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Helen Duncan

Helen Duncan is back in the news, after petitioners asked the Scottish parliament to give her a posthumous pardon (an attempt to press her case in Westminster last year failed). The Aberdeen medium was one of the last people to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act and spent nine months in prison, dying in 1956. The plods came calling in 1944, three years after a 'dead sailor' showed up during a séance in Portsmouth, and in the process inadvertently revealing the recent sinking of his ship, the HMS Barham - the disaster was not disclosed by the authorities until some weeks afterwards. Proof of psychism for some, but of treason for the authorities, never mind fakery. Writing at some length in the Independent, Andy McSmith considers Duncan was a fraud who got her just desserts. But he's not particularly militant about it, adding 'If I am wrong, no doubt I shall be turned into a toad.' Yes indeed.

The media is naturally interested in the legal implications. The Witchcraft Act gave way to the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which itself is about to be replaced, and the new formula's vagueness is getting professional psychics all hot and bothered. More on that another time. What interests me here is the serious weirdness of what Duncan was supposed to be doing. McSmith, and I should think the great majority of his readers, don't know the half of it.

Most mediums today are clairvoyant and/or clairaudient: they say they hear voices or see figures in their mind's eye. But when mediumship began in the mid nineteenth century it was a much more physical business - the spirits were supposed to communicate by tipping tables and rapping in the dark. That was controversial enough, but Duncan was one of an even more extreme kind, the materialising medium, said to exude 'ectoplasm'. This was a sort of sticky vapour which quickly coalesced into a fully functioning human, a temporary replica of a visiting dead person. He or she - or it - would converse with their relatives in the audience and then disappear back into the 'cabinet' in which the medium was concealed.

It's easy to see how this could be faked, especially as it all took place in pitch dark (the 'spirits' were sometimes said to illuminate their faces by holding up a tablet coated with luminous sulphur, but it would not have revealed much). And it would take a lot of chutzpah to insist that it wasn't. There are lots of exposes on record, where the lights were switched on and the medium was seen dancing around dressed in white drapery. At the same time, the testimony in its favour is more insistent than one would imagine.

The process was observed at close quarters by several scientists, of whom the best known are William Crookes, Charles Richet and Albert von Schrenck Notzing. Their claims can be rejected on the grounds that their experiments were inadequately controlled and reported, but it's extraordinary to think that mediums could have fooled them so often and so consistently.

What's interesting too is that they and others described the process of formation and dissolution. Mostly this happened out of sight in the cabinet, so you couldn't see if it was being faked. But sometimes the cabinet was open, allowing the build-up to be watched. Turning the light up at the end caused the form to dissolve into the floor, and this too could be closely observed. Here's a statement by a sitter who watched the departure of 'Katie King' (produced by Florence Cook):

Her features faded and became blotted out, appearing to turn one into another.  The eyes sank in their sockets, the nose disappeared, the frontal bone caved in. Her limbs appeared to give way under her, she sank lower and lower on to the carpet like a falling building. At last nothing but her head remained above the ground, then one or two light masses of drapery, which disappeared with extreme rapidity...and we were left standing under the light of the three gas burners, our eyes fixed on the spot which Katie King had occupied.  (Annals of Psychical Science, London: Caesar de Vesme, April 1906, pp. 201-205.) 

If these witnesses are not actually hallucinating the fraud clearly goes beyond people impersonating spirits. It also makes me wonder about the other chief line of attack, which is that mediums produced the ectoplasm by regurgitating cheese cloth from their stomachs. This was the only way that scientific investigators of Helen Duncan could account for the material exuding from her mouth, and disappearing back into it, but it doesn't have much to do with what other people said they saw.

Veteran psychical researcher Donald West wrote up Duncan's trial in 1946 in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (1946). Here's an extract from the cross examination of a witness, a retired nurse, who claimed that Duncan literally reunited her for a brief moment with her husband.

Q. Tell my Lord and members of the jury what happened. . . .
A. . . . the spirit guide announced that there was a gentleman there, and he thought it was for me - an elderly gentleman - and he gave the description. I said, ' Is it you, Daddy ? ' meaning my husband, and he said, ' Yes '. I invited him out and said, ' Come out dear', and he came out.
Q. How far out of the cabinet did he come ? A. He came on the outside of the curtain. I immediately got up from my seat and went right up to him. I said, ' Kiss me, dear '.
Q. Did you recognize anybody ? A. Of course I recognized him.
Q. Do not say, ' Of course ', I want you to tell us. A. I did, sir.
Q. Who was it ? A. My husband.
Q. Had you any doubt about it being your husband ? A. No doubt whatsoever.
Q. How close up to him were you ? A. As close as I am to this. (Indicating the ledge of the witness-box.)
Q. Did he speak to you ? A. He spoke to me.
Q. Did you recognise his voice ? A. I did.
Q. Were you certain of his voice ?. A. I was perfectly certain.
Q. Did he say anything to you in particular that struck you as of importance ?
A. Just spoke about the family. He said that he was always with me, and that he would be on the other side waiting for me ; he would never leave me until I joined him.
The Recorder: It was flesh and blood, was it ? A. It was very cold, my Lord, but it was his hand.
Q. You could hold it, could you ? A. I held it firmly. I felt the knuckles. He suffered from rheumatism, my Lord, and I felt the nobbly knuckles.
Mr Loseby : We must face up to things, Nurse Rust. Are you quite sure that it was not Mrs Duncan ? A. Oh, perfectly certain, perfectly sure. My husband is not quite so big; he is not such a stout man.
Q. You said you asked your husband to kiss you. A. I did, sir.
Q. Did he kiss you ? A. He did, sir, right on the mouth." 
This witness went on to state that at the same séance her mother manifested and was recognised on close inspection by two moles, one in the hollow of her chin and one above her left eyebrow, which were reproduced true to life. Then an Aunt Mary came and spoke in Spanish, saying, " I am very pleased to see you. I wanted to come before, but they did not understand."

West is by no means a believer, but concedes this evidence is extraordinary. 'Granting its veracity, either the witness must have been hallucinated and deluded to an astonishing degree or else the phenomena were genuine. It is all the more puzzling, since Mrs Rust appeared to be a level-headed and honest narrator.' He adds that another witness, a senior doctor, said he had witnessed upwards of four hundred materialisations at Duncan séances, many of them in his own rooms at Glasgow. He had heard voices speak in a number of different dialects and languages and clearly recognized a dozen materialised relatives.

Food for thought.

Bad Psychics

As I mentioned on Monday (The Wasteland, Feb 25) I'm embarking on a tour of websites on paranormal topics, and recording my thoughts from time to time. First up is Bad Psychics, which has been going since 2003 and is run by Jon Donnis from Birmingham. The site's original aim was to debunk Derek Acorah's Living TV show Most Haunted.  Since then Donnis says he has been on a 'moral crusade, to stop the vulnerable being taken advantage of by people using known mentalist techniques.'

I gather that for Donnis there are no good psychics. However he did a course in mediumship - coming top, he says, despite an absolute lack of psychic abilities - and now thinks they aren't all deliberately faking. Some of his interviewees are similarly nuanced.  Mentalist Derren Brown for instance is dubious about mediums, but insists he's not into mindless debunking or dissing other people's spiritual beliefs.

I've hardly scratched the surface of the material on the site. But there's a lot of it, and it's quite informative, if mainly about the negative gossip and 'exposures' floating around. What impressed me is the engagement of people who really know their stuff. This came out when Donnis had a go at the direct voice medium Leslie Flint  (1911-94). He posted an audio clip supposedly of the deceased Ghandi, which he sensibly compared to a recording of the real Ghandi, finding that they don't sound at all alike. As it happens I had reservations about that too: when I listened to a bunch of Flint recordings, supposedly of different people, the voices sounded identical. It doesn't inspire confidence.

But the post got a lot of comment from people who take mediums seriously, and who were more articulate and better informed than their host. They pointed out the background and the test conditions regarding Flint made fraud quite unlikely. Donnis wasn't convinced but didn't have much else left to offer, and got more and more frustrated:

The differences in our arguments is that you believe without ever seeing any true evidence, ie: you believe purely from faith, where as i do not believe becuse there is no actual evidence to suggest he was real... Now which out of those two is the logical intelligent stance, and which is the blind faith stance based on ignorance'

At one point he chucked into the pot an "exposure" of Gary Schwartz, the University of Arizona psychology professor whose apparently successful experiments with John Edward and other mediums got a lot of media coverage. As became clear later in the thread this had been cobbled together from some selective quotes coming from disgruntled associates, and says more about sceptics' tactics than about Schwartz.

Some of Donnis's other views, given in an interview:

Paranormal investigation is purely a social activity these days, mainly for housewives and Pagans... I just think it is so easy to prove the claims of psychics, yet they always fail when you remove the chance to cheat ... I dont need experiences to think about the possibility of life after death. In fact this athiest prays to god every night that he is wrong about the afterlife, because the last thing I want is to die and thats it.
I want to believe more than anything else, the problem is that I need a bit more proof than a medium talking about those legal papers in an old biscuit tin to convince me...

This site's bound to appeal to people who know that mediums are evil, and could well convert casual visitors into militant sceptics. It's quite well presented, it hammers home the message about cold reading and other tricks, and it has plenty of gossip about exposes, cheating and so on. But if the Flint thread is typical, anyone prepared to dig a bit deeper will be exposed to different views, and also to links and references to the real research. That's got to be a good thing.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

The media snaps to attention at the revelation that anti-depressants don't work. A study by researchers at the Universities of Hull and Wyoming concludes people who take Prozac might just as well take a sugar pill. Compared with placebo, it says, antidepressants 'do not produce clinically significant improvements...'

Funny that. Lots of people say, au contraire, the pills do help. The Guardian's G2 section has at least two first-person testimonies. Clare Allen says Prozac was the only drug of many that worked, and Cath Kennedy says her life has been transformed by it, and is 'insulted' at the idea that it could be a placebo effect.

That was my own experience too: in my early twenties I was prescribed a drug called Parnate (now not used in the UK because of its potential for side effects). The sun came out and the birds started to sing: I could think, work, converse, and be normal again. It wasn't a placebo, as I was first prescribed two other drugs, neither of which worked. With Parnate I could actually feel the curious effect on my system, and I also noticed it banished the sense of emotion and atmosphere, exactly what people who take Prozac say.

But from reading the papers, if you didn't know the context you'd be forgiven for thinking that some egregious fraud had been uncovered (see the Independent  today). The terrible truth has been revealed: drug companies are making billions by selling fake happy pills. A lot of editors haven't even bothered to put quote marks round the claims in the screaming headlines. The oracle has spoken and we are all going to have to adjust. (For some reason press here seem much more worked up about the story than in America, the original Prozac Nation, which has hardly covered it).

Obviously the study will have a positive effect in starting a debate about society's attitude towards depression and quick fixes. (Although as Lewis Wolpert notes, it won't be good if thousands of people stop taking the pills and get ill as a result.)  Medication isn't the only answer for depression or even the best one. Ideally there would be better access to counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, but they just aren't available the way that pills are.

Scientists complain that journalists aren't critical of their sources, and that they endorse all kinds of quackery pushed by self-appointed experts. By the same token, the press can't really be faulted for taking a university study at face value. But is it any more reliable? 

There's a parallel here with homeopathy. Sceptics quote large-scale scientific studies that say it has no measurable effect, yet GPs sometimes prescribe it and see positive changes in their patients where other remedies failed. And where you might expect a negative outcome with a treatment based on something that makes no scientific sense, here we are dealing with chemical compounds that have been through trials and licensed by the appropriate authorities. So what's going on?   

Obviously one starts looking for flaws in the approach. For instance if people have to try out several types of medication before they find one that works for them, the negative data will vastly outweigh the positive.  I'd be astonished if some allowance had not been made for that, but it's just one of a huge number of variables that could potentially cause a skewed outcome.

A lot depends on what studies are included, and their quality. Psi experimenters were among the first to push the benefits of meta-analysis in the 1980s, since they were able to show that the combined mean of a number of studies was significant, 32% where 25% is expected by chance. That sort of result is harder to reject in a whole database than in one or two studies alone. Yet a few years later sceptics did an updated meta-analysis and found that the significance had vanished. In a subsequent one it had returned, and so on. Questions were raised about the qualities of the studies: for instance one very positive one had been excluded because the results were so good they would have biased the outcome. 

What all of this suggests that the meta-analysis is not such a reliable tool as some like to think. The evidence is infinitely hard to pin down. The real effect of studies of this kind, whichever viewpoint they endorse, is to confirm people's feelings, sentiments, prejudices. In this instance, the sheer grandness of the declaration, the sweeping certainty that contradicts so much personal testimony over such a long period, should surely make us suspicious.

In the long run it's not going to reinforce the reputation of science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. If scientific researchers tell us something that conflicts with our own experience, who are we going to believe?

The Wasteland

Steve Donnelly's remarks about the amount of paranormal tosh on the Internet (The Paranormal Online, Feb 20) had me looking to see what's out there. Most of it was more of what I'm already familiar with - touchy feely aspirations, miraculous experiences with angels, come-ons from commercial psychics, ungrammatical accounts of meaningful experiences that are hard understand or even read (please, pink font on purple background? Light brown on dark brown?)  One gets that the paranormal means something to people, that it fills some kind of need. But there's little real questioning, and not much that one can carry away or feel enlightened by. If this is what scientists like Richard Dawkins mean by the paranormal, then yes, the paranormal is bunk.

It was starting to get dispiriting even before I came across a 'paranormal' blog with only a couple of entries, now a year or two old - disjointed rambles from some poor soul on the brink. An entity had got hold of his brain and was manipulating his thoughts. But what kind, he wanted to know, as if it would make some difference. An alien, a ghost, a poltergeist? A cry for help, haunting cyberspace like a memory trace, long after the event... 

My guess is that a lot of people would quite like to know more about the subject, following up experiences of their own for instance, or wondering about mediums, and whether they are cheats or for real. And where better to look than the Internet? As things are it's not quite as easy as getting the gen on the latest mobile gadgets. But there are some useful sites out there, by both parapsychologists and sceptics, and doubtless I'll uncover more as I go along.  In future posts I'll give my thoughts about some them, starting later this week with Bad Psychics.

The Paranormal Online

Just caught up with the latest edition of The Skeptic, where regular columnist Steve Donnelly announces his departure. Looking back, he asks, has anything changed for the better over the two decades since the magazine was founded? 

Not really, he thinks: the sceptical movement in the UK seems to be 'unusually apathetic', especially compared to the US and Australia.  Perhaps this means Brits aren't as irrational as folk in other countries? Possibly, but it can't be the whole story, when one considers the creeping progress of creationism in the UK.

What has certainly changed in recent years, Donnelly goes on, is the emergence of the Internet as a virtually infinite source of low-grade information.  This is leading to all sorts of problems: these days students are handing in coursework based on Wikepedia, hardly the most reliable source, as the articles can be modified by anyone without any editorial control. But it also promotes paranormal belief, as anyone with a leaning towards this has access to a huge range of information to work with, sometimes extremely well presented, making the sceptics' job vastly more difficult.

Even a fence-sitter on matters such as UFOs, "free-energy" devices or angelic visitations is likely to be overwhelmed by the amount of (non-sceptical) information available via a simple internet search. It would not surprise me to learn that the level of paranormal belief in our society had significantly increased over the last decade or so - although I have not seen any research that confirms this.

Donnelly's solution? He doesn't really have one, except to keep up the good fight, make sure that sceptic magazines keep going and ensure that sceptical sources of information are prevalent on the web. But he does tentatively suggest that computer-savvy sceptics might develop a search engine that filters out the nonsense and provides only rational, scientific information on any topic.

Hmm, interesting. I wonder how it would work? I suppose it depends on how you define 'rational and scientific'. If you typed in ESP, for instance, would you just get a bunch of articles authored by Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, or would the search engine also return pages by experimenters like Rupert Sheldrake and Charles Honorton?  On 'poltergeists' would you just get James Randi and Joe Nickell, or would you also get Gauld and Cornell, William Roll, Scott Rogo, etc, etc? The point is, a lot of people would argue that the parapsychologists are at least as rational and scientific on paranormal matters as the debunkers. In that case the machine would have to be programmed to behave, not just rationally, but like a sceptic.

But Donnelly has a good point about the effects of the Internet. I don't necessarily agree with him that it is making much difference to paranormal belief: the media has always done that - books, TV, magazines and popular papers - and as for being 'well-presented', a lot of the websites on UFOs, angels and the like, are so hard to read and navigate, they are impossible to derive any kind of information from, useful or otherwise.

Where I think the Internet will have a real and lasting impact is by making accessible the academic sources of psychic research. Sites like and the Society for Psychical Research are a gateway to the primary sources upon which the case for psychism rests, and of which many people, believers and sceptics alike, are still pretty ignorant. Writers and researchers should find it far easier to lay their hands on important books and papers, and one would think this should improve the quality of the debate. If, for example, the documented investigations of mediums like Leonora Piper and Gladys Leonard were easily accessible, instead of being sequestered in obscure specialist libraries, it would be harder for sceptics to insist that fraud is the sole explanation of what mediums do.

Yes, that might promote paranormal belief, in Donnelly's terms. But I wouldn't look at it that way. The point of the material becoming available is not to create converts but to promote a debate about human existence, taking into account the entirety of our experience, not the carefully filtered version that sceptics labour to create.

Paranormal Hearing

Michael Fremer is an audio buff, who appreciates the difference a good pair of speaker cables can make to one's listening pleasure. He recently locked horns with James Randi when he tried to enter for the Amazing One's prize.

What, you cry, is paranormal about audio cables? Nothing at all, obviously, but Randi was so incensed by a positive review of a 12-foot set of Pear Anjou speaker cables (price $7200) that he was moved to add "hearing cable differences" to his million dollar challenge. Fremer took him up on it, being sure he could hear cable differences under blind conditions. It went downhill from there. Randi published Fremer's picture on his website and claimed that he had said he could make vinyl records better by demagnetizing them.   "Of course I wrote no such thing," Fremer comments, "but as I came to learn, the Amazing Randi twists better than Chubby Checker." You and many others, Michael.

Fremer contacted Pear and asked them if he could borrow a set of their cables for the challenge. He then carried on a lively correspondence with Randi, who among other things told him he was delusional. At this point Pear backed out, having presumably discovered who Randi was and what they were getting into.  Fremer writes:

The next morning, Randi's website headlined Pear's pullout, and he disgustedly announced to his acolytes that he'd known that the "blowhard" Fremer would never take the challenge, that the matter was closed, and that it was time to move on to the next challenger. Talk about sleight of hand. Randi had used Pear's pullout as a cover for his own. Judging by the vitriolic follow-ups posted by his cultists, he'd gotten away with blaming both Pear and me.

Fremer concedes that he should have dropped the matter, but he was angered by all the name calling on Randi's site, and the way the story of his "cop-out" was spreading across the Internet. So he spent a while longer trying to engage with Randi and his acolytes, and just getting his nose rubbed in more dirt. Eventually his wife told him it was turning him into a grouch and he should quit.

A lot of people take Randi's prize very seriously, including big name scientists like Richard Dawkins. They see the fact that no one has ever won the challenge, or even passed the preliminaries, as a sign that paranormal phenomena are imaginary. But you can see from this sort of thing that you wouldn't just have to be psychic - or in this case, have abnormally good hearing - to win the prize: you'd have to have Randi's street-fighting skills, along with a tough skin and amazing persistence, to even get the point of being tested.  No wonder no one has even got close.

Music Strikes

With Damian Thompson's comment about near-death experiences still rattling round my head (see Counterknowledge, Feb 10), I came across a curious specimen of the genre reprinted in the new issue of The Week magazine (the American, not the British version). To recap briefly, Thompson classes near-death experiences along with conspiracy theories (for instance that the CIA caused the September 11 attacks, and revisionist history (that the Holocaust never happened). It's a 'countercultural belief... a passport to a thrilling alternative universe...' - in other words a lot of baloney.

This particular example is described by Oliver Sacks in his latest book Musicophilia. Sacks is a New York-based neurologist who writes about brain malfunctions that give rise to curious mental aberrations, not in an academic way, but from the perspective of the people struggling to cope with them. Here he writes about Tony Cicoria, a 42-year-old orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning while talking on an outdoor payphone. Cicoria saw his body on the ground, floated upwards, and found himself surrounded by a bluish-white light. He felt 'an enormous feeling of well-being and peace', and saw the highest and lowest points of his life racing past him.  Then suddenly he was back, feeling intense pain. It turned out he was not badly hurt, and after a couple of weeks returned to work, suffering only minor memory problems which soon disappeared.

So far, it's fits the well-known pattern. It's what happened next that makes this case so unusual. Several weeks later Cicoria suddenly started to feel an insatiable desire to listen to piano music, something he had previously had no interest in.  He went out and bought recordings, got himself a piano and taught himself to play Chopin. Then he started hearing music in his head: the first time this happened in a dream, where he was playing one of his own compositions on stage, and when he woke up it was still in his head, so he tried to write it down.

Now he found that if was trying to play Chopin, his own music would intrude and overwhelm him. That continues to this day. He plays publicly, and is apparently a competent as well as a passionate performer. His music comes from deep within him, like an inspiration, he explains.  'It never runs dry... if anything, I have to turn it off'. 

Cicoria says that as a medical man he is at a loss to explain these events and had come to think of them in spiritual terms. This isn't good enough for Sacks, who points out that they must have at least some physical basis. He talks about evidence that the sense of being out of the body is related to disturbed function in the cerebral cortex, specifically at the junctional region between the temporal and parietal lobes. Regarding the other aspects - the light, the life panorama, the transcendental sense of significance - he speculates in terms of a surge of neurotransmitters, the involvement of the emotional parts of the brain - the amygdala and brainstem nuclei.

Debunkers tend to think that you only have to start talking like this for the subject to lose its mystery. It's somehow been tamed. This doesn't seem to be Sacks's view: he is genuinely curious. He may not subscribe to a spiritualist interpretation, but he has talked to at least one person who has been through it, and is anyway far too sensitive to his patients' experiences to dismiss it as a meaningless neurological disturbance. The fact that something like this can lead to such puzzling and richly positive impulses surely emphasises how little is yet known about consciousness and about how the brain works.

Cicoria isn't the only person to have found a new calling after having his brain rearranged. His story reminds me of the case of Tom Sawyer, described by Kenneth Ring in Heading Toward Omega. Sawyer, a labourer with a basic education, was crushed underneath a truck he was working on, and following loss of consciousness went through a very full near-death experience. After his recovery he found himself obsessed with words like 'quantum' and 'Max Planck', and mathematical symbols used in equations, none of which at the time made any sense to him. Eventually he started spending a lot of time in libraries, avidly reading books on physics and maths, which he seemed to understand intuitively.

It just seems so odd that human experiences of this kind should be treated by scientists and sceptics as marginal and insignificant . To call them 'hallucinatory wishful thinking experiences', as Michael Shermer does (Why People Believe Weird Things, p. 78), doesn't do it for me.  Even from a materialist perspective I would have thought they could help shed light on how the brain works. Perhaps one day more neurologists like Sacks will start to see their relevance to the wider problem of consciousness, and then scientists in other disciplines too may recognise that there is something important going on here.

The Ghost of Peterlee

Durham Council has paid an exorcist to get rid of a poltergeist. The spook had been causing trouble in a council house in Peterlee: the occupants, 23-year old Sabrina Fallon and her husband Martin, reported 'bangings' in the loft, followed by other strange happenings: doors slamming shut, the ghost of a little girl on the landing and her own dressing gown 'floating down the stairs'.

A local psychic was rung up, diagnosed an angry male named Peter who wanted to possess the couple's 16-month old daughter, and later carried out an exorcism. It seemed to do the trick: peace has returned, the Fallons say. Apparently the council later told them that 50 years ago an occupant of the house hanged himself after killing his wife.

I wonder if someone's going to make something out of this. There has been a notable lack of public outcry so far, probably because it only cost the council £60. You can't fault its reasoning - if it does the job, then why not, and it would have cost far more to rehouse the couple. There have been a few readers' complaints about wasting taxpayers money, along with other comments like this: 'if i was a ghost i wouldnt haunt a dilapidated council house i would go for a statly home'. But no one so far seems too upset, probably because of the paltriness of the sum involved.

Sceptics will blame the couple's overactive imagination (Richard Dawkins recommends that such 'disturbed' people should be 'packed off to a good psychiatrist' -  Unweaving the Rainbow, p. 129). But it's curious how many documented cases of this kind describe 'bangings', also referred to as 'raps' and 'knockings', for which there is seldom any explanation, and which even seem sometimes to have an intelligent source.  (Poltergeists by investigators Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell gives a good idea of the scale of the phenomenon.)

As always, I'm fascinated by an occurrence that everyone involved - the family, the local authorities, the psychic, and, I guess, a large part of the public - accept as what it appears to be, the anguish of a discarnate human, but which science says can't and didn't happen.

Psychic Swindle

I knew that phony psychics are never short of customers, but I had no idea they could make such fantastic sums. Tammy Mitchell, a self-styled 'gypsy psychic' in New York, has been arrested after swindling people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. One client, Jackie Haughn, paid her around $200,000 and Douglas Lonneker, a Wall Street trader, handed over a cool half million. Ouch!

It starts small...  Mitchell told Haughn that a curse had been put on his family. He would never be able to have a successful relationship, she said, because he was possessed by an evil female spirit who was jealous, and wanted him for himself. No worries: by means of 'astrotravel' she would intercede with the evil one and sort her out. But first she needed to light candles, lots of them, and they cost $25 each.  Once hooked, Haughn started paying larger and larger amounts.

Lonneker stopped by Mitchell's stall in Manhattan to have his fortune told, 'for a lark'. It wasn't so funny when he learned that he too was possessed by evil spirits, and that it would cost a bomb to get them out. Mitchell had him do weird things, like walk on oranges, and heat up papers in the oven, revealing frightening messages - all this apparently convinced him it was serious. After paying $500,000 he was told that five of the spirits were gone, but getting rid of the last two would cost another half million. That was when he saw the light and went to the police.

Whether to laugh or cry? Obviously these trader types have money to burn. But it must have taken guts to own up to being so fantastically stupid.

I've been there, literally. Many years ago, with time to kill, and in a spirit of scientific curiosity, I paid a visit to one of those Tarot reading places that advertise in Greewich Village. Five dollars didn't seem a lot to spend. It was just as well I did. It turned out I had some horrible (but nameless) disease, and the cards had revealed it just in time. No problemo, she could do some crystal healing. Only thing, the crystals were a bit pricy - around $500 a pop, and my case was so serious, she would need a whole bunch of them. When I questioned her - what did the crystals do, why did they cost so much, could I resell them afterwards? - the woman became evasive and then lost her temper.

What really surprised me was how brazen she was. There was no subtlety about it at all. As I made my way out, choking with laughter, I could not imagine anyone taking any of it seriously for ten seconds. But then I reflected, she wouldn't do it if it didn't work. And it obviously does - by the sound of it on a scale that one hardly suspects.


Food for thought in Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge, a polemic against 'conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history'. It's shocking to be reminded that a majority in many Muslim countries think the US government carried out the September 11 attacks, and also, incredibly, more than a third of adult Americans. But that's just one example of many: satanic abuse, Intelligent Design, AIDS and Holocaust denial, it's all here. Thompson pours scorn on pseudo-history  based on bogus scholarship, such as the bestseller that insists Chinese circumnavigated the globe well before the Europeans (eagerly taken up by China's leaders, unsurprisingly). He has harsh words too for alternative medicine and the way bogus experts get rich from their untested claims.

I like the book, which is well-argued, passionate and surely right in its central premise. Many people seem not to care very much whether or not there is good evidence, or any evidence, for their beliefs about what goes on in the world. The boundaries of truth and falsity are blurring: knowledge is increasingly not just what science and scholarship say are true, and for which can be demonstrated to accord with the facts, but anything that sounds interesting or plausible or fits with people's agendas, and for which the supporting evidence is scarce, weak or simply made up. Especially if shedloads of money can be made out of it.   

There are weaknesses in Thompson's position. Some reviewers seem to think not all his targets are merited and I suspect would probably not dismiss all alternative treatments so quickly. Others point out that its egregious for a Christian  - as well as being a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph he is editor of The Catholic Herald - to attack beliefs for which there is no evidence. To get round this Thompson suggests that religion and the supernatural do not come under the heading of counterknowledge, because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. But of course the sceptics to whom this book otherwise appeals don't accept that for a minute.

My own feeling while reading Counterknowledge was one of discomfort, not just at the bleak picture of irrationality that he uncovers, but at my own position.  For of course those of us who take seriously the claims of parapsychology are firmly in the firing line. In fact Thompson did not get onto this at all, apart from the obligatory inclusion of ESP and near-death experiences in a list that also includes 9/11 theories, Creationism, Holocaust denial, crank physics, UFOs, astrology, and so on. But for sceptics who are cheering him on, these things are all of a piece. For them, apparently, someone who 'believes in near-death experiences' is not being any more rational than someone who thinks that the Holocaust never happened, or that the CIA murdered thousands of American citizens in order to unleash a war on Islam.

It's slightly odd to see a non-fundamentalist Christian dismissing near-death experiences so glibly, considering how dramatically they suggest the reality of survival of death. It struck me that this is how many religious people deal with the science-religion divide, by creating a firm barrier between the two: according to Thompson, religion does not provide anything that is empirically testable. But the observations of parapsychologists and psychic researchers suggest quite the contrary, that humans are subject to all kinds of religious and psychic experiences, many of which can be tested and analysed.

We know, for example - and Thompson ought to know - that near-death experiences are not something one believes, stupidly, irrationally and uncritically, they are a category of experience, a fact of nature, fully documented by hospital doctors, psychologists and other researchers, a fit subject for scientific study. And if you accept, as I do, that they cannot, on strictly logical grounds, be casually dismissed as aberrations caused by drugs or oxygen deprivation, then they become a legitimate part of the debate about our world and our place in it.

The challenge for academic parapsychologists is this: to find some way of extracting the phenomena they examine from the fluff and nonsense which sceptics, and they themselves, as the rational thinking people they are, quite rightly deride. The day needs to come when critics cannot unthinkingly include near-death experiences and ESP in lists that also include the Loch Ness Monster and the Easter Bunny. That would mean getting them to accept that even if the evidence is not automatically coercive, there is enough of it to demand serious consideration. It's an enormous problem, and one that I'm sure I'll keep coming back to.