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Reborn as Twins

Patience Worth and the Problem of Bias

As editor of the Psi Encyclopedia, I’ve been taken to task for an article there about Patience Worth, authored by philosopher Stephen Braude from a chapter in his book Immortal Remains. Braude ends by echoing an earlier commentator’s conclusion that,

it is…safer to credit “Patience Worth” to the unconscious and to classify her, officially, as Mrs. Curran’s “secondary self”.

The complaints seem to be twofold: that this conjecture is unwarranted, and that the encyclopedia is imitating Wikipedia by giving a platform to sceptics.

I gave a short answer in the comments thread in Michael Prescott’s blog where this was aired, pointing out that the encyclopedia has (unusually) two articles in on this subject; the other is by Michael Tymn, who it’s fair to say would not endorse Braude’s view, although his piece is more straightforwardly factual. I also mentioned that I didn’t myself necessarily agree with Braude’ conclusion, and indeed had thought of writing a sort of rebuttal. That would take a lot of work, more than I have time for – so this isn’t it! But here are some general thoughts.

First, the question of bias. The Psi Encyclopedia aims to give a window onto psi research as it actually is, not the garbled version offered by sceptics (as in Wikipedia). But there’s always been lively debate within the field itself, notably about the reality or otherwise of postmortem survival. Spiritualists who helped found the Society for Psychical Research quickly bailed out – they couldn’t accept that the evidence might not seem conclusive to everyone – and over the years, some have continued to criticise the SPR and individual researchers for continuing to argue against it.

I believe the encyclopedia should reflect those internal debates. It doesn’t need to make the case one way or another, it should just describe the evidence and the arguments. That’s what I ask contributors to do, to try to make their pieces factual and objective, and reflect the spectrum of opinions.

That said, I don’t think it’s useful to exclude altogether articles that argue a case. On the contrary, it’s of benefit to readers to see psi research in action. It’s surely to the advantage of the field – if not an absolute necessity - to show that it takes a tough-minded approach and is prepared to properly interrogate the evidence – not least to help combat the untruth that psi-advocates are religiously-inspired ‘believers’.

So I envisage eventually a separate section containing articles that take different positions. If Braude’s Patience Worth piece seems an anomaly it’s only because the first of these, and is not properly marked off from the rest of the material. Once that’s been done more effectively than at present, I think there’ll be less confusion about what the encyclopedia stands for, or concerns that it’s promoting a particular (and controversial) point of view with regard to postmortem survival.

It’s worth also making the point that Braude doesn’t play down the extraordinary talent that shines through the Patience Worth character – on the contrary, like most of us who are familiar with the case he’s in awe of her genius. Nor does he understate the challenges (as a psi denier would): that Curran had previously shown none of the characteristics, in terms of creative and intellectual powers, feats of memory, knowledge of literature or arcane areas of linguistic and historical research; that the character didn’t develop over time, but emerged fully formed; the extensive use of obsolete and archaic locutions, some never used in the US; and the extraordinary feats of composition, in terms of speed, consistency and memory. He concedes that the literary facility has no parallel in history.

But Braude disagrees – against Walter Prince (who investigated the case), and others since – that that the scale of this achievement, being far beyond anything of the kind previously achieved, therefore could not have originated in Curran. This might be the first and only instance of a rare talent, he suggests. He chips away at the assertion that her real interest lay in music, arguing persuasively that there’s a lack of real evidence for this, and the music thing might actually have been imposed on her by her mother. He finds intriguing similarities between Curran’s history and the life profile of exceptionally intelligent and gifted people. Altogether, he builds a picture of a young girl whose creative urges were stunted by her family’s expectations, and who unconsciously found an outlet for her repressed abilities through mediumship, an acceptable female role.

The fact that savants have been capable of extraordinary feats of memory and creativity suggests that something of the order of a Patience Worth is within human capabilities (however rare). Inevitably, he finds support in the case of Helene Smith, where the semblance of discarnate communication seemed decisively overturned in favour of Smith’s imagination, and to other cases of creativity in mediumship.

By contrast, Braude finds little of value in the survivalist case, not least because no evidence has ever been turned up of a person who lived that fits the meagre details that Patience Worth supplied. He also suggests that this case goes far beyond the norm in mediumship in being ‘the first and only documented case of literary and mnemonic abilities at such a high level of creativity and fluency, and the first and only recorded case of mediumistic communication with virtually no ‘noise in the channel’ (and for nearly twenty-five years at that)’. In its robustness and multi-dimensionality, he concludes ‘Patience’s personality more closely resembles those of well-developed alter identities’ in cases of disassociation identity disorder (DID).

I found all this intriguing and well-argued, if somewhat speculative. I’ve never really thought that Patience Worth was good evidence of discarnate survival in the conventional sense, like the best drop-in cases, for instance – there are too many puzzles for the matter to be clear.

But that cuts both ways. Once the effect of Braude’s lawyerly pleading has faded somewhat, I’m still left with the stubborn, if perhaps subjective sense of something occurring that really can’t be accommodated within orthodox ideas about the mind. How could Curran’s ‘unconscious’ conceivably have acquired the easy familiarity with copious amounts of seventeenth century archaisms so obscure they had to be hunted down, and the facility to deploy them, by cryptomnesia or any other mysterious process? It’s one thing for a savant to demonstrate astounding feats of arithmetical calculation, something quite else to display an extensive knowledge of past terrestrial facts. Yes, the fact that Patience could write just as effectively in nineteenth-century English undermines the impression that she was a former denizen of the seventeenth, as sceptics point out. But that only amplifies the mystery – it doesn’t explain it.

What really strikes me about Patience Worth is her strongly didactic intent. Her casual utterances, poetry and aphorisms in particular seem intended to show up the shabbiness of human behaviour at every turn – if you’re not familiar with them, check out the examples in both Tymn's and Braude's articles in the encyclopedia, and Amos Oliver Doyle’s excellent website.

There’s something unearthly in her utter sense of security and rightness, as if she’s come from a different moral universe to give us struggling mortals lessons in wisdom. In that sense, she might be seen in the context of spiritual teachings, like Jane Robert’s Seth, White Eagle and the rest – that are no more ‘evidential’ in a scientific sense, but are sufficiently outstanding to have had a powerful impact on millions of people. Hers is a quick wit that radiates humour, never airy-fairy or boringly pious, but tough-minded and down-to-earth.

If we argue that a startlingly accomplished level of creativity can emerge in full flow from the unconscious of a person who has never hitherto shown the slightest sign of it, aren’t we obliged to develop similar arguments to account for the high moral seriousness shown by Patience Worth? Were these inclinations, too, repressed in Pearl Curran in some way? Is there evidence for this in DID?

Still, I’m not sure how useful it is to try to reach a conclusion here. Inevitably, those who doubt postmortem survival will describe Patience Worth in terms of DID; those who believe it occurs will see it as evidence of that. To the thinking, secular mind it’s of course ‘safer’ to see the case as one of unconscious confabulation, in the narrow sense of avoiding new realms of mystery and speculation. But surely few who are truly familiar with it would agree that that’s ‘officially’ decided.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’m satisfied with the view of Patience Worth as an event in Pearl Curran’s psyche. But neither do I necessarily think of her as a ‘spirit’, a discarnate individual in human terms. Over the years I’ve abandoned the temptation to be literal about survival, or to project assumptions shaped by terrestrial existence into a posthumous state. ‘Patience Worth’ might be a composite creation, perhaps based around a previous existence as a seventeenth century farm girl, but drawing on other lives as well, even the incarnation of Curran herself.

When she insists her origins don’t matter – and tosses crumbs of information she hopes will satisfy our cravings – we might take her at her word. She’s not necessarily being evasive. In her world, the notion of individuality has been left far behind – like a suit of clothes it’s adopted in order to communicate meaningfully in ours, as Jane Robert’s Seth too said he’d done, taking on the guise of a previous existence (although not the most recent, a rather ‘colourless’ individual called Frank Withers that he preferred to forget).

In this line of thinking we’re not dealing here with a duality of humans and spirits in their different realms, but rather the creative power of consciousness, which transcends boundaries and, in different ways, can emerge on both sides and intermingle. If creativity continues beyond what we call death, in myriad and powerful forms, then to express it in partnership with the living, when the opportunity offers, seems like a cool thing to do.

Comments

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Interesting. You’ve given me a new way to think about Patience Worth – and maybe not in the way you imagine.

I’m persuaded by the case for survival (not without lingering doubts, of course) and Patience Worth has no bearing on that one way or another, although I am inclined to believe something “paranormal” seems to have been going on. I also read and enjoy Braude, although occasionally I feel he gets lost in a loop parsing language and does not argue his convictions. But he makes a very interesting case about Worth – and you intelligently make a counter case that I find persuasive.

But here is what’s “new” – or at least, new to me: I assumed the Patience Worth writing had to be crap. I have never even looked at a word of it, assuming it would be a silted 19th middle brow, pious idea of what ‘serious’ literature is supposed to be like. (For example, something like Ben Hur.) I also assumed that opinions about the literary merit would be based entirely on one’s view of the case, with skeptics dismissing it and believers swooning…

Apparently, based on what you’ve said, there is a more full blooded personality at work, one that sounds refreshingly exasperated from time to time. So, with great reluctance I’m going to have to actually read some of it and see if it forces me to reconsider the case. Sigh…

I think you're spot on, Robert! Until relatively recently intelligent women have been somewhat obliged to hide their talents. Indeed, even today an element of that persuasion still remains.

My feeling is, and has always been, that Pearl Curran's work is the result of a mixture of intellectual frustration and Psi. Perhaps the two variables are in some way naturally connected?

Tony, I found the archaisms a bit off-putting at first, but from the little I've read I find her to be observant, insightful, pithy and poetic, in a rather unusual way, and without ever being pretentious. One of these days I'll read one of the books, but in the meantime let me know how you get on.

Julie, could be - that would be a classic super-psi type of explanation. Not sure it's more convincing that a survivalist one, but perhaps 'safer' :)

Some kind of ancestral memory, perhaps?

I accept that your creation of the Psi Encyclopedia is a work still being conceived. But take a close look at the way Wikipedia editors cast doubt on the subject at hand with offhand comments like "Thus, the Patience Worth case illustrates why one must take very seriously non-survivalist interpretations of more evidential cases." used by Braude in his Patience Worth essay included in the Psi Encyclopedia.

Your vision of providing a rare view into the inner working of scientific discourse seems reasonable on the surface, but is probably not realistic. It is safe to say that such a statement pinned by a PhD will carry far more weight in your reader's mind than the more historical rendition provided by Tymn.

The SPR is ultimately responsible for the content of its publications. Readers are unlikely to look behind the curtain to see if an article is balanced. Nor is it likely readers will look for articles offering alternative perspectives within the same encyclopedia.

From my experience, each article will be taken at face value by readers who are culturally indoctrinated to trust the authority of a Phd author without question.

A more satisfactory solution would be to open articles to a period of public (and lasting) comment following rule of using real name and stating credentials. Alternatively, clearly mark the articles as opinion pieces that do not necessarily express the views of the SPR. You could even incorporate an alternative view by a different author as a sidebar. Calling it an "analysis piece" alone is not sufficient.

I do not envy your task, and still applaud your effort with my strongest wish that your are successful for all of us. Beyond finding quality articles, the challenge seems to be finding a way to help the reader understand that even PhD authors come with their own biases and their work need be considered with great discernment.

An aspect which seems rather overlooked is that rightly and sensibly Robert is favouring the long held tradition of the Society for Psychical Research, namely that the paranormal should be researched on a science basis - as with any other area deserving of attempts to fully explain the world around us. One’s opinions, should therefore be open-minded, as with Robert McLuhan – at least until accepted “research” results using ‘solid’ independently replicated science provides some indication of the most likely probable solution. Written mediumistic “channelled” type documentation, long ignored from scientific examination in the past, is though at last receiving some attention on the possible methodologies which could prove useful areas for science based research. A statistical analysis comparative approach is currently used on the website AfterlifeData.com and Professor Cunningham’s milestone paper has made useful headway on analysis of “source” in some depth – using Jane Roberts, ‘Seth’ books. His detailed scholastic analysis primarily on “source”, also provides some useful ideas on “content” examination/research – suggesting reasonably even the use of techniques and protocols more commonly used successfully in forensic science. See:
http://www.rivier.edu/faculty/pcunningham/Research/Problem_of_Seths_Origin.pdf
Posted by: Bruce Scott-Hill

Bruce, I used Cunningham's “The Content-Source Problem in Modern Mediumship Research.” rivier.edu/faculty/pcunningham/Publications/CunninghamJP_Fall-2012-Vol-76-(2)-295-319.pdf, as my reference for just about the only objective reason to consider channeled material. This is not a blanket endorsement of such material, just one reference point for why we might seriously examine such material. He has made an important contribution.

It is important that open inquiry is encouraged. My concern is when contrary opinions are misrepresented as science. Doing so casts a poor light on all of us, but especially the enabler ... in this case, the SPR.

Robert, I was just visiting the Psi Encyclopedia, and have a few questions/suggestions:

First of all, is Paranormalia a good way to teach you about such matters, or is there a better way?

I love the page called Dream Esp Reports: http://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/dream-esp-reports-list

But it seems a little hard to use. Could you possibly link each item listed to its article on the Lexscan library? That would make a huge difference, even if the reader would then have to register.

Also, when you say:

"The articles can be read in full by SPR members and other subscribers to the Lexscien online library."

That's a little offputting. Makes it seem that one would have to pay a fee to see these articles, but I see that registration is free. Why not mention that?

"Nor is it likely readers will look for articles offering alternative perspectives within the same encyclopedia."

Tom makes a good point. One possible solution for situations like this: at the very start of the article, you might say "NOTE: For a very different viewpoint, see this article." (And link to it).

This would be a wonderful way to gain readers' trust, while fully informing them of all the angles. It's the sort of thing Wikipedia would never, ever, do.

"is Paranormalia a good way to teach you about such matters"

Well *that's* a bit presumptuous, isn't it? I meant to say "reach" not "teach." :)

Hi Bruce - thanks for the comments, most useful. You can post them here or email me.

I agree it would be great to link directly to Lexscien, and I'd certainly make that a priority. But there are at least two issues here - you do actually have to pay to read articles in Lexscien and it's not particularly cheap - the subscription fee for the organisation that publishes the journal you want to access (SPR, PA, etc) plus £18 (I think) if you want to access all the others.

'Free registration' is misleading - it just gives you access to the indexes, although I see it also includes a 7-day free trial, which some might like to take advantage of. This needs to be clarified.

The other problem is that it wouldn't be possible to link directly from an encyclopedia article (or from anywhere else) to an article in Lexscien. Access requires a number of steps - it's quite a clunky procedure.

I have occasional discussions with SPR folk about these matters, but I don't see anything changing in the short term.

As an interim measure I plan to publish pdfs of some original source material, so that readers could at least see samples. That will take time, and it will never be particularly comprehensive.

I've taken note of various comments about the viewpoints issue. I agree that some sort of disclaimer may be necessary, but there are some issues here, and I need to think them through. I'd prefer to come up with a universal and durable solution rather than rush in with something piecemeal that then has to be modified.

best

Robert

Thanks for clarifying, Robert. I had a feeling that linking to Lexscien might be problematic, and you've just confirmed it. Too bad.

At the risk of appearing rude, may I ask why comments to the Psi Encyclopedia are now closed? :/

Huh.
I've been rather busy lately, and haven't had much time to browse any long form articles, so I hadn't checked into the Psi Encyclopedia since the first few weeks after it came online. Also, I haven't looked into the Paranormalia blog since mid September (a few days after a posted a comment).
Sorry Robert, but I've been distracted with work, and we have a helluva potential Presidential threat to the continued existence of humanity to contend with over here. I haven't had time for you. :-)

Last night, I did have some time to relax, and decided to browse the Psi Encyclopedia. After skimming through various articles, I decided to read the Stephen Braude article on Patience Worth. I found it to be pleasantly written and more informative than I expected it to be. It was the only article I had time to read.
This morning it dawned on me to check and see if Robert had put up another Paranormalia post lately. I wasn't holding my breath because, um, they have been rather skimpy for the past TWO YEARS.
Anyway, movin' on...

Damn. There it was. A new post on the Paranormalia blog. It was about the Patience Worth article I had read eight hours earlier.

No synchronicity / psi / connectivity here. I'm a fan of both websites, and somehow the neurons and synaptic material in my brain caused me to logically make a connection. Just a minor coincidence. Yep, that explains it. Confirmation bias. Perfectly logical.

Whew! I feel so normal now.
:D

Spooky, Dawg!

I seem to remember something like this happened to you here a while ago, on a previous post? Another coincidence, no doubt.

Yes I heard about your Halloween event, sorry, election. Keeping me awake at night. But Dylan getting a Nobel prize, now that's a nice thing!

Now the websites (encyclopedia and SPR) are done I'm not quite so humongously busy, and hope to have more time to post. Honest :)

(If you subscribe you can get email alerts)

Yep, it's happened once before, in your October 12, 2015 entry "A Journalist Returns".

I had tripped across an article by New York Time columnist Ross Douthat (link below) entitled Ghosts in a Secular Age. I was surprised, seeing such a well argued, paranormal friendly op-ed appearing in a major mainstream publication. Especially one written by a respected, relatively conservative Catholic journalist.
I bookmarked it for further reading, and decided to email you a link to it, since I hadn't emailed you for several months.

I hadn't checked Paranormalia for recent posts in quite a while, as new entries had been so few and far between, but I decided to make a quick check to see if you had posted anything lately, before I sent the email.

Bam. There it was. You were highlighting the same article halfway into the post.
http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/ghosts-in-a-secular-age/?ref=opinion&_r=0

Things like this happen often in our lives, but our modern tendency is to brush them away as 'coincidence'.
Sometimes coincidence is just another word for synchronicity, just as 'anecdotal evidence' is often a dismissive way of characterizing honest testimony.
It's the world we live in.

As far as the criticism of Stephen Braude's article on Patience Worth in the Psi Encyclopedia goes, remember, it's online. Some folks aren't paying attention.
The SPR is presenting a big picture, not a Buzzfeed newsflash. For the intended audience, you and your colleagues are doing a magnificent, professional job. Keep up the good work!

Oh, and about that moron-for-President joke we've been playing on Western democracies and the rest of the civilized world, we're just kidding. Trust me, everything's gonna be okay.
Just remember what Winston Churchill said:

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else."

I'm tellin' ya straight up, this ain't no Brexit thingie. Close, but no cigar. Donald Chump's supporters simply aren't that numerous or bright.
:-)

Yes, I've been taking comfort from that Churchill quote, and I'm realising that many in the US are too. I was going to mention it to the husband of an American colleague who were in London recently, but he quoted it to me first!

I find the drama strangely compelling, but that's been the case now for the past few US elections. A roller coaster of hope v anguish. So distracting...

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