I mentioned mediums in passing recently, and it threw up a debate about seance phenomena (levitations, movements of objects, etc). Someone asked me about my position, so I thought I’d respond briefly.
Bottom line: I think physical mediumship is a genuine phenomenon, but one that can easily be faked. That makes it desperately hard to evaluate. It’s natural to feel that the field is mired in fraud. At first glance practically all mediums were caught faking at one time another – or even confessed to having done so.
In that case, why do I take it seriously? Partly because some of the most comprehensive research (eg. the Feilding Report) points in that direction. But also because it fits with types of spontaneous phenomena such as so-called poltergeists, where the issues are not so complex. If there is truly a psychic element to consciousness, then surely it supports the abundant testimony as to the reality of séance phenomena.
If asked, I’d advise anyone serious about understanding the truth about psi to steer clear of nineteenth and early twentieth century physical mediums – the likes of Kate Fox, Eglinton, Home, Palladino, Duncan, etc. It’s a big, roiling sea of suspicion, and if you’re not experienced you’ll drown in it. Other areas such as ESP research and spontaneous experiences are controversial, but are still easier to get to grips with.
Some interesting points were raised in the comments thread. One commenter suggested that believers filter out stuff that doesn’t suit their arguments. For instance certain confessions of fraud are only found in sceptics’ writings. He likes the idea of neutral books, those that look at it from both sides, and perhaps even present the arguments with equal weight, allowing readers to make up their own minds.
There was quite a lot of discussion about Brian Inglis, including a complaint that he defended obviously dodgy mediums like the Foxes, Eusapia Palladino and Eva C. There were also references to the Wikipedia page on mediums, which list a lot of the exposes and confessions.
It’s very easy to get bogged down; easy to get pulled this way and that. This happened to me, and I wrote about it at some length in Randi’s Prize, where I described the development of my thinking. It took me more than two years to come to a settled view. I grappled with Inglis, and also his nemesis Ruth Brandon: I had absolutely no idea which of these two completely opposite versions was more trustworthy. There are abundant sources that will back up whichever view you take.
I then realised that I needed to get to the primary sources – the research literature – and start making my own judgements. Then I started making progress. It seemed to me, for instance, that the Feilding-Carrington-Baggally investigation of Palladino was far more serious and conclusive than a rival one by Joseph Jastrow – more complete, more focused, better documented, and carried out by more experienced investigators (see extracts here).
I was impressed by the findings of the Dialectical Society, an atheists group, who investigated séance claims in a highly committed way, and had some dramatic experiences with table turning – which could not be accounted for by Faraday’s much quoted conjectures. There are many others of this kind. Having established that dedicated, intelligent investigators had witnessed the phenomena in controlled conditions, and been impressed by their reasoning, the fakery started to seem less relevant.
I also started to understand something about the sceptical literature that I hadn’t grasped before. When it comes to the exposes and confession, the definition between the real and imagined is blurred. Much of it is just conjecture and speculation. But that distinction gets lost, and it’s treated as fact. There’s a reason why ‘believers’ like Inglis don’t mention the incidents that sceptics find so devastating – a lot of them were just made up. (I’m used to being denounced for disputing the veracity of Margaret Fox’s ‘confession’. But there are so many reasons for doubting it that, if the positions were reversed, sceptics would be derisive that anyone took it seriously for a minute.)
The Wikipedia article on mediums reads like a party political broadcast on behalf of the sceptics movement. I suppose because Wikipedia is quite thorough and detailed on non-controversial subjects it is treated as an authoritative source. But if you know the research literature it creates a ludicrous effect. It would be like going to a creationist website to learn about Darwinist evolution.
The Scole circle gets mentioned in these discussions, I guess because it is relatively recent. But I don’t think it helps us to make judgements; it has simply reinforced the doubts and suspicions. I’m convinced that will always be the case with physical phenomena; the same has been true of Uri Geller. That’s why I think this is a bad place to start.
Since I made up my mind some years ago, I spend little time thinking about the subject, and on the whole avoid writing about it. I might try to convince someone – if I thought that person was interested – that telepathy or remote viewing, or mental mediumship perhaps, are genuine phenomena. In fact I do have those discussions sometimes, although I’m averse to the idea of trying to convert people to my way of thinking. I just think it’s good to make them aware of things they might not otherwise know about.
But when it comes to the physical stuff, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just explain why I take it seriously, and leave it at that. I’d have no realistic expectations of carrying my argument. And I can’t argue seriously with people who haven’t read the research (or at least more than the sceptic bits); all I can do is urge them to read it.
That said, the subject does interest for what it says about how humans react to these things. Scepticism is not a neutral business – it’s a natural reaction to something that we find unbelievable. Some investigators who made claims about séance phenomena – and this is one of many curious details that sceptics won’t know – eventually started paying attention to their own mental processes. They observed how the impression of having seen something paranormal was gradually erased in the memory, so that days later they were convinced they had imagined it. Or else they realised their mind had created an elaborate scenario of how the trick was done with concealed machinery.
So the séance literature is a potentially a rich source of understanding about fear of the paranormal. It documents a constant, neurotic manoeuvring to escape the implications. I believe that one day researchers will be mining it for insights in this regard.
Finally, there’s a point to make about the idea of a neutral book, one that makes an objective case for both sides of the argument and lets readers make up their minds. That’s what journalists and broadcasters often do, or claim to do. It’s not the way, though. I did come across a book like this once, long ago – and it was no help at all. It just made the confusion worse.
There really is no short cut, no magic wand. No single book will make everything brilliantly clear. It takes commitment, time and effort; months of reading and searching out of sources; months, perhaps even years of reflection. No one will ever know the truth who relies on other people to tell it to them.