And Goldstein again shows her ignorance when she asks:

If Ms. Blum is considering the work of these scholars in the light of evidence for the afterlife, then doesn't it behoove her to ask, at the very least, why James's age saw so much more supernatural activity than ours does? Where have all the phantoms gone? Are they still jabbering away, only we are too distracted to give them our ear? Or have they, deciding that we the living are just as idiotic as James had pronounced them, gone off to find better ways of spending their eternity?
There is every reason to believe that there have been just as many paranormal (what she calls "supernatural") phenomena since William James's time as ever. For evidence, I recommend checking the web sites for Man and the Unknown, the International Survivalist Society, Beyond the Veil and AA-EVP, all linked to on the sidebar. What is different now is the attitude of science and the media, which with rare exceptions won't give psychical research an honest look. It's quicker and easier just to dismiss it or make fun of it.

In any case, it will not do to associate the scientists and intellectuals of William James's generation who tried to find whatever truth there might be in mediumship with the charlatans who happened to live at the same time. There were plenty of medical frauds peddling snake oil and magical elixirs back then as well, but no one uses that as an excuse to snipe at honest medical researchers who were their contemporaries.

Modern psychical researchers, who
well know the sad history of phony mediums that unrolled alongside that of others who were almost certainly genuine, have devised ever more sophisticated means of eliminating fraud as an explanation for remarkable results. My late friend Montague Keen, the principal writer of the SPR's report on the Scole phenomena, commented:
For the main part, those of us engaged in psychical research are not in the business of marvelling at unrepeatable wonders; still less relying on the word of witnesses, however authoritative, well educated, wise and disinterested. We know too much about delusions and illusions, and the weaponry of skeptical dismissal. We are primarily concerned with tangible evidence, the recorded statemetns emerging from persons in an altered state of consciousness producing verifiable information in circumstances which deny access to it by any normal means: information which is sufficiently specific and copious or both as to rule out chance coincidence or guesswork.
Monty went on to quote from the philosopher, and onetime SPR president, F.C.S. Schiller: "A mind unwilling to believe or even undesirous to be instructed, our weightiest evidence must ever fail to impress. It will insist on taking that evidence in bits and rejecting them item by item. As all the facts come singly, anyone who dismisses them one by one is destroying the condition under which the conviction of a new truth could ever arise in the mind."

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