Sceptics are naturally interested in why people believe in things that don't exist. That's what Richard Wiseman writes about in his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which I'm half way through and hope to review here soon. But if psi phenomena is real then one might also ask why some of us can't believe things that do exist, why we don't see what is there. To me that's equally fascinating, yet entirely overlooked by sceptical psychologists, for obvious reasons.
The source for yesterday's post Science and the Séance was a 1985 book by Anita Gregory called The Strange Case of Rudi Schneider. It's as lucid and informative book on a séance medium as you can find anywhere, and I can recommend it.
Gregory recalls first hearing about Rudi Schneider in a psychology lecture at Oxford in the late 1940s. The lecturer described to his startled students how he had once attended a séance with this young man, and had witnessed objects flying around in the air and a hand materializing out of nothing. They could disbelieve it all they wanted, he said, with extreme lack of tact, but he was a lot more qualified than they were and they should take his word for it. She remembers how she responded with "impatient contempt, a little tinged with pity".
How could a learned man believe such nonsense? And how could he bring himself to admit such absurd notions in public? Why didn't someone stop him from making such a fool of himself? I never entertained even for a moment the possibility that there could have been some real experience underlying his assertions.
So Gregory utterly dismissed Schneider and all his doings. She came up with no counter hypothesis. She didn't imagine the lecturer was insane or even that Schneider was an accomplished fraud or an exceptional hypnotists. She just rejected the whole thing as being "too utterly absurd to be worthy of further consideration".
A few years later she attended a conference where she met her future husband. She told him about the lecture and asked how it was possible that any serious person could believe such "balderdash"? What had gone wrong with this man? To her consternation he said he too had been to sittings with Rudi Schneider and seen the same things - objects flying around in the air without any ordinary cause. His companion also said he had seen it. They were both manifestly sane, and so she stayed and argued.
From reading the data on Schneider she subsequently became convinced that it was as they said. Over time, Gregory says, she came to regard her original position as a "rather childlike nineteenth-century type of faith in "science-as-I-imagine-it-to-be".
Also I have lost some of my passionate determination to believe in a universe that necessarily excludes even the possibility of any of the claims of religion. To put it crudely, when I was a student I thought that there could be no ghosts because a belief in ghosts was incompatible with science and suggestive of some of the most objectionable tenets of religion. Stated thus baldly, it looks naïve, but I did not then formulate my attitude explicitly.
We all go on different journeys, from different starting points. These sorts of conversions also happen in the opposite direction, with people who are avidly interested in paranormal phenomena turning against it when they discover the power of trickery and misperception.
But the mental process Gregory has described here must be quite widely experienced too. Paranormal believers aren't all the credulous types that populate the sceptical imagination: many have had their scepticism ground down by exposure to responsible scientific investigation that left no room for doubt. And when they encounter hostility because of their new beliefs they understand only too well what lies behind it.