The postman comes bearing gifts, actually Stephen Braude's latest book, The Gold Leaf Lady, which I could not resist peeking into when I should have been working. Braude is professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and one of that tiny band of academics who 'gets' the paranormal and is brave enough to talk about it. He has a particular interest in psychokinesis and has written about séance mediums such as Eusapia Palladino. His last book Immortal Remains was a very bracing workout on the subject of survival phenomena - he thinks parapsychologists are not rigorous enough in their interpretations, although he concludes in favour of survival by a narrow margin.
This book is a look at some paranormal cases that he has personally researched, and I'll mention some of them in later posts. What strikes me straight away - since he talks about it in the preface - is his frustration at the way his university colleagues denigrate his interest. One knows in a general way that sceptics are hostile to claims of the paranormal, and one sees the rudeness with which people like James Randi and David Marks behave towards scientists and intellectuals who take an interest in it. So it's not surprising that someone at the receiving end of this sort of thing should want to get it off his chest. But it's still depressing to hear what goes on in academia spelled out in such graphic detail.
Braude says that in the 30 years since he declared his interest he has been 'marginalised'. He naively thought that other philosophers would be open-minded about his interest in parapsychology. But they behaved with 'surprising rigidity and cowardice', refusing to engage seriously with it and pretending to know the material much better than they actually did. He describes in detail a televised debate in which he was browbeaten by a fellow philosopher, who kept repeating stock objections, refused to listen to Braude's arguments, and showed he had not read any of the primary sources.
Braude also reveals that plenty of people within the academic community are sympathetic to parapsychological phenomena, but dare not be open about it. That also applies to mental health professionals, a community he came into contact with after writing on multiple personality. Many started confiding in him about apparent psychic episodes involving their patients, but insisted that he not talk about it, not because of patient confidentiality - no names were mentioned in any case - but because they feared being ridiculed and ostracised by their colleagues. Similarly, Braude says that many of the students who turn up to his course on philosophy and parapsychology complain of being threatened with reprisals by their psychology teachers.
It sounds overstated, but anyone with a good knowledge of parapsychology will recognise it only too well. As an observer I can get a sense of it through what I read. But for someone like Braude to live his professional life on the wrong side of a taboo must be a strange experience.