Guy Leon Playfair

Psychic Phenomena


Psychic Phenomena


The Great Divide

by Guy Lyon Playfair


Why Proponents and Deniers of Psi Are Never Likely to Agree

Debating Psychic Experience, edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L. Friedman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), deserves to become required reading for sociologists, historians of contemporary science, and anybody involved in any kind of psi research.

While reading it, I was constantly reminded of the story told about that lovable wit Rev. Sydney Smith, who was strolling along a narrow street around 1800 with a colleague when they heard two women leaning out of their opposite windows and screaming insults at each other.

‘These two ladies will never agree,’ Smith commented, as the debate raged over his head, ‘for they are arguing from different premises’.

The debate featured in this book may be quieter and more polite, yet one cannot help reaching a similar conclusion. On one side of this street we have such champions of psi research as Chris Carter, Dean Radin, and Stephan Schwartz, their neighbours on the other side including veteran sceptics James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Chris French, Richard Wiseman and Michael Shermer. The former reckon, with considerable justification, that phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, generally lumped together under the heading of psi have been shown to exist, to have a solid statistical base, and to be regularly experienced by millions all over the world, as numerous polls have shown. For the latter, however, psi is simply impossible, so any claims for its existence must be wrong. For them, end of story.

However, their walls of disbelief are built on some very wobbly foundations. Here, for just one example, is Richard Wiseman’s spin on the early days of psychical research:

“Around the turn of the century a small band of pioneering researchers initiated the first program of systematic scientific research into the possible existence of psychic ability. They assumed, quite reasonably, that if psi did exist it would probably be most apparent in those claiming to possess significant psychic abilities. Unfortunately, their investigations into the best-known claimant mediums and psychic claimants of the day revealed that many of these alleged abilities were actually the result of either fraud or self-delusion.” (p. 170)

This seemingly innocuous paragraph is notable for the amount of disinformation, misdirection, half-truths and no-truths Wiseman has managed to pack into less than a hundred words. For a start, he gives no references and names no names. He also seems unaware of, or is deliberately misrepresenting, what that ‘small band’ (presumably the Society for Psychical Research) had actually achieved by the year 1900.

True, the SPR did come across fakery – Myers described some choice examples of what he called ‘resolute credulity’ in Vol. 11 of the SPR Proceedings – as it still does. Wiseman forgets to mention that it also found plenty of evidence for genuine phenomena. In 1900 the fifteenth volume of the Proceedings was published, containing among other things a discussion of the ‘alleged’ abilities of the American medium Leonora Piper, which had already been described in great detail in previous articles by such experts as William James, Richard Hodgson, Frederic Myers and Sir Oliver Lodge, none of whom made any reference to either fraud or self-delusion. Nor did Myers in his investigations of the mediumship of the Rev. W. Stainton Moses (Vols. 9 and 11) or of Rosina Thompson, who even impressed the SPR’s house sceptic Frank Podmore, and with whom Myers had well over a hundred sittings in 1898-9 (Vol. 16). Nor did Andrew Lang in his study of the voices heard by Joan of Arc (Vol. 11). Nor did Sir William Crookes, who had twenty-nine sessions in his own house with ‘claimant’ medium D.D. Home over a three-year period in which he recorded a vast amount of evidence (Vol.6) for just about every psi phenomenon on record.

Wiseman alleges that the SPR founders believed that if psi did exist, it would ‘probably be most apparent in those claiming to possess significant psychic abilities’. Again, we are given no reference to support this allegation, nor any mention of the fact that early SPR research was largely inspired by the hundreds of ordinary members of the public whose experiences were thoroughly researched and meticulously recorded in Phantasms of the Living (1886), The Census of Hallucinations (1894) and in Myers’s monumental 1,360-page Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). Few if any of those who provided the evidence for psi claimed to have any kind of psychic abilities at all.

Another example of the sceptics’ casual attitude to research is provided by Chris French, who describes himself correctly as a ‘relatively moderate sceptic’. Yet he too has not done his homework. He complains (p.149) that Radin ‘completely fails to mention that two of the three Fox sisters publicly confessed that their alleged communications with the spirit world were fraudulent.’ He in turn completely fails to mention that this ‘confession’ was soon retracted and the reasons why it was made in the first place have been fully explored and explained. And can he produce a 12-year-old girl who can produce poltergeist-type raps by cracking her toe joints? If so, bring her on and invite the press.

There are many reasons why those who argue from different premises will never agree. One is the constant suppression of positive evidence by the media and even by academia. Co-editor Friedman, a Research Professor at the University of Florida with impressive academic qualifications including editorship of two psychology journals, describes (p.201) having ‘found strong evidence for telepathy in a study of U.S. pre-teens’ and written it up. So did he publish it? Well, actually no. He explains:

“If I had found a similarly strong result within a mainstream research area, I would have unhesitatingly published it. However, because of various factors (e.g. my then mentor warning me that publishing this investigation would be a career ender for me as a budding academic), this study was relegated to the file drawer. (I know of another recent case of this kind of censorship but will not give details, at least not yet, to avoid possibly ending another career). I’m glad to add that Friedman’s article was finally published in the excellent journal Explore (6:3, 2010).”

When the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research published Barrie Colvin’s report on his analysis of poltergeist raps (two of them recorded by me) in its April 2010 issue, which showed convincingly, with numerous examples, that such raps have an entirely different acoustic signature to any kind of normal percussive sound, a press release with a copy of the article was sent to some 35 media outlets. Here was instrumentally recorded evidence for an as yet unexplained anomaly. Were the media interested? Not very. Only two of the 35 even mentioned the report. So the general public is denied access to positive information about psi matters, whereas any negative information invariably gets wide coverage and approval. Not exactly a level playing field with immovable goalposts.

Finally, how you have any kind of serious debate with somebody who can write this kind of stuff, as Alcock does (pp 39-40), sounding like a born-again behaviourist who is several decades behind the times?:

“The parapsychological quest is motivated not by scientific theory, nor by anomalous data produced in the course of mainstream science. Rather, it is motivated by deeply-held beliefs on the part of the researchers – belief that the mind is more than an epiphenomenal reflection of the physical brain, belief that it is capable of transcending the physical limits normally imposed by time and space. It is this belief in the possibility of such impossible things that sustains parapsychology and leaves it relatively undaunted by the slings and arrows of (yes, sometimes outrageous) criticism. And it is this belief that all too often blinds researchers to the possibility that extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and other paranormal phenomena perhaps really are impossible after all.”

Yet again, no names, no references, no citations, not a micro-shred of evidence to support this patronising, tendentious and (yes, as so often, outrageous) nonsense. Has he actually asked any parapsychologists what motivates them or what they believe in?

Of course not. He might risk having his made-up mind confused by facts.

It’s time to restate [Arthur C.] Clarke’s Law: ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong’.

It’s also time to remember Russell Targ’s observation that people are not interested in manifestations of psi phenomena because they have read about them, but because they are having them.

Let Sydney Smith have the last word, which seems relevant to the present discussion and might well be addressed to the psi deniers mentioned above: ‘What you don’t know would fill a book.’

It would indeed, and it has – this one.

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