There's a nice article on Leonora Piper by The Daily Grail's Greg Taylor this week. It's a critique of Martin Gardner's essay "How Mrs Piper bamboozled William James", and is part of the latest Darklore compilation.
All three players in Gardner's piece - critic, bamboozler and bamboozlee - are highly significant in the context of psychic research. Gardner of course was a prolific and vocal sceptic, and for many people set the bar in denouncing quackery and pseudoscience. Piper was arguably the single most successful subject of investigation produced by early psychic research: the material certainly helped to convince me about the genuineness of mediumship. And it was William James who first discovered Piper and quietly supported the endeavors of psychic researchers - considering his enormous stature as an early pioneer of academic psychology, his interest in her, and in psychic research generally, is a matter of deep concern to sceptics.
So Gardner had quite particular reasons for needing to demolish the claims made for Piper. As an admirer of William James - and who isn't? - it was important to him to explain why James was not really to blame for this odd aberration. There's a hint of ancient prejudices here: the essentially blameless man beguiled by a wicked woman. Although one would not suspect it from his writings - and I only found out some time later - Gardner was a religious believer motivated as much by Western theism as by scientific 'rationality', arguing that 'only the faithless look for signs'.
Gardner's essay has been influential, and I think covers the main weak points of the Piper material, including the doubts about 'controls' like Phinuit and the hostile investigation carried out by Hall and Tanner. But to anyone who knows about the research it's pretty tendentious stuff. As Taylor documents, he really doesn't seem that familiar with it. He's only interested in William James, and seems not have understood that James was only peripherally involved; the real work was done by Richard Hodgson, who had previously shown deep scepticism about mediums, and by other researchers.
Personally, I don't buy the idea that James did not understand mediums' methods of 'cold reading' and the like. As for Gardner's claim that the information she provided can be explained in those terms, that doesn't stand up to a thorough reading of the text. (I argued this point in Randi's Prize, providing some actual examples, if you're interested you can check them out in the Look Inside facility on the book's Amazon page - it's in Chapter Three, pp, 111-128)
Read Greg's piece too - it's detailed and well argued. But there's no substitute for reading the actual research, some of which is available here. If you do, I'd be interested to know what you think.
[This post also appears on my new website Randi's Prize]