The reason I haven’t posted until recently is that I’ve been busy getting the SPR’s online encyclopedia going – as I’m sure regular readers understand. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself.
The truth is that I did manage to find pockets of time for writing blog posts, but nothing came out. I’d sit down, wanting to share some dazzling insight, and ... zilch. Couldn’t get my thoughts together. It was like being fifteen again, sucking my pen and trying to write an essay. Made me realise how much I take this writing thing for granted.
In the meantime a few people have suggested I do an update on progress with the encyclopedia. That’s something I can do, as it’s what I spend most of my time thinking about these days. So here goes.
To date I’ve commissioned about forty articles, of which half are completed. They’re in no particular order – topics are as various as Children’s Memories of a Past Life, Twin Telepathy, Photography in Psi Research, Meditation and Psi, Leonora Piper, the Million Dollar Challenge, the Enfield Poltergeist, etc. Everything will get covered eventually.
I originally planned for articles to be about 2000 words, 3000 tops. But then I thought, if we’re going to do this properly we can’t be superficial, we have to try to give readers an in-depth view. So several articles – mainly big topics like Children’s Memories, Ghosts and Apparitions and Leonora Piper – come out at around 5000 words, which I reckon gets about the right balance between comprehensiveness and online readability. It means fiddling with the budget, but I think it was the right decision.
After a lot of humming and harring I opted to follow the Wikipedia format, with intro, list of contents, and then various aspects treated under separate headings. It’s not that I think we should mindlessly imitate our main rival, far from it – I’m all for coming up with creative new approaches. But there are at least two good reasons for following Wikipedia’s example. One is that the format is tried and tested in an online context. Text needs to be broken up to be readable, particularly with longer articles. The other is it’s what readers expect. We mustn’t put barriers in the way, like obliging them to become familiar with a different format.
Some articles have required very little editing. Others need reworking, and that’s keeping me busy. In general, I’m determined to ensure that articles are clear and easy to read. I’m also including extra material where I think it’s needed. By the year’s end I hope to have around fifty articles ready to go to an editing forum where suggestions for improvements and insertions can be made. That should expand to about eighty by Easter, and double that by the end of next year.
The subject articles are just one element. There will also be around two hundred case studies, accessible summaries of key episodes in the literature of psychical research. Where possible I’ll include the original reports, something I think will be especially useful with older poltergeist cases, where witness testimony is most convincing in its original form. That’s not possible with NDE and past life memories research, for copyright reasons, but I’ve drafted summaries of some of Ian Stevenson’s cases, which I think works pretty well, so there will be more of those. Apart from that, I haven’t made much progress with case studies, partly as I have yet to find the right kind of writers. But I’m going to start focusing on this more.
Then of course there will be short biographies of deceased researchers and subjects (although the more significant will of course be described in much longer articles, such as Frederic Myers and Leonora Piper). I daresay we shall include brief biogs of living researchers, which I shall encourage them to provide. There will also be short reviews of key books – eventually perhaps two hundred in number – which will consist of a paragraph of description followed by a paragraph of comment.
As I say, I’m keen to include quite a bit of early archive material. (Ideally there’d be some of the later stuff as well, but there are likely to be copyright issues, and there is at least some good material online already, which of course we will link to.) It’s one thing to read a second hand summary of research relating to, say, Leonora Piper, but quite another to hear Oliver Lodge and Richard Hodgson lay out their reasoning in detail, then to follow up by reading verbatim reports of sittings.
This is not at all straightforward, however. PDF scans exist and can be made available. But if we want to encourage casual readers to dip into them – and we do - we need to reformat them in an accessible modern format. Again, files of automatic transfers to digital text already exist, but they are corrupted – quite badly in some places – by errors such as where the computer has read an ‘s’ as an ‘8’ or an ‘i’ as a ‘1’ or even ‘!’. It’s laborious work to correct, but it will be worth it.
Something I hadn’t originally planned, but have been becoming quite interested in, is the idea of lists. For instance I think we should have a ‘dictionary’ that lists items alphabetically with just a line or two or description and an appropriate link. That’s something I’ve started on, and it’s fun to do. I’m particularly pleased with an article one contributor has given me that lists eminent people – scientists, philosophers, politicians, authors, artists and writers, etc – who took the idea of psychic phenomena seriously. There are as many as two hundred of them. Reading through the list would surely make all but committed sceptics start to wonder why on earth the subject attracts so little mainstream interest.
I’ve also started to create a list of past life memories cases, each with a single paragraph summary, which I expect to get up to about a hundred. Ditto poltergeists. The point here is to give people a sense of the scale of these occurrences. It’s easy enough to dismiss one or two bizarre stories, but when you see how widely reported such things are it forces you to think about it differently.
So when will all this see the light of day? I’ve set a tentative launch date of Easter, by which time I reckon I should have around eighty substantial articles, and perhaps a similar number of case studies, with a bit of other stuff to fill it out. That’s a fraction of the eventual total, which I reckon will reach around 800-1000 items, although that may take three or four years to reach. There are arguments for waiting until we have a more substantial amount of material. On the other hand, there’s a certain urgency to do something about the Wikipedia problem, which is turning people off the subject in large numbers, so we don’t want to hang around.
Also, I think it’s important to put the project on the map, so to speak. There’s bound to be a certain amount of scepticism about our level of commitment, and our ability to produce something that will make a difference. Showing we mean business will help build momentum in all sorts of ways.
That said, an Easter launch is not very likely. I still have to set up the editing forum, and it would be surprising if new challenges and complexities did not start emerging at that point. It’s in the nature of things that people have radically different views, so there are likely to be some quite candid discussions about the way subjects are being presented, whether we’re taking a strong enough, or too strong a line with sceptics, and so on. The SPR historically is quite relaxed about members presenting opposing viewpoints, but this is a rather new kind of endeavour, and we may find ourselves in uncharted territory.
Other questions remain to be decided. Oddly, perhaps, we have not yet fixed on a name. Various suggestions have been made, generally around the word ‘psi’ – Psicopedia, Psiclopedia, Psipedia, and so forth – which may seem obvious but which I’ve come to think won’t work , as ‘psi’ is not a recognised term outside our field (unlike ESP). At worst it will cause confusion. That would be fatal. Most people will come to the resource via Google, and they won’t spend more than a couple of seconds deciding which link to click. My own preference is to use the word ‘encyclopedia’, which I think is a value-word that people trust. But I’m in no rush about this, because it’s a crucial decision and needs to be got right.
There are also important questions to be decided about the delivery platform. As it happens, key people who have been involved with setting up and running the SPR’s website are leaving, so we are having to recruit new experts to advise us on this. This is not just about the encyclopedia; there is also work to be done redesigning the website, and turning it into a hub for comment and dialogue, as well as the events and administrative stuff.
So even if I get sufficient material ready at an early stage, the launch date will be determined by the progress we make in other areas. But I’d ideally like to see it up and running in the first half of next year, and would be disappointed it got pushed back much further.
I’m off now to the SPR’s annual conference, which this year is being held in York. (Anyone who’s interested might like to see my short vid about last year’s conference in Swansea.) I shall be giving a talk titled ‘The Wikipedia Problem’, which I think is self-explanatory.
However, as I shall say there, I think we could also view this as The Wikipedia Opportunity. Why? For one, it’s taken the lunatic pseudosceptic editing on Wikipedia to finally get the psi-research community off its backside and start pushing back.
But the real opportunity lies in this strange new habit that millions of people around the globe have adopted. Like lab rats trained to press a lever, they have learned that the Google-click-Wikipedia-click reflex satisfies a sudden craving for information. If we’re smart enough to manipulate that reflex, we can divert many of those casual readers to a different destination, one where they can learn true facts about psi-research.
Over time that could have quite an impact. What the SPR – and several other individuals and organisations too, I should acknowledge – are doing here will help to change the way that psi-research is perceived, by the public, the media, and perhaps eventually even by mainstream scientists themselves.