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Book Review: Witnessing the Impossible, by Robin Foy

Foy Years ago I spent some time trying to get to grips with claims about séance phenomena. I remember spending weeks in the library plowing through long reports, including, among others, investigations of the Boston medium Mina 'Margery' Crandon that were published in the journal of the American SPR in the 1930s. The magazine Scientific American had offered a cash prize for a successful display of mediumship, but attempts to evaluate her effects quickly deteriorated into a long and noisy controversy.

The SPR's investigation of the Scole group in the 1990s was like deja vu. There's a circle of enthusiasts who claim to be generating superlative physical phenomena, including lights, images on film and materialised spirit forms. There are investigators who take an active interest and think it's real. Then there others who think their colleagues have lost their marbles. The sceptics had a point, given that the phenomena occurred only in total darkness, there were virtually no controls for fraud and that requests for infrared filming were rebuffed. But either way, I'd had enough of all of that, so when SPR's report came out in 1999 I just noted that some things never change and went on to less controversial matters.

I got interested again recently after reading a letter in the most recent SPR journal by David Fontana, one of the three sympathetic investigators (sadly deceased late last year). Fontana welcomed the publication of a definitive account of the Scole group's activities by its founder Robin Foy, titled Witnessing the Impossible. So I thought I'd take another look.

Foy is a retired RAF pilot, who at the time was working as a sales rep for a paper manufacturer. He'd had some striking personal experiences with mediums and had set up the Noah's Ark Society for physical phenomena, before moving on with his wife Sandra to found this new group. The circle met in the large basement of the Foy's newly acquired farmhouse in Scole, a small village near Diss in East Anglia. They were originally seven, but three dropped out leaving the Foys and two people, identified only as Alan and Diana, who acted as trance mediums, through whom a variety of 'spirit communicators' made themselves known.

The communicators also worked to produce a variety of physical phenomena. The one that is most frequently described is lights (in one place described as being 'like fireflies') that make displays forming catherine wheels, circles and ellipses. They are also seen to pass through objects and the sitter's bodies, causing a tickling sensation and on occasion bringing about healing effects.

Materialisation is another big feature: the forms can't be seen but make their presence known by constantly touching the sitters on various parts of the body. They include children, and at least one occasion a dog, and often make quite a commotion, walking around the room, clapping, clicking their fingers and sometimes even managing to talk.

The table levitates occasionally. There is a lot of experimenting with Polaroid film, producing some seemingly impressive images on film that was unused when it was introduced into the room drawings: writing from poems, signatures, photographs of deceased celebrities, etc. Apports appear: old coins and other small objects.

Mainly the unseen communicators seem preoccupied with trying new ways to create physical interactions. They mainly talk through the two members of the group who are entranced, but they also work hard to enable independent communication, and quite often succeed. This is not the old 'ectoplasmic' method, Foy stresses, but a new approach that they are pioneering for the first time. They also try to create a sort of rudimentary telephone, which by the end is starting to produce results, and even provides the beginnings of a synchronised video image of the celestial speaker.

At this point it all becomes a bit Star Wars, as the regular team of communicators abruptly disappears and an authoritative being, apparently from a far distant dimension, comes on the line. He identifies himself as Varren-here-ic and urgently addresses Jar-had-we Scole to tell them that they have to abort. Apparently their experiments have opened up a doorway, or vortex, in the time-space continuum, and this has unfortunately attracted the attention of experimenters in the future.

The interdimensional time wave pattern - generated by your future - is coming from another time belonging to your world... It is being generated by a crystalline time probe. This method of exploring time patterns is very basic, but still capable of generating a broad timecast. These are amongst the first of such experiments... It is this timecast that is creating the interference. .. By attempting to access your present time, those responsible are causing time ripples - or shock waves - to penetrate the doorway and the surrounding time space. It was these shock waves that severed your own special links with your spirit team at Scole, and are still causing imbalance in your dimension. ... this probing of time is a violation of the Cosmic and Intermidemnsional laws relating to time and space - and this will not be allowed to continue.

This made me giggle, but in other respects I was struck by the book's sheer ordinariness. The tone and ambience is absolutely unremarkable. Foy could be describing a group of enthusiasts setting up a successful animal shelter, perhaps, or a community choir practising to compete in a national choral event. There are discussions about the best way forward, excitement when progress is made, occasional arguments and disagreements, plans for extending the scope, and so on. It's all quite repetitive - a chronological description of each sitting, who was there, what happened, etc. In this case, half of the group are dead people, and they are meeting in a blacked out cellar two or three times a week to figure out new ways for the two sides to communicate.

The only real drama comes when the group starts opening up sessions to other people, including the SPR investigators Monty Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana. Initially things go well but the group is shocked by the hostility Keen starts to show when his demands for infrared photography are turned down. Foy makes clear that this refusal was made by the 'Team', which had strong ideas of what they were trying to achieve, in which this sort of intrusion would be unhelpful. From a scientific point of view this is no kind of answer, but from Foy's perspective it would have seemed reasonable. (Fontana in his letter claims the investigators remained completely unaware of the bad feeling they had caused, so the group obviously kept their irritation to themselves).

It also becomes apparent that the hostility that Keen's (and also on one occasion Ellison's) tetchiness was an effect of the extreme pressure they were facing from sceptics within the SPR. In these situations there are always people who assume it must be fraudulent, and either behave badly and disrupt the proceedings or else say nothing, but then go around afterwards noisily proclaiming that they know how the tricks were done. To be fair, the critics Alan Gauld, Donald West and Tony Cornell, had reasonable complaints. Gauld, in his typically acute analysis, pointed out that he was sympathetic to the existence of this sort of phenomena, he just didn't think the controls were sufficient for the group to be taken seriously.

However here's what Foy says about one particular incident:

WM - a member of the SPR - was apparently unsure and suspicious of the proceedings. We discovered afterwards that (although during our pre-sitting briefing we had specifically asked delegates not to do so) he had actually been making a grab for the spirit lights when they were in his vicinity - which may well be the reason that they did not travel down to his end of the room as much as they would normally have done. This information came directly from Monty Keen, who testified several months later that WM had telephone him personally - immediately he arrived back home from the Scole seminar - to allege that the sitting must have been fraudulent because he had been suspicious of the two microphones that hung down from the ceiling to record the session. These sat quite obviously in everybody's vision and - if anybody had bothered to ask about them at the time - we would have been quite happy to fully explain their use and allow any or all the delegates present to inspect and test them.

In a way, WM's allegations were a slight on the integrity and intelligence of the senior SPR colleagues who sat with us regularly; all of whom were vastly more experienced that he was in the research and investigation of physical psychic phenomena!

This is a pattern where physical phenomena is concerned. There are the enthusiasts who spend a lot of time on their own, and then invite other people in to watch. There are investigators who spend a lot of time with them and become convinced of their sincerity (for instance Malcolm Bird and Hereward Carrington in the 'Margery' investigations, or William Crawford in the Goligher circle). And then there are the occasional visitors (Walter Prince, Harry Houdini, Joseph Rhine in the case of Margery) who think it's nonsense. One's left trying to make sense of it all.

Looking at it from the outside, even through largely sympathetic third party appraisals like the SPR report, there's always a suspicion that we're dealing with shady tricksters. The claims are just too fantastic to be taken at face value. But if the logical conclusion is that it's all false - or 'a load of rubbish' as Richard Wiseman is said to have concluded after his visit - that doesn't make any sense either. It would be an extraordinarily complex and time-consuming hoax, and it must surely mean that the many sittings the group held on their own which Foy's book describes, and which were far more numerous than those held with other people present, were invented. For if the purpose was to fool investigators and the public, perhaps to make themselves famous on the world stage (there was certainly no money in it), they would hardly have had to meet on their own. In short, Witnessing the Impossible would be largely a work of fiction.

Read in another way, what this book provides, more than any other than has yet appeared on the Scole group, is a sense of the absolute sincerity of the participants, that they were doing something meaningful and useful. And at the end of the day, is there anything wrong about basing one judgements around these sorts of considerations?

David Fontana, perhaps the most open of the three SPR investigators, thinks not. He says he argued with Keen and Ellison about the value of infrared filming. It was an illusion, he told them, to suppose that it would satisfy die-hard sceptics, who would simply look for some other reason to reject it in order to stay secure in their comfort zone. 'The task of psychical research is to collect and publish evidence and to leave others to make of it what they will. If the evidence is good enough, those interested and with open minds will find it convincing, and that is all for which we can hope.'

Comments

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Good post as usual :)

I made a post on the Skeptiko forum and quoted from Fontana's letter earlier (http://forum.mind-energy.net/skeptiko-podcast/1937-scole-documentary-4.html#post43193), though my post adds little to yours.

This is a bit of nitpicking but you wrote "(Fontana in his letter claims the investigators remained completely unaware of the bad feeling they had caused, so the group obviously kept their irritation to themselves)" Fontana actually wrote that he was unaware not that the invesigators were unaware. The mediums were Alan and Diana Bennett according to Playfair's review of the same book.

"In the event, meaningful images, which would have required much preparation were they produced normally, appeared on a number of films, but only when a box made by the son of one of the group was used, a box which was subsequently shown by Dr. Gauld to be far from secure. When the films were enclosed in secure envelopes provided by Dr. Wiseman nothing of the sort appeared, and when a secure padlocked box was provided by the investigators the films remained blank." - D.J. West

"The investigators failed to interest the spirits in simple ESP tests or in operating a device produced by Maurice Grosse for registering movements of objects shielded from normal intervention (p. 189)." - D.J. West

"...requests for the use of thermal imaging devices or infra-red cameras were refused or put off with hints that eventually something of the sort would be allowed. Since sources of heat already present were giving off infra-red without harm to the mediums, the resistance to making use of it to view the phenomena appears unreasonable and suspicious." - D.J. West

"At an interim presentation of the progress of the research to members of the SPR Council, it was suggested that the Scole group should be asked to agree to further trials with protocols precisely followed. This proved impracticable when the spirits announced that the investigatory sittings must cease." - D.J. West

"The gyrations of small spot lights resembled what Cornell demonstrated to me with his LED lights." - D.J. West

"The Dragon film images were all taken from an easily available book and displayed clear signs of how they could have been produced by normal means. The same applies to the Ruth film handwriting, which has all the appearance of a photographed hand-traced copy of the reproduction, slightly reduced in size, of the original page corrections in Christie's Catalogue. In view of the normal explanation that could be given for many of the phenomena, one is bound to ask whether a high proportion if not all were wrongly interpreted." - A.D. Cornell

"Following the thought that perhaps the use of LEDs could produce more than one type of paranormal light effect, their use was incorporated in the procedure, and only then were the almost identical colour-matching compositions of the Ibiza Polaroids obtained. With the help of another SPR member, Mr Tony Percy, further experiments produced positive results. When a modified 2 x 2-inch car-key light and pen light, both with a 3-volt green LED, were pressed onto the Polaroid film surface or held 1—2 inches above it for between 1 and 5 seconds, white, green and yellow patterns of varying composition similar to the Ibiza Polaroids were created. The black patches that are evident in the Ibiza films were replicated by placing a small cut-out patch of cardboard on the surface of the film and subjecting it to a 3-second green LED exposure." - A.D. Cornell

"Either the chemical analysis and/or the red logo would appear to be the key to the genuineness of the wartime claim. The importance of it having been printed by the letterpress method becomes less evidential in view of the fact that it is likely that many, if not all, of the thousands of replica wartime copies of various national newspapers reprinted in 1973 and early 80s were also printed by the letterpress method. The replica copy of the 1st April 1944 with a black "LATE WAR NEWS" logo which I bought in July 1997 for £15 from "Remember Then" appears, according to two senior newspaper print managers, also to have been printed by letterpress... Dr Skelton Foord of the National Newspaper Library checked for me the six month January to June 1944 editions of the Daily Mail and confirmed that they all had red "LATE WAR NEWS" logos." - A.D. Cornell

"What better way could the claims of the Scole Croup be verifiably presented and those of any other physical seance circle) than to have a replayable continuous infra-red video record verifying some of the physical effects for the whole world to see? The fact that such promises are repeatedly made by physical mediums but never come about, or are side-stepped at the last minute (as has been my experience several times), may well indicate that no such record is likely to be made. Such reluctance to allow what is really going on in the dark to be seen in every detail may well indicate a recognition that it would reveal too much and could sound the death knell of its practice." - A.D. Cornell

"The Alan' Box was involved in several of the cases in which ostensibly paranormal markings appeared on 35 mm films. The fact, therefore, that it could quickly and readily be opened (and conversely closed again) by slightly rotating one of the arms that held the hasp, squeezing and freeing the hasp and flipping back the lid, is of some importance. Since there seems to be a certain hesitation in admitting that this could have been done without breaking the red enamel that covered the screw-head on the arm (something which I did at least a dozen times), I will quote from a statement kindly supplied by a colleague and fellow SPR member to whom I showed the box on the same day that a technician and I discovered the above method of opening it..." - Alan Gauld

"Among the marked films of which the claim to paranormality rests on the 'Alan' box is the so-called 'Dragon' film. This film was sent to me in the hope that I might help to make sense of the pictorial symbolism, but when I discovered that the images on it had all been taken from one book, and that they bore strong indications of having been traced on (or in two cases copied freehand onto) acetate paper before being transferred to film—a supposition which I confirmed by having an artistic friend, who did not see the original film, produce an independent version on acetate paper (see Figures 1 to 4b) — I cannot pretend that I did not develop certain reservations. Others of the films have similar characteristics." - Alan Gauld

"Now some anomalous images do not (so to speak) carry a particular method of manufacture on their faces (the Serios films, for example, and no doubt also the cogwheel-like mark, now lost, that appeared on the film in Dr Wiseman's Security bag). But others do, and among them is the Dragon film — the authors do not deny the close resemblance to a tracing on acetate paper. (Another example is the polaroid films discussed in Appendix J to the Report. In these the central bright spot, with a surround of yellow and a further surround of green, are exactly like the effects which Mr Cornell obtained by briefly flashing a small green LED above similar polaroid plates; and the dark unexposed areas, with slightly fogged edges, are exactly like the ones he obtained by laying irregularly shaped pieces of cardboard on the sensitive surface. No other methods produced anything remotely like the required results.) Now where we have images that rather obviously suggest a fairly straightforward method of normal production, and which (like the Dragon film and most of its confreres) were not obtained under conditions of the most stringent control (the authors believe that the Ibiza polaroids are beyond reproach in that respect, though I would not entirely agree), there really is no choice but to set aside the supposed evidence for paranormality as not having reaching admissible standards." - Alan Gauld

"What are reproduced in the Dragon film are not whole illustrations from the Bessy volume, but parts, often quite small parts, of those illustrations; so small, indeed, and so inconspicuous that many of them took a fair while to locate even after Mr Cornell and I had instituted a systematic search. To reproduce those small parts minus their surroundings by ordinary photographic procedures would have required some quite protracted work. Tracing the selected parts onto acetate paper and flashing the result onto the film strip would have been a far simpler procedure (and, nota bene, the picture of the Dragon itself has been partially redrawn to fit it within the 24mm available height of the film strip). Thus these images bear all the signs of having been made by the simplest method that could have produced them." - Alan Gauld

"If one asks oneself how it would be most convenient for an intending hoaxer to proceed in such a matter, one surely has to agree that his most economical policy would be to take some not too excessively common book with suitable illustrations and trace parts of those illustrations in such a way that a casual reader of the book would be unlikely to spot the source of the derived film images. In other words the hoax hypothesis would predict pretty much the kind of features that the Dragon film possesses." - Alan Gauld

"For between the first and the second drafts of the Scole Report it was discovered that some eighty per cent of the material in question is to be found in a single semi-popular book, Sir Oliver Lodge's The Survival of Man (1909), which went through at least thirteen editions in its unabridged form. The principal missing case ('No 5 Selwyn Gardens') is to be found in a number of other semipopular sources. The Survival of Man contains not just outlines of the cases concerned, but details — dates, page references, forms of words and quotations (including one in Greek) — derived from the original Proceedings articles and reproduced in the Scole communications... There are easily located normal sources for all the information given, and there is no satisfactory way of demonstrating that these sources were not in some way tapped by normal means. Had communications been received which could only be verified from the quite numerous unpublished documents relating to the SPR's early history and personnel which are stored away in various large libraries, matters might have been entirely different. But of such communications there was not an inkling." - Alan Gauld

"The films contain between them in whole or part (though sometimes muddled and sometimes with duplications) four of the seven stanzas added to 'Ruth' in 1802. The four stanzas concerned are the four reproduced in the catalogue, (ii) The lengths of the lines on the 'Ruth' films, and also the gaps between lines where these can be assessed, coincide closely (to within the nearest millimetre in most instances) with the corresponding measurements in the Christie's catalogue. These line-lengths are slightly shorter (approximately one millimetre in ten) than their equivalents in the Yale original, because the catalogue illustrations are slightly reduced in size. It is extremely unlikely that there is anywhere another reproduction of the stanzas with precisely the dimensions of the catalogue one, and of course a microfilm copy, such as the British Library possesses, could project any line length from a range of possibilities. The 'Ruth' films bear a marked resemblance to somewhat slipshod tracings of the Christie's catalogue." - Alan Gauld

"To summarize now about the 'SPR communications' and the 'Ruth' case. If by 'evidence for survival' one means evidence for the post-mortem survival of particular individuals with their own, perhaps diminished, constellations of memories, and their own emotions, plans, and personal characteristics, there is no evidence of survival in the Scole Report. It has become clear that the whole of what purported to be such evidence had possible normal sources, either sources so readily available that they cannot be ruled out, or sources that are rather strongly indicated by features of the evidence in question. The mere existence of these sources, whether in fact tapped or not, completely undermines (as I shall try to demonstrate in the next section) the putative evidence for survival, and indeed any evidence for any kind of paranormality based on the same materials. It should be emphasized further that we are not talking here of one or two cases, specially selected for their weakness. We are talking of a whole swathe of cases with repercussions through much of the Scole Report." - Alan Gauld

http://monkeywah.typepad.com/paranormalia/2011/02/book-review-witnessing-the-impossible-by-robin-foy-.html

THE SCOLE REPORT FIVE YEARS LATER

by Montague Keen and David Fontana


The result is that the magicians' verdict on the Scole phenomena must rest with the three magicians who have already commented upon them. The first of these is James Webster, who has the advantage of actually having been present at three sittings with the Scole Group. It is interesting that although magicians were welcome to attend sittings at Scole only James Webster availed himself of the opportunity. Fortunately he is uniquely well-qualified to act as an observer of the phenomena and deliver this verdict. An Associate and Silver Medal Holder of the Inner Magic Circle (the premier echelon for magicians in the UK), and a man with over 40 years of professional experience as a stage magician and as a psychical researcher, he is fully versed both in illusion and in the various tricks used by fraudulent mediums in the past. On the strength of his experience and of his observations at Scole he is unequivocal that the phenomena witnessed there by him could not be duplicated by professional magicians, even had they prior access to the room in which the sittings were held and were able to import into it the tools of their trade. James Webster's testimony to this effect was published in the Scole Report, but subsequent to the Report he was one of the platform speakers at the SPR Study Day on the Scole investigation and was able to confirm his verdict and his reasons for it in person.

http://www.neopax.com/technomage/chapter3/chapter3.html


Chapter 3

Psi and the Occult

To preclude fraud a special wooden box was built that was just large enough to house the unopened still sealed film. This was then padlocked and held by one of the visiting investigators. However, before the box was used in any of the experiments, it was sent away for examination to ensure that it was not possible to open it without breaking its seals. An “outsider”, a highly respected German engineer named Walter Schinneger, was invited to attend a session. He was handed the wooden box and placed his own roll of film inside it before locking it. He then carried both the keys and box to his car where he left the box keys. The car keys he handed to another investigator (Dr Hans Schaer) for safe keeping. In the meantime all the participants agreed to wear luminous wristbands so that their position at any time could be determined. Schinneger then explained what happened:

“From the moment of locking the box until the time the film was processed immediately after the sitting, the box was solely in my hands. It was never allowed to stand alone and was not even touched by anyone else. In the cellar I held the box on my lap with my right hand, in such a way that my forefinger was on the lid and the lower part of the finger touching the locking mechanism. During the several minutes that followed, with my hand in this position, the table vibrated several times, sometimes so strongly that crystals we had placed on the top started to rattle. On one occasion the pullover and shirt on my right arm were pulled up and a finger circled my wrist; then the clothes were pulled down again. It felt as though at least five hands were touching my right arm at the same time, some of them quite powerful, as if they were seeking to pull my fingers away from the container (which I did not allow) or to apply force to the container, so that some effort was needed to keep the container in place. I held on to the box until after the sitting had finished. Then I retrieved my car keys from Hans, took the box to the car to pick up the padlock keys and returned to make a close inspection of the processing machine to ensure that it was empty. I then inserted the film into the processing machine and started the clearly audible processing mechanism, which took about two minutes. I removed the film myself and we all inspected it. It showed text, symbols and lines over the whole length of the film, together with some German words and handwriting and some strange mirror text.”

sorry the link for the first excerpt is:

http://www.thescoleexperiment.com/artcl_01.htm

This is my analysis of the Conan Doyle photograph produced during a Scole session:

http://tomruffles.blogspot.com/2010/10/case-of-phantom-polaroid.html

Robert, thank you very much for this lengthy report. I must confess that my head is spinning. I have not read the book. This is my first introduction to the Scole group, so I don't have the in-depth knowledge needed to make an informed judgment. However, I must confess my heart sank when you mentioned the refusal of the infrared photography. And, based on some of the responses above, there does seem to be an unmistakable whiff of fraudulence hovering around the case.

That doesn't mean my mind is made up. And it doesn't mean my opinion, were I to have one, would mean anything. I'm just reporting what an observer having his first encounter is experiencing. I wish it were easier to know.

Know how you feel. I looked into physical phenomena years ago, and head-spinning is right. That's why I haven't really engaged with the ins and outs of the Scole report - I know I'll never nail it down.

My point here was really just to record the sense of sincerity that comes from reading Foy's book. One feels doubtful in the extreme about the claims, but struggles to see why a group of people would have bothered to create such a complex and time-consuming illusion, apparently with a good deal of success.

Robert, speaking very much as a layman my initial impression is that this case is certainly not on all fours with the much more compelling examples you mentioned in 'Randi's Prize'. But it doesn't come across (admittedly only on first impression) as something obviously fraudulent either. I can see where Tom Ruffles is coming from in his post, but if this was a concerted attempt to decieve outsiders - for whatever motive - it seems especially inept.

What does come over is a feeling of unworldliness, which is of a piece with the sincerity you sensed in the book. That in itself speaks in their favour. Clearly, however, they were never going to convince those of a sceptical disposition; and by all accounts it looks as if that was something they were never seriously interested in trying to do. Perhaps a curiosity, therefore, rather than a serious piece of evidence in favour of, or against, psi.

Point of fact
"But if the logical conclusion is that it's all false - or 'a load of rubbish' as Richard Wiseman is said to have concluded after his visit - that doesn't make any sense either."
Richard Wiseman did not attend any of the Scole sittings he merely provided teh tamer proof box.

or the tamper proof box as it shoudl have said

Robert,

An interesting post. As you suggest, or at least I infer from your comments, the sheer "hokiness" of much of the physical phenomena lends itself to the reality of it. Why dream up ectoplasm in the first place? The charlatans could produce fake materializations without that step. And why the real weird materializations? The balloon-like doll materialization of Helen Duncan is often cited as an example as to how ridiculous it all is. Was she so stupid as to think something so absurd would be accepted as real?

I am puzzled by the insistence that these people couldn't have made all this up because they're so simple and sincere. Reading the comments, such a conclusion is based on emotion alone, not facts.

I never made it to Scole although was on the waiting list when they closed the circle. Just received Tim Coleman's DVD "The Afterlife Investigations" with footage from Scole along with other material, so will be interested to watch it.
http://www.theafterlifeinvestigations.com/

I am with Terrence on this one. Just because a person appears sincere doesn't mean they cannot lie or be mistaken. I am not saying they were in this case just saying...

I haven't read the Scole Report for sometime but I recall there were elements of it that were interesting. I can recall very little evidence of survival per se. Then if memory serves it, degenerated into messages from aliens and other freaky stuff and at that point, to quote Dorothy Parker, 'tonstant weader fwowed up'. :0

I've added details of 'The Afterlife Investigations'to the SPR website, with a review:

http://www.spr.ac.uk/main/publication/afterlife-investigations-has-science-proved-afterlife-dvd

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